Seventy Verses on Sunyata
attributed to Nagarjuna
Sunyatasaptati - Verses
Notes on the Verses
This text is
in 73 verses (originally composed in the arya meter like the VigrahavyavartanI
and the Pratltyasamutpadahrdayakarika), accompanied by a commentary from the
author's own hand (svavrtti). It is ascribed to Nagarjuna by Bhavya/9
Candrakirti,80 and Santaraksita.81 Testimonies anterior
to these are found in the Akutobhaya82 and the *Dvadasadvaraka.83
Later on it is also referred to by Atisa.84 I have seen no
references or allusions to the svavrtti, but as us prose style (in Tibetan, to
be sure) is quite similar to the style of the commentaries on the
VigrahavyavartanI and Vaidalyaprakarana, there is no good reason to impeach its
The doctrine and
scope of the Sunyatasaptati do not differ from those of the
Mulamadhyamakakarika, to which it may be said to form an appendix,86
as it partly summarizes its verses, partly introduces new topics and elaborates
old ones.87 Like the Mulamadhyamakakarika, it reveals no strict
underlying structure of composition, but it may, as I have ventured, be divided
into at least seven paragraphs.
For the study of
the Sunyatasaptati I have had available several texts preserved in Tibetan, all
of which are cited in the section on sources and variants in Part I.88
The translations of the karikas included in the commentaries by Candrakirti and
Parahita sometimes differ considerably — at times unhappily — from
that given in Nagarjuna's svavrtti, and more often agree with the root text as
it is found in the Tibetan Canon.89
As editions and
translations of all the commentaries are expected, I have confined myself to an
edition and translation of the root text. However, my translation of the
karikas strictly follows the svavrtti, with only one or two exceptions, and
should therfore be read in conjunction with the edition of the svavrtti given
in Part II. Though I have consulted the commentaries of other authors,
Nagarjuna's own remarks must of course remain the final authority in questions
I present here
the briefest possible summary of the text (based on the analysis given in the
introduction to my Danish rendering of the verses with the svavrtti), followed
by notes on the specific verses.
1. The dharmas exist only vyavaharavasat (i.e. sarhvrtitah), as yukti
shows that paramarthatah everything is anutpanna. (1-6)
2. All entities (bhava) are pratityasamutpanna, or sunya. So nirvana is
simply anutpada. (7-26)
3. Various aspects of bhava are shown to be relative. (27-32)
4. Karma is also sunya according to orthodox Buddhism. (33-44)
5. Refutation of the five skandhas, above all rupa. (45-57)
6. Avidya vanishes when it is understood, as shown, that there is
really no bhava or the like whatsoever. (58-66)
7. Paramartha is simply sunya ta, anutpada, and so forth. Since this is
not generally realized, one must resort to samvrti with sraddha in order to
comprehend it oneself.91 (67-73)
Though the Buddhas have spoken of duration, origination, destruction, being,
non-being, low, moderate, and excellent by force of worldly convention, [they]
have not done [so] in an absolute sense.
Designations are without significance, for self, non-self, and self-non-self do
not exist. [For] like nirvana, all expressible things are empty (sunya) of
Since all things altogether lack substance — either in causes or
conditions, [in their] totality, or separately — they are empty.
Being does not arise, since it exists. Non-being does not arise, since it does
not exist. Being and non-being [together] do not arise, due to [their]
heterogeneity. Consequently they do not endure or vanish.
That which has been born cannot be born, nor can that which is unborn be born.
What is being born now, being [partly] born, [partly] unborn, cannot be born
A cause has an effect when there is an effect, but when there is no [effect]
the [cause] amounts to no cause. It is inconsistent that [the effect] neither
exists nor does not exist. It is illogical that [the cause is active] in the
Without one, there are not many. Without many, one is not possible. Whatever
arises dependently is indeterminable.
The twelve dependently arising members, which result in suffering, are unborn.
