The Ten Similes

From Nagarjuna Bodhisattva's Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom

(T25.101c6-105c18 [fasc.6])


Sutra: They understood all dharmas as being like a [magically-
conjured] illusion, like a mirage, like the moon reflected in water,
like empty space, like an echo, like the city of the Gandharvas, like a
dream, like a shadow, like an image in a mirror, and like a
[supernatural] transformation.
Upadesha: These ten similes are set forth for the sake of
explaining [the nature of] empty dharmas.
[Like a Magically- conjured Illusion]

Question: If all dharmas are like a magically- conjured
illusion, why is it then that dharmas have that by which they can be
viewed, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, and that by which they can be
objects of awareness? If it were actually the case that nothing
whatsoever existed, it should not be the case that [dharmas] have "that
by which they can be viewed" and so forth until we come to "that by
which they can be objects of awareness." Furthermore, if they are
nonexistent and we thus only see them as a function of erroneous
perception, why then don't we see sounds and hear [visual] forms? If
[dharmas] are all equally empty and nonexistent, why is it that there
are those which can be perceived and those which cannot be perceived?
If it were the case that "all dharmas are empty" [as you claim], then it
should be that for any given finger, an extra fingernail would be
nonexistent in just the same manner as the original fingernail is
"nonexistent." Why then don't we see a second fingernail [on any of our
fingers]? [In fact], we only see the original fingernail. Because of
this fact, we know that it is because the original fingernail actually
is existent that it can be seen, whereas it is because an extra
fingernail is actually nonexistent that it can not be seen.
Reply: Although the characteristics of dharmas are empty, still,
there is discrimination [which distinguishes] that which may be
perceived and that which cannot be perceived. For example, although one
may know that magically- conjured illusions of elephants, horses and
other such phenomena are unreal, still, their forms may be seen, their
sounds may be heard, and they may manifest in corresponding opposition
to the six sense faculties without there being any error or confusion in
that regard. This situation is the same with respect to dharmas. This
is as referred to in The Virtuous Woman Scripture (Theriisuutra):
Virtuous Woman addressed the Buddha, inquiring, "World Honored
One, does ignorance exist internally or not?"

The Buddha replied, "No."
"Does it exist externally or not?"
The Buddha replied, "No."
"Does it exist [both] internally and externally, or not?"
The Buddha replied, "No."
"World Honored One, does this ignorance come forth [into the
present] from the past, or not?"
The Buddha replied, "No."
"Does it proceed from the present on to the future or not?"
The Buddha replied, "No."
"Does this ignorance have that which is produced and that which
is destroyed or not?"
The Buddha replied, "No."
"Is there or is there not a dharma with a fixed and actual
nature [of which we may say], 'This is ignorance?'"
The Buddha replied, "No."
At that time Virtuous Woman again addressed the Buddha, asking,
"If it is the case that ignorance does not exist internally, does not
exist externally, also does not exist both internally and externally,
does not come into the present from the past, does not proceed into the
future from the present, and is devoid of a true and actual nature, how
can it be that there is a conditioning of 'action' arising from
'ignorance,' and so forth until we come to the accumulation of a
multitude of sufferings? World Honored One, it is as if there were a
tree. If it were the case that it had no roots, how could it succeed in
putting forth a trunk, limbs, branches, leaves, flowers and fruit?"
The Buddha replied, "Although the marks of all dharmas are
empty, because the foolish common person has not learned this and
because he has no wisdom, he thereby, in the midst of [empty dharmas],
generates all manner of afflictions. Afflictions causally condition the
creation of physical, verbal and mental karmic deeds. Karmic activity
causally conditions the creation of a later bodily incarnation. The
[possession of a] body causally conditions the undergoing of suffering
and the experiencing of pleasure. [However], there is not herein any
actual creation of afflictions. Also, there are no physical, verbal or
mental deeds. Additionally, there is no one who undergoes suffering or
bliss. This is analogous to a magician producing magically- conjured
illusions of all manner of phenomena. What do you think? As for that
which is created through magically- conjured illusions, is it internally
existent, or not?"
She replied, "It is not."
"Is it externally existent?"
She replied, "It is not."
"Is it both internally and externally existent?"
She replied, "It is not."
"Does it or does it not come from the past into the present or
proceed from the present on into the future?"
She replied, "It does not."
"Within that magically- conjured illusion, is there or is there
not anything which is produced or which is destroyed?"
She replied, "There is not."
"Is there or is there not actually any single dharma which is
created by this magically- conjured illusion?"
She replied, "There is not."
The Buddha asked, "In a magically- conjured illusion of a
musical performance, do you or do you not see anything or hear
She replied, "I both hear things and see things."
The Buddha asked Virtuous Woman, "If a magically- conjured
illusion is empty, deceptive and devoid of reality, how is it that there
is able to be the creation of a musical performance from within the
magically- conjured illusion?"
Virtuous Woman addressed the Buddha, saying, "World Honored One,
"The characteristics of magically- conjured illusions are just this way.
Although they are devoid of any basis, still they can be heard and
The Buddha said, "Ignorance is just the same as this. Although
it is not internally existent, is not externally existent, is not both
internally and externally existent, does not come into the present from
the past, does not proceed forth from the present on into the future, is
devoid of an actual nature, and is devoid of that which is produced and
that which is destroyed, still, ignorance causally conditions the
creation of actions and so forth until we come to [causally conditions]
the accumulation of a multitude of sufferings. And just as when a
magically- conjured illusion ceases, that which is summoned forth by
that magically- conjured illusion also ceases, so too it is in the case
of ignorance. When ignorance is brought to an end, actions are also
brought to an end and so forth until we come to the accumulation of a
multitude of sufferings is also brought to an end."
Additionally, this simile of a magically- conjured illusion
serves to demonstrate to beings that all conditioned dharmas are
insubstantial. It is as if to say that all actions are like a
magically- conjured illusion which deceives little children. They
belong to the sphere of causes and conditions. They are not inherently
existent and they do not endure for long. Therefore it states here that
all the bodhisattvas are aware of all dharmas as being like a magically-
conjured illusion.


