Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “emptiness of specific characteristics” 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 13: Emptiness of specific characteristics

I. The two types of characteristics

Emptiness of specific characteristics (svalakṣaṇaśūnyatā). – All dharmas have two kinds of characteristics (lakṣaṇa), i) shared characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇa) and ii) specific characteristics (svalakṣaṇa). These two kinds of characteristics being empty, the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra speaks here of the ‘emptiness of characteristics’ (lakṣanaśūnyatā).

Question. – What are the shared characteristics and what are the specific characteristics?

Answer. – The shared characteristics are impermanence (anityatā), etc., for example.

The specific characteristics, in the sense that dharmas, although they are impermanent, each possess their own specific characteristic. Thus, for the earth (pṛthivī), it is solidity (khakkhaṭatva), for fire, it is heat (uṣṇatva).

II. Connections between characteristics and essences

Question. – Above you hve already spoken about essences (prakṛti) and here you are speaking about characteristics (lakṣaṇa). Are essences and [293b] characteristics the same or different?

Answer. – 1) Some say that their reality (tattva) is not different but that their names (nāman) show differences (viśeṣa). To talk about essence (prakṛti) is to talk about characteristic, and to talk about characteristic is to talk about essence. For example, we say that the essence of fire (tejaḥprakṛti) is the characteristic of heat (uṣṇatvalakṣaṇa) and that the characteristic of heat is the essence of fire.

2) Others say that between essence (prakṛti) and characteristic (lakṣaṇa) there are slight differences: the essence concerns the very nature (kāya) of the thing, whereas the characteristic is its indication or sign (vijñeya).

Thus, in the follower of the Buddha (Śākyaputrīya), the taking of the precepts (śīlamādāna) constitutes the essence whereas the shaving of the head (muṇḍana) and the wearing of the yellow robe (kāṣāyavastra) constitute the characteristics. In a brahmacārin, the religious vows (dharmasamādāna) constitute the essence whereas the tuft of hair at the top of the head (cūḍā) and the carrying of the staff (tridaṇḍa)[1] constitute the characteristics. Fire (tejas) has heat as its essence and smoke (dhūma) as its characteristic. Proximity is essence while distance is characteristic.

The characteristics are not fixed (aniyata) and leave the body; the essence expresses the reality (tattva) of the thing. Thus when one sees a yellow (pīta) substance, one thinks it is gold (suvarṇa), but in itself it is copper (tāmra): in melting it or rubbing it with a stone, one recognizes that it does not have gold as its essence. The person who shows respect (gurukāra) and veneration (satkāra) seems to be an honest man, but that is only a superficial characteristic: abuse, criticism, anger and rage are his true essence.

These are the differences (viśeṣa) between essence and characteristic, interior and exterior, distance and proximity, anteriority and posteriority. All these characteristics beings empty, the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra speaks here about ‘emptiness of characteristics’ (lakṣaṇaśūnyatā).

III. Shared characteristics

1. Impermanence

As it is said, “all conditioned dharmas have an impermanent characteristic (anityalakṣaṇa).” Why?

1) Because they arise, perish and do not last.

2) Because, not existing previously, they exist now and, after having existed, they will return to non-existence.

3) Because they depend on causes and conditions (hetupratyayāpekṣa).

4) Because they are deceptive and dishonest.

5) Because they arise from impermanent causes and conditions.

6) Because they come from associated causes and conditions.

For these reasons, all conditioned dharmas have an impermanent characteristic.

2. Suffering

Arousing bodily and mental torments, they are a mass of suffering (duḥkhasakandha).

1) Because the four postures (īryāpatha) are never without suffering.[2]

2) Because the holy truth of suffering (duḥkhāryasatya) [proclaims them to be suffering].

3) Because the saints (āryapudgala) reject them and do not accept them.

4) Because they never stop tormenting.

5) Because they are impermanent (anitya).

For these reasons, they have the characteristic of suffering (duḥkhalaskṣaṇa).

3. Empty

1) Not belonging to the ‘me’ (anātmīya), they are empty (śūnya).

2) Coming from a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī), they are empty.

3) Being impermanent (anitya), suffering (duḥkha), empty (śūnya) and impersonal (anātman), they are empty.

4) Because there is neither beginning nor end in them, they are empty.

5) Because they deceive the mind, they are empty.

6) Because the saints are not attached to any of them, they are empty.

7) By virtue of the two gates of deliverance (vimokṣasamukha), namely, signlessness (ānimitta) and wishlessness (apraṇihita), they are empty.

8) Because the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas is immense (apramāṇa) and incalculable (asaṃkhyeya), they are empty.

9) Because [this true nature] cuts all the paths of speech (sarvavādamārga), they are empty.

10) Because [this true nature] destroys all functioning of the mind (sarvacittapravṛtti), they are empty.

11) Because the Buddhas, pratyekabuddhas and arhats who penetrate [into this true nature] do not come out of it, they are empty.

For these reasons, they have the empty characteristic (śūnyalakṣaṇa).

4. Without self

Being impermanent (anitya) suffering (duḥkha) and empty (śūnya), these dharmas are without self (anātman).

