Teachings on Emptiness by Nagarjuna and Vasitva

 Teachings on emptiness from The Bodhisaṃbhāra Treatise Commentary

Verse 29 (p 211-215)

As for “not produced and not destroyed,”

And “neither unproduced nor undestroyed,”

One denies assertions of “both” and “neither.”

So too in cases involving “emptiness” and “non-emptiness.”


When the bodhisattva contemplates the sphere of conditioned arising, he reflects, “Wherever dharmas arising from [the coming together] of conditions are held to ‘exist,’ that ‘existence’ is based solely on conceptual consensus. Therefore, whatever is ‘produced’ cannot be validly established as having any inherent existence. Because its inherent existence cannot be validly established, then the process of ‘production’ is itself devoid of inherent existence.

“If there is no intrinsic reality to the process of production, then ‘destruction’ is itself but a matter of [interdependent] dual concepts.

“As with ‘production’ and ‘destruction,’ simultaneous affirmation and negation is also devoid of any substantial existence. So too with the concepts of nonproduction and nondestruction which themselves are based on dual concepts devoid of any substantial existence.

“In those cases which involve the dual concepts of production and destruction as with ‘both production and nonproduction,” and ‘both destruction and nondestruction,’—those too are devoid of any real existence, this because they involve a simultaneity of opposing concepts.

“So too it is in the case of the concept of being ‘empty [of inherent existence],’ for wherever [one might posit that] there is some supposed ‘existence,’ that is a case devoid of any intrinsic substantiality. Those concepts of ‘non-emptiness’ as well as ‘both emptiness and non-emptiness’ are just the same in this respect.”

Question: If one reflected in this manner, concluding that, “because they are merely products of conditions, all dharmas are devoid of any inherent existence,” how could one persist in this reflection? [Persisting in the contemplation would necessitate the conclusion that], “Not even the dharma of conditioned co-production exists.”


Verse 30

No matter which “existent” dharma one encounters,

One persists therein in the contemplation, remaining unmoving.

That is the “unproduced-dharmas patience.”

It is based on the severance of all mental discriminations.


When this bodhisattva contemplates conditioned co-production in accordance with reality, he succeeds in abandoning the view that any dharma possesses any intrinsic substance of its own. Through abandoning the view imputing intrinsically-existent substantiality, one straightaway cuts off any seizing on an intrinsically-existent substantiality in any dharma.

Once one succeeds in cutting off [the view] imputing intrinsic substantiality to dharmas, one then reflects, “It is not the case that there are no inward-related or outward-related dharmas. However, there is no intrinsically existent substantiality associated with those dharmas. Although the dharmas produced through conditioned co-production do exist, that “existence” abides only in the manner of a bundled sheaf of reeds, a magical conjuration, or a mere dream. Wherever dharmas are produced from conditions, no intrinsic substantiality is actually ‘produced.’”

Once one has carried out this contemplation, one becomes such as no śramaṇa or brahman is able to move and yet one refrains from seizing on [this level of] realization. Because one takes pleasure in contemplating the dharma of non-production and because one severs all mental discriminations, this is described as the “unproduced-dharmas patience.” Having gained this realization, this bodhisattva immediately comes to abide on the “unmoving” bodhisattva ground (acala bhūmi).

Verse 65 (p 261-263)

One should skillfully cultivate

The three gates to liberation:

The first is emptiness, the next is signlessness,

And the third is wishlessness.


As the bodhisattva herein practices the prajñāpāramitā, he should cultivate the three gates to liberation. At the very beginning, he should cultivate the “emptiness” (śūnyatā) gate to liberation, this for the sake of refuting all views. The second is the “signlessness” (ānimitta) gate to liberation which is undertaken to eliminate seizing upon discriminations or thoughts intent on manipulating objective conditions. The third is the “wishlessness” (apraṇihita) gate to liberation taken up to facilitate stepping completely beyond the desire realm, form realm, and formless realm.

Question: Why are these referred to as “gates to liberation”?

Verse 66

Because they have no self-existent nature, phenomena are empty.

If already empty, how could one establish any characteristic signs?

