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A Comparative Analysis of Nāgārjuna’s Śūnyatā Doctrine and Its Connection with Early Buddhism by Sanjoy Barua Chowdhury

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A Comparative Analysis of Nāgārjuna’s Śūnyatā Doctrine and Its Connection with Early Buddhism
Sanjoy Barua Chowdhury[1]
Masters of Arts in Buddhist Studies
International Buddhist College, Thailand

1. Introduction

Eminent Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna was an outstanding figure of Madhyamaka School who lived in the first and second century C.E[2]. For the Mahāyāna and Tibetan traditions, Nāgārjuna has been considered as the second Buddha (anu-buddha), occupying a second position in the line of patriarchs in almost all schools of Buddhism[3]. Nāgārjuna wrote a superb text Mūlamadhyamakārikā (The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), from which a school called ‘Madhyamaka’ emerged. In the great text Mūlamadhyamakārikā, Venerable Nāgārjuna precisely advocated on the world beyond neither believing in existence (skt. astitā, pāli: atthita) nor non-existence (skt. nāstitā, pāli: natthita), but everything dependently originating (pratītyasamutpāda) and empty of self-nature (svabhāva). His doctrine of śūnyatā (emptiness) rejects the two extremes, existence and non-existence of things, and follows the middle way (madhyamā-pratipād). The object of my essay is to disclose a brief historical and doctrinal analysis of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy, and a comparative analysis of Nāgārjuna’s śūnyatā (emptiness) philosophy with the Buddha’s early teaching of non-self (anātman), dependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda), and middle way (madhyamā-pratipād).

2. The meaning of the term Śūnyatā

Śūnyatā itself is considered as the central philosophical concept of the Madhyamaka School. The word śūnyatā is the Sanskrit term, which generally is translated into English as ‘emptiness,’ ‘nothingness’, ‘devoid’ or ‘voidness’. Etymologically, the wordśūnyatā’ derives from the adjective śūnya (Śanskrit grammar), suñña (Pāli grammar), śūna (Vedic grammar)[4]. However, śūnyatā is renown as suññata in Pāli language, which refers to the same meaning as Sanskrit term related to many important Buddhist words, such as ‘sññagārā’, ‘suññatānupassanā’, ‘suññatāsamādhi’, ‘suññatācetovimutti’, ‘suññatā-vimokkha’, ‘suññatāvihāra’, etc.[5]. Regarding to the early Buddhist literatures, ‘emptiness’ (śūnyatā) is described from three perspectives, namely, treating it (śūnyatā) as a meditative dwelling, as an attribute of objects, and as a type of awareness release. For instance, according to the Mahāsuññata Sutta from the Majjhima Nikāya, the Buddha advocated to the monk for going to the forest (araññagato), going to the root of a tree (rukka-mūlagato) and going to an empty place (suññagāra-gato), sitting cross-legged, holding the body straight, setting mindfulness in front of him, and mindfully breathing out[6]. Herein, the Buddha used the word śūnyatā as an object of mindfulness meditation and a type of awareness release for monks.

Moreover, the Buddha explicitly explained the notion of śūnyatā when Venerable Ānanda asked the Blessed One in what respect is the world so-called empty. Having heard Ānanda’s question carefully, the Buddha replied, “suññam idaṁ atteva vā attaniyena vā”, which means “insofar as it (the world) is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self, thus it is said, Ānanda, that the world is empty”.[7] By contrast, Eminent Nāgārjuna states śūnyata as the remover of all types of view (Pāli: diţţhi, skt. drŗti). Hence, Venerable Nāgārjuna addresses, “Sarvadṛsti prahānā Śūnyatāṁ tāṁ pracatsmahe”, which means “śūnyatā is thought to eliminate all views[8]. Nevertheless, the word śūnyatā has been interpreted and used for various purposes by the Buddha himself. According to the great text Mūlamadhyamakārikā, Venerable Nāgārjuna mostly used the word śūnyatā as the skillful means (upāya kauśalya) and as one’s self-nature (svabhāva).

