Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “great emptiness or emptiness of the ten directions” 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 5: Great emptiness or emptiness of the ten directions

I. Great emptiness in the two vehicles

This is about the great emptiness (mahāśūnyatā).

1) In the śrāvaka system, it is the emptiness of dharmas (dharmaśūnyatā) that is the great emptiness (mahāśūnyatā).

[Mahāśūnyatāsūtra.]Thus it is said in the Ta-k’ong king (Mahāśūnyatāsūtra) of the Tsa-a han (Saṃyuktāgama): It is said that old age and death has birth (jātipratyayaṃ jarāmaraṇam) as condition. In this regard, if somebody said: ‘This is old age and death’ or ‘Old age and death belong to this man’ (asya vā jarāmaraṇam), the two statements together would be wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi). Actually, the man to whom old age and death belongs is empty of being (sattvaśūnyatā) and old age and death is empty of dharma (dharmaśūnyatā). 

2) On the other hand, the Mahāyānasūtras say that the ten directions (diś) are empty of characteristics of the ten directions (daśadiglakṣaṇaśūnya)[1] and that that is the great emptiness (mahāśūnyatā).

II. Size of the directions

Question. – Why is the emptiness of the ten directions (daśadikśūnyatā) called great emptiness (mahāśūnyatā)?

Answer. – The directions, the east (pūrvā diś), etc., being limitless (ananta), are called great. They are called great because they are omnipresent (sarvatraga), because they include all forms (rūpa), because they exist eternally, because they benefit people (loka) and because they prevent people from becoming disoriented.[2] This is why the emptiness that can destroy these ten directions is called great emptiness.

The other emptinesses that destroy the dharmas coming from causes and conditions (pratītyasamutpanna), conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛta), coarse (audārika) dharmas that are easy to destroy, are not called great. By contrast, the directions are not dharmas coming from causes and conditions or conditioned dharmas: they are subtle (sūkṣma) dharmas and difficult to destroy. This is why [the emptiness that destroys them] is called great emptiness.

III. The directions exist only in relative truth

Question. – However, in the Buddhist system, there is no question of the directions: they are not included (saṃgṛhīta) among the three unconditioned (asaṃskṛta), namely, space (ākāśa), cessation due to knowledge (pratisaṃkhyanirodha) and the cessation not due to knowledge (apratisaṃkhyanirodha).[3] Then why do you claim that there are directions that you define as eternal (nitya) entities, unconditioned dharmas (anabhisaaṃskṛtadhrma), dharmas not coming from causes and conditions (apratītyasamutpanna), dharmas without formation (asaṃskāradharma), subtle (sūkṣma) dharmas?

Answer. – It is true that in the treatises of the śrāvakas the directions do not occur, but according to the Mahāyāna system, they exist in relative truth (saṃvṛtisatya). From the absolute point of view (paramārtha), all dharmas are non-existent (anupalabdha) and the directions in particular.

Just as the complex of the five aggregates is metaphorically (prajñapyate) called ‘being’, in the same way the complex of forms derived from the four great elements (caturmahābhūtopādāyarūpasāmagrī), where such and such localization is distinguished, is called ‘direction’ metaphorically. The place where the sun rises is [288b] the eastern direction (pūrvā diś); the place where the sun sets is the western direction (paścimā diś): those are the directions. These directions spontaneously (svarasena) exist eternally; therefore they do not come from causes and conditions (pratītyasamutpanna). Neither is it about actual existences preceded by an earlier non-existence, nor of later non-existences preceded by an present existence; they are not formations (saṃskāra) and they are not known by direct perception (pratyakṣa); therefore they are subtle (sūkṣma) dharmas.

Question. – If the directions are truly real, how can they be destroyed?

Answer. – Did you not understand what I just said? These directions exist in relative truth (saṃvṛtisatya) but, from the absolute point of view (paramārtha), they are [fundamentally] destroyed. By saying that they exist in relative truth, I do not fall into the [wrong view] of nihilism (ucchedadṛṣṛti); by saying that, from the absolute viewpoint, they are destroyed, I do not fall into the [wrong view] of eternalism (śāśvatadṛṣṭi). In summary (saṃkṣepeṇa), that is what great emptiness means.

Question. – But emptiness of the absolute (paramārthaśūnyatā, no. 6) also destroys the unconditioned (asaṃskṛta) dharmas, the dharmas not coming from causes and conditions (apratītyasamutpanna), the subtle (sūkṣma) dharmas. Why then is it not called ‘great’?

Answer. – Since the adjective ‘great’ is being applied here to ‘great emptiness (mahāśūnyatā, no. 5), the emptiness of the absolute (paramārthaśūnyatā, no. 6) will not be qualified as ‘great’. But even though absolute emptiness is qualified differently, it really is great: the supramundane (lokottara) in its quality of nirvāṇa is great; and the universe (loka), in its quality of directions (diś), is great. This is why the emptiness of the absolute, it too, is great.

IV. Wrong views destroyed by great emptiness

Finally, because it destroys the major wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi), [the emptiness of the directions] is called great.

Let us suppose that a yogin[4] wants to make his loving-kindness (maitrī) spread to the beings of a certain kingdom (rāṣṭra) of the eastern direction, then to the beings of another kingdom [of the east], and so on. If he says: “My loving-kindness applies completely to all the kingdoms of the east”, he falls into the wrong view of a finite world (antavānlokaḥ); and if he says: “My loving-kindness does not completely apply to all these kingdoms”, he falls into the wrong view of an infinite world (anantavān lokaḥ).[5] By thus producing these two wrong views, he loses his mind of loving-kindness.