[Like a Mirage]

As for [the simile] "like a mirage...," a mirage appears on
account of sunlight and the moving about of the dust by the wind. In
the midst of a vast wilderness, this phenomenon may resemble "wild
horses." On first observing it, an unknowledgable person may think that
it is water.
The features characteristic of manhood or womanhood are also
like this. The sunlight of the fetters and afflictions heats up the
dusts of karmic formations. The wind of improper reflective thought
blows about in the vast wilderness of transmigration. One who is devoid
of wisdom looks upon a given set of characteristics as constituting
manhood or womanhood. It is [phenomena such as] these which are
referred to as being like a mirage.
Furthermore, if one sees a mirage from a distance one may think
that it is water. However, if one draws closer, there is no perception
of water. [The situation of] a person lacking in wisdom is also like
this. If he is distant from the Dharma of the sages, he is not aware of
the nonexistence of self, is not aware of the emptiness of dharmas, and,
in the midst of the intrinsically empty dharmas of the aggregates, sense
realms and sense fields, he engenders [in his thoughts] characteristics
of personhood, characteristics of manhood, and characteristics of
womanhood. But, if he draws near to the Dharma of the sages, then he
becomes aware of the actual mark of all dharmas. At this time all of
the various kinds of false and deceptive erroneous thought are entirely
eliminated. It is on account of this that it states here that the
bodhisattvas are aware of all dharmas as being like a mirage.


[Like the Moon {reflected} in the Water]

As for [the simile] "Like the moon [reflected] in the water",
the moon actually resides in space whereas its reflection appears in the
water. The moon of the mark of actual Dharma resides in the empty space
of the reality limit and the nature of the dharma of suchness, however
in the water of the minds of the common gods and men, there appears the
mark of a self and that which belongs to a self. Because of this, they
are referred to as being like the moon [reflected in] the water.
Then again, this situation is like that of a small child who
sees the moon in the water, is delighted thereby, and then desires to
sieze hold of it. Adults observe this and then laugh. People who are
lacking in wisdom are just like this. On account of entertaining the
view of the body [as the basis of individuality], they [erroneously]
discern the existence of a self. Because they are lacking in actual
wisdom, they perceive all manner of dharmas and having perceived them,
they take delight in them and desire to grasp at the various
characteristics: the characteristics of manhood, the characteristics of
womanhood, and so forth. But the sages who have gained the Way laugh at
this. This is as described in a verse:

Just like the moon in water or the waters of a mirage,
Obtaining wealth within a dream, seeking life in the midst of
So there are men who truly do aspire herein for gains.
Delusions of such people do bring forth the sage's smile.

Furthermore, just as when one sees the reflection of the moon in
still water, but, when that water is roiled, one no longer sees it, so
too, though one may view the reflection of a self, arrogance and the
fetters in the stagnant water of ignorance- laden thought, if one roils
those mental waters with the staff of actual wisdom, one no longer sees
reflections of a self and other such fetters. It is on account of this
that it states here that the bodhisattvas are aware of all dharmas as
being like the moon reflected in the water.


