Paṭisambhidāmagga and Prajñāpāramitā

The Paṭisambhidāmagga mentions twenty-five forms of emptiness. Now, is it possible that this text, composed around the 2nd century, was influenced by the first texts of the Prajñāpāramitā literature for its classification and analytical discussion of emptiness? From a chronological point of view, this is not impossible, as the first Prajñāpāramitā texts were composed since the 1st century BCE

There were lists of kinds of emptiness in Abhidharma texts. I know of a list of twenty of kinds of emptiness in the Mahavibhasa Abhidharma, e.g. It was a well-developed idea among Sarvastivadins and other early schools, but Theravadins appear to avoid it in their canon.

Could you share the list of twenty-five that’s in the Paṭisambhidāmagga? Maybe the author(s) compiled a comprehensive list from multiple sources they had available. The Mahayana list is usually eighteen kinds.

1 Like

The list in the Paṭisambhidāmagga is as follows (translation by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli):
(1) suññasuñña, voidness as voidness;
(2) saṅkhārasuñña, voidness of formations;
(3) vipariṇāmasuñña, voidness in change;
(4) aggasuñña, supreme voidness;
(5) lakkhaṇasuñña, voidness by characteristic;
(6) vikkhambhanasuñña, voidness by suppression;
(7) tadaṅgasuñña, voidness by substitution of opposites;
(8) samucchedasuñña, voidness by cutting off;
(9) paṭippassaddhisuñña, voidness by tranquillization;
(10) nissaraṇasuñña, voidness as escape;
(11) ajjhattasuñña, internal voidness;
(12) bahiddhāsuñña, external voidness;
(13) dubhatosuñña, voidness in both ways;
(14) sabhāgasuñña, similar voidness;
(15) visabhāgasuñña, dissimilar voidness;
(16) esanāsuñña, voidness in search;
(17) pariggahasuñña, voidness in embracing;
(18) paṭilābhasuñña, voidness in obtainment;
(19) paṭivedhasuñña, voidness in penetration;
(20) ekattasuñña, voidness in unity;
(21) nānattasuñña, voidness in difference;
(22) khantisuñña, voidness in choice;
(23) adhiṭṭhānasuñña, voidness in steadiness;
(24) pariyogāhaṇasuñña, voidness in fathoming;
(25) voidness in the ultimate meaning (paramatthasuñña) of all kinds of voidness (sabbasuññatāna).

1 Like

So, what do you think? Could be the Paṭisambhidāmagga influenced by the Prajñāpāramitā literature?

The sixteen kinds of emptiness are

  1. adhyātmaṡūnyatā, emptiness of the inner
  2. bahirdhā ṡūnyatā, emptiness of the outer
  3. adhyātma bahirdhāṡūnyatā, emptiness of the outer and inner
  4. mahā ṡūnyatā, great emptiness
  5. emptiness of emptiness ṡūnyatāṡūnyatā
  6. paramārthaṡūnyatā, emptiness of the ultimate
  7. saṁskṛta ṡūnyatā, emptiness of the conditioned
  8. asaṁskṛtaṡūnyatā, emptiness of the unconditioned
  9. atyantaṡūnyatā, emptiness of that beyond extremes
  10. anavarāgtaṡūnyatā, emptiness of that without beginning or end
  11. anavakāraṡūnyatā, emptiness of that which is not to be abandoned
  12. prakṛtiṡūnyatā, emptiness of nature
  13. lakṣaṇaṡūnyatā, emptiness of specific characteristics
  14. sarvadharmaṡūnyat, emptiness of all dharmas
  15. anupalambhaṡūnyatā, emptiness that is nonapprehended
  16. abhāvasvabhāvaṡūnyatā, emptiness of the essential nature of non-entities

Clearly the lists are related. But whether because one influenced the other or both were influenced by a third source is not clear.