They are possible neither in one mind nor in many.
Permanent is not, impermanent is not, not-self is not, self is not, impure is
not, pure is not, pleasure is not, and suffering is not. Therefore the
perverted views do not exist.
Without these, ignorance based on the four bad views is not possible. Without
this [ignorance], the formative forces do not arise. The same [is true] for the
[ten] remaining [dependently arising members].
Ignorance does not occur without the formative forces [and] without it the
formative forces do not arise. Caused by one another, they are not established
How can that which is not established by own-being create others? Conditions
established by others cannot create others.
A father is not a son, a son is not a father. Neither exists except in
correlation with the other. Nor are they simultaneous. Likewise for the twelve
Just as pleasure and pain depending on an object in a dream do not have [a
real] object, so neither that which arises dependently nor that which it arises
in dependence on exists.
Opponent: If things do not exist by own-being, then low, moderate, and
excellent and the manifold world are not established and cannot be established,
even through a cause.
Reply: If own-being were established, dependently arising things would
not occur. If [they were] unconditioned, how could own-being be lacking? True
being also does not vanish.
How can the non-existing have own-being, other-being, or non-being?
Consequently, own-being, other-being, and non-being [result from] perverted
Opponent: If things were empty, origination and cessation would not
occur. That which is empty of own-being: How does it arise and how does it
Reply: Being and non-being are not simultaneous. Without non-being, no
being. Being and non-being would always be. There is no being independent of
Without being there is no non-being. [Being] neither arises from itself nor
from [something] else. This being so, this [being] does not exist: So there is
no being, and [therefore] no non-being.
If there is being there is permanence; if there is non-being there is
necessarily annihilation. When there is being, these two [dogmas] occur.
Therefore [one should] not accept being.
Opponent: These [dogmas] do not occur due to continuity: Things cease
after having caused [an effect]. Reply: As before [see v. 19], this
[continuity] is unestablished. It also follows that the continuity would be
Opponent: [No!] The Buddha's teaching of the path aims at showing
origination and cessation, not sunyata! Reply: To experience the two as
mutually exclusive is a mistake.
Opponent: If there is no origination and cessation, then to the
cessation of what is nirvana due? Reply: Is not liberation this: that by
nature nothing arises and ceases?
If nirvana [resulted] from cessation, [then there would be] destruction. If the
contrary, [there would be] permanence. Therefore it is not logical that nirvana
is being or non-being.
If a definite cessation did abide, it would be independent of being. It does
not exist without being, nor does it exist without non-being.
The marked is established through a mark different from the marked; it is not
established by itself. Nor are the [two] established by each other, [since what
is] not established cannot establish the not-established.
In this [way], cause, effect, feeling, feeler, and so forth, the seer, the
visible, and so forth — whatever may be — all are explained,
The three times do not exist (substantially) since they are unfixed and are
mutually established, since they change [and] are not self-established, [and]
since there is no being. They are merely discriminations.
Since the three marks of the conditioned — origination, duration, and
cessation — do not exist, there is not the slightest conditioned or
The non-destroyed does not cease, nor does the destroyed. The abiding does not
abide, nor does the non-abiding. The born is not born, nor is the unborn.
Composite and non-composite are not many [and] not one; are not being [and] are
not non-being; are not being-non-being. All [possibilities] are comprised
within these limits.
Opponent: The Bhagavat, the Teacher, has spoken of karma's duration, of
karma's nature, and of karma's result, and also of the personal karma of living
beings and of the non-destruction of karma.
Reply: Karma is said to lack own-being. [Karma] that is not born is not
destroyed. From that again I-making is born. But the belief that creates it is
due to discrimination.
If karma had own-being the body created by it would be permanent. So karma
would not result in suffering and would therefore be substantial.
Karma is not born from conditions and by no means from non-conditions, for
karma-formations are like an illusion, a city of gandharvas, and a mirage.