[Like Space]

As for [the simile] "like space," this refers to merely
possessing a name while being devoid of any actual dharma. Space, is
not a visible dharma. On account of being observed from a great
distance, the visible light alters [its appearance] so that one sees a
light blue color. All dharmas are just like this. They are empty and
devoid of anything which exists. On account of being distant from the
actual wisdom of the non- outflow state, one foresakes the actual mark
[of dharmas] and perceives the existence of others, a self, men, women,
houses, cities, suburbs and all manner of other various phenomena. The
mind attaches to them just a a small child in looking up at a clear sky
thinks that there is an actual form there. There have been people who
have flown to extremely high altitudes and yet have not observed
anything whatsoever there. It is on account of observing from a great
distance that one is of the opinion that [space] is blue in color. All
dharmas are just like this. It is because of this that it is stated
that they are like space.
Alternatively, [one might say that] they are like space in the
sense of being eternally pure. People are of the opinion that a murky
cover of clouds is impure. The situation with regard to dharmas is just
like this. Although they are always pure in nature, on account of the
dark haze of sensual desire, aversion, and so forth, people come to
regard them as impure. This circumstance is described in a verse:

As when the summer skies are thundrous, flashing and
The dark clouds and engulfing mists are fouled with the
The common man devoid of wisdom is also just like this:
All manner of afflictions always cover up his mind.

As in the days of winter when the sun comes forth at times,
But usually is obscured by the clouds of turbid vapors,
Although one's gained the first fruition or has reached the
second path,
He still is covered over by defilement of desires.

As in the springtime when the sun attempts its brilliant
But still it is obscured at times, enveiled by shadowy clouds,
Though at the third fruitionone has left desire's
Still, ignorance and arrogance, mere traces, veil the mind.

As on an autumn day no clouds encroach and hide the sun,
And as the great sea's waters when beheld are seen as clear,
His mind has done the [sages'] work and reached no
outflows' realm.
The arhat has attained a state of purity like this.

Additionally, space has no beginning, nothing in between and no
end. Dharmas are the same in this respect. Moreover, this is just as
the Buddha declared to Subhuuti in The Mahaayaana, "Space has no past
time, no intervening time, and no future time. Dharmas are also this
way." That scripture will be discussed extensively herein. For these
reasons, it is said that dharmas are like space.
Question: Space is an actually existent dharma. How is this so?
If it were the case that space is devoid of any actual dharma, then,
whether [we speak of] raising or lowering, coming forth or going away,
retracting or extending, going out or coming in, or any other
circumstance wherein something is done, there ought to be nothing [which
could be done at all] as there would be no place in which to move.
Reply: If space were an actually- existent dharma, space ought
to have a location in which it resides. How so? If there were no place
in which it resided, then there would be no dharma. If it were the case
that space resided in openings, then this would be a case of space
residing in the midst of space. On account of this, it should not be
the case that space resides in openings.
If one holds that [space] resides in that which is solid,
because this solid entity is non- space, [space] cannot reside in it, as
[that which is solid] can't take anything in.
Moreover, you say that the place in which [space] resides is
just space [itself]. But [space] is analogous to a rock cliff which,
within its solidity, has no place for anything to reside. If it has no
place in which it resides, then there is no space. Because space has no
place in which it resides, there is no space.
Then again, because there is no characteristic, there is no
space. Each and every dharma has characteristics. It is on account of
the existence of characteristics that we know there exists a given a
dharma. For example, earth is characterized by solidity, water is
characterized by moisture, fire is characterized by heat, wind is
characterized by movement, consciousness is characterized by awareness,
wisdom is characterized by understanding, the world is characterized by
production and extinction [i.e. birth and death], and nirva is
characterized by eternal extinction. Because this space is devoid of
characteristics, it is nonexistent.
Question: Space does possess characteristics. Because you are
unaware of this you claim that it is nonexistent. Absence of form is
the characteristic of space.
Reply: This is not so. Absence of form indicates only
separateness among forms and there is no other [additional] dharma
indicated thereby. This is analogous to [the situation which obtains]
when a lamp goes out. There is no additional dharma [in that case
either]. Because of this, there is no characteristic [indicative] of
Moreover, [there is another reason that one can say that] this
dharma of space is nonexistent. How so? It is because of form that you
hold that the absence of form is the characteristic of space. If that
were the case, then prior to the production of form, there is no
characteristic of space.
Additionally, you maintain that form is an impermanent dharma
whereas space is a permanent dharma. [If this were the case], then it
ought to be that prior to the existence of form there was a previously-
existent dharma of space since it is [supposedly] a permanent dharma.
But if form was not yet existent, then there would not have been [at
that time] any such [contrasting and defining] "absence of form." If
there were no "absence of form," then there would have been no
characteristic [indicating the supposed existence] of space. If there
is no characteristic, then there is no dharma. Because of this, [one
should know that] space only possesses a name and is devoid of any
reality. As it is with space, so too it is with dharmas. They only
possess a false name but are devoid of reality. It is on account of
this that the bodhisattvas are aware of all dharmas as being like space.

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