Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 941,039 words

This page describes “emptiness of the conditioned unconditioned” 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.

Emptinesses 7-8: Emptiness of the conditioned unconditioned

Summary: Emptiness of the conditioned and emptiness of the unconditioned.

Conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma) are dharmas comng from a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagryutpanna), namely, the five aggregates (pañcaskandha), the twelve bases of consciousness (dvādaśāyatana) and the eighteen elements (aṣṭādaśadhaātu). The unconditioned dharmas (asaṃkṛtadharma) are dharmas without causes or conditions, eternal (nitya), unborn (anutpanna), undestroyed (aniruddha) and like space (ākāśasama).[1]

I. The twofold emptiness of the conditioned

Here, the saṃskṛtadharmas are empty for two reasons:

1) They are empty because they have neither ‘me’ (ātman) nor ‘mine’ (ātmīya) and because eternity (nitya), immutability (avipariṇāmadharma) are lacking in them.[2]

2) The saṃskṛtadharmas are empty of saṃskrtadharma characteristics, are not born (notpadyante), do not perish (na nirudhyante), do not exist (nopalabhyante).[3]

Question. – Since the ‘me’, the ‘mine’ and eternity are absent in them, they are empty. Why do you say further that the saṃskṛtadharmas are empty of characteristics of saṃskṛtadharma?

Answer. – Since there is no being (sattva = ātman), these dharmas are without basis (apratiṣṭhāna). Since they have no eternity, they have no time of duration (sthitikāla), and not having any duration, they are non-existent (anupalabdha). From that, we know that these dharmas are empty. [289a]

Question. – In the saṃskṛtadharmas, eternity is absent. Is this lack [of eternity] an emptiness of being (sattvaśūnyatā) or an emptiness of things (dharmaśūnyatā)?

Answer. – 1) Some speak about an [eternal] ātman. But it is as a result of a mental error (viparyāsa) that they posit an eternal ātman: this emptiness of eternity (nityaśūnyatā) introduces the emptiness of beings (sattvaśūnyatā).[4]

2) Others claim to consider the mind (citta) as eternal. Thus Fan T’ien-wang (Brahmā devarāja) said that the four great elements (mahābhūta) and material derived (upādāyarūpa) from the four great elements are non-eternal, whereas the mind (citta, manas) or the consciousness (vijñāna) is eternal.[5] [Now the mind is not eternal]: this emptiness of eternity introduces the emptiness of things (dharmaśūnyatā).

3) Finally, others say: “The five aggregates (skandha) are eternal. Thus the aggregate of form (rūpaskandha), although it suffers transformations (pariṇāma), does not perish, nor do the other [four], such as the mind.”[6] We, however, proclaim the emptiness of the five aggregates, i.e., the emptiness of things (dharmaśūnyatā).

Therefore the emptiness of eternity introduces the emptiness of things.

II. Conditioned and unconditioned are interdependent in emptiness


Furthermore, the yogin considers the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of the saṃskṛtadharmas and the asaṃskṛtadharmas: they have no agent (kāraka); since they exist as a result of a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasmamagrī), they are all false and deceptive; they arise from memories and thought-constructions (anusmaraṇavikalpa); they occur neither on the inside nor on the outside nor in between the two (nādhyātmaṃ nabahirdhā nobhayam antareṇopalabhyante);[8] they are the result of the mistaken visions of worldly people (pṛthagjana). The wise man finds no self natures (svalakṣaṇa) in these saṃskṛtadharmas; he sees in them only simple metaphors (prajñaptimātr) serving to guide worldly people; he recognizes their falsity, unreality, non-birth, inactivity and his mind does not becomes attached to them.

Furthermore, the saints (ārya) who do not grasp these saṃskṛtadharmas attain the fruits of the Path (mārgaphala). Considering the emptiness of the saṃskṛtadharmas, their minds do not become attached to them.

Finally, outside of the saṃskṛtas, there is no asaṃskṛta. Why? Because the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of the saṃskṛtadharmas is unconditioned and this unconditioned nature itself is not conditioned: it is but an imaginary expression created by the mistake (viparyāsa) of beings.

