What exactly is svabhāva in Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka?

It is translated as inherent nature or inherent existence or inherent substance. But what does that really mean?

Does it carry the same meaning as being unconditioned? If yes, then Nirvana and the Buddha's Dharma, being unconditioned, must have svabhāva. But they don't, according to Madhyamaka.

Why does a chair or a photon or empty space or concepts or the Dharma (teachings) or Nirvana have no svabhāva?

From the Wikipedia article on Madhyamaka, it sounds like something that is unconditioned has svabhāva. But that's not right according to Madhyamaka.

Nagarjuna's critique of the notion of own-nature argues that anything which arises according to conditions, as all phenomena do, can have no inherent nature, for what is depends on what conditions it. Moreover, if there is nothing with own-nature, there can be nothing with 'other-nature' (para-bhava), i.e. something which is dependent for its existence and nature on something else which has own-nature. Furthermore, if there is neither own-nature nor other-nature, there cannot be anything with a true, substantial existent nature (bhava). If there is no true existent, then there can be no non-existent (abhava).

7 Answers 7


An analogy I always give is that of a bush that looks like a dog. You see the dog from afar, but once you come closer the illusion falls apart and you see the individual branches and leaves. There is no dog.

Everything is like that: not only difficult things like "self" or "USA" or "love" but literally every single thing, as simple as a "chair". They seem solid and well-defined until you examine them carefully, and then they turn out to be simplifications that depend on observer defining context, scale of observation, and criteria for their delineation.

Coming back to the bush, the dog was observer's projection. There was no dog. Or was there? The experience of the dog existed in observer's subjective space. The dog was observer's interpretation.

When we look at things conventionally, from far away, without examining them carefully, it seems like they exist apart from our interpretation. That existence is called svabhava. Sva means own and bhava means individual being or individual existence. It seems that individual things have their own individual existence, apart from observers. But that is an extremely naive simplification that only holds because we look at things from inside a very limited subset of all possible observation modes.

The question ancient thinkers asked, is there any dharma that has svabhava. In other words, is there any phenomenon that under careful scrutiny will not fall apart like the dog and turn out to be a bunch of unrelated phenomena assembled and delineated by the observing mind.

It's not just the parts and the name as Tenzin explained. That's a simplification. It's not that things are made from parts (like the dog was made from branches) and rely on observer for a name (the dog). It is that we picked a certain area of observation (part of the mountain covered in bushes) we chose certain scale, we picked criteria for delineation (in this case color), and most importantly we ignored lots of details that were there, that did not fit with our idea of dog!

A very good non-Buddhist explanation of this process can be found in book called 'Hierarchy Theory' by Valerie Ahl. And of course the best Buddhist explanation is Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamikakarika, translated as 'The Fundamental Wisdom Of The Middle Way' by Jay Garfield.

You are also right about equating sankhara with (absence of) svabhava. Sankhara means "assembly", not just an assembly of parts though, but rather a bundle of causal chains. Causal chains on both the object side and the observer side. When you see every thing in its temporal aspect, as opposed to statically, when you see causal chains bundling together for a while and then breaking apart, you will see that our notion of "identity" only made sense in a static view of the world.

There is no "identity" carried through from one moment of time to another. Instead, things constantly morph, rather like clouds. We see individual things in the clouds, but those things don't have fixed identities, they don't have svabhava. Instead, there's humidity and temperature and areas of low and high pressure, and the observer at a certain point on the ground with something on their mind, projecting things on the clouds. This observer itself and the observer's mind does not have separate individual existence either, does not have svabhava. Observer and observer's mind is also a bundle of causal chains, not something solid, static, and separate from the rest of the world.

  • Why is Nirvana not a sankhara, but still does not have svabhava?
    – ruben2020
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 13:40
  • Simple answer is, because Nirvana is not an individual phenomenon. The notion of svabhava applies to individual phenomena but Nirvana is suchness of any and all phenomena.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 14:46
  • This is not the highest-yana view of Nirvana though, I can think of at least three explanations on three different levels. Perhaps if you ask a separate question we can get there.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 14:47
  • OK. I will create a separate question.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 14:54
  • Is there any phenomenon that under careful scrutiny will not fall apart? Yes. Nirvana. Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 19:48

Svabhāva stands for inherent existence.

From an early Madhyamika viewpoint, there are two types of dependent-arising:

  1. Causal dependence
  2. Dependence on parts

While impermanent phenomena depend on both causes and parts, permanent phenomena do not depend on causes and conditions but they do depend on parts. For instance, a chair is impermanent and depends on causes (if it is made of wood, wood is a substantial cause, etc) and depends on its parts (the legs, etc). Permanent phenomena such as space, emptiness, cessations, etc. depend on parts. For instance, emptiness is emptiness of something on which it depends (not causally, but in terms of part). Therefore, even emptiness, a permanent phenomena, is empty of inherent existence because it is a dependent-arising.