Well, this was a fun rabbit hole to jump into and explore. My conclusion after a few hours of looking at various sources is that it stems from the earlier pre-Mahayana lists that the Mahayana lists expanded in their own way. It’s kind of fascinating, though, that the Pali tradition has this large list in it’s later commentaries. There were clearly different people doing this in the Buddhist world. As I show below, there was a completely different list of twenty-five kinds of emptiness in the Mahayana Parinirvana Sutra, which wasn’t derived from the Prajnaparamita lists.

First, I should backtrack on what I said earlier. Muller’s Dictionary makes a habit of using superficial citations that aren’t actually related to an entry, and it fooled me because I didn’t follow the link to check to see if it was relevant. (Which is sort of a metaphor for academia in general in my limited experience.) It doesn’t appear that the twenty kinds of emptiness actually appear in the Mahavibhasa Abhidharma.

The Mahavibhasa does have a list of ten kinds of emptiness (found at T1545.27.37a13), which is a subset of the twenty kinds of emptiness that are found in Xuanzang’s Satasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra. The Satasahasrika is the actual source for the DDB’s list of twenty I linked to in the previous post.

Below, I outline some of the earlier lists that existed prior to the large lists we find in Mahayana sources and the Paṭisambhidāmagga. It’ll be TLDR for many who aren’t very interested in non-Theravada EBTs.

Tracing the earliest lists of emptiness in Chinese sources

But I want to go back further and begin at the beginning. The Great Emptiness Sutra (MN 122/MA 191) is where this list appears to begin with the first three items. Every list of emptiness that I’ve seen either begins with these three, or they are very near the start. They are: Internal emptiness (內空), external emptiness, and both internal and external emptiness (內外空).

The next step in development that I can find is a list of six emptinesses which is found in the Sariputra Abhidharma of the Dharmaguptakas at T1548.28.633a11. That list adds:

  • emptiness of emptiness (空空)
  • great emptiness (大空)
  • supreme truth emptiness (第一義空).

There’s a list of nine emptinesses in the Samyukta Abhidharma Hrdhaya treatise by Dharmatrata. This text belongs in a series of Sarvastivada Abhidharma manuals that formed the basis for Vasubhandu’s Abhidharma Kosa. This lists adds:

  • conditioned emptiness (有為空)
  • unconditioned emptiness (無為空)
  • both conditioned and unconditioned emptiness (有為無為空)
  • emptiness of nothingness (無事空).

If we set these early lists side by side we can see that at least thirteen kinds of emptiness have been created at this point by different traditions. I’m going to stop here, but there may well be other sources that could be added. That’s the trouble with Buddhist textual studies. There’s always more material to sift through. The table below illustrates what I’ve described so far:

EBT Sariputra Abhi. Dharmatrata Mahavibhasa Abhi. English
1. 內空 1. 內空 1. 內空 1. 內空 Internal
2. 外空 2. 外空 2. 外空 2. 外空 External
3. 內外空 3. 內外空 3. 內外空 3. 內外空 Internal & external
4. 有為空 4. 有為空 Conditioned
5. 無為空 5. 無為空 Unconditioned
6. 有為無為空 Conditioned & unconditioned
7. 無事空 Nothingness
6. 散壞空 Disintegration
7. 本性空 Original nature
8. 無際空 Limitlessness
6. 第一義空 8. 第一義空 9. 勝義空 Supreme truth
4. 空空 9. 空空 10. 空空 Emptiness
5. 大空 Great

Now, the longer Prajnaparamita Sutras are a unique class of Mahayana texts because they are basically the same text that has been expanded repeatedly into larger and larger versions, ranging from the Astasahasrika to the Satasaharika (i.e., 8,000 lines to 100,000 lines). True to form, these texts contain lists of emptiness that grow in size. Below, I’ve extracted four different lists from Xuanzang’s translation of the Prajnaparamita literature. There could be some variations that I’ve missed because I don’t have time to go over it with fine comb ATM.

