Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “emptiness of emptiness (shunyatashunyata)” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Emptiness 4: Emptiness of Emptiness (śūnyatāśūnyatā)

I. Definition of the emptiness of emptinesses (śūnyatāśūnyatā)

By means of [this fourth] emptiness, the emptiness of inner dharmas (adhyātmaśūnyatā), the emptiness of outer dharmas (bahirdhāśūnyatā) and the emptiness of both inner and outer dharmas (adhyātmabahirdhāśīunyatā) is eliminated. Since [this fourth] emptiness destroys the [first] three emptinesses, it is called the emptiness of emptinesses (śūnyatāśūnyatā).

First, one uses [the three] emptinesses of dharmas to destroy inner and outer dharmas, and then one uses this [fourth] emptiness to destroy the [first] three emptinesses. This [fourth emptiness] is called the emptiness of emptinesses.

Furthermore, by means of the three concentrations of emptiness (śūnyatāsamādhi), the yogin considers (anupaśyati) the emptiness of the five aggregates (skandha), obtains the eightfold noble path (āryāṣṭāṅgamārga), destroys the passions (kleśa) and obtains nirvāṇa with residue of conditioning (sopadhiśeṣanirvāṇa). Then, as a result of the karmic causes and conditions of his previous lifetimes (pūrvajanman), the yogin, at the dissolution of the body after [288a] death (kāyasya bhedāt paraṃ maraṇāt) abandons the eightfold path[1] and produces a concentration of emptiness of emptinesses (śūnyatāśūnyatāsamādhi) called emptiness of emptinesses.

II. Difference between emptinesses and emptiness of emptinesses

Question. – What difference is there between emptinesses and the emptiness of enmptinesses?

Answer. – 1) The emptinesses destroy the five aggregates of attachment (pañcopādānaskandha); the emptiness of emptinesses destroys the emptinesses.

Question. – If the emptinesses are dharmas, as empty, they are already destroyed; if they are not dharmas, of what destruction of emptinesses is it a question here?

Answer. – When the emptinesses have destroyed all the dharmas, there remain only the emptinesses, but these emptinesses must in their turn be rejected after they have destroyed all the dharmas. This is why an emptiness of emptinesses is needed.

2) Furthermore, the emptinesses concern (ālambhante) all the dharmas, whereas the emptiness of emptinesses concerns only the emptinesses.

Thus, when a strong man (balavat puruṣa) has destroyed all the brigands (caura), yet another individual is necessary in order to destroy this first strong man. The emptiness of emptinesses plays that role.

Thus, when one swallows a remedy (bhaiṣajya), the remedy suppresses the illness (vyādhi), but once the illness has been destroyed, the remedy in turn must be rejected. If the remedy were not rejected, there would be sickness again.[2] In the same way, when one has destroyed the sicknesses of the passions (kleśavyādhi) by means of the emptinesses, it is to be feared lest these emptinesses themselves present drawbacks (upadrava) in turn. This is why recourse is made to another emptiness to destroy the previous ones: it is called emptiness of emptinesses.

3) Finally, as this last emptiness destroys the other seventeen emptinesses, it is called emptiness of emptinesses (śūnyatāśūnyatā).

Notes on the emptiness of emptinesses (śūnyatāśūnyatā):

Apart from the three samādhis of śūnyatā, ānimitta and apraṇihita constituting the doors of deliverance (p.1213F seq.), the Abhidharma authors assume a śūnyatāśūnyatāsamādhi, an apraṇihitāpraṇihitasamādhi and an ānimittānimittasamādhi, signalling an advance over the three preceding ones.

Śūnyatāsamādhi, concerning the last two aspects (ākāra) of the truth of suffering, considers dharmas as empty (śūnya) and non-self (anātman): cf. Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 104, p. 538b; Kośabhāṣya, p. 449, 15. And by empty dharmas, these authors mean dharmas contradictory to the view of self (ātmīyadṛṣṭivipakṣa), without inner activity, without individuality (antarvyāpārapuruṣarahita), without self (ātmarahita): cf. Kośabhāṣya, p. 400, 3, 9, 14.

Śūnyatāśūnyatāsamādhi considers the śūnyatāsamādhi of the arhats solely as empty and not as non-self, becaue śūnyatā is more distasteful than anātman: cf. Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 105, p. 543c16–27; Kośa, VIII, p. 188; Kośabhāṣya, p. 450, 13–14; Kośavyākhyā, p. 683, 12–21.

In the Pāli scholasticism as well, there is a question of the emptiness of emptiness (suññasuññam). For the Paṭisambhidā, II, p. 178, it is the fact that the six inner organs, eye, etc., are empty of self (atta), of ‘mine’ (attaniya), of permanence (nicca), of solidity (dhuva), of perpetuity (sassata), and of unchangeability (avipariṇāmadhamma). According to the Commentary of the Paṭisambhidā, III, p. 632, emptiness as emptiness is called the emptiness of emptiness, not determined by any other incidental word (suññasaṅkhātaṃ suññaṃ, na aññena upapadenavissssesitan ‘ti suññaṃ suññaṃ).