From a Madhyamika-Prasangika viewpoint, there are two types of dependent-arising. The third level is the most subtle:

  1. Dependence on name.

We say that the meaning of something being empty of svabhāva is that, if you look for it with a mind analyzing the ultimate, you will not find it. Now, if you ask yourself "is the chair its legs... is it the material it's made of... etc" you will find that the chair is merely labeled upon these without being any of these. We say that it is "merely labeled".

This presentation is incomplete and cartoonish because there are various Madhyamika [sub]schools, some for which inherent existence and true existence are synonymous, some not.

  • So the Theravadin sankhara (conditioned things) is the same as having causal dependence and dependence on parts. The self too has causal dependence in Theravada. But the Madhyamaka svabhava adds on dependence on name and this applies to Nirvana because it means "lack of suffering", so it depends on the name of "suffering". Is that right? So, it is dependence on name that is the difference between the Theravadin asankhara and the Madhyamaka svabhava? Do you agree?
    – ruben2020
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 10:56
  • 2
    Only Madhyaika-Prasangika adds dependence on name. Dependence on parts applies to all phenomena, including nirvana. Nirvana is the final cessation of something on which it depends. Prasangika adds dependence on name. It means: just like the person is not any of the aggregates but is designated upon them, nirvana is merely labeled upon factors that are not it. Or as we say "If you look for it under analysis, you cannot find it." Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 11:05
  • OK. So, Nirvana has causal dependence on the final cessation of something - it only appears when something else ceases. Nirvana also has dependence on the name of something that is not it - so you can see an elephant, but you can't see or find "elephantless".
    – ruben2020
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 11:20
  • 1
    No. Nirvana does not have causal dependence. It has dependence on parts and, according to Prasangika (not all Madhyamika) on names as well. You may think of it this way: if John leaving the room was the cause of the absence of John in the room, his absence would be a moment after his leaving, but hey are simultaneous. In the same way, nirvana (the final true cessation) is permanent, thus not caused. Permanent phenomena are not causally dependent: only on parts (and name, from a Prasangika viewpoint). Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 11:34
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 18:59

Svabhāva, traditional Chinese Buddhist text translated as "自性", i.e., Self-nature. A Svabhava is a Thing-of-itself, it exists on it's own, cannot be deconstructed by the Eight Conditions quested by Nagarjuna; it is not caused by Causal-correlations (因緣), nor Compounded (和合). However, the world is made by (1)Causal-correlations and (2)Compounding, of every phenomena that the intellectual mind able to conceive. Therefore, it is empty. Because anything that's coming from Causal-correlations or Compounding, when investigating by the intellectual examination incisively with a superior mind, the result is - unobtainable. For nothing is obtainable therefore, the term to address it: "Emptiness".

My elaboration is, Causal-correlations and Compounding shorted as Correlative-arising (緣起). In my investigation, "dependent-arising", or most of the English translated terms I came across are, questionable; creating unnecessary hindrances to understand what precisely it meant.

(1) Causal-correlations

There are four types of Causal-correlations, Sanskrit: Catvārah-pratyayāh (四緣). Nagarjuna listed and deconstructed each as:

(the translated terms are my designations)

a) Correlative-cause (因緣): Cause and effect. Deconstructed as: an effect not appeared the cause can't be defined; if the effect not in the cause, the cause cannot cause the effect, but if the effect already in the cause the effect doesn't need the cause for it existed already... etc.

b) Consecutive-cause (次第緣): A temporal cause, i.e., with the factor of time. Deconstructed as: if the effect not appeared, the cause can't disappear; however if the cause not disappeared how could the effect appear... etc.?

c) Causative-cause (緣緣): A spatial cause, i.e., with the factor of another object. Deconstructed as: for due to a) the cause and effect cannot be established therefore not a "thing" there, there's no object to give as a cause.

d) Superlative-cause(增上緣): All the above causes multiplied. Deconstructed as: since the above three can't be established this also null.

I'm afraid Jay Garfield's understanding of the Catvārah-pratyayāh which a very basic Abhidharma concept so questionable in his The Fundamental Wisdom of The Middle Way; I read his chapter 10, then 1 and 2, put aside.

(2) Compounding Compounding is unobtainable. For if things are different, they can't be compounded to be one thing; yet if they are the same, can't be compounded either, for same thing doesn't compound :). (I was laughing all the way when reading Madhyamaka (Classical Chinese translated by Kumarajiva) the 1st time, now I can't help laughing again when writing at here :))... difference due to differing therefore differences, different object unobtainable... etc.

