A difference between SA 232 and SN 35.85 (The World Is Empty)

Hello everyone, I have questions that I would like to ask about my most favourite discourse. If anyone can answer it, it would be much appreciated.

In both SA 232 and SN 35.85, the Buddha answered a question about why it is said that the world is empty. In SN 35.85, he said "suññaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā " or “it is empty of self and of what belongs to self”. In SA 232, however, he said “常、恒、不變易法空,我所空” or “it is empty of a permanent, lasting, and unchanging nature; it is empty of what belongs to self”.

My questions are:

  1. Do “suññaṃ attena” and “常、恒、不變易法空” mean the same thing? If they don’t, then what is the meaning in the Chinese version?
  2. If they convey the same thing, then why is it that the Theravada tradition and the Sarvastivada tradition used different wordings to say the same thing? Is it because of differences in doctrines?
  3. Is it possible to find out which expression is more “authentic” or “pre-sectarian”?

Differences between each text and their parallels always fascinate me.


It’s a good question, and I think it may have been discussed in the literature somewhere, but I can’t recall where off the top of my head.

Luckily, SuttaCentral is incredibly awesome and I just found a couple of Sanskrit texts that include this passage. They are in Chapters Mvu 73 and Mvu 110 of the Mahāvastu, a Vinaya compilation of the Mahasanghika-Lokuttaravadin school.

This text is clearly a late compilation, which includes a lot of legendary material. But it is a composite, with all kinds of things plunked in there, with little regard for consistency or style. This is terrible for readers but great for textual scholars, as it preserves things from different sources, apparently without much alteration.

The phrase in Mvu 73 is:

śūnyā ātmena vā ātmanīyena vā
Empty of self and of what belongs to self.

In Mvu 110 it is:

śūnyā anātmanīyā ātmena vā ātmanīyena vā
Empty and not belonging to self of a self and what belongs to a self.

See what I mean? Mvu 110 appears to have an extra term added, rather clumsily.

Anyway, clearly here “emptiness” is associated with not-self, and it is the same general phrase as found in the Theravada and Sarvastivada texts. The context is different, though, and so far as I can see at a glance, what is happening is that there’s a discussion of not-self, and this phrase is referred to in the course of the discussion, as if it was a well-known term. So it’s not the same sutta, but it is the same term, and appears to be part of a body of well-known phrases.

Now, the Mahasanghika and the Sthavira group of schools were the first to split, or at least, the first to formalize a split, so it is generally assumed that common material dates to the pre-sectarian times. There seems no reason to doubt this here, and so it would seem as if the distinctly different Sarvastivadin phrasing may be later.

Without closer study, however, it’s hard to say if this phrase was a feature of the Sanskrit original or an extra explanation supplied by the Chinese translator. My money would be on the former, but it’s just a guess.


Bhante, if I understand this correctly, does this mean that it is very likely that the phrase that is found in the Pali version and Mahavastu is the original one, and that the Sarvastivadin transmitters decided to change the phrase for some reasons? Please correct me if I’m wrong.

Interestingly, the phrase “常、恒、不變易法” seems to correspond with the Pali phrase “nicco dhuvo sassato avi­pari­ṇāma­dhammo”. I don’t know if this has anything to do with why the Chinese version used this phrase instead of the one that appeared in the Pali version and Mahavastu.

Yes, although lacking further corroboration I’d say “likely” rather than “very likely”. :smile:

Indeed it does. Obviously in the texts such stock phrases were “mix-and-matched” rather freely, and that’s what seems to have happened here. In most cases, such variations are simply normal inconsistencies. It’s conceivable that a sectarian influence might be at play, but there’s no reason to assume that here.

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I see, thank you very much for answering my questions Bhante.

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