Karma has klesas as its cause. [Being] klesas, the karma-formations are of
impassioned nature (klesatmaka). A body has karma as its cause. So [all] three
are empty of own-being.
Without karma, no agent. Without these two, no result. Without these, no
enjoyer. Therefore things are void.
When — because the truth is seen — one correctly understands that
karma is empty, karma does not arise. When [karma] is no more, what arises from
karma arises no more.
Just as when the Lord Tathagata magically projects an apparition and this
apparition again projects another apparition-
In that case the Tathagata's apparition is empty (not to mention the apparition
[created] by the apparition!). Both of them are but names, merely insignificant
Just so, the agent is like the apparition, and karma is like the apparition
[created] by the apparition. By nature [they are] without significance: mere
If karma possessed own-being, there would be no nirvana nor deeds [of an]
agent. If [karma] does not exist, the pleasant or unpleasant result created by
karma does not exist.
'Is' and 'is not' and also 'is-is not' have been stated by the Buddhas for a
purpose. It is not easy to understand!
If form is material (bhautika) in itself, it does not arise from the elements
(bhuta). It is not derived from itself—It does not exist, doei it?
—nor from anything else. Therefore it does hot exist [at all].
The fouf [great elements] are not [found] in one [element], nor is oftt of them
[found] in [any of] the four. How can form be established With the four great
elements as [its] cause?
Since it is hot conceivid directly, [it seems form does] not exist. But if [you
maintain it to be conceived] through a mark, that mark, borh torn causes and
conditions, does not exist. And it would fee illogical [if fOrrrt eOUld exlsl] Without
If mind could grasp form, it would grasp its own own-being. How could a [mind]
that does not exist (since it is born from conditions) really conceive absence
Since one moment of mind cannot within [the very same] moment grasp a form born
(as explained), how could it understand a past and a future form?
Since color and shape never exist apart, they cannot be conceived apart. Is
form not acknowledged to be one?
The sense of sight is not inside the eye, not inside form, and not in between.
[Therefore] an image depending upon form and eye is false.
If the eye does not see itself, how can it see form? Therefore eye and form are
without self. The same [is true for the] remaining sense-fields.
Eye is empty of its own self [and] of another's self. Form is also empty. Likewise
[for the] remaining sense-fields.
When one [sense-field] occurs simultaneously with contact, the others are
empty. Empty does not depend upon nonempty, nor does non-empty depend upon
Having no [independent] fixed nature, the three [namely, indriya, visaya, and
vijnana] cannot come into contact. Since there is no contact having this
nature, feeling does not exist.
Consciousness occurs in dependence on the internal and external sense-fields.
Therefore consciousness is empty, like mirages and illusions.
Since consciousness arises in dependence on a discernible object, the
discernible does not exist [in itself]. Since [the conscious subject] does not
exist without the discernible and consciousness, the conscious subject does not
exist [by itself].
[In a relative sense] everything is impermanent, but [in the absolute sense]
nothing is permanent or impermanent. [If there] were things, they would be
either permanent or impermanent. But how is that [possible]?
Since the entities 'desire', 'hatred', and 'delusion' arise through perverted
views about pleasant and unpleasant, desire, hatred, and delusion do not exist
Since one [may] desire, hate, and be deluded regarding the very same [thing],
[the passions] are created by discrimination. And that discrimination is
That which is imagined does not exist. Without an imagined object, how can
there be imagination? Since the imagined and the imagination are born from
conditions, [they are] sunyata.
Through understanding the truth, ignorance, which arises from the four
perverted views, does not exist. When this is no more, the karma-formations do
not arise. The remaining [ten members vanish] likewise.
The thing that arises in dependence upon this or that does not arise when that
is absent. Being and non-being, composite and non-composite are at peace
— this is nirvana.
To imagine that things born through causes and conditions are real the Teacher
calls ignorance. From that the twelve members arise.