Since all characteristic signs are themselves in a state of cessation,

What could there be in them that the wise might wish for?


Because dharmas are produced from [a mere conjunction of] conditions, they are devoid of any inherent nature of their own. This is what we refer to as “emptiness” [of inherent existence].

Because [dharmas] are empty [of inherent existence], the mind refrains from [imputation-based] seizing upon objective conditions. Hence [dharmas] are “signless.”

It is on account of having abandoned all [mental imputation of] characteristic signs that one finds there is nothing to provoke any wishes. [Hence dharmas are said to be “wishless.”]

Then again, given that dharmas are only “produced” from [subsidiary] conditions, then its [supposed] “inherently existing nature” is not produced [in the first place]. Because its “inherent nature” is not produced at all, that dharma is “empty” of inherent existence.

If a dharma is “empty,” there are no signs abiding in it. Because such signs are devoid of any existence, [that dharma] is “signless.” 

If that dharma is devoid of any signs, then the mind finds nothing in it upon which it might rely. Because it has nothing upon which it might rely, the mind finds nothing anywhere in the three realms for which it might wish. [Hence we speak of “wishlessness.”]

Verse 74 (p 271)

The bodhisattva benefits beings

And yet does not perceive the existence of any being.

This in itself is the most difficult of all endeavors

And is such a rarity as to be inconceivable.


The bodhisattva’s raising forth of the idea of a “being” is in itself the most difficult and inconceivable of phenomena. It is as unprecedented as being able to paint a mural in empty space. At the level of the ultimate truth (paramārtha), there are basically no “beings” at all. This bodhisattva does not course in any awareness of them and does not even apprehend them as existent entities. Nonetheless, for the sake of bringing benefit and happiness to beings, he proceeds with the diligent practice of vigor. With the sole exception of the great compassion, where could there be any other endeavor so difficult as this?

Verse 152 (p 363)

The wise must not base their practice

On getting at the “emptiness” in what is intrinsically empty.

In the case of one determined to get at that emptiness itself,

That wrong is even more extreme than viewing the body as a self.


One relies upon realization of emptiness to eliminate the accumulation [of conceptions] associated with deficient wisdom. The wise must not rely on getting at emptiness itself as the goal of practice. If one sees getting at emptiness itself as the goal of practice, then that error goes beyond even the difficult-to-cure misconcep-tion of those who maintain the view which seizes on the body as constituting a self.

The reason for this is that it is by resort to emptiness that one is able to escape from all view-based practices. In a case where, beyond that, one has developed another view which attempts to grasp at that emptiness itself, this is a circumstance for which there is no cure, this because, there is nothing over and above that through which one can escape [from such a view].

Verse 156 (p 367)

They do not arise in the past.

They do not abide in the present.

They do not go forward into the future.

Contemplate all dharmas in this manner.


Because their “existence” is based solely on the strength of component causes and conditions, and because they have no place from whence they come, dharmas are not produced in the past.

Because they undergo continuous [and complete] destruction in each successive micro-moment (kṣaṇa), and also because they do not abide at all, dharmas do not dwell in the present.

Because they are completely destroyed, leaving no trace, and also because there is no place to which they go, dharmas do not proceed on into the future.

One should direct such analytic contemplation to all dharmas.


Excerpts from The Absorption of the Thus-Gone One’s Wisdom Seal

“Since this body comes from causes and conditions, it has no intrinsic nature.
It is unborn, unceasing, not going, and unmoving.
Under analysis, the three worlds appear like an illusion.
The body of the victorious ones must be seen nonconceptually like this.”

“Blessed One, since there are no phenomena to be grasped, I am happy to maintain and protect this unsurpassed and perfect awakening. Blessed One, as for awakening, it is nothing at all. It comes from nowhere. It is found nowhere. It does not come about through anything. It is nothing whatsoever. It does not appear. It is ungraspable, unattainable, and inexhaustible.”

