Questions on Selflessness
Degé Kangyur, vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 5.b–7.b.
Translated by the Dharmasāgara Translation Group
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
Questions on Selflessness consists of a dialogue between a group of followers of the Mahāyāna tradition and a group of tīrthikas, who pose several questions on the doctrine of selflessness. In the exchange that follows, the Mahāyāna proponents elucidate this and other key Buddhist doctrines, such as the distinction between relative and ultimate reality, the origin of suffering, the emptiness and illusoriness of all phenomena, and the path to awakening.
This text was translated, introduced, and edited by the Dharmasāgara Translation Group: Raktrul Ngawang Kunga Rinpoche, Rebecca Hufen, Shanshan Jia, Jason Sanche, and Arne Schelling. Thanks to Prof. Harunaga Isaacson (University of Hamburg) for his kind help and support.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
Questions on Selflessness consists of a dialogue between a group of followers of the Mahāyāna tradition and a group of tīrthika philosophers, who call upon the Buddhists to explain and defend their doctrine of selflessness. In the exchange that follows, the proponents of the Mahāyāna point out some of the problems with categorically affirming or denying the existence of a self, and they go on to clarify several related Buddhist doctrines, such as the distinction between relative and ultimate reality, the illusory nature of perceptions, and the emptiness of all phenomena. A passage of dialogue in prose is followed by a set of verses that describe the causes of suffering and the continuous transmigration in cyclic existence, as well as the liberation one attains by engendering the mind of awakening and the perfection of insight. The structure of the text deviates notably from the standard sūtra format, in which a description of the setting and the audience of the discourse is presented, followed by the delivery of the discourse itself and a conclusion extolling the benefits of the teaching. Rather, the text has neither a description of the setting nor the conclusion extolling its benefits, and its content consists not of the words of the Buddha himself but of those of the anonymous followers of the Mahāyāna.
A Sanskrit manuscript of this sūtra, written in Newari script, is preserved in the National Archives of Nepal.1 It was edited, introduced, and translated into French by Lévi (1928). Another edition was prepared by Vaidya (1961) and recently a revised edition was published by the Nairātmaparipṛcchā Study Group (2019). For our translation, we have compared the Tibetan text with this most recent Sanskrit edition by the Nairātmaparipṛcchā Study Group, and mention of the Sanskrit in the notes refers to this edition.
There are also two Chinese translations of this sūtra (Taishō 846 and Taishō 1643), both of which contain some notable differences from the Tibetan and the extant Sanskrit sources. In the earliest Chinese translation (Taishō 846, 外道問聖大乘法無我義經, Wai dao wen sheng dasheng fa wuwo yi jing), which was prepared by Fa Tian (d. 1001) in the year 986, the sūtra begins rather differently than it does in the Tibetan. Here the text starts with the usual opening phrase, “Thus did I hear at one time,” and we are moreover told that the Buddha is present in the assembly and is the one to whom the questions are posed. The other translation (Taishō 1643, 尼乾子問無我義經, Ni gan zi wen wuwo yi jing), which was prepared by Ri Cheng (1017–78) in the year 1063, has the same opening content as the Tibetan and Sanskrit sources, but instead of employing the general designation tīrthika, the translation uses the more specific category of nirgranthajñātiputra (尼乾子), which usually designates the Jains. This specification only exists in this later Chinese translation; otherwise, this translation is quite close to the extant Sanskrit. The translator also attributes the text to Aśvaghoṣa and categorizes it as a treatise (śāstra), rather than a sūtra.2
According to the colophon to the Tibetan translation, it was prepared by the Indian scholar Kamalagupta and the great Tibetan translator Rinchen Sangpo. We can therefore assume that it was undertaken in the first half of the eleventh century, when these two scholars flourished. The first translation of this text from the Tibetan into a Western language was the French translation by Feer in 1883. The translation presented here is based on the Tibetan version in the Degé Kangyur, the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma) of the Kangyur, and the Stok Palace manuscript.
Homage to all buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Now, the tīrthikas—those who hold views based on objects and who engage in concepts and analysis—went among the followers of the Mahāyāna. Respectfully, with joined palms, they asked these questions on selflessness: “Sons of noble family, the Omniscient One taught that there is no self in the body. If there truly3 is no self in the body, then how do playfulness, laughter, crying, enjoyment, anger, pride, jealousy, calumny, and so forth come about? Is there truly a self in the body or not? It would be proper for you to dispel our doubts.”