Thus, the early masters of the Abhidharma considered emptiness as such as the lack of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, and professed simply the emptiness of beings (sattvaśūnyatā). But they did not deny the reality of things or dharmas. For them, dharmas, although transitory and suffering, really existed with their self nature (svabhāva) and their characteristics (lakṣaṇa), and non-self was one of their shared characteristics. In dharmas they grasped the mark (nimitta) of non-self (anātman) which they qualified as empty (śūnya), but this emptiness had the dharma itself as substratum (āsraya). Realists and pluralists by affirming the existence of everything, viz., the five aggregates (skandha) the twelve bases of consciousness (āyatana) or the eighteen elements (dhātu), they were nihilists insofar as they denied any substantial reality whatsoever, eternal and immutable, to this ‘everything’.

The position of the Mahāyānists is quite different. The Traité, which is their spokesman, endlessly criticizes the Sarvāstivādins for their nimittodgrahaṇa, their grasping at the characteristics in things and, in particular, their grasping at emptiness (p. 1093F, 2082F, 2130F). Seeing emptiness in dharmas is acknowledging a certain existence to the latter and hypostatizing the emptiness of self which characterizes them. To tell the truth, dharmas are not only empty of self and of ‘mine’ (sattvaśūnya), they are also empty of dharmas (dharma), empty of self nature and of the characteristics of dharma. Not existing in any manner, they do not lend themselves to any grasping. The emptiness that one thinks to find in them is nothing at all because it does not apply to anything. There is, therefore, not only the emptiness of beings and of things, but also the emptiness of emptiness (śūnyatāśūnyatā). To hypostatize it would be the height of foolishness.

This is explained very well by Nāgārjuna and his commentator Candrakīrti in Madhyamakaśāstra, kārikā XIII, 7 (p. 245–246):

Yac coktam asvabhāvo bhāvo naivāsti śūnyatā ca bhāvanām iṣyate | tasmād asti śūnyatāśrayo bhāvasvabhāva iti | etad api na yujyata ity āha |

Yadi aśūnyaṃ bhavet kiṃ cit syāc śūnyam iti kiṃ can |
na kiṃ cid asty āśūnyaṃ ca kutah śūnyaṃ bhaviṣyati ||

Yadi śūnyatā nāma kā cit syāt tadāśrayo bhāvasvabhāvaḥ syāt | na tv evam | iha hi śūnyatā nāmeti sarvadharmāṇāṃ sāmānyalakṣaṇaṃ ity abhyupagamād aśūnyadhrmābhāvād aśūnyataiva nāsti | yadā cāśūnyāḥ padārtā na santi | aśūnyatā ca nāsti | tadā pratipakṣanirapekṣatvāc śūnyatāpi khapuṣpamālāvan nāstīty avasīyatām | yadā ca śūnyatā nāsti tadā tadāśrayā api padārthā na santīti sthitam avikalam |.

Transl. – We are told: “An essence without existence in itself does not exist. Now the emptiness of essences is postulated. Therefore there is a substratum of emptiness, namely, the existence in itself of the essences.” This objection also is absurd and, to refute it, Nāgārjuna says:

If something were non-empty, there could be a certain emptiness in it.
But there is nothing that is not non-empty; then how could there be emptiness?

If there were some ‘emptiness’, its support, namely, the existence in itself of essences, would exist. But that is not so. Here actually a thesis is postulated that ‘emptiness’ is a characteristic shared by all dharmas, but as there is no dharma that is not non-empty, non-emptiness itself does not exist either. Since there are neither non-empty entities nor non-emptiness, it must be accepted that in the absence of the contrary on which emptiness relies, it too exists no more than does a garland of sky-flowers. And since emptiness does not exist, the entities that would serve as its substratum do not exist; that is certain and sure.

– This is why the Mādhyamika Mahāyānists keep from grasping the mark of emptiness and hypostatizing an emptiness that they do not see (cf. p. 925F, 1091F, 1226–29F). Carefully following the Middle Way, they are neither realists nor nihilists, whereas by grasping a certain emptiness in things, the Sarvāstivādins, realists as they would like to be, are not free of some negativity.

Footnotes and references:


Śūnyatāsamādhi provokes disgust for saṃsāra; śūnyatāśūnayatāsamādhi which follows it involves disgust for the dharmas of the Path. By means of the knowledge and vision of deliverance (vimuktijñānadarśana), the ascetic knows that the path of cessation of suffering practiced by him no longer need be practiced (mārgo me bhāvito na punar bhavitavyaḥ): cf. p. 1359F.


Example borrowed from Kāśyapaparivarta, §63–65; see above, p. 1227, n.