The first thing that I notice is that these lists all begin with the list of six kinds of emptiness found in the Sariputra Abhidharma. So, they may well trace back to that tradition. But it has been greatly expanded (except for the Pravara-deva-rāja Prajnaparamita Sutra, which appears to preserve the original list).

Below is a table of four Prajnaparamita text lists with the Mahavibhasa list for comparison. What we can see is that the Mahavibhasa list did likely influence the expanasion of the Prajnaparamita list, and it was itself an expansion of the list we see in the Sariputra Abhidharma.

Pravara-deva-rāja 18,000 Lines 25,000 Lines 100,000 Lines MVbs English
1. 內空 1. 內空 1. 內空 1. 內空 1. 內空 Internal
2. 外空 2. 外空 2. 外空 2. 外空 2. 外空 External
3. 內外空 3. 內外空 3. 內外空 3. 內外空 3. 內外空 Both
4. 空空 5. 空空 4. 空空 4. 空空 10. 空空 Emptiness
5. 大空 4. 大空 5. 大空 5. 大空 Great
6. 勝義等空 6. 勝義空 6. 勝義空 6. 勝義空 9. 勝義空 Supreme truth
7. 有為空 7. 有為空 7. 有為空 4. 有為空 Conditioned
8. 無為空 8. 無為空 8. 無為空 5. 無為空 Unconditioned
9. 畢竟空 9. 畢竟空 9. 畢竟空 Absolute
10. 無際空 10. 無際空 10. 無際空 8. 無際空 Limitless
11. 散無散空 11. 散無散空 Disintegration and not
11. 散空 6. 散壞空 Disintegration
12. 無變異空 Unchanging
12. 本性空 12. 本性空 13. 本性空 7. 本性空 Original nature
13. 自共相空 13. 自共相空 Both (below)
14. 自相空 Peculiarity
15. 共相空 Commonality
14. 一切法空 14. 一切法空 16. 一切法空 All things
15. 不可得空 17. 不可得空 Inapprehensible
15.無性空 16. 無性空 18. 無性空 No nature
17. 自性空 19. 自性空 Self nature
16. 無性自性空 18. 無性自性空 20. 無性自性空 Both

There’s one more Mahayana source I’d like to consider, too. There are lots of others that could be found, of course, but this is one of the biggest, so I’ve include it to show that there was some major divergence between late Northern Buddhists, too. The list is found in the Mahayana Parinirvana Sutra at T374.12.600c11. It’s clearly independent from the tradition that create the Prajnaparamita texts, but it’s still an expansion of the earlier lists of emptiness.

It looks like this:

Parinirvana (T374) Sariputra Abhi Mahavibhasa English
內空 1. 內空 1. 內空 Internal
外空 2. 外空 2. 外空 External
內外空 3. 內外空 3. 內外空 Both
有為空 4. 有為空 Conditioned
無為空 5. 無為空 Unconditioned
無始空 8. 無際空? Endless
性空 7. 本性空 Nature
遠離空 Separation
散空 6. 散壞空 Disintegration
自相空 Peculiarity
無相空 Signless
陰空 Aggregates
入空 Senses
界空 Elements
善空 Skillful
不善空 Unskillful
無記空 Indeterminate
菩提空 Awakening
道空 Path
涅槃空 Nirvana
行空 Practice
得空 Attainment
第一義空 6. 第一義空 9. 勝義空 Supreme truth}
空空 4. 空空 10. 空空 Emptiness
大空 5. 大空 Great

Again, we can see how the Sariputra Abhidharma list of six has been split in half and a bunch of new items inserted into it to make a list of twenty-five. Some of the items that were added to the list of six were also added to the Mahavibhasa expansion. So, that list of ten must also be an early list, but not earlier than the Sariputra Abhidharma’s list.

