Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “absolute emptiness” 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 9: Absolute emptiness

I. Everything is completely empty

Absolute emptiness (atyantaśūnyatā). –The emptiness of the conditioned (saṃskṛtaśūnyatā, no. 7) and the emptiness of the unconditioned (asaṃskṛtaśūnyatā, no. 8) destroy all the dharmas to the point where there is nothing left over (niravaśeṣam): that is absolute emptiness.

The arhat whose impurities are destroyed (kṣīṇāsrava) is absolutely pure (atyantaviśuddha), whereas the anāgamin who, however, has drawn back to the desires (rāga) of the sphere of nothing at all (ākiṃcanyāyatana) is not absolutely pure.[1] It is the same here. There is the emptiness of inner dharmas (adhyātmaśūnyatā, no. 1), emptiness of outer dharmas (bahirdhāśūnyatā, no. 2), emptiness of inner and outer dharmas (adhyātmabahirdhāśūnyatā, no. 3), [289c] emptiness of the ten directions (daśadikśūnyatā, no. 5), emptiness of the absolute (paramārthaśūnyatā, no. 6), emptiness of the conditioned (saṃskṛtaśūnyatā, no. 7), emptiness of the unconditioned (asaṃskṛtaśūnyatā, no. 8) and in addition, the fact that there is no dharma that is not empty: this is what is called ‘absolute emptiness’ (atyantaśūnyatā, no. 9).

The person who, for seven lifetimes or for a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand or incalculable lifetimes, belongs to a noble clan, is ‘absolutely noble’ and and does not consider as really noble the fact of belonging to a noble clan for one, two or three lifetimes [only]. It is the same for absolute emptiness: since the very beginning (mūlata eva), there has never been anything that is not truly empty.

Some say: “Although this is presently emptiness, it was not so originally: there was, for example, God as origin of creation (sarga),[2] Darkness (tamas),[3] subtle atoms (paramāṇu).[4]“ No! All that is empty. Why? If the result (kārya) is empty, the cause (kāraṇa) was empty as well. Space itself is neither effect nor cause, and it is the same for God and the subtle atoms, etc. If they were eternal (nitya), they would not produce the transitory (anitya). If the past (atīta) has no defined nature (niyatalakṣaṇa), neither do the future (anāgata) and the present (pratyutpanna); in the three times (tryadhvan) there is not a single dharma that is truly non-empty (aśūnya). That is absolute emptiness.

II. Absolute emptiness does not lead to renouncing nirvāṇa

Question. – If everything in the three times is empty, including the subtle atoms (paramāṇu), if nothing has ever existed for the least moment, that is indeed very frightening (bhayasthāna). In view of the bliss of the trances (dhyāna) and the absorptions (samāpatti), the sages (prajñā) renounce mundane bliss (laukikasukha), and in view of the bliss of nirvāṇa (nirvāṇasukha), they renounce the bliss of the trances and absorptions. If in this absolute emptiness there is not even the bliss of nirvāṇa, on what dharma would they then rely to renounce nirvāṇa?

Answer. – Some people attached to egotism (ahaṃkārābhiniviṣṭa) distinguish the characteristics of unity (ekatva) and multiplicity (nānātva) in dharmas: it is these people who experience fear. Thus the Buddha said: “In foolish worldly people (bālapṛthagjana) the big subject of fear is the non-existence of the self (ātman) and the non-existence of the ‘mine’ (ātmīya).”

Furthermore, it is the conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma) dependent on the three times which, by the fact of their impurities (sāsravadharma) consititute subjects (sthāna) that bring about attachment (abhiniveśa). Nirvāṇa itself is ‘the cessation of thirst’ (tṛṣṇāyāḥ prahāṇam).[5] Why would one seek to renounce nirvāṇa?

