Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “emptiness of essences (prakritishunyata)” 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 12: Emptiness of essences (prakṛtiśūnyatā)

I. The concept of prakṛti

Emptiness of essences (prakṛtiśūnyatā). – The prakṛti of dharmas is eternally empty (śūnya) but, borrowing the karmic series (karmaprabandha), it seems not to be empty. 

Thus the prakṛti of water (udaka) by itself is cold (śīta); if one brings it close to fire (agni), it becomes hot (uṣṇa); if one puts out the fire, it becomes cold again. [292b] It is the same with the prakṛti of dharmas: a long as the [karmic] conditions are not present, it is empty (śūnya), non-existent (anupalabdha), like the prakṛti of water, eternally cold; when the conditions come together, the dharmas exist like the water that becomes hot near the fire; if the conditions become rare or disappear, there are no more dharmas, like the boiling water that becomes cold again when the fire is extinguished.


Question. – This sūtra says that [the twelve āyatanas] are empty of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ (śūnyāny ātmanā vātmīyena vā), i.e., it speaks of the emptiness of beings (sattvaśūnyatā) and not of the emptiness of things (dharmaśūnyatā). Why do you see in it a proof of the emptiness of the prakṛti?

Answer. – In the sūtra, it is merely a question of the emptiness of the prakṛti; it does not speak of the emptiness of beings or of the emptiness of things.[1]

Prakṛtiśūnyatā is of two kinds:

1) In the twelve bases of consciousness (āyatana), there is no ‘me’ (ātman) and no ‘mine’ (ātmīya). The emptiness belonging to the twelve bases of consciousness consists of the absence of ‘me’ (anātman) and the absence of ‘mine’ (anātmīya). This is what is said in the system of the śrāvakas.

2) The Mahāyāna system, however, says: i) the twelve bases of consciousness having neither ‘me’ nor ‘mine’ are empty (śūnya); ii) the prakṛti ‘essence’ of the twelve bases of consciousness, being non-existent, is itself empty [of prakṛti].

Moreover, if there is neither ‘me’ nor ‘mine’, one automatically (svarasena) ends up in the emptiness of things (dharmaśūnyatā). Because people are specially attached to their ‘me’ and ‘mine’, the Buddha says only that there is no ‘me’ or ‘mine’. From that we necessarily will know the emptiness of all the dharmas (sarvadharmaśūnyatā, no. 14). To be detached from the dharmas of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ is to be detached from other dharmas a fortiori. This is why the emptiness of beings (sattvaśūnyatā) and the emptiness of things (dharmaśūnyatā) finally end up in the same sense (ekārtha) called emptiness of essence (prakṛtiśūnyatā, no. 12) here.

Finally, what is called prakṛti is to exist by itself (svayaṃbhū), independent of causes and conditions (hetupratyayanirapekṣam). That which depends on causes and conditions is a ‘formation’ (saṃskāra) and not a ‘prakṛti’, and in no dharma is there a prakṛti. Why? Because all conditioned dharmas arise from causes and conditions and, since they arise from causes and conditions, they are formations (saṃskāra). If they did not arise from causes and conditions, they would not be ‘dharma’. Therefore it is the absence (anupalabdhita) of prakṛti in every dharma which is called ‘emptiness of prakṛti’.

II. Emptiness of prakṛti and absolute emptiness

Question. – But absolute emptiness (atyantaśūnyatā, no. 9), being nothing at all, is identical with the emptiness of prakṛti. Why do you repeat yourself?

Answer. – Absolute emptiness is [the destruction of dharmas] without any residue (cf. p. 2086F), whereas emptiness of prakṛti consists of being originally and eternally [empty]. The latter is like water which, cold by essence, becomes hot when it is brought to the fire and becomes cold again when the fire is extinguished. Absolute emptiness, however, is like space (ākāśasama), ever without production (anutpāda), without destruction (anirodha), without taints (asaṃkleśa) and without purification (avyavadāna). Why do you claim that they are identical?

Furthermore, dharmas are absolutely empty (atyantaśūnya). Why? Because their prakṛti is non-existent (anupalabdha). – Dharmas are empty of essence (prakṛtiśūnya). Why? Because they are absolutely empty.

Finally, the emptiness of prakṛti is particularly cultivated by the bodhisattvas whereas absolute emptiness is particularly cultivated by the Buddhas. Why? In the emptiness of prakṛti there is only a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī) but there is no real essence (bhūtaprakṛti); absolute emptiness itself is pure in the three times (tryadhvapariśuddha): those are the differences.