1) Not being autonomous (asvatantra), they are without self.

2) Without master (asvāmika), they are without self.

3) None of them is born without causes and conditions but they all come from causes and conditions; therefore they are without self.

4) By virtue [of the two gates of deliverance], namely, signlessness (ānimitta) and wishlessness (apraṇihita), they are without self.

5) Being only simple designations (prajñapti), they are without self.

[293c] 6) Belief in the person (satkāyadṛṣṭi) being an error (viparyāsa), they are without self.

7) Because bodhi is found by destroying the idea of self (ātmacitta), they are without self.

For these many reasons, conditioned dharmas are without self. All this has dealt with the shared characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇa).

IV. Specific characteristics

Earth (pṛthivī) has as characteristic solidity (khakkhaṭatva); fire (tejas) has as characteristic heat (uṣṇatva); water has as characteristic moistness (dravatva); wind (vāyu) has as characteristic motion (īraṇa).

The eye (cakṣus) has as characteristic being the support of the visual consciousness (cakusurvijñāna); and [mutates mutandis] it is the same for the ear (śrotra), nose (ghrāṇa), tongue (jihva) and body (kāya).

Consciousness (vijñāna) has as characteristic investigation (vitarka); knowledge (jñāna) has as characteristic wisdom (prajñā); generosity (dāna) has as characteristic renunciation (parityāga); morality (śīla) has as characteristic absence of regret (akaukṛtya) and absence of violence (avihiṃsā); patience (kṣānti) has as characteristic absence of irritation (akopana); exertion (vīrya) has as characteristic effort (abhyutsāha); trance (dhyāna) has as characteristic concentration of the mind (cittasaṃgraha); wisdom (prajñā) has as characteristic mental detachment (asaṅga), skillful means (upāya) has as characteristic the creation of objects (vastusaṃpādana); saṃsāra has as characteristic the weaving of births and deaths (cyutyupapāda); nirvāṇa has as characteristic non-weaving.[3]

Such dharmas each has its own specific characteristic and we should know that these characteristics are empty: this is what is called ‘emptiness of specific characteristics (svalakṣaṇaśūnyatā). For other meanings, refer to what has been said about the emptiness of essences (prakṛtiśūnyatā, no. 12) since essence (prakṛti) and characteristic (lakṣaṇa) are synonyms.

V. Why insist on the emptiness of ‘specific’ characteristics?

Question. – Why does [the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra] not simply say ‘emptiness of characteristics’ (lakṣaṇaśūnyatā) but says ‘emptiness of specific characteristics’ (svalakṣaṇaśūnyatā)?

Answer. – To say just emptiness of characteristics is to pass over in silence the fundamental emptiness of dharmas; to speak of the emptiness of specific characteristics is to deal with the fundamental emptiness of dharmas.

Moreover, every dharma, arising from a group of causes and conditions, is an empty dharma and thus each dharma taken individually is empty. The grouped causes and conditions forming a succession of dharmas (dharmaparaṃparā) is itself empty as well. Thus all dharmas are each empty of specific characteristic. This is why the emptiness of specific characteristics is spoken of here.[4]

VI. Why carry on about empty dharmas?

Question. – If all dharmas are each empty of intrinsic characteristics, why talk about it again?

Answer. – As a result of mistakes (viparyāsa), beings become attached (abhiniviśante) to these dharmas by finding in them characteristics of identity (ekatva) or difference (anyatva), shared characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇa) or specific characteristics (svalakṣaṇa). It is in order to destroy them that we speak of them here. For all these reasons, the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra asserts an emptiness of specific characteristics.

Footnotes and references:


Adopting the variant san k’i tchang, utensil belonging to the tridaṇḍin parivrājakas, in Pāli tedaṇḍika. Jātaka, II, p. 317, defines the tedaṇḍika: kuṇḍikaṃ ṭhapanatthāya tidaṇḍaṃ gahetvā caranto “ who walks carrying a triple rod to fasten his water-pot onto” (ref. A. Foucher, AgbG, II, p. 262, n. 1). Illustrations of this staff, ibid, I, fig, 277, 279, 281, 282; II, fig. 437.


Every position, when it is prolonged, because painful: see p. 584F.


In these two lines, adopt the variant tche ‘to weave’ (in Sanskrit, ) in place of che ‘to cognize’. It is one of the very imaginative etymologies for the word nir-vāṇa, ‘the non-weaving of births and deaths’ in opposition to saṃsāra which weaves them. It has already appeared in the Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 32, p. 163b4–6: Vāna means ‘weaving’, nir is negative: the threads of the passions and actions are absolutely absent in it; one does not weave the cloth that has births and deaths as fruit of retribution.

For other etymologies, see references in L. de La Vallée Poussin, Nirvāṇa, p. 54, n. 4.


Obscure passage; the general sense seems to be as follows. Taken in isolation, every dharma to which scholasticism attributes a specific characteristic is empty of this characteristic for it is the result of a complex of causes and conditions. The latter, which contribute to its formation, are empty themselves as well, for in their turn they are dependent on other (paratantra).