Since all phenomena of the world are made by Causal-correlations and compounding, none is having Svabhava. Since all phenomena none is with Self-nature therefore it is empty, i.e., unobtainable (不可得). It is impermanent, conditioned. However, Nagarjuna didn't stop at here, not stopping at deconstructing, what he pointed to is, what beyond this Emptiness that given rise to all phenomena, the world and sentient... etc. Here is most of the scholastic Buddhist Masters/teachers fell. Such as, Tibetan Tsongkhapa by holding onto Madhyamika-Prasangika (wrong) viewpoint constructed his two Chenmo(s) misleading many Buddhists, bolting on the Intellect-mind (意識心), the 6th Vijñāna as permanent [which needed maintenance of each day 16 hours of xxx Tantric OgsM, all months, all years... well maybe good news for some, who knows!? ;] .

Nirvana and the Buddhahood are of the 5th Statement. The Intellect-mind is able to come as far as the Four-statements (Catuskoti) limitation. To go beyond the Intellect-mind, what should be looked for by all practitioners but the Self-nature as in Ch'an (6th Patriarch Huineng: How so the Self-nature, originally is self-sufficient (何期自性, 本自具足)), or the Tathagatagarbha, or the Alaya... the teachings only available in the Mahayana Canon (excluding the later Tantric texts). One of the most important Sutras is Prajna-paramita Sutra, which the related is Heart Sutra. I'm afraid Thich Nhat Hanh though a respectable teacher I respected, his interpretation of Heart Sutra as quoted in this post is questionable. It's only max. to the level of a Śrāvaka, not for the Bodhisattva or Buddha, i.e., not of the Prajna-paramita Heart Sutra the ultimate Emptiness.

The OP asked another question on usefulness of Madhyamaka, the key answer is, due to the decline of man's capacity, very rare few able to see directly the Ultimate Reality (still an ignorant claims able to see in meditation and, libeling Nagarjuna :), as stated in the beginning of the Madhyamaka Chinese Text. One of the purposes of Nagarjuna, I think, was enabling a glimpse of Ultimate Reality by pushing the Intellect-mind to the ultimate, by exhausting the Four-statements. If one able to read the original Classical Chinese one will at least sharpen his mind, have a shot of intelligence. Those who incessantly libeling the Mahayana Sutras, pity are they misled by their teachers or traditions. However, this very act is so detrimental to wisdom cultivation even to the worst severed the root of Prajna-paramita rendered these people the Icchantikas warned the Buddha. The Buddha explaint what is Icchantika and why they became the Icchantikas, one of the karmic deeds was they libeled Mahayana teaching due to their ignorance they lack the wisdom to understand the profound deep deep Mahayana doctrines, recorded in Prajna Paramita Sutra. There some so-called "Sutras" inserted, the later Tantric text, unfortunately, in the Tripitaka; but those great Sutras of Prajna-paramita - The 2nd Turning, also Tathagatagarbha - The 3rd Turning, are spoken by Buddha Shakyamuni.

  • What about Mahamudra and Dzogchen? They are not Prasangika... Meaning, they don't leave one dangling in emptiness, they say there's the ineffable Ground of All, the positive reality. Is that the same as your Alaya?
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 18:06
  • 1
    My understanding of Mahamudra and Dzogchen are by "gleaning", @AndreiVolkov, so I better keep my silence. But you said "Ground of All" and "positive reality", if it's just labels to explain, ok; if it's what it found upon, then, no. I have my innate feeling they probably not... probably good for "magic" capability as Mahamudra (I was told the "transferring capacity") and Dzogchen maybe closer to Self-nature (for the "light"), these are my speculations... Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 19:34
  • So while the Tibetan interpretation of svabhava says that Nirvana has no svabhava, the Chinese interpretation of svabhava says that Nirvana has svabhava, am I right? But if Nirvana is the only thing that has svabhava, then this Chinese interpretation of svabhava makes it ultimately identical to the absence of Theravadin sankhara i.e. svabhava means unconditioned.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 1:52
  • Continuing ... so something that has inherent nature or inherent existence (svabhava) is unconditioned (asankhara) and something that is unconditioned (asankhara) has inherent nature or inherent existence (svabhava). The definition of Mahayana emptiness depends on the definition of svabhava. So if Nirvana has svabhava then it is not empty. Is that right?
    – ruben2020
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 2:05
  • "T... Nirvana has no svabhava" if confirmed, even Chinese Mahayana will disagree. Likely some sect(s) of T., or related to Prasangika, denied Alaya, mistaken 6th Vijnana the Intellect-mind permanent. But I think it not acurrate to simply saying "Nirvana has Svabhava" - Nagarjuna didn't say in this way. Mad. has a chapter on Nirvana (2nd last chp.?) expl. Nirvana not in the 8 Conditions he could deconstruct, i.e., not arising nor ceasing; not permanent nor annihilating; not one nor different; not coming nor yielded. It will involve very delicate logic, too easy to fall in the trap of words Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 5:51

In abhidhamma:

Sabhāva = saka-bhava = own saṇkhāra = saṅkhata = sappaccaya = sahetuka = an effect of causes.

