Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “emptiness of the absolute or of nirvana” 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 6: Emptiness of the absolute or of nirvāṇa

I. Definition and synonyms of the absolute


1) The absolute (paramārtha) is the true nature of dharmas (dharmānāṃ bhūtalakṣaṇam or dharmatā) because it is indestructible and inalterable. This true nature of dharmas itself is empty (śūnya). Why? Because there is no grasping (upādāna) or attachment (abhiniveśa) [in regard to it]. If the true nature of dharmas existed, one would be able to take it and become attached to it, but as it does not really exist, one does not take it and one does not become attached to it. If one does take it and becomes attached to it, that is a mistake.

2) Furthermore, the dharma supreme among all dharmas (paramadharma) is called nirvāṇa. Thus it is said in the Abhidharma:[2] “What are the dharmas surpassed by others (sottara)? These are: a) all conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma); b) space (ākāśa); c) cessation not due toknowledge (apratisaṃkhyānirodha). – What is the unsurpassed (anuttara) dharma? It is cessation due to knowledge (pratisaṃkhyānirodha).”[3] But cessation due to knowledge is nirvāṇa.

II. Emptiness of nirvāṇa

[288c] In nirvāṇa, there is no nature of nirvāṇa (nirvāṇalakṣaṇa), and the emptiness of nirvāṇa is the emptiness of the absolute (paramārthaśūnyatā).

Question. – If nirvāṇa is empty and without nature, why do the saints enter into the three Vehicles (yāna) and enter into nirvāṇa? Furthermore, it is said that “all the teachings of the Buddha lead to nirvāṇa” (nirvānaparyavasānāḥ sarve buddhadharmāḥ)[4] like waves all enter into the sea.

Answer. – There ‘is’ (asti) a nirvāṇa:[5] it is the supreme jewel (paramaratna), the dharma without superior (anuttaradharma),[6] and it is of two kinds: i) nirvāṇa with residue of conditioning (sopadhiśeṣanirvāṇa); ii) nirvāṇa without residue of conditioning (nirupadhiśeṣanirvāṇa). The nirvāṇa with residue of conditioning is the cutting off of all the passions, thirst, etc. (sarveṣāṃ tṛṣṇādikleśānāṃ prahāṇam); the nirvāṇa without residue of conditioning is the exhaustion of the five aggregates assumed by the saint (āryopāttānāṃ pañcaskandhānāṃ kusayaḥ) during the present life and the fact that they will not be taken up anew. Therefore it is impossible to say that there is no nirvāṇa.

But hearing the name of nirvāṇa pronounced, beings produce wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi), become attached (abhiniviśante) to the sound (ghoṣa) of nirvāṇa and provoke futile discussions (prapañca) on its existence (bhāva) or its non-existence (abhāva). It is in order to destroy these prejudices (abhiniveśa) that the emptiness of nirvāṇa (nirvāṇaśūnyatā) is taught here.

If people are attached to existence (bhāva), they are attached to saṃsāra; if they are attached to non-existence (abhāva), they are attached to nirvāṇa. [For myself], I destroy the nirvāṇa, the one that is desired (abhiniviṣṭa) by worldly people (pṛthagjana); I do not destroy nirvāṇa, the one that is grasped (upalabdha) by the saints (ārya). Why? Because the saints do not grasp any characteristic (na nimittam udgṛhṇanati) in any dharma.

Furthermore, the passions, thirst, etc. (tṛṣṇādikleśa) are metaphorically called (prajñapyante) ‘bonds’ (bandhana). If the path (mārga) is cultivated, these bonds are untied and the deliverance (vimukti) called nirvāṇa is obtained: apart from that there is no dharma that is ‘nirvāṇa’.[7]

Imagine a man bound in chains who, once he is freed, engages in vain chatter, saying: “Here are the chains, here are the feet, what then is deliverance?” This man is foolish to look for a dharma ‘deliverance’ outside the feet and chains. Beings do the same thing when they seek a dharma ‘deliverance’ elsewhere than the chains of the five aggregates (skandha).

Finally, dharmas are not separate from the absolute (paramārtha) and the absolute is not separate from the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas. The result is that the emptiness of the true nature of dharmas is the ‘emptiness of the absolute’. These are the various names used to designate the emptiness of the absolute.

