Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “emptiness of dispersed dharmas (avakarashunyata)” 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 11: Emptiness of dispersed dharmas (avakāraśūnyatā)

Emptinss of dispersion (avakāraśūnyatā). – Dispersion (avakāra) means division (visaṃyoga).

I. Emptiness of assembled dharmas

Some dharmas exist by virtue of an assemblage (saṃyoga), such as the chariot (ratha): when the spokes (ara), wheels (nemi), shaft (īṣā), axles (nābhi) are assembled, there is a chariot; but if they are scattered each in a different place, it loses its name of chariot. When the five aggregates (skandha) are brought together, we speak of a ‘man’ (pudgala), but if the five aggregates are dispersed, the man no longer exists.

II. Emptiness of dispersed dharmas

Question. – By speaking in this way, you are destroying only the name (prajñapti) of man, but you are not destroying the form (rūpa).[1] By scattering the spokes and wheels, you are destroying the name of chariot but you are not destroying the spokes and wheels. It is the same with your emptiness of the dispersed (avakāraśūnyatā): by dispersing the five aggregates, you are destroying only the man, but you are not destroying the five aggregates, form (rūpa) etc.

Answer. – [The aggregates], form (rūpa) etc., they too are pure denominations (prajñapti) and destroyed. Why? Because these are subtle agglomerated atoms (saṃghāta-paramāṇu) that are named ‘form’.[2]

Question. – As for myself, I do not accept these subtle atoms: I consider [292a] what is visible to be matter. This matter is true and really exists. Why would it be dispersed (avakīrṇa) and empty (śūnya)?

Answer. – Even forgetting about (sthāpayitvā) subtle atoms, visible form (sanidarśanaṃ rūpam), coming from the assembling of the four great elements (mahābhūta), is itself but a simple name (prajñapti). Just as when the winds (vāyu) of the four directions, having come togther, fan the water and produce balls of foam (phenapiṇḍa), so the four great elements, once they have come together, produce matter (rūpa). But if these four great elements are dispersed (avakīrṇa), there is no matter.

Moreover, this matter (rūpa) must be joined with smell (gandha), taste (rasa), touchable (spraṣṭavya) and the four great elements (mahābhūta) for there to be visible form (rūpaṃ sanidarśanam). Outside of this smell, taste, touchable, etc., there is no isolated matter.[3] By means of cognition (jñāna), we distinguish these different constituents but, separately, in isolation, matter does not exist. If matter really existed, there would be, separate from these [constitutive] dharmas, a matter that existed separately; but there is no separate matter.[4]

[Puṇṇamāsutta.] – This is why a sūtra says: “All form exists by the union o the four great elements.”[5]

As it exists by virtue of a union, it is pure denomination (prajñapti); being only denomination, it is dispersible.

Question. – Form (rūpa), as denomination (prajñapti) is dispersible, but how would the other four aggregates (skandha) – [feeling (vedanā), concept (saṃjñā), volition (saṃskāra) and consciousness (vijñāna)] – which are non-material, be dispersible?

Answer. – These four aggregates are pure denomination (prajñapti) as well. In regard to their birth (jāti), their ageing (jarā), their duration (sthiti) and their impermanence (anityatā), they are dispersed and empty. Why? Because the moment of birth is one, the moment of old age is different, the moment of duration is different and the moment of impermanence is different.

Moerover, in the course of the three times (tryadvan), we notice that these four aggregates are dispersed and perish as well.

Moreover, the mind (citta) follows its object (ālambana): when the obvject perishes, it perishes; when the object is destroyed, it is destroyed.

Moreover, these four aggregates are indeterminate (aniyata) because they arise as a result of conditions (pratyaya). Just as fire comes into question where there is fuel but does not appear where there is no fuel, so it is because of the eye (cakṣus) and color (rūpa) that visual consciousness (cakṣurvijñāna) arises; but if it is separated from its object (ālambana), this consciousness does not exist. It is the same for the consciousnesses relevant to the other organs (indriya).

[Sattvasūtra.] – Thus, in a sūtra, the Buddha said to Lo-t’o (Rādha): “This form aggregate (rūpaskandha), O Radha, break, destroy, disperse, eliminate it so that it exists no longer. Do the same with the other [four] aggregates. That is the emptiness of dispersion (avakāaraṇaśūnyatā). For example, look at these children (kumāraka) who are piling up earth and building castles, ramparts, villages, houses. They say that it is rice or wheat flour; they like it, they are attached to it, they keep it and they protect it. But when evening comes, they are no longer interested in them, they tread them underfoot, they break them, destroy them, disperse them and eliminate them. Foolish worldly people (bālapṛthagjana) do the same: as long as they do not renounce desire (avītarāga), they have feelings of love (tṛṣṇā) and attachment (saṅga) for dharmas; but as soon as they have renounced desire and see the dharmas, they disperse them (vikiranti), destroy them and reject them.”[6]

[Kātyāyanāvavāda.][7] – This is what the Kia-tchen-yen king (Kātyāyanasūtra) says: “In the person who sees the truth of the origin (samudayasatya), there is no view of non-existence (nāstitādṛṣṭi); in the person who sees the truth of cessation (nirodhasatya), there is no view of existence (astitādṛṣṭi).”[8]

For these various reasons, we speak of the ‘emptiness of dispersion’.

Notes on the Emptiness of dispersed dharmas (avakāraśūnyatā):

For the majority of the sources, the eleventh emptiness is anavakāraśūnyatā (dor ba med pa stoṅ pa ñid, wou san k’ong), “relativity of the points that are not to be rejected” (E. Obermiller, Analysis of the Abhisamayālaṃkāra, p. 134) from which “emptiness of non-repudiation” (E. Conze, Large Sūtra on Perfect Wisdom, ed. 1961, p. 130; ed. 1975, p. 145). This would be the anupadhiśeṣanirvāṇa.