So, the answer is "an effect of causes".

Note: This is the same reason that why saṅkhāra equal to kamma-bhava.


The ideas of 'svabhāva' in Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka are merely that, namely, "ideas" or intellectual thoughts rather any direct insight from meditation.

For example, based in meditation & insight, consciousness is mere awareness or consciousness and meditation & insight cannot reduce it to any smaller parts or particles (although meditation can discern the impermanence, selfless & how consciousness is dependent on sense organs to arise).

The following Pali teaching is an example of what 'sabhava' is meant to mean, namely, natural things have their own nature that is not a 'self' or 'mine':

And why, bhikkhus, do you call it form? ‘It is deformed,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called form. Deformed by what? Deformed by cold, deformed by heat, deformed by hunger, deformed by thirst, deformed by contact with flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and serpents. ‘It is deformed,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called form.

And why, bhikkhus, do you call it feeling? ‘It feels,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called feeling.

And why, bhikkhus, do you call it perception? ‘It perceives,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called perception.

And why, bhikkhus, do you call them formations? ‘They construct the conditioned,’ bhikkhus, therefore they are called formations.

And why, bhikkhus, do you call it consciousness? ‘It cognizes, ’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called consciousness.

SN 22.79

While the only term in the suttas that comes near to 'sabhava' is 'sadhatu', the meaning of 'sabhava' is 'inherent nature' rather than 'inherent self-existence'. The following sutta is about the inherent nature or 'sabhava' or 'sadhatu' of the Dhamma Dhatu (Element).

Uppādā vā bhikkhave tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā

Monks, whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this steadfastness of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma: All processes are inconstant. All processes are unsatisfactory. All phenomena are not-self.

Dhamma-niyama Sutta


What exactly is svabhāva in Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka?

I believe that in some abhidharma it is a dharma which makes other dharmas have a time. So without it, they may have argued, nothing could exist, so "everything exists". Take this from the Sarvastivada page

The Sarvāstivāda (Sanskrit; Chinese: 說一切有部; pinyin: Shuō Yīqièyǒu Bù) were an early school of Buddhism that held to the existence of all dharmas in the past, present and future, the "three times".

The abhidharma in the Taisho is I believe the Sarvastivada one (all the early schools had different versions).

I very much like this interpretation: Nagarjuna just points out that the assumption that anything has to exist in different times is bunk.

However, much Mahayana Buddhism uses the term in a different way, to mean what the scholar Westerhoff calls "essence svabhava". I believe I have it on very good (academic) authority that's what Zhiyi means when he talks about emptiness of svabhava. I can't really guess if that's from genuine, not merely contingent / historical, evolution of the term, as it features in Buddhist "philosophy". But if I may I'll add my own opinion: Zhiyi and his tientai school in general are talking about the exact same concept but refined it.

Wetsterhoff claims

enter image description here

Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction. By Jan Westerhoff

So, if right, then Buddhists were able to limit, narrow down, the meaning of 'svabhava'.

  • What's the difference between substance-svabhava and essence-svabhava?
    – ruben2020
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 2:22

We use this word very commonly in India.

Swabhava means nature of the self. For example if I ask what is your swabhav ? then I am asking whether you are loving , kind ,joyful ,compassionate, rude or stubborn kind of person? What kind of person you are ? It is personality trait.There are wholesome swabhavs which make you say that a person is very nice.There are unwholsome swabhavs which are not good.

Swabhav can change. For example, I was a very careless person in the past but now I am not that careless. You can use the word with any living being whether it is dog or cat or human. Every being develops a swabhav or inherits a swabhav from the previous birth.

If we break the word swabhav then "swa" means self and "bhav" means nature,i.e. nature of the self. Swabhav is not permanent and unchangeable therefore no swabhav is worth identifying as self.

Does it carry the same meaning as being unconditioned?


Why does a chair or a photon or empty space or concepts or the Dharma (teachings) or Nirvana have no svabhāva?

Strictly speaking swabhav is associated with self. You don't say chair has a bad swabhav. Or the photon or empty space has good swabhav.

My swabhav or your swabhav has been evolving and will continue to evolve but there is no permanent nature which you can call as self. Swabhav falls in the category of five aggregates as mental formations or sankharas.

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