“Maitreya, there are five qualities that bodhisattvas must have for their progress to become irreversible. What are the five? They have the same attitude toward all sentient beings. They do not envy the success and prestige of others. Even if their lives are threatened, they will speak nothing but praise of monks who uphold the sacred Dharma. They are not attached to worldly success sought through knowledge of the Dharma, nor to acquisitions, prestige, or compliments. They are devoted to the profound Dharma, and without interest in any kind of mundane activity keep the profound Dharma with them in all situations. Maitreya, if bodhisattvas possess these five qualities, know that their progress will be irreversible.
Maitreya, if bodhisattvas possess five other qualities, know them to be incorrigible. What are the five? They have little charisma and do not follow any advice. They are interested in base things and give degraded teachings to others. They are attached to worldly success sought through knowledge of the Dharma, acquistions, and prestige, and behave enviously in the patron’s household. They are fraudulent and deceitful. Their verbal professions do not lead toward emptiness. Maitreya, if bodhisattvas possess these five qualities, know them to be incorrigible.
Maitreya, if bodhisattvas possess the following five qualities, know them to be irreversible in their progress. What are they? They do not perceive a self, and they do not extol a self. They do not perceive any sentient beings. They do not use concepts to teach about the realm of reality. They do not perceive awakening. They do not regard the Thus-Gone One’s body as having the characteristics of form. Maitreya, if bodhisattvas possess these five qualities, know that they will not regress from unsurpassed and perfect awakening.”

“Noble sons, what childish ordinary beings perceive to be the Dharma and understand to be the Dharma are conceptual elaborations of the Dharma. Because they conceptually impute and elaborate on the Dharma, they teach it dualistically. Those who teach it dualistically are in conflict with the Dharma. However, noble sons, ultimately we find nothing at all‍—no Dharma and no conflict with the Dharma.”

When the Blessed One had explained the meaning to them, he spoke these verses:

“Some say that what is created is compounded,
While others say that it is uncompounded.
However, as both apprehend phenomena, both are concepts.
Such conceptual elaborations are called impure.
Phenomena are not created by anyone, nor does anything destroy them.
No one sees them, knows them, or is close to them.
Such untenable domains of imputed thought‍—
All are designated empty.
The thought that something is empty is untenable,
Because the unarisen is imputed through such concepts.
All concepts are demonic nooses,
And immutability is called the seal of Dharma.
When they imagine nonexistent things,
The childish are bound by those movements of thought.
All concepts are like echoes,
Yet the childish conceptualize about them dualistically.
The wise never discover knowledge,
And from the wise no knowledge arises.
It is taught in dependence on the relative;
Yet here, no knowledge or knower is observed.
If phenomena had essences,
Then, because they perish, their cessation would be nirvāṇa.
If phenomena did abide,
Then nirvāṇa would be completely permanent.
Childish beings engage in abandonment and attainment.
Childish beings create nirvāṇa, though it has no characteristics.
Those who perceive a self attain the compounded,
While the wise are free from notions of existence and absence.
Knowing and not knowing are not different.
They are mere conventions and have no core.
Those who engage with constructs and marks
Declare nirvāṇa to be a destruction of entities.
The mind does not know the essence of mind.
Neither does the essence know the mind.
All phenomena are essentially dreams.
This is what some call the two truths.
Birth is not real,
Nor does cessation have any reality.
None of the buddhas are subject to birth.
They become real through skillful means.
The buddhas have not attained any wisdom,
And the Dharma that has been taught‍—they did not teach at all.
Nobody liberates any beings whatsoever.
In this way the buddhas are unborn buddhas.
If they had an essence that passed beyond suffering,
The victorious ones would go there together with the hearers.
But solid phenomena do not pass beyond suffering,
And the nonconceptual will never be known.
Those who do not see beings for what they actually are
Teach beings according to the relative world;
But those who see beings as they actually are
Rest in groundless nirvāṇa.
Some say that the aggregates are true.
Some say that existence, cessation, and the path are true.
Although the unborn is a single truth,
Some speak of four truths.
At the seat of awakening I did not accomplish or see25
Even a single truth, so how could there be four?
Thus, many of low intelligence go forth
And destroy my teaching.
Spiritual practitioners who want to pursue positive qualities
In order to practice this absorption
Should not associate with such wild beings;
Instead, like the rhinoceros, they should stay in solitude.
This was intended to be practiced
By eight hundred million excellent humans.
The many gods who behold this truth
Guard it day and night.
Whoever meditates on this absorption, so hard to see,
In that person’s dream the Buddha will appear‍—
Clear, limitless, and inexhaustible‍—
And grant them entrance into the gateway of attainment.”


