Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “emptiness consisting of non-perception (anupalambhashunyata)” 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 15: Emptiness consisting of non-perception (anupalambhaśūnyatā)

I. Various definitions of non-perception

Note: The first explanation cites the sattvaśūnyatā (emptiness of ‘me’ and ‘mine’) professed by the two Vehicles; the two other explanations refer to the dharmaśūnyatā (emptiness of things even in their causes and conditions) put forth in the Greater Vehicle.

1. Some say: In the aggregates (skandha), the elements (dhātu) and the bases of consciousness (āyatana), no self (ātman), no eternal dharma (nityadharma) is to be perceived (nopalabhyate): that is emptiness of non-perception.

2. Others say: If one looks for some dharma in causes and conditions (pratītyasamutpāda), it is never perceived, just as the fist (muṣṭi) is not perceived in the five fingers (aṅguli),

3. Others say: All dharmas and their causes and conditions (hetupratyaya) are absolutely non-perceived (atyantānupalabdha): that is what emptiness of non-perception is.

II. If dharmas are not perceived, it is because they do not exist

Question. – Why do you assert this emptiness of non-perception? If dharmas are not perceived, is this due to weakness of knowledge (jñānadaurbalya) or because they do not truly exist?

Answer. – It is because dharmas really do not exist that they are not perceived,[1] and not due to weakness of knowledge.

III. Usefulness of the emptiness of non-perception

Question. – If that is so, [the emptiness of non-perception, anupalambhaśūnyatā, no. 15) is not different from absolute emptiness (atyantaśūnyatā, no.13). Why add one more emptiness of non-perception?

Answer. – Hearing that emptinesses no. 9 and 13, which were discussed above, are nothing at all (akiṃcid), people are frightened (bhaya), hesitate and wonder: “If they tell us now about an emptiness of non-perception, it is because the search for a reality (dravyaparyeṣaṇa) has not succeeded.” In order to cut short this hesitation (kāṅkṣā) and fear (bhaya), the Buddha speaks about the emptiness of non-perception. How?

The Buddha said: “From my first production of the mind of bodhi (prathamacittotpāda) to the moment when I became Buddha, a Buddha of the ten powers, I have looked for a reality in dharmas, but without ever finding it.”[2] That is indeed the emptiness of non-perception.

IV. The non-perception of dharmas

Question. – What is the non-perception of things (vastvanupalambha)?

Answer. – All dharmas up to and including nirvāṇa without residue of conditioning (nirupadhiśeṣanirvāṇa) being non-perceived, there is the emptiness consisting of non-perception (anupalambhaśūnyatā).

Moreover, the yogin who acquires this emptiness of non-perception does not perceive (nopalabhate)[3] the three poisons (viṣa), the four torrents (ogha) or the four attachments (yoga),[4] the five obstacles (nīvaraṇa),[5] the six thirsts (tṛṣṇā),[6] the seven perverse latent tendencies (anuśaya),[7] the eight perditions (mithyātva),[8] the nine fetters (saṃyojana),[9] the ten bad paths of action (akuśalakarmapatha).[10] All these bad vile bonds (bandhana) being non-perceived, the emptiness of non-perception is spoken of.

Question. – If that is so, what benefits are there in cultivating this emptiness of non-perception?

Answer. – [The yogin] perceives (upalabhate) morality (śīla), concentration (samādhi) and wisdom (prajñā);[11] he perceives the four fruits of the religious life (śrāmaṇyaphala),[12] the five spiritual faculties (indriya),[13] the five elements constituting the saint (aśaikṣaskandha),[14] the six discriminations of equanimity (upekṣopavicāra),[15] the seven factors of enlightenment (saṃbodhyaṅga),[16] the nine successive absorptions (anupūrvasamāpatti),[17] the ten qualities of the saint (aśaikṣadharma),[18] and other ‘qualities of the śrāvaka’ of this type. If, in addition, he perceives the prajñāpāramitā, he fulfills completely (paripūrayati) the six perfections (pāramitā) and the qualities (guṇa) of the ten bhūmis [of the bodhisattva]. [296a]

Question. – But above you said that “all the dharmas up to and including nirvāṇa are not perceived”; why do you now say that the yogin “perceives morality, concentration, wisdom and up to the ten qualities of the saint?”[19]

Answer. – Although these dharmas are ‘perceived’ (upalabdha), they all promote the emptiness of non-perception and to this extent, they are also said to be ‘non-perceived’ (anupalabdha). Moreover, as [the yogin] does not take them up (nādadāti) and is not attached (nābhiniviśate) to them, they are not perceived; as unconditioned dharmas (asaṃskṛta), they are not perceived; as noble truths (āryasatya), they are not perceived; as absolute truth (paramārthasatya), they are not perceived.

Although they have attained these qualities (guṇa), the saints who enter into nirvāṇa without residue of conditioning (nirupadhiśeṣanirvāṇa) do not regard them as acquired (labdha); it is ordinary people (pṛthagjana) who regard them as great acquisitions (mahālābha). Thus the lion (siṃha), even when he has feats to his credit, does not consider them as marvelous (āścarya); it is the other beings who, on seeing them, consider them to be extraordinary (adbhuta).

It is in this sense that [the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra] asserts an ’emptiness of non-perception’ [or of non-existence] here.