Okay, so, let’s see how much commonality there is between these two large Mahayana lists and the one in the Paṭisambhidāmagga:

Paṭisambhidāmagga Prajnaparamita Parinirvana
1. suññasuñña 24. 空空 4. 空空
2. saṅkhārasuñña 4. 有為空 7. 有為空
3. vipariṇāmasuñña
4. aggasuñña 9. 畢竟空?
5. lakkhaṇasuñña 14. 自相空 & 15. 共相空? 10. 自相空 & 11. 無相空?
6. vikkhambhanasuñña
7. tadaṅgasuñña
8. samucchedasuñña
9. paṭippassaddhisuñña
10. nissaraṇasuñña
11. ajjhattasuñña 1. 內空 1. 內空
12. bahiddhāsuñña 2. 外空 2. 外空
13. dubhatosuñña 3. 內外空 3. 內外空
14. sabhāgasuñña 15. 共相空?
15. visabhāgasuñña
16. esanāsuñña
17. pariggahasuñña
18. paṭilābhasuñña 17. 不可得空? 22. 得空?
19. paṭivedhasuñña
20. ekattasuñña
21. nānattasuñña
22. khantisuñña
23. adhiṭṭhānasuñña
24. pariyogāhaṇasuñña
25a. paramatthasuñña 6. 勝義空 23. 第一義空
25b. sabbasuññatāna 16. 一切法空?

It’s the earliest core of these lists that’s preserved in Abhidharma that the three have in common. So, I’d guess that each of these three big lists are independent developments late in Buddhist history. But, there are a couple little hints that the author of the Paṭisambhidāmagga list may have known about the Prajnaparamita list. The terminology seems changed, but there are vague similarities in a couple cases. Mostly, the list is full of terms that were important to the Pali tradition’s Abhidhamma, I think.


Only this term is found in SA 335 (note 90):
Pages 95-6 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (155.3 KB)

1 Like

That’s true, though the general concept of emptiness is found in SA, and more so than it is in SN. The one MN/MA sutra is the only place I can find where the Abhidharma lists may have begun. And it only gets a couple mentions in the Abhidharma texts. So, the true source isn’t clear. Maybe an early Prajnaparamita text was the real source, and then it filtered back into EBTs and Abhidharma texts? Or maybe it was picked up from Abhidharmists by Mahayana writers. It’s difficult to tell with such scant evidence.

I think it is likely that the notion of “emptiness” arises from EBTs, although it is not intially a central theme of the teaching.

Cf. p. 88 in The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism by Choong Mun-keat.
Page 88 from Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 1999.pdf (222.6 KB)

Do you have access to a PDF of this document that is more clean and not a photo copy of the physical book? Or any ready-to-download PDF if not?


Hope this PDF is fine for you:

I was wondering if you had a downloadable link to the PDF on, because I do not have an account registered with them to be able to download emails, and I wanted to avoid making one to not be a target of their emails. No worries if not :slight_smile:

I have downloaded the PDF:
Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 1999.pdf (16.7 MB)

1 Like

Choong’s book is OK, a little dated now. And, according to Huifeng, largely based on Yinshun’s book (see below).

A good light intro to “emptiness” in Pāli is found in

  • Anālayo. 2012. Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses. Pariyatti

Anyone interested in Pāli Buddhism will find this book useful, and the chapter on suñña, suññato, and suññatā is a good overview of this topic.

There’s not much in between this and deepest dive into the topic of “emptiness” in early Buddhism that is found in:

  • Huifeng. (2016) Old School Emptiness: Hermeneutics, Criticism, and Tradition in the Narrative of Śūnyatā. Fo Guan Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism.

This is now available as an ebook from Amazon. Huifeng, now Matthew Orsborn once again, takes us through the whole topic in fine detail. He also provides some useful commentary on the intellectual background. Not an easy book, but thorough, insightful, and essential. Orsborn himself recommends a book that he translated:

  • Yinshun. (2017). An investigation into Emptiness. (Parts 1 and 2). Noble Path.