Zazen as No-thought and Non-thinking

Zazen simply means seated meditation. What type of meditation happens while seated can vary. First of all, to make it a Buddhist meditation (sammāsamādhi - right immersion), other elements of the path have to be present as well.

'And what is noble right immersion with its vital conditions and its prerequisites? They are: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness. Unification of mind with these seven factors as prerequisites is called noble right immersion with its vital conditions and also with its prerequisites.'
(MN 117)

In case of the bodhisattva path it is similar (MPPS XLV.2.III), for meditation (dhyāna) to be a perfection (pāramitā) it requires the perfection of wisdom (prajñāpāramitā).

The Zen view on the connection between meditation (samādhi) and wisdom (prajñā) is that they are inseparable:

'Meditation and wisdom are of one essence, not different. Meditation is the essence of wisdom, and wisdom is the function of meditation. At times of wisdom, meditation exists in that wisdom; at times of meditation, wisdom exists in that meditation.'
(Platform Sutra, ch 4, BDK ed, p 41-42; T48n2008p352c14-16)

And in the same chapter it is written:

'Good friends, there are also those who teach meditation [in terms of] viewing the mind, contemplating tranquility, motionlessness, and nonactivation. You are supposed to make an effort on the basis of these. These deluded people do not understand, and in their grasping become mixed up like all of you here. You should understand that such superficial teachings are greatly mistaken!'
(p 43; p353a5-7)

The way it is put into practice has various names, one common label is nonthought/no-thought/non-thinking (wunian 無念). Again, from the Platform Sutra:

'Good friends, in wisdom’s contemplation both interior and exterior are clearly penetrated, and one recognizes one’s own fundamental mind. If you recognize your fundamental mind, this is the fundamental emancipation. And if you attain emancipation, this is the samādhi of prajñā, this is nonthought.
What is nonthought? If in seeing all the dharmas, the mind is not defiled or attached, this is nonthought. [The mind’s] functioning pervades all locations, yet it is not attached to all the locations. Just purify the fundamental mind, causing the six consciousnesses to emerge from the six [sensory] gates, [causing one to be] without defilement or heterogeneity within the six types of sensory data (literally, the “six dusts”), autonomous in the coming and going [of mental phenomena], one’s penetrating function without stagnation. This is the samādhi of prajñā, the autonomous emancipation. This is called the practice of nonthought.
If one does not think of the hundred things in order to cause thought to be eradicated, this is bondage within the Dharma. This is called an extreme view.
Good friends, to be enlightened to the Dharma of nonthought is for the myriad dharmas to be completely penetrated. To be enlightened to the Dharma of nonthought is to see the realms of [all] the buddhas. To be enlightened to the Dharma of nonthought is to arrive at the stage of buddhahood.'

(ch 2, p 33; p351a25-b5)

This was summarised by Guifeng Zongmi in the following words:

'When you are aware that all characteristics are void, it is true mind, no mindfulness (wunian 無念). If a thought arises, be aware of it (nian qi ji jue 念起即覺); once you are aware of it, it will disappear. The excellent gate of practice lies here alone.'
(Chan Letter, in Zongmi on Chan, p 88; T48n2015p403a4-6)

The main instruction is included in The Manual of Zazen Practice by Changlu Zongze:

'One must not delve into thoughts (siliang 思量) that arise, whether good or bad. As soon as a thought arises, he must become aware of it (nian qi ji jue 念起即覺). He must always be aware of what arises in the sphere of consciousness without losing clear discrimination, and without becoming dull or scattered. A myriad of years is nothing but one moment of thought, which is neither discontinuous nor continuous. This is the essential Way (or method) of Zen practice. Zazen is in itself the doctrinal gateway of “comfort and ease.” (anle famen 安樂法門)'
(The Baizhang Zen Monastic Regulations, BDK ed, p 256; T48n2025p1143a12-15)