3. Background of Nāgārjūna’s Śūnyatā doctrine

Regarding the early Buddhist scriptures, we came to know that the Blessed One had used the term śūnyatā for various aspects to express the subtle doctrine skillfully to his followers. Nevertheless, śūnyatā doctrine was widely evolved by Nāgārjuna during his lifespan. Nāgārjuna’s main purpose for developing the śūnyatā doctrine was to negate Ābhidharmika interpretation, i.e., dharma-theory[9]. There were several influential Ābhidharmika Schools, such as Sarvāsivādins, Vaibhāsikas, Vibhajyavāda, and Vātsiputriya. Sarvāsivāda was the most influential Ābhidharmika School that was opposed to Vibhajyavādins, and claimed that ‘sarvaṁ asti’, which means all dharmas exist for the three periods of time[10]. In this manner, the past dharma existed, the future dharma will come into existence and the present dharma has already existed. In addition, all dharmas are dependently originated (pratītyasamutpāda) from an assemblage of condition. According to Sarvāsivādins, the dharma assert itself within the three periods of timepast, present and future, and forwarded the theory of self-nature (svabhāva), whereas Sautrāntika School introduced the conception of self (ātman) or person (pudgala). By contrast, with reference to the Ābhidharmika text Abhidharma-kośabhāsya, Vasubandhu asserts the term dharma sustains within its own characteristic, whether Abhidharma-mahāvibhāşaśāstra refers to the dharma having its own self characteristic cannot be predicted apart from the dharma itself[11]. On the contrary of all Ābhidharmika Schools, Nāgārjuna precisely gave the doctrine of emptiness or empty of selfnature or empty of existing dharmas, by which he recounts the non-self (anātman) doctrine of the Buddha. Eminent Nāgārjuna invented the restatement of no-self doctrine and dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) of the Buddha to answer the dharma-theory of Ābhidharmikas[12]. This is the main reason to introduce the śūnyatā doctrine by Nāgārjuna to refute the dharma-theory of Ābhidharmika Schools.

4. A Comparative Analysis of Nāgārjuna’s Śūnyatā with Early Buddhism

Madhyamaka School, founded by Nāgārjuna, was based on śūnyatā (emptiness) doctrine. In addition, the Madhyamaka doctrine was not a revolution; it was an evolutionary development. Eminent Nāgārjuna simply reinterpreted the fundamental doctrine of the Buddha’s early teachings of non-self (anātman), dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda), and middle way (madhyamā-pratipād) through his masterpiece work Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

4.1 Nāgārjuna’s Śūnyatā and the Buddha’s Anātman Doctrine

Typically the Buddha rejected the concept of soul (ātman). With reference to the Pāli discourse, the Buddha precisely states that ‘sabbe saṅkhara anattā’, which means ‘all conditions are non-self[13]. Moreover, according to the Brahmajāla Sutta of Dīgha Nikāya, the concept of universal self (Pāli: atta, skt. ātman) is the foremost central philosophical problematic doctrine among sixty two views (Pāli: diţţhi, skt. dŗşţi)[14]. The Buddha clearly refuted such kind of dogmatic doctrine and his statement on the concept of self or non-self explicitly appeared in the Anattalakkhaṅa Sutta of Saṁyutta Nikāya as follows:

“Tathāgato bhikkhave, arahaṃ sammāsambuddho saṃkhārānaṃ nibbidā virāgā nirodhā anupādāvimutto, viññāṇassa nibbidā virāgā nirodhā anupādāvimutto 'sammāsambuddhā'ti vuccati, bhikkhūpi bhikkhave, paññāvimutto viññāṇassa nibbidā virāgā nirodhā anupādā vimutto 'paññāvimutto'ti vuccati” (The body, monks, is not self, feeling is not self, perception is not self, mental process is not self. Any feelings, any mental process, any consciousness whatsoever past, future or present, internal or external, blatant or subtle, common or sublime, far or near, every consciousness is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as this is not myself or this is not what I am.)”[15]