The followers of the Mahāyāna replied, “Friends, it should not be said that there truly is or is not a self in the body, because to say in this case that there truly is or is not a self is mistaken speech. Now, if there were a self, then why is it not perceptible at all, even after searching through the hair, nails, skin, head, flesh, bones, marrow, fat, ligaments, liver, intestines, throat, hands, feet, limbs, and other minor parts, both inside and outside the body?”
The tīrthikas said, “The self is only visible to those who have the divine eye. How could it be visible to us who only have eyes of flesh?”
The followers of the Mahāyāna replied, “It is not seen even by those with the divine eye. For how can something that has no color, form, or shape be seen?”4
The followers of the Mahāyāna said, “To say that it is nonexistent5 or to say that it is existent is mistaken speech. If it is nonexistent, then why do playfulness, laughter, crying, enjoyment, anger, pride, jealousy, calumny, and so forth arise so clearly? Therefore, it is not correct to say that it is nonexistent. One should not say that it is existent or nonexistent. Since this would be a fault, one should not say that it exists or that it does not exist.”
The followers of the Mahāyāna said, “Nothing at all is apprehended.”
The followers of the Mahāyāna said, “Friends, it is exactly like that! It is as empty as the sky.”
The tīrthikas asked, “If that is so, then how should one view playfulness, laughter, crying, enjoyment, anger, pride, jealousy, calumny, and so forth?”
The followers of the Mahāyāna said, “They should be regarded as like an illusion, a dream, and a magical deception.”
The followers of the Mahāyāna said, “An illusion is a mere analogy. A dream is a mere appearance that is not graspable, empty by nature, and nonexistent in essence. A magical deception is intentionally fabricated. This is the way things are, friends. You should regard all these things as being like an illusion, a dream, and a magical deception.
“Moreover, the distinction between the relative and the ultimate should be pointed out. In this regard, the relative consists in the conception ‘this is self, that is other.’ To conceptualize a soul, a person, [F.6.b] an individual, an agent, an observer, wealth, children, wives, friends, relatives, and so forth is called the relative.
“Where there is no self, no other, no soul, no person, no individual, no agent, no observer, no wealth, no children, no wives, no friends, no relatives, and so forth, this is called the ultimate.6 The relative consists in habitually labeling all things, in the results of virtuous and nonvirtuous deeds, and in birth and cessation.
“The very essence of suchness, where there are no virtuous results, no nonvirtuous results, no birth, and no cessation, is beyond both pollution and purification.7 This is the middle way teaching to strive for in practice. In this regard, it is said:
In the extant Sanskrit, the preceding two verses appear to have become conflated into a single verse of six lines:
(bhramanti cakravan mūḍhā lokadharmasamāvṛtāḥ | paramārthaṃ na jānanti bhavo yatra nirudhyate | veṣṭitā bhavajālena saṃsaranti punaḥ punaḥ.)
The Skt. has two more stanzas here:
(na śvetaṃ nāpi raktaṃ ca na kṛṣṇaṃ na ca pītakam | avarṇaṃ ca nirākāraṃ bodhicittasya lakṣaṇam | nirvikāraṃ nirābhāsaṃ nirūhaṃ nirvibandhakam | arūpaṃ vyomasaṃkāśaṃ bodhicittasya lakṣaṇam.)
Translation of this verse is tentative. The Sanskrit and the two Chinese translations all differ slightly.
The Skt. reads:
(abhrāntare yathā vidyut kṣaṇād api na dṛśyate | prajñāpāramitādṛṣṭyā bhāvayet paramaṃ padam ||.)
Taishō 1643 reads:
(如月處雲中 剎那而不現 以甚深般若 達有為如幻.)
Taishō 846 reads:
“Just as lightning is no longer seen after a moment, observe that the perfection of insight and virtuous actions are also thus.”
The Skt. reads “nirvāṇa” instead of “Mahāyāna.” After this verse, the Sanskrit adds another verse and a concluding sentence:
“Then the tīrthikas, being satisfied, became free from conceptualization, and having concentrated on the practice, they acquired the wisdom of the Mahāyāna.”
(yāvantaḥ saṃvṛter doṣās tāvanto nirvṛter guṇāḥ | nirvṛtiḥ syād anutpattiḥ sarvadoṣair na lipyate || atha te tīrthikāḥ tuṣṭā vikalparahitāḥ | tadā bhāvanāṃ samādhāya mahāyānajñānalābhino 'bhūvann iti || mahāyānanirdeśe nairātmaparipṛcchā samāptā ||.)
bdag med pa dris pa (Nairātmyaparipṛcchā). Toh 173, Degé Kangyur vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 5.b–7.b.
bdag med pa dris pa. bka’ ’gyur (dpe bsdur ma) [Comparative Edition of the Kangyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripitaka Collation Bureau of the China Tibetology Research Center). 108 volumes. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 2006–9, vol. 60, pp. 14–19.
bdag med pa dris pa. Stok Palace Kangyur vol. 72 (mdo sde, zha), folios 322.b–326.a.