Footnotes and references:


Here paramārthaśūnyatā is not taken in the sense of emptiness in the true sense of the word, but of emptiness of the paramārtha, i.e., of nirvāṇa. The two terms are often synonymous: paramattho vuccati amataṃ nibbanaṃ (Cullaniddesa, p. 197).

The Traité intercedes here in the controversy between the Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāṣika and the Sautrāntika concerning the asaṃskṛta of which nirvāṇa is a part. It has been discussed in detail by L. de La Vallée Poussin, Documents d’Abhidharma, BEFEO, XXX, 1930, p. 1–28, 247–298, but it should be summarized briefly.

Also see Appendix 1: comparison of asaṃskṛta


Prakaraṇapāda, T 1541, k. 4, p. 64829–c1; T 1542, k. 6, p. 716a5–6. This passage appears in chap. VI, the Saṃgrahavibhāga (?), counting among the last four chapters of the Prakaraṇapāda attributed by the Traité (p. 11F, n. 1) to the Kaśmirian arhats.


Cf. Kośavyākhyā, p. 440, 20–24: Anāsravā api saṃskṛtā asaṃskṛtaiḥ sottarāḥ. asaṃskṛtānāṃ nityavāt. asaṃskṛtāv apy ākāśāpratisaṃkhyānirodhau pratisaṃkhyānirodhena sottarau. pratisaṃkhyānirodhasya kuśalanityavāt. mokṣas te anuttaraḥ na hi nirvāṇād viśiṣṭatamam asti. – Even though they are pure, the saṃskṛta are surpassed (sottarā iti sātiśayāḥ) by the asaṃskṛta, for the latter are eternal. Two asaṃskṛta also, ākāśa and apratisaṃkhyānirodha, are surpassed by the pratisaṃkhyānirodha because the latter is good and eternal. But deliverance (mokṣa = pratisaṃkhyānirodha) itself is not surpassed, for there is nothing superior to nirvāṇa.

The distinction between surpassed (sottara) dharmas and unsurpassed (anuttara) dharmas appears frequently in the Abhidharma treatises: cf. Dhammasaṅgani, p. 225, 263–264; Atthasālinī, p. 50; Vibhāṅga, p. 19, etc.


Mūlasutta in Aṅguttara, V, p. 107, 11(Madhyama, T 26, k. 28, p. 602c16): nibbānapariyosānā sabbe dhammā. – Cf. the expression nibbāninna, nibbānapoṇa, nibbānapabbhāra: Majjhima, I, p. 493; Saṃyutta, V, p. 28–40, etc.


To deny nirvāṇa is equivalent to denying Buddhism. This is why all the scholars, whatever their school, say that nirvāṇa ‘is’ (asti), but the meaning of the verb should be understood.

1) For the Sarvāstivādins, no difficulty, for they consider the asaṃskṛta to be an existence (bhāva).

2) For the Sautrāntikas, the question is more delicate since they plead ‘non-existence’ (abhāva) for nirvāṇa: cf. p. 2012F. Here is their explanation: We do not say definitely that asaṃskṛta does not exist, but the latter is such as has been said by us (na vai nāsty evāsaṃskṛtam iti brūmaḥ, etat tu tadīdṛśaṃ yathāsmābhir uktam). Thus there ‘is’ a prior non-existence of sound (before it has been emitted) and there ‘is’ a later non-existence of sound (after it has been emitted) and yet it is not established that this non-existence is an existence; it is the same as with the unconditioned (tadyathā asti śabdasya prāgabhāvo ‘sti paścadabhāva ity ucyate, atha ca punarnābhāvo bhāvaḥ sidhyati. evam asaṃskṛtam api draṣṭavyam). However, a certain non-existence, very worthy of praise, does ‘exist’: the absolute non-existence of any torment; it is superior to the others and consequemtly merits receiving praise (abhāvo ’pi ca kaścit prśasyatamo bhavati yaḥ sakalasyopadravasyātyantābhāva ity anyeṣam so ‘gra iti praśaṃsām labdhum arhati): cf. Kośabhāṣya, p. 93, 5–9). – In a word, the verb ‘to be’ does not mean ‘to exist’.