Finally, the bhikṣu who violates the four grave offenses[6] is ‘immoral absolutely’ (atyantaduḥśīla) and is incapable of attaining bodhi; the person who commits the five sins of immediate retribution (pañcānantarya) is closed ‘absolutely’ (atyantas) to the three good destinies (sugati); the person who takes the commitment of the śrāvakas cannot become Buddha ‘absolutely’. It is the same for absolute emptiness (atyantaśūnyatā): this absolute emptiness shows no exception (avaśeṣa) in all the dharmas.

III. Absolute emptiness does not lead to any reality

1. Falsity does not create truth

Question.[7] – It is not correct that all dharmas are absolutely empty (atyantaśūnya). Why? The dharmas of the three times (tryadhvan) and the ten directions (daśadiś) lead to ‘a nature of things (dharmatā), a subsistence of things (dharmasthititā)’[8] that necessarily must be true. It is because there is an emptiness of dharmas that the other dharmas are false. If there were no emptiness of dharmas, there would not be any false dharmas either. This [truth] is absolute emptiness.

Answer. – Nothing does not lead to a truth of dharmas. Why?

1) If such an emptiness existed, one of two things: it would either be i) conditioned (saṃskṛta) or ii) unconditioned (asaṃskṛta). – Suppose it were conditioned, this hypothesis has already been refuted in regard to the emptiness [290a] of the conditioned (saṃskṛtaśūnyatā, no. 7). – Suppose it were unconditioned, this hypothesis also has been refuted in regard to the emptiness of the unconditioned (asaṃskṛtaśūnyatā, no. 8).

This reality would be either i) mundane (laukika) or ii) supramundane (lokottara). – Suppose it were mundane, this hypothesis has already been refuted by the emptiness of inner dharmas (adhyātmaśūnyatā, no. 1), the emptiness of outer dharmas (bahirdhāśūnyatā, no. 2), the emptiness of inner and outer dharmas (adhyātmabahirdhāśūnyatā, no. 3) and great emptiness (mahāśūnyatā, no. 4). – Suppose it were supramundane, this has been refuted by the emptiness of the absolute (paramārthaśūnyatā, no. 6). And dharmas of form (rūpin) or formless dharmas (arūpin), impure (sāsrava) or pure (anāsrava) are likewise empty.

2) Moreover, dharmas being absolutely empty, this absolute emptiness (atyantaśūnyatā) itself is empty. Emptiness being nothing whatsoever, there is no interdependence (anyonyāpekṣatā) between falsity and truth.

3) Finally, absolute emptiness destroys all dharmas to the point where there is nothing left over (avaśeṣa); that is why it is called absolute emptiness. If the least bit remained, it would not be called ‘absolute’. To claim [as you do] that something must exist because of interdependence [between falsity and truth] does not hold.

2. Dharmas are empty even in their causes and conditions.

Question. – Dharmas are not completely empty. Why? Dharmas coming from causes and conditions (hetupratyayasamutpanna) are empty, but their causes and conditions are not themselves empty. Thus, it is as a result of a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī), namely, the beams (phalaka), that there is a house (gṛha): the house is empty but the beams are not.

Answer. – 1) The causes and conditions also are empty because they are indeterminate (aniyata). Take, for example, the son of a father: insofar as he is born from a father, he is called ‘son’ (putra); insofar as he engenders a son, he is called ‘father’ (pitṛ).

2) Furthermore, the ultimate (paścima) causes and conditions are without support (aprartiṣṭhita). Thus the mountains, rivers, trees and categories of beings rest upon the earth (pṛthivī), the earth rests upon the water (ap), the water rests upon the wind (āyu) and the wind rests upon space (ākāśa), but space does not rest on anything.[9] If there is no point of support at the beginning, there is none at the end either. This is why we know that all dharmas are absolutely empty.

3. Magician and magical object likewise are empty

Question. – That is not so: dharmas must have a root. Thus in magical (ṛddhi) transformations (nirmāṇa), the fictitious object (nirmita) is false but the magician (nirmātṛ) is not empty.