But in the Chinese version of the Pañcaviṃśati by Kumārajīva, it is just a question of a san k’ong, an avakāraśūnyatā, avakāra having the sense of ‘dispersal’ or more precisely, ‘dispersed’ (avakīrṇa), taken in the passive sense, in the same way that the word saṃskāra is often taken in the sense of saṃskṛta dharma.

It seems indeed that the avakāraśūnyatā is the emptiness of dispersed, divided, dharmas, in the sense that the avakīrṇa dharmas are empty of avakīrṇa dharmas. According to the Traité, these avakīrṇas would not be anything other than dharmas existing as an entity (dravyatas) in contrast to dharmas existing only as designation (prajñaptitas).

The chariot is a good example of prajñaptidharma (cf. Samyutta, I, p. 135; Milindapañha, p. 27): when the spokes, wheels, shaft, and axles are put together, one ‘speaks of the chariot’; when they are scattered (avakīrṇa), one does not speak of the chariot: the chariot has only nominal existence; only its components are real.

Except for the Vātsīputrīya-Sāṃmitīyas who adopt an ambiguous position, all Buddhists accept that the individual (the pudgala), as in the example of the chariot, exists as designation when its components, namely the five skandhas (form, sensation, notion, volition and consciousness), are brought together, but it is not the same question when the latter are separated. These skandhas, on the other hand, even in the scattered state, cannot be reduced and exist as entities (dravyatas) with an intrinsic nature and specific characteristics.

It is precisely against this irreducibility and this stability of the skandhas that the Prajñāpāramitā and the Traité rise up. Whether they are material like rūpa, or immaterial like vedanā, saṃjñā, the saṃskāras or vijñāna, the skandhas are decomposable and ruled by the process of causes and conditions. Quite like the pudgala which they are wrongly supposed to constitute, they are pure denominations (prajñapti) and, taken in isolation, these avakīrṇa dharmas are empty of avakīrṇa nature. This is what is called the emptiness of dispersal (avakīrṇaśūnyatā). Moreover, canonical passages which deny them any reality are not lacking.

Footnotes and references:


Form and the other four skandhas designated under the name of man (pudgala).


The Vaibhāṣikas distinguish two kinds of atoms: i) the monad in the strict sense, the dravyaparamāṇu, not capable of being broken (rūpaṇa) and never existing in the isolated state; ii) the molecule, the saṃghātaparamāṇu, the most subtle among the aggregates of form which, itself, is susceptible of deterioration and of resistance: see Kośa, I, p. 25; II, p. 144.


In Kāmadhātu, the molecule involves at least eight substances: the four great elements (mahābhūta) and the four kinds of derived matter (bhautika), the visible, odor, taste and tangible: see Kośa, II, p. 145.


Cf. Madh. kārikā, IV, v. 1–2 (p. 123):

Rūpakāraṇananirmuktaṃ na rūpam upalabhyate |
rūpeṇāpi na nirmuktaṃ dṛśyate rūpakāraṇam ||

Rūpakāraṇanirmukte rūpe rūpaṃ prasajyate |
āhetukaṃ na cāsty athaḥ kaścid āhetukaḥ kvacit ||

“Form is not perceived free from the cause of form; the cause of form does not appear free from form. – If form is free from the cause of form, it follows, as a necessary consequence, that it is without cause. But nothing exists anywhere without cause” (transl. J. May).


Puṇṇamāsutta of Samyutta, III, p. 101 (tsa-a-han T 99, no. 58, k. 2, p. 14c11–12); Mahāpuṇṇamāsutta of Majjhima, III, p.17: Cattāro kho bhikku mahābhūtā hetu cattāro mahābhūtā paccayo rūpakkhandhassa paññāpanāya.


Sattvasūtra (Tchong-cheng king) of Saṃyutta, T 99, no. 122, k. 6, p. 40a4–18, having as correspondent in Pāli the Sattasutta (from the root sañj?) of the Saṃyutta, III, p. 189–190. As usual, the Traité uses the Sanskrit version which differs slightly in detail from the Pāli version.

Transl. – Similarly, O Rādha, scatter the rūpa, break it, smash it, stop playing with it, and apply yourself to eliminating thirst. [And do the same with vedanā, saṃjñā, saṃskāra and vijñāna]. It is like little boys or girls playing with sand castles. As long as they have not lost their passion, desire, fondness, attraction, fever, thirst for these little sand castles, they love them, play with them, save them and claim ownership of them. But, O Rādha, as soon as these little boys and girls have lost their passion, desire, fondness, attraction, fever and thirst for these sandcastles, they immediately break them up with their hands and feet, they smash them and no longer play with them.

– The Traité often calls upon the Rādhasūtra to demonstrate the precariousness and unreality of dharmas: see above, p. 343–345F, and below, p. 2143F.


Kaccāyanagotta of Saṃyutta, II, p. 16–17; Kātyāyana of Nidānasaṃyukta, p. 167–170 (T 99, no, 301, k. 12, p. 85c17–86a3). Sūtra also called Kātyāyanāvavāda (Madh. vṛtti, p. 43, 269).


Saṃyutta, II, p. 17: Lokasamudayaṃ kho Kaccāyana yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya passato yā loke natthitā sā na hoti | lokanirodhaṃ kho Kaccāyana yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya passto yā loke atthitā sā na hoti |

Nidānasaṃyukta, p. 169: Lokasamudayaṃ Kātyāyana yathābhūtaṃ samyakprajñayā paśyato yā loke nāstitā sā na bhavati | lokanirodhaṃ yathābhūtaṃ samyakprajñayā paśyato yā loke ‘stitā sā na bhavati |