Not delving into good or bad thoughts is related to the instruction given to Huiming by Huineng:

'Do not think of good (bu si shan 不思善), and do not think of evil (bu si e 不思惡). At just such a time, what is Elder Huiming’s original face?'
(Platform Sutra, ch 1, BDK ed, p 25; T48n2008p349b24-25)

So, based on Zongze's manual Dogen wrote his zazen instructions with a little twist:

'Sitting in balance in the mountain-still state (kotsukotsu 兀兀), think (shiryō 思量) the concrete state of not thinking (fushiryō 不思量). How can the state of not thinking be thought? It is non-thinking (hishiryō 非思量). This is the real secret of zazen. Sitting in zazen is not learning Zen meditation. It is the great peaceful and joyful (anraku 安樂) gate of Dharma (hōmon 法門). It is untainted practice and experience.'
(Zazengi, in SBGZ, BDK ed, vol 3, p 226; T2582_.82.0217c08-13)

In the first part Dogen follows a story about Yaoshan Weiyan:

Once when the master was sitting, there was a monk who asked,
(siliang 思量) what so deeply (wuwu 兀兀)?’
‘Pondering an imponderable (busiliang 不思量),’ replied the master.
‘How to ponder an imponderable?’ asked the monk.
‘It is not something ponderable (feisiliang 非思量),’ said the master.
(Records of the Transmission of the Lamp, vol 4, 14.335; T51n2076p311c26-28)

That's how the term no-thought (wunian 無念) became non-thinking (hishiryō 非思量) that is used in Soto Zen for the optimal mental state during zazen. Non-thinking is an interesting choice also because it connects zazen to the realisation of the buddhas as stated in the Lotus Sutra:

'The real intention of all the buddhas in adapting their explanations to what is appropriate is difficult to understand. Why is this? Because I have expounded the teachings with innumerable skillful means and various kinds of explanations and illustrations. Yet this Dharma is beyond reason and discernment (hi-shiryō-funbetsu 非思量分別). Only the buddhas can understand it.'
(Lotus Sutra, ch 2, BDK ed, p 30; T9n262p7a18-21)

And it is also an expression that appears in Sengcan's poem:

'Nothing to linger upon,
Nothing to remember.
Clear, empty, and self-illuminating,
The mind exerts no effort.
This is beyond the sphere of thought (feisiliang 非思量),
Which reason and feeling cannot fathom.
In the Dharma Realm of True Suchness,
There are neither self nor others.
To reach accord with it at once
Just practice non-duality.
Non-duality embodies all things,
As all things are inseparable.'
(Trust in Mind, in A Collection of Selected Buddhist Texts, p 85-86; T48n2010p376c28-377a3)


Daily Karma

There is a way to comprehend karma in a rather tangible way. It means the cycle of view - intention - action - experience - view - ... That is, one has a set of values and preferences that define what one wants or doesn't want, based on that one chooses to act one way or another. The consequences - closer and later in time - feel good or bad, agreeable or disagreeable, based on one's interpretation (view) and also giving a feedback on whether one's choice of action was a good or a bad idea and that way reinforcing or weakening one's original view. Then based on previous experience that is modified by one's understanding of that experience one makes new choices. That's in brief the cycle of samsara on a daily level. As long as one is governed by the fundamental wrong view of trying to ascertain, obtain, or maintain an agreeable state of existence, there is suffering. Seeing that this cycle is nothing more than a series of processes not controlled by anyone, that is recognising its empty nature, and that way relinquishing the recurring craving for the imagined agreeable state, thus obtaining peace and the cessation of the cycle.


Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

When a mind (vijñāna) conditioned (saṃskāra) by ignorance (avidyā) conceives (nāmarūpa) an impression (sparśa) through the six senses (ṣaḍāyatana) that feels (vedanā) pleasant/unpleasant, then it craves (tṛṣṇā) for its continuation/discontinuation, attempts to keep (upādāna) and identify (bhava) with it, but with its birth (jāti) comes its decay and demise (jarāmaraṇa).