Orsborn suggests that Choong drew heavily from this book which was only available in Chinese at the time. I have a copy but haven’t read it yet. Apparently, parts 3 and 4 are going to appear at some point. If you get through that lot and want more, then you might be interested in these more niche articles:

  • Anālayo. (2022) “Being Mindful of What is Absent.” Mindfulness 13: 1671–1678.
  • Attwood, J. (2022) “The Cessation of Sensory Experience and Prajñāpāramitā Philosophy” International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture 32(1):111-148.
  • Srinivasan, Narayanan. (2020). “Consciousness Without Content: A Look at Evidence and Prospects.” Consciousness Research 11.

There’s a lot more scientific research on “contentless awareness” (aka emptiness) but the terminology hasn’t settled down yet. Thomas Metzinger, for example, calls it “minimal phenomenal awareness”.

Be wary of other English language scholarship on Prajñāpāramitā. Most of it conflates Prajñāpāramitā with Madhyamaka and doesn’t deal with prajñāpāramitā much at all. Don’t buy into that. They were different systems and Nāgārjuna does nothing to elucidate prajñāpāramitā.

Anālayo (2022) suggests, and I concur, that the idea of emptiness and the meditation techniques that lead to cessation and emptiness, are older than Buddhism. It’s likely that they were ubiquitous across northern India by the middle of the first millennium BCE. In my view, FWIW, I think the same kinds of experiences underpin Sāmkhya doctrines, for example. At a stretch, one might also suspect that similar kinds of experiences were behind the idea of ātman/Brahman (which were not part of the old Vedic religion based on Ṛgveda). Part of the reason I still consider myself a Buddhist is that some Buddhists refused to reify emptiness and focussed on phenomenology, in which domain this stuff makes a great deal more sense.

I think we can say: “cessation” (nirodha) is the cessation of sensory experience, and “emptiness” is the absence (śūnya, suñña) of sensory experience. Also I would say: dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda) refers (only) to the arising of sensory experience. If you want to assert that there is something other than sensory experience that these terms apply to, then good luck with that. Metaphysics is tricky.

A corollary of this is that “emptiness” is precisely that discontinuity in being conscious that is the sine qua non of Buddhism, i.e. nibbāna, snuffing out sensory experience becomes a metaphor for snuffing out rebirth. Not a popular opinion, admittedly, but I think it explains a lot.

Whether there was “influence” (whatever that means) on a Pāli commentarial work is moot. I don’t see any reason why it could not have happened. Given the eclectic and syncretic nature of the Buddhist religion, exchanging ideas and practices between groups was the norm. The question in my mind is: what would be the significance of such “influence”? And I can’t think of anything interesting to say about that.


I forgot to mention two important and relevant sources for thinking about emptiness in an early Buddhist context.

  • Anālayo. (2015). Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation. Windhorse Publications.

This book is excellent because Anālayo is writing as a practitioner and it is based on his own experiences of deep meditation combined with his deep scholarship.

The other good resource for a practical understanding of emptiness is also by a practitioner.

  • Ingram, Daniel. (2018). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. (Rev Ed.). Aeon Books.

I know people view Ingram as “controversial”. However, I have found Ingram’s criteria for what constitutes emptiness invaluable. I typed up the relevant passage (2018: 267-8) some time ago and will post it here for reference. What he calls “fruition” is “emptiness” in my terms, i.e. the absence of sensory experience.