Answer. – Foolish worldly people (bālapṛthagjana), seeing that the fictitious object does not last for long, say that it is false, but as the magician lasts for a long time, they say that he is real. Saintly individuals (āryapudgala) themselves see that indeed the magician is born from a complex of the karmic causes and conditions of his previous lives and by accumulating good dharmas in his present life, he has obtained a magical power (ṛddhibala) by means of which he makes fictitious creations.

In a later chapter of the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra, it is said: “There are three kinds of fictitious creation (nirmāṇa): fictitious creation of passion (kleśa), fictitious creation of action (karman) and ficitious creation of dharma.”[10] This is why we know that the magician himself is empty as well.

4. Nothing is taken away from emptiness

Question. – 1) Things without solidity (asāra, adhruva) not being true, they are necessarily empty; but solid things and real dharmas cannot be empty. Thus the great earth (mahāpṛthivī) and Mount Sumeru, the water of the great ocean (mahāsamudraka), the sun and the moon (candrasūrya), the lightning bolt (vajra) and other substances are real solid dharmas and therefore cannot be empty. Why? a) The earth and Mount Sumeru last until the end of the kalpa. b) Whereas the rivers dry up, the ocean is always full. c) The sun and the moon revolve in the sky without ceasing.

2) The things seen by worldly people (pṛthagjana), being false and unreal, are certainly empty, but the things grasped by the saints (ārya), namely, suchness (tathatā), the fundamental element (dharmadhātu), the limit of reality (bhūtakoṭi) [290b] and nirvāṇa are certainly true dharmas. Why do you say they are absolutely empty? Besides, if conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma), as coming from causes and conditions (hetupratyayasamutpanna), are not true, unconditioned dharmas (asaṃskṛtadharma) which themselves do not come from causes and conditions must be true. Why do you say they are absolutely empty?

Answer. – Being indeterminate (aniyata) [notions], solidity (sāratā, dhruvatva) and non-solidity, are both completely empty. How is that? What one person considers to be solid, another person considers to be non-solid.

a) People consider lightning (vajra) to be solid, but Śakra Devendra who holds it in his hand like a man holding a stick (daṇḍa) does not consider it to be solid. Moreover, it is because we do not know how to break lightning that we think it is solid. But if we know that it is enough set it down on the shell of a tortoise (kūrmapṛṣṭha) and strike it with the horn of a wild sheep (hariṇaśṛnga) to break it, then we know that it is not solid.

b) A man, whose height is only seven feet, thinks that the great ocean is deep (gambhīra), but when Rāhu Asurarāja stands up in the great ocean, his knees come up out of the surface of the water.[11] With his two hands he hides the summit of Sumeru, and he looks down on Sudarśana, the city of the Trāyastriṃśa gods. Rāhu clearly does not consider the sea as being deep.

c) A man, whose lifespan is short (alpāyuṣa), thinks that the earth (pṛthivī) lasts for a long time and is solid, but beings of long life (dīrghāyuṣa), [such as Sunetra], know well that it is neither eternal nor solid.

[Saptasūryodayasūtra].[12] – See the Ts’i-je-yu king (Saptasūryopamāsūtra) preached by the Buddha:

The Buddha said to the bhikṣus: All conditioned dharmas are impermanent, changing, and end up in destruction. When the kalpa reaches its end after a long period of aridity, the medicinal herbs and trees completely dry up. – With the appearance of the second sun, the water of the streams dries up. – With the appearance of the third sun, the water of the big rivers is completely exhausted. – With the appearance of the fourth sun, the four great rivers of Jambudvīpa and lake Anavatapta become empty. – With the appearance of the fifth sun, the great ocean dries up. – With the appearance of the sixth sun, the great earth, Mount Sumeru, etc., begin to smoke like a potter’s furnace. – With the appearance of the seventh sun, everything bursts into flames and there is no more smoke: the earth, Mount Sumeru and everything up to the palace of the Brahmā gods is burned up by the fire.