When one is ignorant about how suffering arises and ceases, then one concocts/fabricates physical, verbal, and mental activities to perform, and that results in a mindset/attitude (consciousness) that regulates one's bodily and mental functions, thus colouring one's senses, so when there is an impression (contact) and a related quality (feeling), then necessarily one enjoys and delights in it (craving), therefore wants to hang on to it (clinging), and that turns into an identity (becoming), so it defines one's whole being (birth), but eventually, like everything else, it'll fall apart and thus cause pain.

The twelve links are present at each instance of suffering ignorantly. It's not that when there is one link present, like feeling, then the others are missing. When one feels something pleasant (note that already that single feeling exists in a compounded way within a network of conditions), then there had to be a contact with something through the six sense gates, and that thing is recognised as a particular form with a particular name, and one has an opinion (mindset) of that thing that is primarily driven by an intention, and that motivation can exist because of not knowing any better. Because of the presence of the preconditions it is inevitable that the feeling of something pleasant is met with liking it, the need to hold it, and thus defining one's whole experience of the world, what in turn gives rise to a fixed set of particular behaviour and mentality that will necessarily deteriorate and decease.
Let's take an apple juice as an example for a pleasant object. To recognise it as such one needs to come in contact with it (seeing/tasting/imagining), and that contact to be meaningful one needs a couple of preconditions, like knowing what an apple juice is and an opinion of it whether one likes it or not. Since one recognises the apple juice as something desirable, it is a pleasant object. With the recognition of the tasty juice comes the thirst for it, the thirst develops into the need to have it, that grows into the thought of being the one who delightedly experiences drinking it. With those present arises the view and entity of the subject partaking of an object, the subject being the actor and enjoyer, while the object what is seen/tasted/imagined. Then with the changing of the object, for instance finishing a glass of apple juice, the subject loses its reason to exist and experiences some dissatisfaction because of that. All this can go down in a few seconds from seeing the apple juice to having drunk it. And then it happens again and again with the various experiences happening, the previous conditioning the next.


Chan by Investigating Body and Mind

 “You only have to carefully look inside of yourself (反觀) and examine skandhas, āyatanas and dhātus one by one: is there a tiniest thing to be obtained?” 

[The guest] replied: “I have carefully contemplated it, and have not seen anything which can be obtained.”

 The Master said: “Have you destroyed the characteristic of the mind and body?” 

[The guest] answered: “The nature of the mind and body is such that they disappear by themselves, what is there left to destroy?” 

The Master asked: “Is there any thing outside the mind and body?” 

[The guest] answered: “The mind and the body have no outside, how could there be any thing?” 

The Master asked: “Have you destroyed the mundane characteristic?” 

[The guest] answered: “The mundane characteristic is the absence of characteristics, what is left there to destroy?” 

The Master said: “If so, than you have overcome the mistake.”

(source: The Chán Teaching of Nányáng Huìzhōng (-775) in Tangut Translation by Kirill Solonin; also found in Records of the Transmission of the Lamp, vol 7, 28.1; T51n2076p438c26-439a2)


Will All Attain Enlightenment?

In the Saccasaṁyutta there are a series of suttas (SN 56.61-131) on the rarity of the precious human birth, like how few are born as humans (SN 56.61; see also the blind turtle simile: SN 56.47-48), not in a borderland (SN 56.62), and with wisdom (SN 56.63), and among those passing away as humans many are reborn in the lower realms and few in the heavens (SN 56.102-107). On the other hand, attaining insight is supremely difficult (SN 56.45) but without it there is no liberation (SN 56.44). At the same time, speculating about various matters of the world is not beneficial for the path, rather one should get busy with understanding the Dharma (SN 56.41).

The Buddha was asked (AN 10.95): 'when Master Gotama teaches in this way, is the whole world saved, or half, or a third?'
And Ananda explained: 'it’s not the Realized One’s concern whether the whole world is saved by this, or half, or a third. But the Realized One knows that whoever is saved from the world—whether in the past, the future, or the present—all have given up the five hindrances, corruptions of the heart that weaken wisdom. They have firmly established their mind in the four kinds of mindfulness meditation. And they have truly developed the seven awakening factors. That’s how they’re saved from the world, in the past, future, or present.'