On the other hand, Nāgārjuna states the dharmas from an entity different angle, and he reinterprets all dharmas as the causal law (pratītyasamutpāda) to mean relativity i.e., emptiness. Hence, Nāgārjuna criticized all Ābhidhammika Schools due to their theory on dharma which is related to non-self (anātman) doctrine[16]. Nāgārjuna rejected both substance view (atmāvāda) and modal view (dharmavāda) and mentions that if there is no self, how character of one’s own nature (svabhāva) could acquire ultimate reality[17]. Hence, Nāgārjuna expressed in his great work Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā in thus, “ātmanyasati cātmīyaṁ kuta eva bhavişyati, nirmano nirahaṁkāraḥ śamādātmātmanīnayoḥ”, which means, in the absence of self, how can there be something that belongs to the self. Modes of self and self-hood caused the notions of ‘mine’ and ‘I’; and ‘I’ or ‘mine’ lead the mind to the concept of ‘self’.[18]

Thus, Nāgārjuna rejects the dharma theory of the Ābhidharmika Schools like the Buddha’s rejection of the ‘soul theory’ (ātman) that was popular from the Upanişad period. On the contrary, many Buddhist scholars agreed that the theme of śūnyatā emerged from the Buddhist doctrines of no-self (anātman). It is obvious that Nāgārjuna did not use śūnyatā doctrine just only for reinterpreting non-self (pāli: anatta) doctrine, but also he meaningfully tried to clarify the vision on Ābhidharmika-s dogmatic views and recounts the Buddha teaching that all dharma-s are without a self (sabbe dhamma anattā’ti).

4.2 Nāgārjūna’s Śūnyatā Philosophy and Pratītyasamutpāda

The Buddha’s teaching on pratītyasamutpāda or dependent origination is the most fundamental doctrine which was realized on the night of Enlightenment. The importance of the dependent origination is clearly revealed in the Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta of Majjhima Nikāya where the Buddha advocates, “ya paţiccasamuppādaṁ passāti so dhammaṁ passati, yo dhamaṁ passsti so paţiccasamuppādaṁ passati”, which implies “one who sees the dependent origination sees the dharma, one who sees the dharma sees the dependent origination[19]. Moreover, from the Madhyamaka standpoint, Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination exposes the continuity of cause (hetu) and effect (pratyaya), the avoidance of alternative views and ultimately asserts emptiness (śūnyatā). Regarding the great text Mūlamadhyamakārikā, Venerable Nāgārjuna says Madhyamaka is not nihilism, but a clarification of dependent origination, and precisely claims that the doctrine of dependent origination is emptiness[20].

On the contrary, dependent origination describes the reliance of all phenomena upon cause (hetu) and condition (pratyaya). Therefore, with reference to the early Nikāya text Saṁyutta Nikāya, Assaji Thera told Upatissa (subsequently he became well known as Sariputta Thera) thus: “Imasmiṁ sati idaṁ hoti, imassa upādā idaṁ uppajjati, Imasmiṁ asati idaṁ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṁ nirujjhati”, which means “when this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases”[21]. In the same way, Nāgārjuna wrote in the causality verses of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā as follows, “na svato nāpi parato na dvābhyāṁ nāpy ahetutaḥ, utpannā jātu vidyante bhāvāḥ kvacaba kecana”[22], which means “nothing whatever arises; not from itself, not from another, not from both itself and another, and not without a cause”. Nāgārjuna significantly justified and examined that emptiness is the only way to realize the possibility of relational arising; indeed without that, nothing is possible. Therefore, again with reference to the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nāgārjuna said, nothing fails to happen in this way, nothing is empty[23].