Then, seeing this fire, the gods who have recently been born into the Abhāsvara heaven, become frightened and say: “After they have burned the pace of the Brahmās, these flames will reach here.” But the gods who were born [in the Ābhāsrava heaven] a long time ago reassure the gods born subsequent to them and say: “Previously already, after having burned the palace of the Brahmās, this fire disappeared and has not yet come this far.”[13]

When the trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu has been burned up by the fire, there remain no ashes or charcoal.

The Buddha said to the bhikṣus: Who could believe such an enormous thing? Only a man who has seen it with his own eyes could believe that. O bhikṣus, in the past, there was a heretic teacher named Siu-nie-to-lo (Sunetra) who had renounced desire and practiced the four abodes of Brahma (brahmavihāra).[14] His innumerable disciples also had renounced desire. Sunetra thought: “It is not fitting that I should be reborn in the same place as my disciples. Today I must therefore develop a mind of loving-kindness deeper [than theirs].”[15] Having meditated profoundly on loving-kindness, this man took rebirth in the heaven of the Ābhāsvaras. [290c]

The Buddha added: Sunetra was myself.[16] At that time, I saw this great event [i.e., the burning of the palace of the Brahmās] with my own eyes. This is why we must know that even solid and real things all end up in destruction.

5. Difference between impermanence and absolute emptiness

Question. – But here you are dealing with absolute emptiness (atyantaśūnyatā); why then do you talk about impermanent things (anityavastu)? Absolute emptiness is empty right now whereas impermanence is existent now and empty later.

Answer. – Impermanence is the first doorway to emptiness. If one understands impermanence well, all dharmas are empty. This is why the saint (āryapudgala) first considers the impermanence of the world (lokānityatā) under four aspects:

1) He sees that the things (vastu) to which he is attached are impermanent (anitya).

2) Impermanence gives rise to suffering (duḥkha): as a result of this suffering, the saint mentally experiences disgust (nirveda).

3) Having emptiness as nature (śūnyālakṣaṇa), impermanence cannot be grasped: it is like a magic show (māyopama), like a metamorphosis (nirmāṇopama); this is what is called emptiness (śūnya).

4) Outer things (bahirdhāvastu) being empty, their inner master (antarsvāmin) is also empty: this is what is called non-self (anātman).

Furthermore, absolute emptiness is the true emptiness. There are two kinds of beings (sattva): i) the one who is mainly sensual (tṛṣṇācarita); ii) the one who is mainly rationalist (dṛṣṭicarita).[17]

i) The sensualist experiences attachment (āsaṅga) easily but, as the things to which he becomes attached are impermanent, he feels sorrow (daurmansaya) and suffering (duḥkha). To him, it is said: “The things to which you are attached are impermanent and precarious; it is on their account that you experience suffering. If the things to which you are attached give rise to suffering, you should not become attached to them”; this is to preach the gate of liberation called wishlessness (apraṇihitavimokṣamukha).

ii) The rationalist seeks to analyze dharmas but, as he does not recognize the truth, he becomes attached to wrong views (mithyadṛṣṭi). It is to him that the absolute emptiness is preached directly.

Furthermore, all affirmations (vāda) are capable of being refuted and, being able to be refuted, they are empty. Visions are empty and the master of the vision is himself empty. This is what is called absolute emptiness.

You just said (p. 2090F) that “the things grasped by the saints are necessarily true dharmas”, but what is specific to the saints is to destroy the three poisons (triviṣa). It is not by means of mistakes (viparyāsa) and lies (mṛṣāvacana) that they are able to bring beings to escape from the sufferings of old age (jarā), sickness (vyādhi) and death (maraṇa) and to lead them to nirvāṇa. The dharmas that you are calling true come from a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasmamagrī); not existing previously, they exist now and, existing now, they will no longer exist in the future; they can be neither grasped nor adopted. Therefore they too are empty and without truth.

