Svabhava is generally used to describe the concept of sunyata (emptiness). Svabhava is the "essence" or "inherenent existence" that things are empty of.
The precise definition of the term varies within different traditions. The concept is central to Madhyamaka reasoning, in which Nagarjuna asserts that anything that arises due to causes and conditions can have no inherent existence.
Paul Williams describes the development of the term in Early Buddhism:
- The concept of self-existence or essence (svabhāva) was a development of Abhidharma scholars, where it seems to indicate the defining characteristic of a dharma. It is that which makes a dharma what it is, as resistance or hardness is the unique and defining characteristic of earth dharma [see Mahābhūta], for example. In the Abhidharma only "ultimate existents" (dharmas) have essences. Conventional existents – tables, chairs, and persons – do not. This is because they are simply mental constructs out of dharmas – they therefore lack their own specific and unique existences.
Regarding the Madhyamaka view, Peter Harvey writes:
Nagarjuna’s critique of the notion of svabhava (Mmk. ch.15) argues that anything which arises according to conditions, as all phenomena do, can have no inherent existence/nature; for what it is depends on what conditions it. Moreover, if there is nothing with inherent existence, that is, self-existence, there can be nothing with ‘other-existence’ (para-bhava), that is, something which is dependent for its existence and nature on something else which has self-existence. So there is not anything with a true, substantially existent nature (bhava); hence no non-existent (abhava), in the sense of a true existent that has gone out of existence. Like Nagarjuna, the Perfection of Wisdom literature therefore regards all dharmas as like a dream or magical illusion (my) (BTTA.166; cf. p. 58). This does not mean that they are simply unreal. Their ungraspable nature is, rather, wholly different from what it seems, like the trick of a conjurer; or, we might now say, like an illusion in a ‘virtual reality’ electronic medium – except that all components of the medium would also be seen as perceptual illusions too . . . There is something there in experience, and one can describe it well in terms of dharmas, so it is wrong to deny these exist; yet they do not have substantial existence either. What we experience does not exist in an absolute sense, but only in a relative way, as a passing interdependent phenomenon. The nature of dharmas lies in between absolute ‘non-existence’ and substantial ‘existence’, in accordance with an early Sutta passage quoted by Nagarjuna (Mmk.15.7; cf. EB.4.2.3). This is what Nagarjuna means by the ‘Middle Way’.
This doctrine is sufficiently central to Madhyamaka that the school is also called NIḤSVABHĀVAVĀDA, the “Proponents of No Svabhāva.”
Regarding the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, Paul Williams writes:
- The principal ontological message of the Prajñāpāramitā is an extension of the Buddhist teaching of no-Self to equal no essence, and therefore no inherent existence, as applied to all things without exception.
- Parikalpita - "imaginary nature", "imputed nature",
- Paratantra - "dependent nature"
- Pariniṣpanna - "absolute nature", "consumate nature", "truly existent nature"
According to Peter Harvey, svabhava in the Theravada Abhidhamma is something conditional and interdependent:
The notion of svabhva (Pali sabhva) does occur in the Vibhajyavda/Theravda as well as Sarvstivda tradition, but in a different sense than there: as simply ‘own-nature’ rather than as also an implied ‘own-existence’. The Atthaslin, the commentary on the first book of the Abhidhamma, explains dhammas thus: "They are dhammas because they uphold their own nature [sabhaava]. They are dhammas because they are upheld by conditions or they are upheld according to their own nature" (Asl.39). Here 'own-nature' would mean characteristic nature, which is not something inherent in a dhamma as a separate ultimate reality, but arise due to the supporting conditions both of other dhammas and previous occurrences of that dhamma. This is of significance as it makes the Mahayana critique of the Sarvastivadin's notion of own-nature largely irrelevant to the Theravada.
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Gethin, R.M.L. (1992). The Buddhist Path to Awakening: A Study of the Bodhi-Pakkhiyā Dhammā. Leiden: E.J. Brill. ISBN 90-04-09442-3.
- Harvey, Peter (2013), An Introduction to Buddhism (Kindle ed.), Cambridge University Press
- Y Karunadasa, (1996). The Dhamma Theory: Philosophical Cornerstone of the Abhidhamma (WH 412/413). Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society. Retrieved 2008-06-30 from "BPS" (transcribed 2007) at http://www.bps.lk/wheels_library/wh_412_413.html.[dead link]
- Walshe, Maurice (1987, 1995). The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-103-3.
- Williams, Paul (1989; repr. 2007). Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-02537-9.
- The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra and its teachings on the deathless Self of the Buddha
- Nagarjuna (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) - contains detailed discussion of svabhava
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