The natures (lakṣaṇa) of the saṃskṛtas are production (utpāda), disappearance (vyaya) and duration-alteration (sthityanyathātva); the natures of the asaṃskṛtas are non-production, non-disappearance, non-duration and non-change: this is the first gateway of entry into the Buddhadharma. But if the asaṃskṛtadharmas had such natures, they would be conditioned (saṃskṛta).

The nature of production (utpādalakṣaṇa) of the saṃskṛtadharmas constitutes the truth of the origin of suffering (samudayasatya), and their nature of disappearance (vyayalakṣaṇa) consititutes the truth of the cessation of suffering (nirodhasatya).[9] But if really these saṃskṛtadharmas are not produced, they do not act, and if they do not act, they are not destroyed. Therefore they are asaṃskṛtadharmas, just like the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa).

He who finds this true nature of dharmas no longer falls [into the error] concerning the natures of production, disappearance, duration or changeability. From this time on, he no longer sees relationship between conditioned and unconditioned dharmas or between unconditioned and conditioned dharmas. Not grasping any specific mark (nimitta) in conditioned and unconditioned dharmas is what the unconditioned consists of.[10] Why? If one imagines conditioned and unconditioned dharmas, one comes up against obstacles. If one cuts through memories and thought-constructions (anusmaraṇavikalpa), one destroys all objects (ālambana) and, by the true knowledge free of object (anālambanabhūtajñāna), one no longer falls into the series of rebirths (janman) but one attains salvation (yogakṣema), the nirvāna of eternal bliss (nityasukhanirvāṇa).

Question. – The first six emptinesses have each been treated separately. Why are the emptiness of the conditioned (saṃskṛtaśūnyatā, no. 7) and the [289b] emptiness of the unconditioned (asaṃkṛtaśūnyatā, no. 8) treated together here?

Answer. – Saṃkṛta and asaṃskṛta dharmas exist interdependently (anyonyāpekṣa): outside of the saṃkṛtas, there are no asaṃskṛtas, and outside of the asaṃkṛtas, there are no saṃskṛtas. These two categories include all dharmas. The yogin who considers the faults (doṣa) of the saṃskṛtadharmas, impermanent (anitya), painful (duḥkha), empty (śūnya) etc., knows ipso facto the great benefits of the asaṃskṛtadharmas. That is why the two emptinesses are treated together here.

III. Emptiness of the unconditioned

Question. – It is quite possible that the saṃskṛtadharmas, coming from the complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī), are without intrinsic nature (niḥsvabhāva) and therefore empty (śūnya). But the asaṃskṛtadharmas, which are themselves not dharmas coming from causes and conditions, are indestructible (akṣaya), inalterable (abhedya), eternal (nitya) and like space (ākāśasama). How would they be empty?

Answer. – As I have just said, outside of the saṃskṛtas, there are no asaṃskṛtas, and the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of the saṃskṛtas is exactly asaṃskṛta. The saṃskṛtas being empty, etc., the asaṃskṛtas themselves also are empty, for the two things are not different.

Besides, some people, hearing about the defects of the saṃskṛtadharmas, become attached (abhiniveśante) to the asaṃskṛtadharmas and, as a result of this attachment, develop fetters.

Thus it is said in the Abhidharma:[11] “Of the 98 anuśayas ‘pernicious tendencies’], 89 have the saṃskṛtadharmas as object (ālambana), six have the asaṃskṛtadharmas as object, and for the other three, we must distinguish: the anuśayas of ignorance (avidyā) belonging to the domain of the desire realm (kāmadhātvavacara) and to be destroyed by the truth of the cessation of suffering (nirodhasatyaheya) have as object sometimes the saṃskṛtas and sometimes the asaṃskṛtas.

“Which are the anuśayas having the saṃskṛtas as object? They are the anuśayas of ignorance (avidyā) to be destroyed by the truth of the cessation of suffering (nirodhasatyaheya) and associated with the anuśayas having as object the conditioned dharmas (saṃkṛtadharmālambanānuśayasaṃprayukta).

“Which are the anuśayas having the asaṃkṛtas as object? They are the anuśayas of ignorance (avidyā) to be destroyed by the truth of the cessation of suffering (nirodhasatyaheya) and dissociated from the anuśayas having as object the conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharmālambanaviprayukta).

