Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “emptinesses 16 to 18” 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.

Summary: Emptiness of non-existence, of existence itself, of both non-existentence and existence itself.

I. First explanation

1. Emptiness of non-existence (abhāvaśūnyatā). – Some say that non-existence (abhāva) is the destruction (nirodha) of dharmas, but as this destruction does not exist, [the Prajñāpmaramitāsūtra] speaks here of ‘emptiness of non-existence’.

2. Emptiness of existence itself (svabhāvaśūnyatā). – Dharmas arising from a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagryutpanna), they have no self existence (svabhāva). As existence itself does not exist, [the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra] speaks here of ‘emptiness of existence itself’.

3. Emptiness of non-existence and of existence itself (abhāvasvabhāvaśūnyatā). – Since it is impossible to grasp the mark of non-existence (abhāvanimitta) and the mark of existence itself (svabhāvanimitta), there is ‘emptiness of non-existence and existence itself’. Moreover, the consideration of non-existence and existence itself as empty has the name ‘emptiness of non-existence and existence itself’. Finally, the yogin who considers (samanupaśyati) the arising (utpāda) and cessation (nirodha) of dharmas looks at it alternately from the viewpoint of existence itself (svabhāvamukha) and the viewpoint of non-existence (abhāvamukha). When he considers the arising (utpāda), he feels joy (saumanasya) and when he considers the cessation, he feels sad (daurmanasya). But if this yogin discovers the emptiness of arising (utpādaśūnyatā), he destroys the mind of joy (saumanasyacitta), and if he discovers the emptiness of cessation (nirodhaśūnyatā), he destroys the mind of sadness (daurmanasyacitta). Why? [Because he sees that, on the one hand], arising is not a gain (lābha) and on the other hand, cessation (nirodha) is not a loss (alābha). As he thus eliminates these mundane (laukika) thoughts of joy and sadness, there is ‘emptiness of non-existence and of existence itself’.

Of the eighteen emptinesses, the first three, [namely, adhyātmaśūnyatā, bahirdhāśūnyatā and adhyātmabahirdhāśūnyatā] destroy all the dharmas; the last three also destroy all the dharmas. Actually,

1. the emptiness of existence itself (svabhāvaśūnyatā, no. 17) destroys the time of production (utpāda) and the time of duration (sthiti) of all the dharmas.

2. the emptiness of non-existence (abhāvaśūnyatā, no. 16) destroys the time of disappearance (vyaya) of all the dharmas.

3. the emptiness of non-existence and of existence itself (abhāvasvabhāvaśūnyatā, no. 18) destroys production (utpāda) and disappearance (vyaya) at the same time and together.

II. Second explanation

Some say:

1–2. The emptiness of past (atīta) and future (anāgata) dharmas is called emptiness of non-existence (abhāvaśūnyatā, no. 16); the emptiness of present dharmas is called emptiness of existence itself (svabhābaśūnyatā, no. 17). Why?

The disappearance (vyaya) and change (anyathātva) of past (atīta) dharmas leads to non-existence (abhāva); future (anāgata) dharmas, the causes and conditions for which have not come together, are without arising, without existence, without exit and without production; this is why they are ‘non-existence’ (abhāva). – As for present (pratyutpanna) dharmas and unconditioned dharmas (asaṃskṛta), by the very fact that they presently exist, they are called ‘existence itself’ (svabhāva).

3. The two, [namely, non-existence (abhāva) and existence itself (svabhāva)], together being empty, they are called ‘emptiness of non-existence and of existence itself (abhāvasvabhāvaśūnyatā, no. 18).

III. Third explanation

Finally, others say:

1. Unconditioned dharmas (asaṃskṛta), being without production (utpāda), without duration (sthiti) and without disappearance (vyaya), are called ‘non-existence’ (abhāva).

2. Conditioned dharmas, having production, duration and disappearance, are called ‘existence itself’ (svabhāva).

3.These [two categories of dharmas] being likewise empty, there is [296b] ‘emptiness of non-existence and of existence itself’.

Therefore the bodhisattva who wishes to become established [in the eighteen emptinesses], from the emptiness of inner dharmas (adhyātmaśūnyatā) up to the emptiness of non-existence and of existence itself (abhāvasvabhāvaśūnyatā), should practice the Prajñāpāramitā.


These three emptinesses summarize, in a condensed form, the proof of universal emptiness. The Prajñāpāramitāsūtra which mentions them three times defines only the third, the abhāvasvabhāvaśūnyatā (see above, p. 1035F, §16). In the following explanations, the Traité establishes a parallel between these last three emptinesses and the preceding fifteen. Actually, as the author has pointed out at the start of this chapter, the emptinesses all concern one and the same absence of self nature and of characteristics and are unequivocal and interchangeable.

Here Kumārajīva resorts to some rather unusual expressions to render emptinesses 16 to 18: he translates abhāvasvabhāvaśūnyatā by wou fa k’ong, svabhāvaśūnyatā by yeou fa k’ong and abhāvasvabhāvaśūnyatā by wou fa yeou fa k’ong.

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