III. Shared prakṛtis and specific prakṛtis

The essences (prakṛti) of all dharmas are of two kinds (dvividha), i) shared [292c] essences (sāmānyaprakṛti) and ii) specific essences (svaprakṛti).

i) Shared prakṛtis are impermanence (anityatā), suffering (duḥkha), emptiness (śūnya), non-self (anātman), non-production (anutpāda), non-destruction (anirodha), non-coming (anāgama), non-going (anirgama), non-entering (apraveśa), non-leaving (aniḥsaraṇa), etc.

ii) Specific prakṛtis are, e.g., the hot essence (uṣṇatva) of fire (tejas), the moist essence (dravatva) of water (ap), the intelligent essence (vijñanatva) of the mind (citta). The man who rejoices in doing evil is said to be ‘of bad essence’; the one who loves to accumulate good things is said to be ‘of good essence’.

As it is said in the Che-li king (Daśabalasūtra), “the Buddha knows the world with its many essential dispositions”.[2]

As these prakṛtis are empty, we speak here of the ‘emptiness of the prakṛtis’.

IV. Absurdity of the shared prakṛtis


[1. Absurdity of an impermanent prakṛti (anityaprakṛti)]. – If an impermanent prakṛti really existed, it would ruin the retribution of actions (karmavipāka). Why? Because productions (utpāda), destructions (vyaya) and the past (atīta) would be without duration (sthiti), the six organs (indriya) would not seize their objects (viṣaya) and there would not be any accumulated causes and conditions (saṃcitahetupratyaya).[4] This accumulation being absent, recitation of the sūtras (sūtroddeśa), meditation (pratisaṃlayana), etc., would be impossible. This is how we know that an impermanent prakṛti does not exist.

[2. Absurdity of a permanent prakṛti (nityaprakṛti)]. – If an impermanent prakṛti does not exist, what could be said then (kaḥ punarvādaḥ) about a permanent prakṛti?

[3. Absurdity of a painful prakṛti (duḥkhaprakṛti).] – Furthermore, a painful prakṛti does not itself exist either. If it were really painful, one would never experience a feeling of attachment (saṅgacitta). The person filled with distaste for and fear of suffering would feel the same distaste and the same fear towards happiness (sukha).

[If everything were essentially painful], the Buddha would not have mentioned three kinds of sensations, unpleasant sensation (duḥkhavedanā), pleasant sensation (sukhavedanā) and neither unpleasant nor pleasant sensation (adhuḥkhāsukhavedanā).

[If everything were essentially painful, there would not be the occasion to feel hatred (dveṣa) for suffering, love (rāga) for happiness, worry (moha) towards what is neither painful nor happy. If everything boiled down to a single nature (ekalakṣaṇa) – [that of suffering] – one would feel hatred for happiness and love for suffering, which is absurd.

[4. Absurdity of a happy prakṛti (sukhaprakṛti). – If this painful prakṛti is non-existent, what can be said of a happy prakṛti except again that it is false?

[5–6. – Absurdity of an empty prakṛti (śūnyaprakṛti) and a real prakṛti (bhūtaprakṛti).] – Moreover, an empty prakṛti does not itself exist either. Why? If there were emptiness (śūnyalakṣaṇa), there would be neither sin (āpatti) nor merit (puṇya) and, in the absence of sin and merit, there would be no previous existence (pūrvajanman) and no later existence (aparajanman).

Moreover, dharmas exist in interdependence (āpekṣika). Why is that? If there were emptiness, there must be reality, and if there is reality, there must be emptiness. Since the empty prakṛti does not exist, how could there be a reality?

[7–8. Absurdity of an impersonal prakṛti (anātmakaprakṛti) and of a personl prakṛti.] – If there were no ātman, there would be neither bondage (bandhana) nor deliverance (mokṣa), one would not go from the present lifetime (ihajanman) to the future lifetime (aparajanman) to gather [the fruit] of sin (āpatti) and merit (puṇya), and there would be no fruit of retribution (vipākaphala) caused by actions (karman).

For these reasons we know that an impersonal prakṛti does not exist nor, a fortiori, a personal prakṛti.

[9–10. Absurdity of a prakṛti without arising (utpāda) or destruction (nirodha) and a prakṛti with arising and destruction.] – A prakṛti without arising or destruction is not real either. Why? If it really existed, one would fall into the view of eternalism (śāśvatadṛṣṭi). If all dharmas were eternal, there would be no sin (āpatti) and no merit (puṇya); that which is would exist eternally, and that which is not would never exist; that which is not would not arise, and that which is would not disappear.

If a prakṛti without rising or destruction does not exist, what then can be said of a prakṛti with arising and destruction?