“It is the same for the ignorances concerning the form realm (rūpadhātu) and the formless realm (ārūpyadhātu).”

Following these fetters (saṃyojana), one commits evil actions (akuśalakarman) and because of these bad actions, one falls into the three unfortunate destinies (durgati). This is why the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra proclaims the emptiness of the unconditioned here.

The anuśayas having the asaṃskṛtadharmas as object are doubt (vicikitsā), wrong view (mithyādṛṣṭi) and ignorance (avidyā).

a. Doubt (vicikitsā) is to question whether nirvāṇa exists or does not exist.

b. Wrong view (mithyādṛṣṭi) is to form a judgment and declare that there definitely is no nirvāṇa.

c. Ignorance associated with this wrong view and this doubt (mithyādṛṣṭivicikitsā-saṃprayuktāvidyā) and independent ignorance (āveṇikavidyā)[12] as well join together to form the anuśaya of ignorance.

IV. The emptiness of the unconditioned is not wrong view


Question. – If that is so, how is the emptiness of unconditioned dharmas (asaṃkṛtaśūnyatā) different from wrong view (mithyādṛṣṭi)?

Answer. – The person with wrong view does not believe in nirvāṇa; then he formulates a judgment and declares that there definitely is no dharma ‘nirvāṇa’. The emptiness of the unconditioned does not grasp the characteristic of nirvāṇa (na nirvāṇasya nimittam udgṛhṇāti): that is the difference.

Moreover, the person who rejects the saṃskṛtas is attached (abhiniviśate) to the asaṃskṛtas [by attributing to them the characteristics of non-production (anutpāda), etc.] and by the fact of this attachment transforming them into saṃaskṛtas. This is why destroying the asaṃskṛtas [by not grasping their characteristics] is not wrong view.

That is what is meant by the emptiness of the conditioned and the unconditioned.

Footnotes and references:


Cf. the canonical definitions:

Anguttara, I, p. 152. – Tḥīṇ’ imāni bhikkhave saṅkhatassa saṅkhatalakkhaṇāni | katamāni tīni? | uppādo paññāyati vayo paññāyati ṭhitassa aññathattaṃ paññāyati | …tīṇ’ imāni bhikkhave saṅkhatassa asaṅkhatakkhaṇāni | karakmāni tīṇi? | na uppādo paññāyati na vayo paññāyati na ṭhitassa aññathattaṃ paññāyati

Nidānasaṃyukta, p. 139. – Dvayam idaṃ saṃskṛtañ cāsaṃskṛtañ ca | tatra saṃskṛtasyotpādo ’pi prajñāyate vyayo ’pi sthityanyathātvam api | asaṃskṛtasya naivotpādaḥ prajñāyate na vyayo na sthityanyathātvam.

On this topic and its numerous variations, see above, p. 36F, n. 2; 1163F, n. 1.


Here this is the emptiness of being (sattvaśūnyatā) or the doctrine of the anātman, already professed by the canonical scriptures and defined by the Abhidhamma (Cullaniddesa, p. 279; Paṭisambhidā, I, p. 109: Visuddhimagga, p. 561) in the following way: Suññaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā niccena vā dhuvena vā sassatena vā avipariṇāmadhammena vā. – Empty of self, of ‘mine’, of eternity, of solidity, of permanency, of immutability.


Here this is the emptiness of things (dharmaśūnyatā) added to the preceding by the Mahāyānists. The saṃskṛtas are, in addition, empty of characteristics of saṃskṛta in the sense that they are without production (utpāda), without destruction (vyaya) and without duration-alteration (sthityanyathātva). This is their purity (viśuddha).

Śatasāhasrikā, p. 842, 12–10 (cf. Pañcaviṃśati, p. 146, 18–147, 7): Kin iti bhagavan viśuddhitā | – bhagavān āha |anutpādaḥ | anirodhaḥ | …. evam asaṃvidyamānā tenocyate ‘vidyeti | Transl. – What, O Blessed One, is purity? – The Blessed One replied: Non-production, non-destruction, non-defilement, non-purification, non-appearance, non-grasping, non-functioning of all dharmas, that is purity. This is how, O Śāradvatīputra, the bodhisattva-mahāsattva does not train in any dharma. Why? Because dharmas do not exist as foolish lay-people would have them. – Śāradvatīputra asked: How, O Blessed One, do these dharmas exist? – The Blessed One answered: They exist by not existing. Not to know this is ‘ignorance’.