3) In chap. XXV of his Mūlamadhyamaka, Nāgārjuna describes his concept of nirvāṇa and the summary in a few words in kārikā 9 (p. 529):

Ya ājavaṃjavībhāva upādāya pratītya vā |
so ’pratītyānupādāya nirvāṇam upadiśyate ||

Literally: The presence of comings and goings in ‘relation to’ or ‘in dependence on’ is defined as nirvāṇa, setting aside this relation and this dependency.

Candrakīrti comments: Janmamaraṇaparaṃparāprabandhasyāpratītya vānupādāya vā yāpravṛttr nirvāṇam iti vyavasthāpyate. – The non-functioning of the continuity of births and deaths in the absence of all relationship and dependency (in respect to anything at all) is established as nirvāṇa.

The continuity of births and deaths, i.e., saṃsāra, has never functioned since everything is empty, and nirvāṇa should be understood as the non-functioning (apravṛtti) of a saṃsāra that has never started.

That being so, nirvāṇa cannot be either bhāva ‘being’ (st. 4–6) or abhāva ‘not being’ (st. 7–8) or a higher synthesis of being and not being (st. 11). Let us admit frankly that it escapes the metaphysical realm; it is only a being for argument’s sake, “if, by a being for argument’s sake, we mean something that is not at all” (Descartes). The Ratnāvali (cited in Madh. vṛtti, p. 524) defines it: bhāvābhāvaparārśakṣaya, the elimination of any mind of existence or of non-existence.

On the Nāgārjunian nirvāṇa, a good description in R. Grousset, Les Philosophies indiennes, I, Paris, 1931, p. 261–263.


Pasādasutta in Anguttara, II, p. 34 (Tseng-yi-a-han, T 125, k. 12, p. 602a11–13) often reproduced in other sūtras (Anguttara, II, p. 35; Itivuttaka, p. 88):

Yāvatā dhammā saṅkhatā vā asaṅkhatā vā virāgo tesaṃ dhammānaṃ aggam akkhāyati yadidaṃ madanimmadano pipāsavinayo ālayasamugghāto vṭṭūpacchedo taṇhakkhayo virāgo niodho nibbānaṃ. – Of all the conditioned or unconditioned dharmas, the best is detachment, namely, the disintoxication of pride, the regulating of thirst, the crushing of the supports, the breaking of the functioning, the exhaustion of thirst, detachment, cessation, nirvāṇa.

The Sanskrit formula, more concise, is in the Divyāvadāna, p. 154, 155: Avadānaśataka, I, p. 50, 330; Kośabhāṣya, p. 93, 4–5: Yo kecid dharmā saṃskṛtā vāsaṃskṛtā vā virāgas teṣām agra ākhyāyate. – Very close to the Pāli, Mahāvastu, II, p. 285, 20–21; III, p. 200, 11–12.

The topic in question bears the name aggappasāda in Pāli, agraprajñapti in Sanskrit.


Cf. Tsa-a-han, T 99, no. 306, k. 13, p. 88a9–12, cited in Kośabhāṣya, p. 93, 23–94, 2: yat svalpasya duḥkhasyāśeṣaprahāṇaṃ pratiniḥsargo vyantībhāvaḥ kṣayo virāgo nirodho vyupaśamo ‘staṃgamaḥ anyasya ca duḥkhasayāpratisaṃdhir anutpādo ’prādurbhāvaḥ, etat kāntam etat praṇītaṃ yaduta sarvopadhipratiniḥsargas tṛṣṇākṣayo virāgo nirodho nirvāṇam. – The complete destruction of the least suffering, its rejection, its purification, its exhaustion; the detachment, the suppression, the pacification, the disappearance of this suffering; the non-rebirth, the non-production, the non-appearance of another suffering, that is what is cherished by the saints), that is excellent, namely, the rejection of all upadhi (= skandha), the exhaustion of thirst, renunciation, suppression, nirvāṇa.

The Sautrāntikas use this sūtra to support their thesis of nirvāṇa as pure non-existence (abhāvamātra): cf. Kośa, II, p. 284.