By contrast, according to the Prominent Scholar Dr. Peter Della Santina, Nāgārjuna reinterpreted the Buddha’s remarkable teaching dependent origination in order to negate the early Ābhidharmika explanation of exposing conditions (pratyaya)[24]. Nāgārjuna states, “the self-nature (svabhāva) of existence is not found in condition[25]. Nāgārjuna criticized the theory of causation presented by the Sarvāstivādin and the Sautrāntika; therefore, he says “Pratītya yad yad bhavati, tat tac Śūnyatā svabhāvatah”, which means “whatever is subject to conditionality, is by its very nature tranquil and empty[26].

Nevertheless, dependent origination reiterates the principle terms of the Buddha’s teaching that ascribe the functioning of phenomena (dharma) without accepting conception of permanent and eternal entity (nityātman). Hence, Śūnyatā doctrine of Nāgārjuna is considered the significant reinterpretation of the Buddha’s dependent origination. Thus, from the scholastic perspective, this concept widely pronounces that one who will not understand the Buddha’s dependent origination will not able to understand the Śūnyatā doctrine of Nāgārjuna.

4.3 Nāgārjūna’s Śūnyatā Doctrine and Madyamā-pratipād

The main teaching of Nāgārjuna is the doctrine of Śūnyatā (emptiness) widely known as the doctrine of the middle way (madhyamā-pratipad). Nāgārjuna in his remarkable text Mūlamadhyamakakārikā clearly states that the doctrine of Śūnyatā itself depends upon and follows the middle way position. Therefore, Nāgārjuna says, “Yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaḥ śūnyatām tām pracakşmahe, sā prajñaptir upādāya pratipat saiva madhyamā”[27], which means “whatever is dependent arising that is emptiness, that is dependent upon convention, and that itself is the middle way”. Moreover, according to the kaccāyangotta Sutta of Saṁyutta Nikāya, the Buddha advocates to his disciple Kaccāyana (skt. Kātyāyana) that “atthiti kho kaccāyana ayaṁ eko ante, natthiti kho kaccāyana ayam duti yo, ete te ubho ante anupagamma, majjhema tathāgatha dhammaṁ desiti”, which means “O Kaccāyana, the view that everything exists is one extreme, non-existence is another extreme; avoiding these two extremes, the Buddha teaches the Dhamma in the middle way[28]. Regarding the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta, we can observe the Buddha’s crystal standpoint on the middle way doctrine through rejecting two kinds of extreme philosophies that are precisely renown as wrong view in Buddhism. Furthermore, in the very first discourse Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion), the Buddha demonstrated his clear rejection of the two extremes of self-indulgence (kāmasukhallikānuyoga) and self-mortification (attakilomathānyoga), following the noble eightfold path (ariya aţţhangika magga) as the middle way. However, in the same way as the Buddha’s rejection of the two extreme views, Venerable Nāgārjuna states in the Mūlamadhyamakārikā that “asīiti śāśvatagrāho nāstīt yuccheda darśanaṁ, tasmād astitvanāstitve nāśrīyeta vicakşaṅaḥ”,[29] which means ‘exists’ implies grasping eternalism, ‘does not exist’ implies the philosophy of nihilism. Therefore, a discerning person should not rely on either existence or non-existence. In addition, eternalism (śāśvatavāda) implies the existence of transmigrating soul, whereas nihilism (ucchedavāda) implies a metaphysical materialistic view. Nevertheless, the Buddha categorically rejected both extreme views- the existence of permanent entity and the view of nihilism.