But when one has understood by seeing fully that things are empty, one is no
longer deluded. Ignorance ceases, and the twelve spokes [of the wheel] come to
Karma-formations are like the city of gandharvas, illusions, mirages, nets of
hair, foam, bubbles, phantoms, dreams, and wheels made with a firebrand.
Nothing exists by virtue of own-being, nor is there any non-being here. Being
and non-being, born through causes and conditions, are empty.
Since all things are empty of own-being, the incomparable Tathagata teaches
dependent co-origination regarding things.
The ultimate meaning consists in that! The perfect Buddhas, the Bhagavats, have
[only] conceived the entire multiplicity in reliance upon worldly convention.
The worldly norms [dharmas] are not violated. In reality [the Tathagata] has
not taught the Dharma. Not understanding the Tathagata's words, [fools] fear
this spotless discourse.
The worldly principle, "This arises depending on that," is not
violated. But since what is dependent lacks own-being, how can it exist? That
One with faith who tries to seek the truth, one who considers this principle
logically [and] relies [upon] the Dharma that is lacking all supports leaves
behind existence and non-existence [and abides in] peace.
When one understands that "This is a result of that/' the nets of bad
views all vanish. Undefiled, one abandons desire, delusion, and hatred and
1. In the words
of MK XXIV, 8: dve satye samupasritya buddhanam dharmadesana; cf. VV 28; YS
30-33. For vyavahara in general, see May (1959), p. 221, n. 760. Here
*lokavyavaharavasat equals the karyavasat of YS 33.
2. This verse
about tattva (i.e., paramartha, etc.) summarizes MK XVIII, 1-7.
3. For a similar
reason for anutpada, see VV 1, 21; MK I; XX. Due to the fact that things lack
svabhava they are termed sunya. VV, passim.
4. This refutes
the three hypothetically possible subjects of origination: sat, etc. Really
there are four kotis; see e.g. CS III, 23. Similar refutations in MK VII, 20;
CS I, 13, and elsewhere.
5. Refutation of
utpada as the first of the three samskrtalaksana; cf. MK VII, 1-2. While this
verse corresponds to *Dvadasadvaraka 26 (Taisho 1568, 167a23-24), the latter
may have read "jatajatavinir-mukta (cf. MK II, 1) in pada c.
6. Again, utpada
is absurd because the notion of hetu (i.e. to utpada) is untenable. See
MK XX; RA I, 47: pragjatah sahajatas ca hetur ahetuko 'rthatah I prajnapter
apratitatvad utpattes caiva tattvatah II
7. Things (bhava)
are also empty because they cannot be indicated (animitta) in terms of numbers
(samkhya), since numbers also are pratityasamutpanna. Here the concept of
eka/aneka seems quite concrete, so that eka = ksana or paramanu. Cf. RA I,
8. Nor can citta
(sems) be called eka or bhinna (i.e. aneka) because, as we shall see, its
'content' (i.e., duhkha due to avidyadi) is in fact ajata. This verse is
'quoted' at *Dvadasadvaraka 2 (160a22-23).
9. The four
viparyasas (see MK XXIII) do not exist in themselves. Hence avidyadi, which is
based on them, does not exist either.
avidyadi are anutpanna (i.e. sunya) because they are pratityasamutpanna (in the
sense of MK XXVI, 1-12 and/or PK 1-5), pitaputravat (cf. VV 49-50). Thus sukha
and duhkha (compare v. 8) are no more real than experiences in a dream (cf. CS
I, 17; III, 5).
15. In fact, aU
the laukikasamvyavahara (see MK XIV, 6-40; VV 70; v. 1 above) are only possible
because they are pratityasamutpanna.
17. The various
forms of bhava (svabhava, parabhava, abhava and bhava as such) are only
conceivable in mutual dependence. They do not occur independently. Compare MK
XV. For v. 18. in particular cf. MK XXIV, 1; XXV, 1-2. The Akutobhaya ad MK
XXI, 6 quotes 19-21 as being from the Sunya tasaptati. *Dvadasadvaraka 20
(164b27-28) seems to be identical with SS 19.
of bhava would also imply sasvatocchedagraha. Cf. May, op. cit., p.