In the words of the incessantly repeated canonical saying: Yad aniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ, yaṃ dukkhaṃ tad anattā. But impermanence does not explain the emptiness of beings alone, i.e., their non-individuality, it explains also the emptiness of dharmas called ‘conditioned’. Actually entities without ‘me’ and ‘mine’ do not exist in themselves, do not exist by themselves, and are empty of self nature and characteristics.


Kevaddhasutta of Dīgha, I, p. 211–223 (Tch’ang-a-han, T 1, k. 16, p. 101b–102c): The gṛhapatiputra Kevaddha, wishing to know where the great elements, earth, water, fire and wind definitively perish, uses his magical powers to go to the heavens and questions all the deities of the desire realm and the form realm successively. The gods confess their ignorance except for Mahābrahmā, the great god of the fourth dhyāna who, unable to answer, avoids the question by boasting: “I am Brahmā, the great Brahmā, the conqueror, never vanquished, the witness of everything, the sovereign, the lord, the agent, the creator, the best, the instigator, the mother, the father of beings present and future” (aham asmi brahmā mahābrahmā abhibhū anabhibhūto aññdatthudaso vasavattī issaro kattā nimmātā seṭṭho sañjitā vasī pitā bhūtabhavyānaṃ). Then taking Kevaddha aside, he acknowledged himself to be unable to answer the question and advised him to go to consult the Buddha. The latter told Kevaddha that the four great elements endlessly disappear into the invisible Consciousness, infinite, brilliant in every way (viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ anantaṃ sabbato pahaṃ) and that, by the elimination from the consciousness of all the great elements, all nāma rūpa, are destroyed (viññāṇassa nirodhena etth’ etaṃ uparujjhati).

The expression sabbato pahaṃ is difficult. Rhys Davids (Dialogues, I, p. 283) gives it as “accessible from every side”, but proposes, in the Pāli Dictionary, s.v. paha, the translation “giving up entirely”. The Chinese translation of the Dīgha (T 1, p. 102c17) understands: tseu yeou kouang “shining by itself”.

The Kevaddhasutta is often mentioned by the Abhidharma authors to prove that dissimulation (māyā) and hypocrisy (śāṭhya) exist up to the realm of Brahmā. But these writers make the bhikṣu Aśvajit the hero of the story and introduce some modifications into Brahmā’s boasts: aham asmi brahmā īśvaraḥ kartā nirmātā sraṣṭā sṛjaḥ pitṛbhūto bhūtānām: cf. Nyāyānusāra, T 1562, k. 12, p. 399a7; Kārikāvibhāṣā, T 1563, k. 6, p. 804c3.

On Brahmā’s pride, see also Hōbōgirin, p. 115.


Those who affirm that everything exists, past, future and present, are the Sarvāstivādins (Kośabhāṣya, p. 296, 4: ye hi sarvam astīti vadanti, atītam anāgataṃ pratyutpannaṃ ca te sarvātivādāḥ). Their opponents, the Sautrāntikas and Mādhyamikas, do not fail to underline the lack of logic in their position. It is arbitrary to claim that the self nature (svabhāva) of dharmas is eternal when their being (bhāva) is transitory and undergoes variations with time. Hence this stanza (Kośabhāṣya, p. 298, 21–22; Pañjikā, p. 581, 11–12):

Svabhāvaḥ sarvadā cāsti bhāvo nityaś ca neṣyate |
na ca svabhāvād bhāvo ’nyo vyaktam īśvaraceṣṭitam ||

“The self nature always exists, but you deny that the being is eternal and that the being is different from the self nature. That is indeed the gesture of a dictator!”