If the yogin uses the emptiness of the directions (dikṣūnyatā) to destroy this direction of the east, he destroys the wrong views of a finite world and an infinite world. – If he does not use the emptiness of the directions to destroy the direction of the east, he prolongs in himself the thought of the eastern direction and this prolongation being endless, his mind of loving-kindness (maitrīcitta) vanishes and wrong thoughts arise.

Thus, when the great sea (mahāsamudra), has reached its usual limits (mayādā) at the time of the tide (pariṣyanda), the water recedes and the fish[6] (matsya) that do not withdraw with it are left wriggling on the shore, suffering horrible torments. If the fish are wise, they withdraw with the water and find definitive safety. In the same way, the yogin who does not withdraw following the mind [of loving-kindness] is left wriggling in wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi), but if he withdraws following the mind, he does not lose the mind of loving-kindness.

Therefore, because it destroys the major wrong views, [the emptiness of the directions] is called great emptiness.

Notes on the great emptiness (mahāśūnyatā):

By mahāśūnyatā, the śrāvakas mean the twofold emptiness of beings and things (sattva- and dharma-śūnyatā), while the Mahāyānists see in it the emptiness of the ten spatial directions (dikśūnyatā).

The twofold emptiness of beings and things is taught in a canonical sūtra mentioned three times by the Traité: k. 18, p. 192c26–27, see above, p. 1079F); k. 31, p. 288a12 (the present passage); k. 31, p. 295b27 (see below, p. 2143F).

This sūtra is entitled Mahāśūnyatāsūtra (or Mahāśūnyatā nāma dharmaparyāya) in the Sanskrit Saṃyuktāgama (Nidānasaṃyukta, ed. C. Tripathi, p.152–157), Ta k’ong fa in the Chinese version (T 99, no. 297, p. 84c11–85a10). It has as correspondent in the Pāli Saṃyutta (II, 60–63) a suttanta entitled Avijjāpaccayā. Here is the translation of the Sanskrit:

The scene takes place among the Kuru. Then the Blessed One addressed the monks: ”I will teach you the Dharma that is good at the beginning, good in the middle and good at the end”, up to: “I will reveal it to you”, namely, the religious teaching called Great Vehicle. Listen then, reflect well as is appropriate. I will speak.”

What are the religious teachings of great emptiness? They are: ”If this is, then that is; from the production of this, that is produced, namely, the formations have as condition ignorance”, up to “such is the origin…”

It is said that “old age-death has as condition birth”, and some people may ask what is old age-death and to whom does it belong? Somebody might answer: “This is old age-death”, or “Old age death belongs to this person”. Somebody else might answer: “The vital principle is identical with the body”, or “The vital principle is different from the body”. These two answers would be identical (in error) and different (only) in the letter.

As long as the wrong view that consists of saying that the vital principle is the same as the body persists, the religious life is impossible. As long, O monks, as the wrong view that consists of saying that the vital principle is different from the body persists, the religious life is impossible.

There is a middle path that avoids these two extremes: it is the right view, noble, supramundane, correct and free of error, affirming (simply) that old age and death has birth as condition.

– Below (p. 2143F), the Traité will place the Mahāśūnyatāsūtra among the rare texts of the Tripiṭaka where dharmaśūnyatā is taught.

Footnotes and references:


See above (p. 2143F) the definition of mahāśūnyatā proposed by all the great Prajñāpāramitāsūtras.


Above (p. 76F, 595–597F, 922–923F0, the Traité has already alluded to one or another category of the heretical system of the Vaiśeṣikas. Here it adopts, but only provisionally, the Vaiśeṣika concept of diś, the spatial orientation or direction of things, a concept which the Buddhists have always rejected. According to the VaiśeṣikaÔutra of Kaṇāda (I, I, 5), the universe is composed of nine substances (dravya): earth (pṛthivī), water (āpas), fire (tejas), air (vāyu), the ether (ākāśa), time (kāla), spatial direction (diś), the soul (ātman) and mind (manas). Five of these substances, earth, water, fire, air and mind, are called active; the other four, ether, time, direction and the soul are inactive. Besides, five of them, ether, time, spatial direction, the soul and mind are eternal; the other four, earth, water, fire and air are each considered to be eternal or non-eternal as the case may be. The atoms of earth, water, fire and air are bathed in the ether (ākāśa) and are arranged according to two principles: time (kāla) and spatial direction (diś). – See the summary of the system in Inde Classique, II, p. 65–74; R. Grousset, Philosophies indiennes, I, p. 69–84; J. Filliozat, Les Philosophies de l’Inde, Paris, 1970, p. 91–95.


It is often a question of the ten directions in Buddhist texts (cf. p. 445F, n. 3), but they do not appear in the list of 75 dharmas (72 saṃskṛtas and 3 asaṃskṛtas) prepared by the Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāṣikas, or in the list of 100 dharmas of the Vijñānavādins (cf. R Kimura, The original and developed Doctrines of Indian Buddhism in Charts, Calcutta, 1920, p. 14, 55). The Buddhists have undoubtedly thought that diś made ākāśa redundant. Besides, the Traité (p. 923F) condemned the nine dravyas of the Vaiśeṣikas.


This is a yogin practicing the meditation on loving-kindness (maitrī), the first of the four apramāṇas or brahmavihāras (cf. p. 1239F seq.).


The theories of a finite or infinite world have been put among the fourteen difficult questions to which the Buddha refused to reply: cf. P. 154–158F, 421F, 423F, 529F, 1589F, 1682F, etc.


The image of the fish that dries up in the absence of water (macho appodake) is canonical: Suttanipāta, v. 777 (p. 152), 936 (p. 183); Theragāthā, v. 362 (p. 40), 387 (p. 43); Mahāniddesa, II, p. 408.