  • If there was any sense of an experience, even of nothingness or something that seemed incomprehensible, particularly anything involving the vaguest hint of the passage of time, it is not Fruition.
  • This is an absolute rule. Repeating the film analogy, in Fruition it is as if a few frames of your life were simply edited out and not that they were replaced with something, even if that something seems profound, formless, cosmic, timeless, or whatever.
  • If there was any sense whatsoever of a “this” observing a “that”, or a self of any sort that seemed present for whatever happened, it is not Fruition. If “you” were there, that wasn’t it.
  • If there was not a complete sense of discontinuity and if it makes any sense to think of time, space, perspective, or memory continuing across the gap in relation to it, it is not Fruition. On the other hand, if the only way to remember what happened involves remembering just forward to the end of the door that presented and then remembering back to when reality reappeared, keep reading.
  • If on continued repetition of the unknowing event over days or weeks it fails the above tests, write it off as something other than Fruition. Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to repeat the experience easily, as explained in a bit.
  • If continued repetition of that kind of unknowing event over days or weeks fails to give any clear experiences of the three doors and to reveal something very paradoxical and profound about the nature of subject and object, be skeptical.
  • If there was a double-dip into unknowing events with a few profound moments of clarity and altered experience between them, as is characteristic of the A&P Event [i.e. arising and passing away], with one shift happening halfway down the out-breath and a second shift at the end of that out-breath, write it off immediately as more likely having been an A&P-related event or possibly the early stages of Equanimity.

This is the best “first hand” account of emptiness that I know of. This phenomenology is what theories (Buddhist or otherwise) about “emptiness” either seek to explain (in the case of Prajñāpāramitā) or exploit (in the case of Nāgārjuna). My approach is to accept that this is the phenomenology without speculating about the underlying “reality” involved (though of course, like everyone, I have views on metaphysics). I have related it back to the early Prajñāpāramitā literature, especially the Aṣṭasāhasrikā. And as far as I can see, Daniel and the Prajñāpāramitā authors are talking about the same thing.

1 Like

Ah fascinating discussion. I was actually looking into this kind of topic recently and found some cool things in the Agamas.

I found an interesting parallel to the Phena sutta SN 22.95 in the Taisho, it is Taisho 106 titled 佛說水沫所漂經, something like “The Sutra of Foam Drifting on Water” translated by the Monk Tanwulan (“Damuran”, *Dharmaratna, or *Dharmarakṣa) of the Eastern Jin Dynasty.

The Chinese contains a different passage not found in the Pali Phena sutta. The key sentence here is 空無所有,無來無往 which can be rendered as “empty and non-existent, insubstantial, without coming or going”. The sutra applies these qualities to all five aggregates which are compared to insubstantial foam. In Sanskrit “without coming or going” could be rendered as “anāgatyagamana”, as “agamanaṃ ca gamanaṃ ca”, “anāgatā agatā” or as “anāgatim agatim”. Empty and non-existent might be śunyaṃ cāvidyamānaṃ ca, or (going by Lokakṣema) it could be śunyaṃ ca viviktaṃ [many thanks to my friend Shaku Shingan who helped with the linguistic questions here as I do not know Chinese].

Furthermore, according to Yinshun’s Investigation Into Emptiness a similar passage occurs in Samyukta Āgama [SĀ 273] which says that samskaras “have no real coming or real going”.

“Monks! All formations are like an illusion, like heat [mirage]. In a moment they cease to be. They have no real coming or real going.”

Now, Choong does not have this, he instead translates the sutra as follows:

Monks, these have the nature of birth, ageing, death, ceasing, and rebirth. Monks, all compounded things are as an illusion, a flame, ceasing in an instant; being not real they come (arise) and go (cease).

But I do not believe this is right. As Shingan communicated to me, “不實來實去 there are two “truly/real” so I can only think the whole clause is being negated.” Perhaps Patton can speak more on this. Maybe Choong thinks 空 is supposed to modify 常, 恒 etc. instead of modifying 諸行?

Anyways, the whole SĀ 273 passage which contains this sentence states (again, thanks Shaku Shingan for his help in deciphering this):

“Monks! All formations are like illusions and flames, disappearing in an instant. They neither truly come nor truly go. Therefore, monk! In emptiness, all phenomena should be known, rejoiced in, and remembered: ‘Empty formations are constant, permanent, abiding, unchanging, empty dharmas, without self or mine. This is like a person with good eyesight holding a bright lamp and entering an empty room seeing into that empty room.”

