Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “iii.b causality according to the perfection of wisdom” 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.

III.b Causality according to the Perfection of Wisdom

The bodhisattva who practices the perfection of wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) considers the four conditions (pratyaya), but his mind is not attached to them (saṅga); even though he distinguishes (vibhajati) these dharmas, he knows that they are empty (śūnya) and like magical transformations (nirmāṇasama). Although in magical transformations there are many varieties (nānāvidhaviśeṣa), the wise man who considers them knows that they have no reality: they are only trompe-l’oeil (cakṣurvañcana), thought-constructions (vikalpa). He knows that the teachings of ordinary people (pṛthagjanadharma) are all erroneous (viparita), lies (mṛṣāvāda), without reality. Is there anything real there where there are the four pratyayas? And since the teachings of the saints (bhadrāryadharma) are derived from the teachings of ordinary people, they too are unreal.

As has been said above (p. 2142F, 2146F) in regard to the eighteen emptinesses, for a bodhisattva in the perfection of wisdom, there is no determinate nature (niyatasvabāva) in any dharma either capable of being grasped or capable consequently of being rejected (bhinna). But as beings are attached (sakta) to the emptiness of causes and conditions, they say that they can be rejected.[1]

Thus, seeing the moon reflected in the water (udakacandra), the little child is greedy for it and is attracted to it; but when he wants to grab it and does not succeed, he feels sad and annoyed. The wise man instructs him, saying: “This moon can be seen (dṛṣṭa) with the eyes but it cannot be seized (gṛhita) with the hand.” The wise man denies only that it can be seized; he does not claim that it cannot be seen. In the same way, the bodhisattva sees and knows that all dharmas arise from the four conditions (pratyaya) but he does not grasp any determinate nature (niyatalakṣaṇa) in these conditions. Dharmas arising from the complex of the four conditions (catuṣpratyayasāmagrīja) are like the moon [297b] reflected in water (udakacandra). Although this moon is false and non-existent (asat), it necessarily arises from causes and conditions – namely, water (udaka) and the moon (candra) – and does not come from other conditions. It is the same for dharmas; each one arises from its own causes and conditions and has no fixed reality.

This is why [the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra] says here that “the bodhisattva who wants to understand the causal condition, the immediately preceding condition, the object condition and the dominant condition in accordance with the truth, must practice the perfection of wisdom.”

Question. – If one wants to understand completely the meaning of the four conditions (pratyaya), one must study the Abhidharma. Why then does [the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra] say here that “in order to understand the four conditions, it is necessary to study the Prajñāpāramitā”?

Answer. – In the explanation dedicated by the Abhidharma to the four conditions, the beginner (ādikarmika) believes that it touches realities, but, if he examines them and goes into depth, he falls into wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi) like those that you have formulated above (p. 2172F) in rejecting the four conditions.[2]

Furthermore, if dharmas, as causes, depend on the four conditions, how are these four conditions caused in turn? If they themselves have causes, there is an infinite regression (anavasthā); wherever there is an infinite regression, there is no beginning point (ādi); if there is no beginning, there is no cause (hetu) and hence all dharmas would be without cause (ahetuka). If there was a beginning, this beginning would be uncaused and, existing without being caused, it would not depend on causes and conditions. That being so, all dharmas themselves would exist without depending on causes and conditions.

Furthermore, dharmas arising from causes and conditions (hetupratyayasamutpanna) are of two kinds:

a. If they pre-exist in the causes and conditions, they arise independently of causes and conditions and there is neither cause nor condition for them.

b. If they do not pre-exist in the causes and conditions, they are each without their respective causes and conditions.

By futile chatter about the four conditions, one comes up against such errors (doṣa). But the emptiness consisting of non-perception (anupalambhaśūnyatā) of which it was a matter above (p. 2145–2149F) in the Prajñāpāramitā, does not present such faults. Thus, birth, old age, sickness and death (jātijarāvyādhimaraṇa) perceived by the eyes and the ears of ordinary people are considered by them to be existent, but, if their characteristics (nimitta) are examined subtly, they are non-existent (anupalabhdha). This is why in the Prajñāpāramitā, only the wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi) are eliminated, but the four conditions are not rejected. This is why it is said here that “in order to understand the [real] nature of the four conditions, the perfection of wisdom should be studied.

Footnotes and references:


The principle of causality is an axiom that is imposed on the human mind, but on reflecting, some take it to be well-founded, others to be purely illusory.

The writers of the Abhidharma hold it to be valid: they think that that real dharmas arise from real causes and conditions; they seize their characteristics (nimitta) and adopt them (gṛhnanti): they fall into realism.

The fundamentalist Mādhyamikas, like the one who appears at the beginning of this section, judge concepts of cause and effect to be absurd and reject (niṣedhanti) the hetus and pratyayas as non-existent (asat): they are on the brink of nihilism.

Other Mādhyamikas, basing themselves on the true nature of dharmas. which is the absence of any nature, abstain from affirming or denying the hetus and pratyayas in which they recognize neither existence nor non-existence. This is the position taken by the author of the Traité. Slightly less drastic than the preceding, it has the advantage of not laying itself open to any criticism. It is the position of an adult explaining to a child that the moon reflected in the water is ‘seen’ when there is a moon and there is water to reflect it, but it cannot be ‘grabbed’ because it is nothing and never will be any thing.

For the udakacandra, see above, p. 364F.


The author has commented above (p. 1095F) that the study of Abhidharma leads to realism, whereas the teaching on emptiness ends up in nihilism. The Buddha condemned the extreme views of asti and nasti, of astitā and nastitā (see p. 2007F), and the Prajñāpāramitā is the non-grasping (aparigraha) and the non-rejection (anutsarga) of all dharmas (cf. Pañcaviṃśati, p. 135, l. 2).