It is the same for the prakṛtis without coming (anāgama) or going (anirgama), without entering (apraveśa) or leaving (aniḥsaraṇa), and other shared prakṛtis.

V. Absurdity of specific prakṛtis


Furthermore, the specific prakṛtis (svaprakṛti) are also absurd. How is that?

Take, for example, fire (agni): it burns its material of appropriation (upādāyarūpa) and it illuminates. When two dharmas are brought together, we [293a] say there is fire. If outside of these two dharmas there existed a ‘fire’, it would possess separately (pṛthak) a distinct function (vyāpāra); but actually there is no distinct function. This is how we know that fire is just a designation (prajñapti) and has no reality.[6] If truly there is no fire-dharma, why do you say that heat (uṣṇatva) is the essence (prakṛti) of fire?

Moreover, the ‘heat’ essence (uṣṇatvaprakṛti) arises from conditions (pratyaya): inwardly (adhyātmam) there is the body organ (kāyendriya) and outwardly (bahirdhā) there is tangible form (spraṣṭavya): together they give rise to a tactile consciousness (kāyavijñāna) that perceives the presence of warmth. If [the organ and the tangible] are not brought together, there is no ‘heat’ essence. This is why we know that there is no fixed heat constituting the essence (prakṛti) of fire.

Moreover,[7] if fire really had a ‘heat’ essence, how do you explain: first, that some people on entering fire are not burned; secondly, that the fire present in the human body[8] does not burn the body; thirdly, that water cannot destroy the fire present in space (variant: in the clouds)? It is because fire does not have as essence (prakṛti) a fixed heat (niyatoṣṇatva): i) by the power of the superknowledges (abhijñā), fire does not burn the body [of some ascetics]; ii) as a result of actions (karman), fire does not burn the five internal organs[9] of the human body; iii) by the power of the celestial dragon (nāga), water does not destroy the fire [of space].

Finally, if the ‘heat’ essence (uṣṇatvaprakṛti) were different from fire, fire would not be hot; and if heat were the same as fire, why claim that this heat is the essence of fire?

It is the same with the other prakṛtis. As the shared prakṛtis (sāmanyaprakṛti) and the specific prakṛtis (svaprakṛti) do not exist, the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra proclaims the ‘emptiness of the prakṛtis’ here.

VI. Long duration is not eternity

Moreover, the emptiness of the prakṛtis is empty from the very beginning (ādita eva śūnya). But worldly people tell us: “That which is false and does not last for a long time is empty (śūnya); by contrast, Sumeru and diamond (vajra) [which last for a long time], the things known by the saints (āryapudgala) [which are not false], we hold them to be real (bhūta) and not empty.” – In order to cut through this error, the Buddha said: “Even solid things (dhruva) forming series (saṃtāna, prabandha) and lasting for a long time are empty of essence (prakṛtiśūnya) and, although the wisdom (prajñā) of the saints saves beings and destroys the passions, the prakṛtis [of which they speak] are non-existent (anupalabdha) and consequently empty.”

People still say: “The five aggregates (skandha), the twelve bases of consciousness (āyatana) ands the eighteen elements (dhātu) are all empty. Only suchness (tathatā), the fundamental element (dharmadhātu), the highest culminating point of the truth (bhūtakoṭi) are true essences (bhūtaprakṛti).” – In order to cut through this error, the Buddha simply said: “The five aggregates (skandha), but also suchness, the fundamental element and the culminating point of the truth are empty.” This is called the emptiness of the essences (prakṛtiśūnyatā).

Finally the prakṛtis of conditioned dharmas (saṃkṛta) have three characteristics (lakṣaṇa): production (utpāda), duration (sthiti) and disappearance (vyaya).[10] The prakṛtis of unconditioned dharmas (asaṃskṛta) also have three characteristics: non-arising, non-duration and non-disappearance. If the conditioned prakṛtis are empty, what can be said then (kaḥ punarvādaḥ) about the conditioned dharmas? And if the non-conditioned prakṛtis are empty, what can be said then of the non-conditioned dharmas?

For these many reasons, the prakṛtis are non-existent (anupalabdha), and this is what is called ‘emptiness of the prakṛtis’.

Prakṛti in Buddhist literature:

Taken in the philosophical sense of essence, the word prakṛti, in Pāli, pakati, appears rather rarely in the canonical crpitures of Buddhism. On the other hand, it appears frequently in the Mahāyāna sūtras and above all in the Prajñāpāramitā: Aṣṭasāh., p. 38, 420, 443, 542, 601, 723, 897–898; Pañcaviṃśati, p. 38, 2; 195, 10; 198, 10; 239. 12–240, 3; 253. 18–22; Śatasāhasrikā, p. 118, 17;1407, 4–1412, 7; 1586 seq. The Chinese and the Tibetans render prakṛti by sing (sometimes pen sing) and raṅ bzhin, terms usually used to translate svabhāva, intrinsic nature or being in itself.