By virtue of the law of the interdependence of opposites (pratidvandvisādharmya), “there where a given thing is not, its opposite is not” (Madh. vṛtti, p. 287, 15: iha yo nāsti na tasya pratidvandvī vidyate). Now the saṃskṛtas, lacking production, disappearance and duration-modification do not exist. Therefore their opposite, the asāṃskṛtas, do not exist either. See Madh. kārikā, VII, st. 33 (p. 176):

Utpādasthitibhaṅgānām asiddher nāsti saṃskṛtam |
saṃskṛtasyāprasiddhau ca kathaṃ setsyaty asaṃskṛtam ||

“The production, duration and destruction not being proved, there is no conditioned. And the conditioned not having been demonstrated, how could there be the unconditioned?”

On this stanza, see J. May, Candrakīrti, p. 140.


An expression dedicated to excluding any modality of existence. It occurs in Kāśyapaparivarta, §143, cited in Madh. vṛtti, p. 48, 2–3.


For the Mahāyānists, there is a close parallelism between seeing the emptiness of the saṃskṛtas and the penetration of the four noble truths involving three revolutions (parivarta) and twelve aspects (ākāra) due to four aspects for each of three revolutions (cf. Vinaya, I, p. 11, 1–32; Catuṣpariṣatsūtra, p. 142–152 or 445–446; Mahāvastu, III, p. 332, 13–333, 17; Lalitavistara, p. 417, 15–418, 21. Seeing the emptiness of the saṃskṛtas corresponds to aspects 9 to 12 of the noble truths. This is what is explained in the Dhyāyitamuṣṭisūtra cited in Madh. vṛtti, p. 298: Yena mañjuśrir anutpannāḥ sarvasaṃskārā dṛṣṭās tena duḥkhaṃ parijñātaṃ | yenāsamutthitāḥ sarvadharmā dṛṣṭās tasya samudayaḥ prahīṇaḥ | yenātyantaparinirvṛtāḥ sarvadharmā dṛṣṭās tena nirodhaḥ sākṣātkṛtaḥ | yenātyantaśūnyāḥ sarvadharmā dṛṣṭāstena mārgo bhāvitaḥ |

Transl. – Mañjuśrī, he who has seen that all the formations are unborn has recognized suffering. He who has seen that all things are non-produced has destroyed the origin (of suffering). He who has seen that all things are absolutely extinct has realized the cessation (of suffering). He who has seen that all things are absolutely empty has practiced the Path.


“After having gone to a lot of trouble to refute the conditioned and unconditioned as interdependent, here the author, in passing, suggests the unconditioned as a nirvāṇa universally and eternally acquired, incapable of being the object of any attachment. This method of denying and affirming an absolute reality at the same time is a characteristic step of the Madhyamaka.” (J. May)


Prakaraṇapāda, chap. V, Anuśayavibhaṅga, T 1541, k. 3, p. 638b7–11; T 1542, k. 3, p. 703b5–9. – This chapter is part of the last four chapters of the Prakaraṇapāda attributed by the Traité (p. 112F) to the Kashmirian arhats.

For the 98 anuśayas, see also Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 46, p. 237c, 238a; Kośa, V, p. 13, 71.


Āveṇikyavidya, simply non-knowledge, not associated with the other anuśayas: cf. Kośa, III, p. 84, 88; V, p. 31.


The objection boils down to this: to profess the emptiness of the asaṃskṛtas is to deny nirvāṇa. But denying nirvāṇa is wrong view. Therefore to profess the emptiness of the asaṃskṛtas is wrong view.

The subject has already been treated in Madh. vṛtti, p. 537–538:

Objection. – If that is so, you are denying even nirvāṇa. In that case, this doctrine (or this thing) preached by the Blessed One in order that humanity might accede to nirvāṇa, is that not useless (or absurd)?

Answer. – That would be so if some ‘dharma’ existed in the form of existence itself, if there were some beings to hear it and if, in order to preach it, there was a being in itself named “Buddha, the Blessed One.”

But how could the fault with which you blame us touch us since:

Quiescence of every grasping (of an object), quiescence of every
discursive thought, [nirvāṇa] is blessedness;
Nowhere, to no one has any dharma
whatsoever been preached by the Buddha.

– Commenting on this stanza, Candrakīrti explains that nirvāṇa thus conceived is the non-functioning of speech and of mind (vācāṃ cittasyāpravṛttiḥ) and that the absence of the object of knowledge (jñeya) and of the knowledge is happiness (śiva).

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