213, n. 720; 11] XXIII, p. 179, n. 58 (cf. ibid., p. 178, n. 9); MK XXI,
14. The verse is quoted in Madhyamakalarhkaravrtti, Pek. ed. 5285, Sa, fol. 75a
(with Catuhsataka X, 25 and RA I, 60 to the same effect).
22. The notion
of samtana does not prevent sasvatocchedagraha. Cf. v. 19; MK XVII; XXI,
15-21. This, of course, is the case only paramarthatah. Cf. MK XXVII, 22;
Catuhsataka X, 25.
23. Since there
is no bhava, etc., nirvana cannot be defined as (bhava)nirodha, or abhava. In
fact, utpada and nirodha are sheer illusions (cf. MK XXI, 11 and Lankavatara X,
37; MK XXV; RA I, 42; SL 105, 123). Thus Nagarjuna's notion of nirvana does not
27. Again, bhava
in its various forms cannot be established by means of laksyalaksana because
they are asiddha (see MK II, 21). Cf. MK IV, 7; V; CS I, 12; *Dvadasadvaraka
18-19 (163cl6-17; 164alO-ll).
refutation of kala is a summary of MK XIX. See also *Dvadasadvaraka 25
(166c21-22); Catuhsataka XI.
30. Sarhskrta and
asamskrta cannot be established because their three laksanas (utpada, sthiti,
bhahga) cannot be established as either eka or aneka, etc. See MK VII and
*Dvadasadvaraka IV (162c-163cl3).
33. What follows
is a rather lengthy treatment of karma according to Madhyamaka. 33 summarizes
MK XVII, 1-10. The remaining verses explain why, paramarthatah, karma is sunya
and how it is pratityasamutpanna: Vikalpa (cf. v. 64) in the form of aharhkara
(cf. RA I, 27-35) generates klesa (cf. MK XXIII, 1; XVIII 5), which again gives
rise to karma, which finally conditions one's deha (MK XVII, 27) or rebirth
(janma; see RA I, 35; II, 24). This cyclic process (cf. PK 1-5) can only cease
through cognition (jnana, darsana, etc.) of tattva; that is, of sunya ta. SS
40-42 rec. by La Vallee Poussin, Prasannapada, p. 330, n. 1. The Buddha's
desana (v. 44) varies, as it depends upon sattvasaya. See MK XVIII, 6; BV
98-99; RA IV, 94-96; YS 33.
41. Is this verse
a later interpolation?
44. An allusion
to satyadvaya, the two truths.
45. In vv. 45-54
the author refutes the existence of rupa, which, sarhvrtitah, is varna and samsthana (see v. 50). First,
rupa is unreal because it is neither one with the mahabhuta nor different from
them. Similarly MK IV, 1-5.
46. Again, the
mahabhuta cannot be established as eka or aneka (RA I, 83-89). So rupa cannot
be bhautika. Cf. RA I, 99; CS I, 5.
47. One cannot infer
the existence of rupa from its lihga. This means, I assume, that
bhautika cannot e.g. be subtle, as it is derived from bhuta that must be gross.
See RA I, 90; Pancaskandhapra-karana, p. 2. If, on the other hand, rupa really
did exist (as the Abhi-dharmika contends), it could not be without lihga (i.e.
it could not change its linga under the influence of the mahabhuta).
