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Svabhāva (Sanskrit; alternate Sanskrit orthographies swabhawa, swabhava, svabhaava; Pali: sabhāva; Tibetan: rang bzhin[1]) is a concept frequently encountered in Mahayana Buddhism which literally means "own-being" or "own-becoming". It might more meaningfully be rendered as "intrinsic nature", "essential nature" or "essence."

In early Theravada texts, the term did not carry the technical meaning or the soteriological weight of later writings. Much of Mahayana Buddhism (as in the Prajnaparamita Sutra) denies that such a svabhava exists within any being; however, in the Tathagatagarbha sutras (notably the Nirvana Sutra), the Buddha states that the immortal and infinite Buddha-nature - or "True Self" of the Buddha - is the indestructible svabhava of beings.

Mahayana sutras

In the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the early Buddhist notion of no-self (anatta) is extended to all objects, so that all things are "empty" (sunyata), without inherent existence (svabhava).[2][3]

Theravada literature

In the Pali Canon, sabhāva is absent from what are generally considered to be the earliest texts[4] and, when found in later texts (e.g., the paracanonical Milindapañha), it generically refers to "state (of mind)," "character" or "truth."[5]

In the post-canonical Abhidhamma literature, sabhāva is used to distinguish an irreducible, interdependent, momentary phenomena (dhamma) from a conventionally constructed object. Thus, a collection of visual and tactile phenomena might be mentally constructed into what is conventionally referred to as a "table"; but, beyond its constituent elements, a construct such as "table" lacks "intrinsic existence" (sabhāva).[6]

Buddhist logic

Robinson (1957: p.300) in discussing the Buddhist logic of Nagarjuna, states:

Svabhava is by defini[t]ion the subject of contradictory ascriptions. If it exists, it must belong to an existent entity, which means that it must be conditioned, dependent on other entities, and possessed of causes. But a svabhava is by definition unconditioned, not dependent on other entities, and not caused. Thus the existence of a svabhava is impossible. [NB: typographical errors repaired] [7]

Contemporary views

Dzogchen teacher Namkhai Norbu (2001: p. 155) in discussing the view of the Pratyekabuddhas states that: "...the Pratyekabuddhas accede to the absence of a self or independent self-nature (bdag med)...".[8]

See also


  1. Dharma Dictionary (2008). rang bzhin. Source: [1] (accessed: January 29, 2008)
  2. See, e.g., Williams (2007, p. 46): "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."
  3. A well-known example of a Prajnaparamita Sutra that declares the emptiness of all "aggregates" (skandha), is the Sanskrit (although not the antecedent Chinese) version of the Heart Sutra in which Avalokiteshvara "looked upon the Five Skandhas, ... seeing they were empty of self-existence ..." (vyaavalokayati sma panca skandhas tansh ... svabhava shunyan pashyati sma ...) (Red Pine, 2005, pp. 2, 56, 67).
  4. For instance, a search for "sabhāv" in the SLTP edition of the Pali literature[2] identifies this term as arising only once in the first four nikayas (outside of end notes): in DN 6, Mahāli Sutta (PTS i 153). It occurs in the phrase, "idha mahāli bhikkhuno puratthimāya disāya ekasabhāvito samādhi hoti," which Walshe (1995, p. 144, para. 6) translates as: "'Mahāli, in one case a monk, facing east, goes into one-sided samādhi..." (boldface added to identify Walshe's apparent translation of sabhāva)
  5. According to Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), pp. 502-3, entry for "Bhāva" (retrieved 2007-06-24), "sva+bhāva" is equivalent to the Pali word "sabhāva". The entry for "Sabhāva" (p. 681) is as follows:
    Sabhāva [sa4+bhāva]
    1. state (of mind), nature, condition Miln 90, 212, 360; PvA 39 (ummattaka˚), 98 (santa˚), 219.
    2. character, disposition, behaviour PvA 13, 35 (ullumpana˚), 220 (lokiya˚).
    3. truth, reality, sincerity Miln 164; J v.459; v.198 (opp. musāvāda); J vi.469; sabhāvaŋ sincerely, devotedly J vi.486.
    -dhamma principle of nature J i.214;
    -dhammatta= ˚dhamma Vism 238.
    -bhūta true J iii.20.
    These general Theravada denotations lacks the technical specificity of the Mahayana notion of svabhāva as "intrinsic nature"; in addition, each of the aforementioned references is to what Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25) elsewhere refer to as "later literature" (p. 454): the Jataka tales (J), Milindapanha (Miln) and the Pali commentaries (e.g., PvA).

    Gethin (1992), p. 150, in discussing the word dhamma in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi and its related commentary (Atthasālinī) writes, "... the force of sabhāva here appears to focus not so much on the essential nature of particular dhammas, but rather on the fact that there is no being or person apart from dhammas; dhammas are what exist." In a related footnote (26), he adds:

    The earliest usage of sabhāva in Pāli sources is even more problematic. [The quasi-canonical] Pe 104 explains hetu ["cause" or "condition"] as the sabhāva of a dhamma (i.e. it acts as a cause for other dhammas) and paccaya ["requisite" or "support"] as its parabhāva (i.e. other dhammas act as conditions for its occurrence).... According to [the late-canonical] Pais 178-9 dhammas are 'empty by self-existence' (sabhāvena suññā).</span>
  6. Williams (2007), p. 60, writes:
    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 dharmas, ultimate existents, 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 unqiue existence.
    In regards to which texts Williams was writing of when he mentioned above "Abhidharma scholars," Karunadasa (1996/2007) states that sabhāva is first used in place of dhamma in the post-canonical Pali commentaries to the Abhidhamma. Relatedly, a search of the Pali Canon for "sabhāv" identified no pertinent hits in the Pali Abhidhamma itself (e.g., in the Dhammasangani, the only hits were for the compound term purisabhāvo – that is, purisa-bhāvo – which Rhys Davids [1900, p. 191] translates as "masculine in ... being.")
  7. Robinson, Richard H. (1957). 'Some Logical Aspects of Nagarjuna's System'. Philosophy East & West. Volume 6, no. 4 (October 1957). University of Hawaii Press. Source: [3] (accessed: Saturday March 21, 2009), p.300 </li>
  8. Norbu, Namkhai (2001). The Precious Vase: Instructions on the Base of Santi Maha Sangha (Shang Shung Edizioni, 2nd rev. ed., trans. from the Tibetan, edited and annotated by Adriano Clemente with the help of the author; trans. from Italian into English by Andy Lukianowicz), p. 155. Note that the Dharma Dictionary (2008) equates the Tibetan 'bdag med' with anātman (Sanskrit) (Dharma Dictionary, 2008, bdag med, retrieved January 29, 2008 from </li></ol>


  • Red Pine (2004). The Heart Sutra. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard. ISBN 1-59376-009-4.
  • Rhys Davids, Caroline A. F. ([1900], 2003). Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics, of the Fourth Century B.C., Being a Translation, now made for the First Time, from the Original Pāli, of the First Book of the Abhidhamma-Piaka, entitled Dhamma-Saṅgaṇi (Compendium of States or Phenomena). Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0-7661-4702-9.
  • 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 978-415-02537-9.
  • Yamamoto, Kosho (trans.) & Dr. Tony Page (rev. & ed.). The Mahayana Mahaparinrivana Sutra in 12 volumes (Nirvana Publications, London, 1999-2000).

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