In addition, Nāgārjuna significantly rejects the Sarvāsivādins interpretation of self-nature thus: “svabhāvaṁ parabhāvaṁ ca bhāvaṁ cā bhāvameva ca, ye paśyanti na paśyanti te tattvaṁ buddhaśāsane”[30], which states, those who see the own-nature, other nature, extended nature, existence, non-existence do not perceive the real truth in the Buddha’s teaching. Herein, Nāgārjuna tried to explain that the Buddha’s teaching clearly indicated the path which leads to the middle way position. By contrast, many Buddhist scholars have often misunderstood and misinterpreted the śūnyatā doctrine of Nāgārjuna as a nihilistic doctrine. Mūlamadhyamakārikā of Nāgārjuna clearly reveals that his śūnyatā (emptiness) doctrine is not nihilist either; it is the middle way and it is cause genesis (pratītyasamutpāda). The middle way position of Nāgārjuna itself is śūnyatā, implying the state of emptiness where there is no acceptance or negation and even neither acceptance nor negation.

5. Conclusion

Nāgārjuna logically concludes his śūnyatā (emptiness) doctrine that things are based on two truths similar to the Buddha’s interpretation. The Blessed One’s teaching rests on two truths, namely, conventional truth (samvŗti satya), and truth in the highest sense (paramārtha satya). One who does not comprehend the distinction between these two truths does not comprehend the profound meaning of the Buddha’s teaching[31]. Eminent Nāgārjuna’s purpose was to introduce Madhyamaka doctrine not only refuting Ābhidharmika doctrine, but also for crystalizing śūnyatā doctrine that could encourage a yogi (practitioner) to acquire final liberation, i.e., nirvāṅa. Nāgārjuna’s positive approach is explicitly revealed in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā where he states that there is no differentiation between nirvāṅa and saṁsāra[32], because he expressed that without experiencing the true nature of un-satisfactions (dukkha) in this saṁsāra, how could one realize the essentiality of nirvāṅa. In fact, conventional truth (samvŗti satya) conceals the true nature of reality, whereas the ultimate truth (paramārtha satya) precisely transcends conventional truth which is beyond thought and language. This is way the Buddha always kept in noble silence when he was questioned on metaphysical matters which cannot bring ones liberation from this cycle of life (saṁsāra). Nāgārjuna in his monumental text Mūlamadhyamakakārikā states that the highest truth cannot be understood without conventional truth, thus says, the ultimate truth cannot be taught without recourse to conventional truth. Hence, Nāgārjuna mentioned that understanding śūnyatā (emptiness) is the ultimate reality, and sates that ‘it is empty; is not be said, ‘it is non-empty’ is not to be said, ‘it is non-empty’, nor ‘both are empty’, nor ‘it is neither’. They are only for the purpose of verbal designation (prajñaptir upādāya). This is the way in which Nāgārjuna attempted to establish the non-substantiality of elements (dharma-nairātmya) and the non-substantiality of the human personality (pudgala-nairātmya).

In conclusion, I firmly assert that the śūnyatā (emptiness) doctrine of Nāgārjuna is very significant among other doctrines in Buddhism. Nāgārjuna did not accept any kind of dogmatic concepts, but clearly explained in logical way and demonstrated to the people not to grasp in attachment as the Buddha advices. The śūnyatā (emptiness) doctrine of Nāgārjuna is the teaching of the Buddha, which is par excellence.


C.E. - Common Era
i.e. - id est (that is)
MN - Majjhima Nikāya
MMK - Mūlamadhyamakakārikā
Op.cit - Work Cited
P. - Page Number
PTS - Pāli Text society
Skt. - Sanskrit
SN - Saṁyutta Nikāya