[Kolopamasūtra.][18] – This is what the Buddha said in the Fa-yu king (Kolopamasūtra): “Good dharmas should be destroyed and, a fortiori, the bad ones.”

Finally, for the saints, conditioned (saṃskṛta) and pure (anāsrava) dharmas arise from impure dharmas. These impure dharmas are false and arise from false conditions. How could they be true? Outside of conditioned dharmas, there are no unconditioned (asaṃskṛta) dharmas, as I have said above (p. 2081F). The true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of conditioned dharmas is to be unconditioned. Since all dharmas are non-existent (anupalabdha), this is why there is absolute emptiness.

Footnotes and references:


The anāgamin still remains attached to some categories of passion of bhavāgra or naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāyatana: cf. Kośa, VI, p. 227.


Theist doctrines of the Śaiva and Vaiṣnava: cf. p. 137–143F and notes.


Tamas, darkness, the third guṇa of the Sāṃkhya, which at the beginning of time, constituted the world by itself: see P. Deussen, Sechzig Upanishad’s des Veda, Leipzig, 1938, p. 329.


Paramāṇu, subtle atoms which, for the Vaiśeṣika, were eternal: cf. p. 728–730F, 923F.


Taṇhakkhāyo virāgo nirodho nibbānaṃ: Dīgha, II, p. 36, 37; Mahhjima, I, p. 167; Saṃyutta, I, p. 136; V, p. 226; Aṅguttara, I, p. 133; II, p. 34, 118; III, p. 35; IV, p. 423; V, p. 110, 320.


The four catasro mūlāpattato gurvyaḥ of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, p. 777, 27 or maulī āpatti (or adhyāpatti) of the Kośabhāṣya, p. 223, 7 and 21, which are none other than the four patanīya of the Vinaya: abrahmacarya, adattādāna, manuṣyavadha and uttarimanuṣyadharmamṛṣāvāda.


The objector is appealing to the law of interdependence of opposites (pratidvandvisādharmya) dear to the Mādhyamika but he has it backwards. The Mādhyamikas say: Without falsehood, no truth. The objector replies: Without truth, no falsehood.


The objector is claiming here to follow a canonical saying often cited by the adepts of both Vehicles (see references, p. 157F bottom of page):

Saṃyutta, II, p. 25. – Uppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ anuppāda vā tathāgatānaṃ ṭhitā va sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā.

Nidānasaṃyukta, p. 148, 164. – Utpādād vā tathāgatānām anutpādād vā sthitā eveyaṃ dharmatā dharmasthitaye dhātuḥ.

The passage unquestionably depicts a reality but not necessarily a subsistent reality. In the canonical texts,it is none other than the co-dependent arising, pratītyasamutpāda (Saṃyutta, II, p. 25) or, which almost amounts to the same, the suffering of the saṃskāras and the non-personality of dharmas (Anguttara, I, p. 286). For the Prajñāpāramitā, it is the true nature of dharmas including the absence of nature, emptiness.


Cf. Dīgha, II, p. 107 (= Sanskrit Mahāparnirvāṇa, p. 212): Ayaṃ Ānanda mahāpaṭhavī udake patiṭṭhitā, udakaṃ vāte patiṭṭhitaṃ, vāto ākāsaṭṭho hoti. – Majjhima, I, p. 424: ākāso na katthaci patiṭṭho. – Sūtra cited in Kośavyākhyā, p. 15: Pṛthivī brāhmaṇa ap-maṇḍale pratiṣṭhitā… ap-maṇḍalaṃ vāyau pratiṣṭhitam… vāyur ākāśe pratiṣṭhitaḥ… ākāśaṃ brāhmaṇāpratiṣṭhitam anālambanam.


Pañcaviṃśati, chap. LXXXVII, entitled Jou houa (Nirmāṇopama?), T 223, k. 26, p. 415c26–27.