48. Here I take
buddhi in the sense of caksurvijhana (cf. the use of ghatabuddhi at VP
16-19). Since caksurupe pratltyaivam ukto vijnanasarhbhavah (RA IV, 55),
such a buddhi is med pa; i.e., sunya. So it cannot perceive rupa, to which a
similar argument applies. Moreover, buddhi would have to perceive itself (which
is absurd) in order to perceive other things (i.e. rupa). Cf. MK III, 2 (which
must be understood in the sense of Catuhsataka XIII, 16); RA IV, 64.
buddhi cannot perceive rupa/visaya, for being ksanika, objects are never
sarhprata. A buddhi which has atlta or anagata as its object is vyartha. See RA
50. That ruparh
dvidha varnah samsthanarh ca is well-known; cf. e.g. Amrtarasa, p. 115;
Pahcaskandhaprakarana, p. 4. See also Catuhsataka XIII, 7.
Catuhsataka XIII, 17.
52. As each of
the twelve ayatanas cannot fulfill its respective function in itself it lacks
svabhava and is sunya, for akrtrimah svabhavo hi nirapeksah paratra ca (MK XV,
2). Cf. MK III.
commentariu^ to this verse are far from exhaustive. But see RA IV, 52-54. Since
each of the six sparsayatana (= indriya, for which see the references in CPD
II, p. 129) can have only one object (artha/visaya) at a time (RA IV, 52;
Catuhsataka XI, 18), the senses and their respective objects, taken pratyekam,
must be vyartha (RAIV, 54).
55. There can be
no sarhnipata (i.e., sparsa: MK XXVI, 5) between indriya, visaya, and
vijriana, since as shown (see also MK XIV) none of the three exist by
themselves. Hence they cannot come together. Thus it is only sarhvrtitah that
one can say sparsac ca vedana sarhpravartate (MKXXVI, 5).
56. A refutation
of the fifth skandha, its objects, and its agent. Similarly CS I, 10; BV 26-56;
Catuhsataka XIII, 23. Cf. CS III, 50.
58. Verses 58-61
argue that the four perverted views, the source of avidya (see vv. 10, 62), do
not exist paramarthatah. Since the concept of bhava is untenable (as shown in
vv. 7, 17 ff.), nothing can really be either nitya or anitya, etc. The verse is
quoted in Madhyamakalamkaravrtti, loc. cit., 72b: thams cad rtag min mi rtag
pa'ang I I ci yang med de rtag de bzhin I I dngos yod rtag dang mi rtag par I I
'gyur na de ni ga la yod II.
59. The klesas
are — sarhvrtitah — born from the perverted views (MK XXIII, 1).
But as experience shows (cf. BV 19-20; Catuhsataka VIII, 2-3), the perverted
views must be sheer vikalpas. This implies that a vikalpa really has no
definite object before it. Thus, paramarthatah, without an object a vikalpa is
62. Now that
avidya has been deprived of its basis, the eleven aiigas based upon avidya also
vanish, QED. Cf. the identification of avidya with pindasamjria, etc. (=
viparyasa) in the Salistambasutra, quoted in the Prasannapada, p. 562.
63. So avidya is
simply lack of awareness of the universal law of pratltyasamutpada. See MK
XVIII, 9-11. It is, as the svavrtti to v. 64 says, brten pa'i dngos por mngon
par zhen pa dang Ita ba dang rtog pa dang 'dzin pa. We may add
bhavabhavaparamarsa, RA I, 42; bhavabhyupagama, YS 46. See the Dhammasahgani,
p. 213 for these equivalents (. . . gaha, patiggaha, abhinivesa, paramasa,
vipariyasaggaha . . .)
65. When one
realizes that bhava, etc. are sunya; that they lack svabhava and are like
illusions, etc., avidya and the rest vanish. This amounts to paramartha. Cf. MK
XXVI, 11; CS III, 36 ff.
69. However, as
long as one has not yet realized paramartha, one must have sraddha (cf. RA I
5-6) and rely on vyavahara (cf MK XXIV, 8-10; BV 67). In this way is nirvana;
i.e. ragadvesa-mohaprahana (°ksaya) (see SS 221a4, quoting Sarhyuktagama; cf.
Samyutta IV, p. 251 ff.), approached and attained (cf. MK XXIV, 10).