Pekar Sangpo (pad dkar bzang po). mdo sde spyi’i rnam bzhag [short title]. bstan pa spyi’i rgyas byed las mdo sde spyi’i rnam bzhag bka’ bsdu ba bzhi pa zhes bya ba’i bstan bcos. Beijing: mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2006. BDRC W1PD76588.
Bhattacharya, Biswanath. “A Critical Appraisal of the Nairātmyaparipṛcchā Ascribed to Aśvaghoṣa.” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Süd- und Ostasiens und Archiv für indische Philosophie 10 (1966): 220–23.
Feer, Léon, trans. Fragments extraits du Kandjour. Annales du Musée Guimet 5. Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1883.
Lévi, Silvain. “Encore Aśvaghoṣa.” Journal Asiatique 213 (1928): 193‒216.
NGMPP (Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project, now NGMCP, Nepalese-German Manuscript Cataloguing Project). Accessed September 6, 2015.
Nairātmaparipṛcchā Study Group. “Nairātmaparipṛcchā: Re-editing Sanskrit text collated with Tibetan and Chinese translations.” Journal of Indian and Tibetan Studies 22 (2019): 111‒52.
Vaidya, P. L. Mahāyāna-sūtra-saṁgraha: Part I. Buddhist Sanskrit Texts 17. Darbhanga: Mithila Institute, 1961.
Fa Tian (法天), trans. Wai dao wen sheng dasheng fa wuwo yi jing (外道問聖大乘無我義經). Taishō 846, vol. 17, pp. 934.a–935.a.
Ri Cheng (日稱), trans. Ni gan zi wen wuwo yi jing (尼乾子問無我義經). Taishō 1643, vol. 32, pp. 172.a–173.a.
- lha mo
Popular figures in Indian culture, apsarases are said to be goddesses of the clouds and water and to be wives of the gandharvas.
One of the five or six classes of sentient beings, specifically dominated by exaltation, indulgence, and pride. According to Buddhist cosmology, the devas are said to exist in many levels of celestial or divine realms, higher than that of the human realm, in the desire realm, in the form realm, and in the formless realm.
- stong pa
A term used to express the absence of any intrinsic essence in all phenomena.
- dri za
In Indian religious mythology, a class of nonhuman beings who often appear as semidivine celestial musicians. The same term is used in certain Buddhist texts in a quite different sense: to denote a disembodied sentient being or anguished spirit in the intermediate state between two lives, seeking the conditions for a new birth as a human or other kind of embodied being.
- ka ma la gub ta
An Indian scholar who was involved in a number of translations during the eleventh century in Tibet.
- mi’am ci
A semidivine being, half horse, half human, also often described as a celestial musician.
- lto ’phyed
Literally “large serpent.” A semidivine being that takes the form of a large serpent, sometimes with a human torso and head. They are a class of subterranean geomantic spirits whose movement through the seasons and months of the year is deemed significant for construction projects.
Perfection of insight
- shes rab pha rol phyin
The sixth of the six perfections, it refers to the profound understanding of the emptiness of all phenomena, the realization of ultimate reality.
- bden pa
Refers in this text to the Buddhist distinction between relative and ultimate. Relative reality refers to the world of reified entities that are believed to have essential existence, whereas ultimate reality refers to the emptiness or lack of inherent existence in all phenomena.
- rin chen bzang po
A famous Tibetan translator who lived from 958 to 1055 ᴄᴇ. He was mainly active in western Tibet, especially at Tholing monastery.
- brgya byin
An alternative name for Indra, lord of the devas, who, according to Buddhist cosmology, resides in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three.
- bdag med
Selflessness denotes the lack of inherent existence in self-identity and also, more subtly, in all physical and mental phenomena.
- grub thob
An accomplished being; a class of semidivine beings.
- mu stegs pa
A follower of a non-Buddhist religious system or philosophy.
- rig ’dzin
A class of semidivine beings who are famous for wielding (dhara) spells (vidyā). Loosely understood as “sorcerers,” these magical beings are frequently petitioned through dhāraṇī and Kriyātantra ritual to grant magical powers to the supplicant. The later Buddhist tradition, playing on the dual valences of vidyā as “spell” and “knowledge,” began to apply this term to realized figures in the Buddhist pantheon.
- gnod sbyin
A class of semidivine beings who haunt or protect forests, rivers, and other natural spaces, or serve as guardians to villages and towns. They are traditionally propitiated for health, wealth, protection, and other boons.