The expressions dharmāṇāṃ dharmatā (dharma nature of the dharmas), svarūpa (own form), svabhāva (intrinsic nature), prakṛti (essence), are usually used to designate a non-artificial way of beings (akṛtrima), independent of other (paranirapekṣa), immutable (avyabhicārin).

Victims of an optical illusion which is none other than ignorance (avidyātimira), worldly people (pṛthagjana) perceive in things the prakṛti thus conceived, and they speak of shared essences, specific essences, etc. The āryas, on the other hand, in this case Buddhists, cured of this optical illusion, cognize them by not seeing them (adarśanayogena). It is actually clear that the assembly of things of becoming, the sarvam, circumscribed by the twelve bases of consciousness (āyatana), organs and objects, come from causes and conditions, and neither constitute nor possess at any level any ‘non-artificial essences, independent of other and immutable’. How then to characterize them?

The śrāvakas saw that dharmas coming from causes and conditions (praītyasamutpanna) are non-eternal (anitya) and, consequently, painful (duḥkha) and without self (anātman). They declare that conditioned dharmas are ‘empty of me and mine’ (śūnyā ātmanā vātmīyena vā): this is the emptiness of the living being (sattvaśūnyatā) which, although refusing any personality to things, recognizes some reality in them.

Following the critique to its ultimate limits, the Madhyamika adds that dharmas, being empty of me and mine, do not exist in themselves, do not exist by themselves and are “empty of essence, of the intrinsic nature of dharma”: this is the emptiness of things (dharmaśūnyatā).

This is what makes Candrakīrti say (Madh. vṛtti, p. 265: Sa caiṣa bhāvānām anutpādātmakaḥ svabhāvo ‘kiṃcittvenābhāvamātratvād asvabhāva eveti kṛtvā nāsti bhāvasvabhāv iti vijñeyaṃ:: “This intrinsic nature of things consists of their non-production; not being anything at all, being only non-being, it is an inntrinsic non-nature; therefore the intrinsic nature of things is not” (transl. by L. de La Vallée Poussin, Madhyamaka, MCB, II, 1932, p. 41).

According to the Madh. vṛtti (l.c.), svabhāva, prakṛti and śūnyatā are synonymous terms signifying a continuous non-production (sarvadānutpāda). The concept – for it is in no way a reality – is ‘inexpressible’ (anakṣara, yi ge med), and not ‘Unwandelbar’ as S. Schayer understands it (Ausgewälte Kapitel aus der Prasannapadā, p. 63). It can be neither learned nor taught; it supports neither affirmation nor negation and escapes any expression:

Śūnyam iti na vaktvyam aśūnyam iti vā bhavet |
ubhayaṃ nobhayaṃ ceti prajñaptyarthaṃ tu kathyate ||

“One cannot say that it is empty, or non-empty, or both empty and non-empty, or neither empty nor non-empty. But one is speaking of it in a manner of speaking.” (Madh. vṛtti, p. 264, 444).

The relative truth (saṃvṛtisatya) which sees essences (prakṛti) or intrinsic natures (svabhāva) in things and which multiplies the spurious attributions (adhyāropa) is unable to extinguish the passions. The real truth (paramārthasatya) which sees nothing and which has as definition the non-perception of any dharma (sarvadharmānupalambhalakṣaṇa) is the only one that can cause the passions to be abandoned and that assures detachment from the world (virāga), serenity of mind, ultimate aspiration of all Buddhists whatever Vehicle they belong to.

Here we are touching upon the central point of the Madhyamaka over which the philologists, philosophers and historians of religion clash: a polemic all the more inopportune in that it concerns a realm where there is nothing to be seen or to be conceived. The bibliography of the subject may be found in the list of works cited by J. May, Candrakīrti, Paris, 1959, p. 23–45. For the following years, a mass of information may be found in the recent bibliographic collections where the enormous Japanese production is taken into account: P. Beautrix, Bibliographie du bouddhisme, vol. I: Éditions de Textes, Bruxelles, 1970; Bibliographie de la Littérature Prajñāpārmitā, Bruxelles, 1971; R. A. Gard, Buddhist Text Information (BTI), New York, six sections between Nov. 1974 and March 1976.

The important results to which the research of E. Conze has led are found in a collection of articles published by the author himself: Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies, Oxford, 1967.