Notes on the Emptiness consisting of non-perception (anupalambhaśūnyatā):

For the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras (above, p. 2035F) it is anupalambhaśūnyatā when neither past, present nor duration of the present are perceived. In other words, dharmas are situated outside of time and by that very fact are shielded from becoming. Here the Traité is proposing a series of other explanations and seems to end up with the following: Anupalambhaśūnyatā is an emptiness consisting of non-perception, in the sense that all dharmas, coarse (sthūla) or subtle (sukṣma), up to and including nirvāṇa without residue of conditioning, elude perception (upalabdhi), gain (lābha), not that the knowledge is too weak to grasp them, but because ‘dharmas do not really exist’. As the objector will note, no. 15 is almost mixed up with absolute emptiness (atyantaśūnyatā, no. 9). In practice, the real yogin does not perceive bad (akuśala) or impure (sāsrava) dharmas such as the three poisons and, if he still perceives the good qualities, such as the dharmas of the Path, it is only from the point of view of the absolute truth (paramārthasatya) for which the true nature of dharmas is the absence of characteristic.

Footnotes and references:


This is why, despite the criticisms addressed to me [Lamotte] from the other side of the Atlantic, I have often translated and will continue to translate nopalababhyate (pou k’o tō) by ‘does not exist’. Here also I have had the pleasure of coming up against I. B. Horner, who in her Middle Length Sayings, I, p. 177, n. 3, explains anupalabhyamāne as either ‘not to be known’ or ‘not existing’.


Cf. Aṣṭādaśasāh., II, ed. E. Conze, p. 33: Na me Subhute pūrvaṃ bodhisattvacārikāṃ caratā kasyacid dharmasya svabhāva upalabdho rūpam iti vā vedaneti vā… yāvad bodhir iti vā. Evaṃ khalu Subhute bodhisattvo mahāsattvaḥ prajñāpāramitāyāṃ carati prathamacittotpādam upādāya yāvad anuttarāṃ samyaksaṃbodhim abhisaṃbhotsyate ’nupalaṃbhayogena sarvadharmāṇāṃ ca svabhāvakuśalena bhavitasyam. – Long ago when I was practicing the career of Bodhisattva, O Subhuti, I never perceived the intrinsic nature of any dharma, whether it was form, feeling… or even bodhi. Therefore, O Subhuti, the bodhisattva-mahāsattva practices the perfection of wisdom by a method of non-perceiving from his first production of the mind of bodhi until the moment when he awakens into supreme perfect enliughtenment; he should practice competency in self nature of all dharmas.”

The last phrase of the original text lacks clarity. The Chinese versions of the Pañcaviṃśati (T223, k. 23, p. 392a24–29; T 220. vol. VII, k. 468, p. 369a–b) and the Aṣṭādaśa (T 220, vol. VII, k. 530, p. 720a) seem to be based on the following reading: Evaṃ khalu Subhūte bodhisattvena mahāsattvena prajñāpāramitāyāṃ caratā prathamacittopādam upādāya yāvad anuttarāṃ samyaksaṃbodhiṃ sarvadharmāṇāṃ svabhāvakuśalena bhavitavyam. – “It is thus, O Subhūti, that the bodhisattva who practices the perfection of wisdom should practice expertise in the self nature of all dharmas, and this from his first production of the mind of bodhi until supreme complete enlightenment.”


Upalabhate taken here in the sense of perceiving and acquiring.


The four ogha or yoga: kāma bhava, dṛṣṭi, avidyā: cf. Dīgha, III, p. 230. 176; Kośa, V, p. 75.


The five nīvaraṇa: kāmacchanda, vyāpāda, styānamiddha, auddhatyakaukṛtya, vicikitsā: cf. Dīgha, III, p. 278; Kośa, V, p. 98.


Six tṛṣṇā related respectively to rūpa, śabda, gandha, rasa, spraṣṭavya, dharma; cf. Dīgha, II, p. 58.


Seven anuśaya: kāmarāga, pratigha, bhavarāga, māna, avidyā, dṛṣṭi, vicikitsā; cf. Dīgha, III, p. 254, 282; Kośa, V, p. 3.


Eight mithyātva: mithyādṛṣṭi, mithyāsaṃkalpa, mithyāvāc, mithyākarmānta, mithyājīva, mithyāvyāyāma, mithyāsmṛti, mithyāsamādhi; cf. Dīgha, II, p. 353; III, p. 254; Anguttara, II, p. 221; l; IV, p. 237.


Nine saṃyojana: anunaya, pratigha, māna avidyā, dṛṣṭi, parāmarśa, vicikitsā, īrṣyā, mātsarya; cf. Kośa, V, p. 81–82.


Ten akuśalakarmapatha, praṇātipāta, etc.; cf. Dīgha, III, p. 269; Kośa, IV, p. 137.


Śīla, samādhi and prajñā are the three elements constituting the Noble Path; cf. Dīgha, II, p. 81, 84; Itivuttaka, p. 51.


Srotaāpattiphala, etc.


See p. 1125–1127F.


The five anāsravaskandha, morality, etc.; cf. p. 1233F, n.1; 1349–1359F.


The six upekṣopavicāra, discriminations of equanimity relative to rūpa, śabda, gandha, rasa, spraṣṭavya and dharma; cf. Dīgha, p. 245; Majjhima, III, p. 239–240; Kośa, III, p. 108.


See p. 1128–1129F


See p. 1308F.


The ten aśaikṣāṅga, namely, the eight factors of the Path described as ‘aśaikṣa’ plus the perfect deliverance belonging to the arhats (aśaikṣi samyagvimukti) and the knowledge of acquisition of this deliverance (aśaikṣa samyagjñāna); cf. the ten asekhiyā dhammā in Anguttara, V, p. 222; and Kośa, VI, p. 295.


For these ‘ten qualities of the saint’ (p. 296a2), one variant substitutes the ‘qualities of the bhūmis’.