比丘!諸行如幻、如炎, 剎那時頃盡朽,不實來實去。是故,比丘!於空 諸行當知、當喜、當念:『空諸行常、恒、住、不變 易法空,無我、我所。』譬如明目士夫,手執明 燈,入於空室,彼空室觀察。

Something which might be related is a passage in SĀ 335, Paramārthaśūnyatā Sūtra, which says:

…when the eye (etc.) arises, [it does] not come from any location; when the eye ceases, [it does not] go to any location. In this way, the eye (etc.) is unreal, yet arises; and on having arisen, it ends and ceases. There is action and retribution, and yet no actor. … (Yinshun, Emptiness)

These passages are interesting to me because in Mahayana sutras, the doctrine of emptiness is closely connected with “non-arising” (Anutpāda) and with the idea that nothing really comes or goes, and that dharmas don’t “come” from anywhere, and they don’t “go” etc. Furthermore, “Empty formations are constant, permanent, abiding, unchanging, empty dharmas, without self or mine.” is also very interesting since it seems to be talking about an unchanging ultimate reality as an aspect of dharmas, something similar to what the Prajñaparamita sutras are doing with emptiness. In this sense it is kind of breaking down the dualistic distinction between samsara and nirvana.

As such I can see a connection between these passages and non-arising in the PP texts, for example the Sūtra of Mahā-Prajñā-Pāramitā Pronounced by Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva says:

Mañjuśrī said to the Buddha, “World-Honored One, I correctly observe dharmas and find them to be asaṁskṛta, with no appearance, no attainment, no benefit, no birth, no death, no coming, no going, no knower, no perceiver, and no doer. I see neither prajñā-pāramitā nor the state of prajñā-pāramitā, neither realization nor no realization. I make no differentiation, nor any ludicrous statement. All dharmas are endless, apart from ending. There is no dharma of ordinary beings, no dharma of voice-hearers, no dharma of Pratyekabuddhas, and no dharma of Buddhas. There is neither attainment nor no attainment, neither saṁsāra to abandon nor nirvāṇa to realize, neither the conceivable nor the inconceivable, neither acting nor not acting. Such are dharma appearances! Then how does one learn prajñā-pāramitā?”

and the Pañca­viṃśati­sāhasrikā­prajñā­pāramitā says:

Subhūti replied, “In this regard, Venerable Śāradvatīputra, bodhisattva
great beings, starting from the time when they first begin to set
their mind on enlightenment, do not observe anything at all that is arising,
and they do not observe anything at all that is ceasing, increasing or
decreasing, coming or going, defiled or purified. Venerable Śāradvatīputra,
there is nothing that arises or ceases, nothing that increases or decreases,
nothing that comes or goes, nothing that is defiled or purified, and nothing
that is [identified with] the minds of the śrāvakas, the minds of the
pratyekabuddhas, the minds of the bodhisattvas, or the minds of the
completely awakened buddhas. Venerable Śāradvatīputra, this is the mind of
bodhisattva great beings —equal to the unequaled, and not shared in
common with all śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas.” [8.66]

As such, it seems to me this idea of an empty non-dual ultimate reality arises from certain germs in the Agamas like the ones I shared above.

Also, I think these passages point to how the idea of emptiness is not just a name for a meditative experience in these texts, but it is also something with ontological connotations. After all, emptiness in the Agama passages I shared above is not just an experience in which one sees nothing, but it is a attainment in which “phenomena should be known, rejoiced in, and remembered” as empty, as not coming or going. As such, one sees emptiness by seeing phenomena themselves and seeing them as empty, seeing emptiness in them, not by not seeing anything at all. In the metaphor of the empty room, one has to see the room to see that it is empty and thus one is seeing the emptiness in the room with the lamp of wisdom.

Anyways, this is why I think there is more to emptiness than just a blank experience of not experiencing anything which is only related to meditation. Indeed, in the Prajña-paramita sutras the perfection of wisdom is not something which is restricted to a formal meditative environment. Actually, the PP sutras seem to depict people being awakened by listening to the Dharma (as is found in many EBTs) not through engaging in formal meditation. Likewise, in the Pañca­viṃśati passage I shared above, there’s nothing about this method of “non-observation” which is restricted to a formal meditative context.