  • Bhuripalo, Phramaha Thongyod, The Study of Suññatā in Theravāda Buddhism ; Bihar: Wat Thai Buddgagaya Bodh-Gaya, 2008.
  • Mun-keat, choong, The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism; Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Private Limited, 1999.
  • Inada, Kenneth K., Nāgārjuna : A Translation of his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā; Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 1993.
  • Kalupahana, David J., Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way; Delhi: Motilal Benarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1999.
  • Kalupahana, David J., Nagarjuna’s Moral Philosophy and Sinhala Buddhism; Colomboo: University of Kelaniya, 1995.
  • Murti, T.R.V., The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of Madhyamaka System; Delhi: Munsilal Manoharalal Publications, 1998.
  • Nārada, The Buddha and His Teachings; Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 2009.
  • Santina, Peter Della; Madhyamaka Schools in India; Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1995.
  • Santina, Peter Della, Causality and Emptiness: The Wisdom of Nāgārjuna; Singapore: Buddhist Research Society, Singapore, 2002.
  • Wood, Thomas E., Nagarjuna Disputations: A Philosophical Journey through an Indian Looking-Glass; Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 1995.
  • Kapila Abhayawansa, “The Truth of Suffering and the Truth of Cessation of Suffering: Their Identification in the Buddhist Scholasticism” Ňāṅappabhā : A Felicitation volume in Honour of Venerable Gnanarama Māha Thera; Singapore: Ti Sarana Buddhist association, 2011.

Electronic Sources


  1. Master of Arts in Buddhist Studies, International Buddhist College, Thailand.<>
  2. Inada, Kenneth K., Nāgārjuna : A Translation of his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 1993), p. 3.
  3. Kalupahana, David J., Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way (Delhi: Motilal Benarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1999), p. 3.
  4. Bhuripalo, Phramaha Thongyod, The Study of Suññatā in Theravāda Buddhism (Bihar: Wat Thai Buddgagaya Bodh-Gaya, India, 2008), p. 39.
  5. Ibid, p. 40
  6. T Maha-suññata Sutta: MN 122.
  7. Op.cit, PTS; p. 110.
  8. Op.cit. Kalupahana, pp. 92-93.
  9. Kapila Abhayawansa, “The Truth of Suffering and the Truth of Cessation of Suffering: Their Identification in the Buddhist Scholasticism” Ňāṅappabhā : A Felicitation volume in Honour of Venerable Gnanarama Māha Thera (Singapore: Ti Sarana Buddhist association, 2011), p. 36.
  10. Ibid, pp. 36-38.
  11. Murti, T.R.V., The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of Madhyamaka System (Delhi: Munsilal Manoharalal Publications, 1998), pp. 55-77.
  12. Wood, Thomas E., Nagarjuna Disputations: A Philosophical Journey through an Indian Looking-Glass (Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 1995), pp. 40-41.
  13. Maggavagga: Dh. 279, PTS; p. 40.
  14. Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Brahmajāla Sutta: The All-embracing Net of Views”. <> Web. 21 February, 2014.
  15. Cf. Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: SN 22.59; PTS, p. 66 & Ñanamoli Thera, “Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic” <> Web. 22 February, 2014.
  16. Op.cit. Wood, pp. 3-7.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ātma Parīkşā; MMK.: 28.2.
  19. Mahāhatthipadopamasuttaṁ : MN 28; PTS, p. 191.
  20. Santina, Peter Della; Madhyamaka Schools in India (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1995), pp. 41-43.
  21. Op.cit. Nārada, The Buddha and His Teachings (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 2009), p. 419.
  22. Pratyaya Parīkşā; MMK.: 1.1.
  23. Arya-satya Parīkşā; MMK.: 24.39.
  24. Santina, pp. 2-11.
  25. Svabhāva Parīkşā; MMK.: 25.1.
  26. Op.cit. Santina, Peter Della, Causality and Emptiness: The Wisdom of Nāgārjuna (Singapore: Buddhist Research Society, Singapore, 2002) pp. 7-14.
  27. Āryasatya Parīkşā; MMK.: 24.18.
  28. Kaccāyana gotta sutta: SN 12.25; PTS, p. 17.
  29. Svabhāva Parīkşā :MMK 15.10.
  30. Svabhāva Parīkşā :MMK 15.6.
  31. Op.cit. Kalupahana, p. 17.
  32. Nirvāṅa Parīkşa : MMK 25.19.


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