In regard to the Madhyamaka point of view, we read with interest the following works and articles: J. May, La philosophie bouddhique de la vacuité, in Studia Philosphica, XVIII, 1958, p. 123–137; Kant et le madhyamaka, in Indo-Iranian Journal, III1959, p. 103–111: K. V. Ramanan, Nāgārjuna’s Philosophy as presented in the Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra, Harvard, 1966; F. J. Streng, Emptiness, A Study in religious Meaning, new York, 1967; G. Bugault, La notion de “Prajñā” ou de Sapience selon les perspectives du Mahāyāna, Paris, 1968.

Footnotes and references:


Evidently the writer of the response is not reading the same text as that of the objector; see the preceding note.


See above, p. 1507F, the sixth tathāgatabala: Tathāgato anekadhātunānādhātulokaṃ yathābhūtaṃ prajānāti.


To expose the realist conceptions of his adversaries, the author resorts here to a series of ad hominem arguments: he evokes the process of retribution of actions, establishes distinctions between suffering and happiness, between sin and merit, and goes so far as to cite an existent and transmigrating ātman. For all that, he does not accept the pertinence of his argument for non-arising (anutpāda) and non-destruction (anirodha), otherwise called absence of any nature, which for him constitute the true nature of things.


See Kośa, IV, p. 242.


The author here is dealing with sūtras and śāstras that attribute to things a well determinded mode of being (bhāva) or a specific nature (lakṣaṇa) which, for example, allocate solidity (khakkhaṭatva) to the element earth (pṛthivīdhātu), moistness (dravatva) to the element water (abdhātu), heat (uṣnatva) to the element fire (tejodhātu), lightness-mobility (laghusamudīraṇatva) to the element wind, etc. (cf. Majjhima, I, p. 185–189; 421–424; III, p. 240–241; Vibhaṅga, p. 82–84; Visuddhimagga, p. 290–293; Prakaraṇapāda, T 1542, k. 1, p. 692c11–12; k. 2, p. 699c4–5; Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 75, p. 387c–388a; Kośa, I, p. 22). Actually, the specific natures attributed to these elements come from causes and are modified according to circumstances. Consequently the elements are without a true prakṛti ‘existing in itself, independently of other’: they are empty of this unchangeable prakṛti.


The Traité summarizes chap. X of Madh, kārikā (Madh. vṛtti, p. 202–217) in a few lines: there is no element fire having heat (uṣṇatva) as its eternal and immutable essence. Every combustion results from a coming together of a fuel (indhana), the wood to be burned (dāhyaṃ kāṣṭham), and a combustive agent (dagdhā kartṛ), the fire (agni). But the fire cannot be identical with the fuel nor different from it, as kārikās, x, st. 1–3, explain:

Yad indhanaṃ sa ced agnir ekatvaṃ kartṛkarmaṇoḥ |
anyaś ced indhanād agnir indhanād apy ṛte bhavet ||

nityapradīpta eva syād apradīpanahetukaḥ |
punar ārambhavaiyartham evaṃ cākarmakaḥ sati ||

paratranirapekṣatvād apradīpanahetukaḥ |
punar ārambhavaiyarthyaṃ nityadīptaḥ prasajyate ||

Paraphrase – If fire were the fuel, the agent (the fire) and the object (the fuel) would be the same: unacceptable, for the potter (kumbhakāra) is not confused with the pot (ghaṭa) nor the woodcutter (chettṛ) with the log (chettavya). – On the other hand, if the fire were something other than the fuel, there would be fire in the absence of fuel; another absurdity, for it has never been seen that a piece of cloth (paṭa) ‘other than the pot’ (ghaṭād anyaḥ) should be completely independent (nirapekṣa) of it. Therefore there is no fire independent of the fuel.

Moreover, if fire existed apart and separately from the fuel, it would always be burning and there would be no fuel as cause; any effort to extinguish it or to feed it would be unnecessary since this fire is always burning; the fire would be ineffective (akarmaka) in respect to the fuel since it does not have it as cause: it would be an agent that does not act (akarmakaḥ kartṛ); to speak of an agent that does not act or of the son of a barren woman (bandhyāsuta) is a contradiction in terms.

– Thus the fire which is neither identical with the fuel nor different from it is empty of a caloric (uṣṇatva) prakṛti existing in itself (svayambhū) independently of causes.


Here the author is setting forth arguments that do not appear in the Madh. kārikā. He shows that in some circumstances fire, external (bāhira) as well as internal (ajjhattika) – i.e., present in the human body – does not burn and consequently does not have fixed nature (nityatalakṣaṇa).


Fire is one of the six elements (dhātu) entering into the composition of a human being


See p. 1302F, n. 2.


Cf. p. 36–37F, 1163F.