1 Like

I agree with Shingan. When I read Choong’s book a couple years ago, I got the impression he was not that fluent in Chinese Buddhist texts at the time that he wrote it. He said things that someone just starting out might say when they encountered some of the admittedly confusing passages or conventions in the Āgamas, which have come down to us badly maintained in any case. It’s an old book from the 90s, as I recall. So, yeah, some of the translations could use some improvement. (Some of mine could, too!)

There’s an interesting thing I will add on top of all the good information that’s already been shared by others:

I helped Shingan out with his project to translate the Mahāsaṃnipata collection of sūtras by translating a fascicle. The one I choose was the Bodhisattva Anabhilāpya (“Inexpressible”) chapter. Something that I found interesting about it was that it made direct references to vitarka and vicāra in the way that seems to extrapolate the experience of deep dhyāna to the empty nature of the universe.

Right at the outset, a verse praising the Buddha reads:

“Unimpeded wisdom and unimpeded action,
Like the nature of space, is inexpressible.
All the three worlds being equal, he notices and examines nothing.
I pay homage now to the unsurpassed sage!

I.e., the experience of having no vitarka (noticing) or vicāra (examining) is equivalent to the nature of space and the three worlds. It becomes more metaphysical in another verse further down:

The realm of all things has no noticing or examining.
Worldly people observe it as having signs and actions,
But the nature of that realm of things isn’t damaged.
I bow to the Buddha’s knowledge of reality.

Here, the “realm of things” is the dharmadhātu. In a couple other passages, these two terms that we usually associate with the dhyānas are used as a synonym for experience (sensory and mental, I would guess) in general. I think there’s a subtext that the emptiness experienced in meditation was extrapolated by the author to be the actual nature of the universe, rather than just a meditative attainment. I think the author felt that it imparted a knowledge of true reality, though he/she never comes out and says that. It’s only hinted at in a few passages.

1 Like

Thanks Patton, well it does seem Choong’s translations are not the best. Good to know.

I have also noticed this tendency, though I do not think it is just a Mahayanist thing or a later development by later authors. I think there is already an ambiguity and close link between metaphysics / cosmology and psychology / phenomenology in early Buddhist texts. Rupert Gethin has written about this, see for example his Cosmology and meditation: from the Agganna-Sutta to the Mahayana Buddhism.

His conclusion is that “that there is a fundamental and profound equivalence between cosmology and psychology” in early Buddhist thought and later developments are drawing on this equivalence.

We see a similar thing in descriptions of dependent arising. Yes, it does describe how the mind works, and as such, it is explaining an inner process, a phenomenological process. However, as we know, it also describes a process “out there”, a process in which mindstreams (gandhabhas and what have you) are reborn into other bodies after death.

Thus, we should not be surprised if, on experiencing certain contemplative states, Buddhists would have argued that “as within so without”, and that all “external” phenomena also match their inner experience of “internal” phenomena. Why? Because both follow the same pattern, the same Dharma, that which, whether or not there are Buddhas who see it, exists, that is the elemental fact (dhātu), natural stability (dhamma-tthitatā), natural pattern (dhamma-niyāmatā), etc.

You might be interested to know that Ven. Anālayo is currently working on a book which will be a commentary on the two earliest versions of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā from an early Buddhist perspective, particularly focusing on the topics of emptiness and on the bodhisattva path as compared to the path of the arahant. I think he’ll be finished with the writing by the end of this month, so I would expect it will be published sometime next year (by Wisdom Publications).


I think Choong very clearly presents 空 is to modify 諸行 (all compounded things), not just 常, 恒 etc. (cf. p. 96) (p. 39 in The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism) on SA 273:

Pages 95-6 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (155.3 KB)

Page 38-39 from Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 1999.pdf (232.4 KB)