See the description of Rāhu in the Commentary of the Dīgha, II, p. 487–488. There it is said: Tassa mahāsamuddaṃ otiṇṇassa yojanasahassamatte ṭhāne gambhīrodakaṃ jānuppamāṇaṃ hoti. So evaṃ vadeyya: Ayaṃ mahāsamuddo gamnbhīro gambhīro ti vadanti, kutr’ assa gambhīratā?


Saptasūryodayasūtra: Anguttara, IV, p. 100–106; Madhyama, T 26 (no. 28), k. 2, p. 428c–429c; Ekottara, T 125,. K. 34, p. 735b–738a; Saptasūryodaya, T 30, p. 811c–812c. – For the jātaka of Sunetra that forms the second part of the sūtra, see also the Dhammikasutta of Anguttara, III, p. 371–372 (cf. Magyama, T 26, k. 30, p. 619b–c), the Sunettasutta of Anguttara, IV, p. 135–136, and the references given above, p. 520F, note.

The sūtra of the seven suns is often cited by the authors of sūtras and śāstras: Dīgha, T 1, k. 21, p. 137c–138b; Ta-leou-t’an king, T 23, k. 5, p. 302c–303b; K’I che king, T 24, k. 9, p. 355; Pitṛputrasamāgama cited in Śikṣasamuccaya, p. 247, 5–18; Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 75, p. 386b5; k. 82, p. 424c–425a (passage translated above, p. 520F); k. 133, p. 690a14–24; Kośabhāṣya, p. 116, 17–22; Kośavyākhyā, p. 710; Nyāyanusāra, T 1562, k. 32, p. 526c12; Kārikāvibhāṣā, T 1563, k. 17, p. 859a1–2; Yogācārabhūmi, T 1579, k. 34, p. 471a7.


Cf. Kośabhāṣya, p. 116, 17–22: Tatra ye sattvā ābhāvare devanikāye ‘ciropapannā bhavanti naiva saṃvartanīkuśala na vivartanīkuśalā asya lokasya te tām arciṣaṃ dṛṣṭvā bhītāḥ santa udvijante saṃvegam āpadyante | sahaivaiṣārciḥ śūnyaṃ bhāhmaṃ vimānaṃ dagdgvārvag āgamiṣyatīti | tatra ye sattvā ābhāvare debanikāye ciropapannāḥ saṃvartanīkuśalā vivartanīkuśalāś cāsya lokasya te tān sattvān bhītān āśvāsayanti | mābhaiṣṭa marṣāḥ mā bhaiṣṭa mārṣāḥ | pūrvam apy eṣā ‘rciḥ śūnyaṃ brāhmaṃ vimānaṃ dagdhvātraivāntahiteti.


Cf. Anguttara, IV, p. 103: Bhūtapubbaṃ bhikkhave Sunetto nāma satthā ahosi titthakaro kāmesu vītarāgo.


Ibid., p. 104: Atha kho bhokkhave Sunettassa satthuno etad ahosi: na kho pan’ etaṃ paṭrirūpaṃ yo ‘haṃ sāvakānaṃ samasamgatiyo assaṃ abhisamparāyaṃ, yan nūnāhāṃ uttariṃ mettaṃ bhāveyyan ti.


The Saptasūryasūtra of Anguttara, IV, p. 105, does not identify Sunetra with the Bhagavat; on the other hand, the Kośa (l.c.) agrees with the Traité in making the comparison.


See Kośa, IV, p. 174, 208, and n.


See references above, p. 64F, n. 1. The Kolopamasūtra will also be invoked later, k. 31, p. 295b29; k. 85, p. 657a2. In this saying, dharma is taken in the sense of ‘good teaching’, and adharma in that of ‘bad teaching’. The Buddha is not attached to the sublime teaching of the Prajñāpāramitā and does not want his disciples to love the Dharma or be attached to the Dharma. They seek only the cessation of suffering (duḥkhakṣaya), deliverance (vimukti), the true nature of dharmas beyond any vain discussion: cf. p. 65F.

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