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Svabhava (Sanskrit: स्वभाव; IAST: svabhāva)[1] Pāli: sabhāva; Chinese: 自性 zìxìng; Tibetan: རང་བཞིནWylie: rang-bzhin)[2] literally means "own-being" or "own-becoming". It is the intrinsic nature, essential nature or essence of living beings.

The concept and term svabhāva are frequently encountered in Hindu and Buddhist traditions such as Advaita Vedānta (e.g. in the Avadhūta Gītā), Mahāyāna Buddhism (e.g. in the Ratnagotravibhāga), Vaishnavism (e.g., the writings of Rāmānuja) and Dzogchen (e.g. in the seventeen tantras).

In the nondual Advaita Vedānta yoga text, Avadhūta Gītā, Brahman (in the Upanishadic denotation) is the sabhāva. In the Pāli tradition of the Buddhadharma: "To become Brahman is to become highest self-nature (sabhāva)" (Atthakanipata-Att. 5.72).

In the Mahāyāna Buddhadharma tradition(s) it is one of a suite of terms employed to denote the Buddha-nature, such as "gotra".[3]


Bhagavad Gītā[edit]

The Bhagavad Gītā (18.41) has nature (svabhava) as a distinguishing quality differentiating the varṇā.[4]


Overzee (1992: p. 74) in her work on de Chardin (1881–1955) and Rāmānuja (1017–1137) highlights Rāmānuja's usage of svabhāva in relation to Brahman thus:

Let us look more closely at what Rāmānuja means by the Lord's "nature". If you read his writings, you will find that he uses two distinct yet related words when referring to the nature of Brahman: svarūpa and svabhāva.[5]


In early Theravādin texts, the term "svabhāva" did not carry the technical meaning or the soteriological weight of later writings. Much of Mahāyāna Buddhism (as in the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) denies that such a svabhāva exists within any being; however, in the tathāgatagarbha sutras (notably the Nirvāṇa Sūtra), the Buddha states that the immortal and infinite Buddha-nature - or "true self" of the Buddha - is the indestructible svabhāva of beings.


In the Pāli canon, "sabhāva" is absent from what are generally considered to be the earliest texts.[a] When found in later texts (e.g., the paracanonical Milindapañha), it generically refers to state (of mind), character or truth. [b] [c]

In the post-canonical Abhidhamma literature, sabhāva is used to distinguish an irreducible, dependent, momentary phenomenon (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).[d]

Prajnaparamita Sutras[edit]

In the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, the early Buddhist notion of no-self (anatta) is extended to all objects, so that all things are emptiness (śūnyatā), without inherent existence (svabhāva).[10][11]


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

Svabhāva is by definition 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 svabhāva is by definition unconditioned, not dependent on other entities, and not caused. Thus the existence of a svabhāva is impossible.[12]


Dzogchen upholds a view of niḥsvabhāva, refuting svabhāva using the same logic employed by Madhyamaka, a freedom from extremes demonstrated succinctly via Catuṣkoṭi Tetralemma.

As it (rigpa) transcends awareness and non-awareness, there are not even the imputations of awareness. This is called the Dzogpa Chenpo, free from extremes.[13]

In the context of logical analysis, Dzogchen agrees with the view of Madhyamaka as elucidated by Nāgārjuna, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu explains:

...Madhyamaka explains with the four "beyond concepts," which are that something neither exists, nor does not exist, nor both exists and does not exist, nor is beyond both existing and not existing together. These are the four possibilities. What remains? Nothing. Although we are working only in an intellectual way, this can be considered the ultimate conclusion in Madhyamaka. As an analytical method, this is also correct for Dzogchen. Nagarjuna's reasoning is supreme.[14]

The Union of the Sun and Moon (Tibetan: ཉི་ཟླ་ཁ་སྦྱོརWylie: nyi zla kha sbyor), one of the 'Seventeen tantras of the esoteric instruction cycle' (Tibetan: མན་ངག་སྡེའི་རྒྱུད་བཅུ་བདུནWylie: man ngag sde'i rgyud bcu bdun) which are a suite of tantras known variously as: Nyingtik, Upadesha or Menngagde within Dzogchen discourse, states:

Whoever meditates on the absence of nature [svabhāva]

in objects that are objective appearances
this is the non-duality of appearance and emptiness,
the relaxed unimpeded group of six.[15]

Bonpo Dzogchen[edit]

Svabhāva is very important in the nontheistic theology of the Bonpo Great Perfection (Dzogchen) tradition where it is part of a technical language to render macrocosm and microcosm into nonduality, as Rossi (1999: p. 58) states:

The View of the Great Perfection further acknowledges the ontological identity of the macrocosmic and microcosmic realities through the threefold axiom of Condition (ngang), Ultimate Nature (rang bzhin) and Identity (bdag nyid). The Condition (ngang) is the Basis of all (kun gzhi) -- primordially pure (ka dag) and not generated by primary and instrumental causes. It is the origin of all phenomena. The Ultimate Nature (rang bzhin) is said to be unaltered (ma bcos pa), because the Basis [gzhi] is spontaneously accomplished (lhun grub) in terms of its innate potential (rtsal) for manifestation (rol pa). The non-duality between the Ultimate Nature (i.e., the unaltered appearance of all phenomena) and the Condition (i.e., the Basis of all) is called the Identity (bdag nyid). This unicum of primordial purity (ka dag) and spontaneous accomplishment (lhun grub) is the Way of Being (gnas lugs) of the Pure-and-Perfect-Mind [byang chub (kyi) sems].[16]

The Mirror of the Mind of Samantabhadra[edit]

The term "svabhāva" is mentioned in six verses of the first chapter of the Avadhūta Gītā: 1.5, 1.6, 1.44, 1.54, 1.58, 1.76.

This extreme nondual yoga text shares a lot of common language with the extreme nondual yoga of Atiyoga (Dzogchen) and its standard Tibetan analogue rang-bzhin (Wylie) is employed in The Mirror of the Mind of Samantabhadra, one of the Seventeen Tantras of Atiyoga Upadesha.

Dzogchen strictly refutes the notion of "svabhāva", and so The Mirror of the Mind of Samantabhadra, states specifically that dharmakāya is non-arisen and natureless:

...this meaningful supreme wisdom kāya

ultimate, natureless [rang bzhin med], the state of the nonarising dharmakāya,
the lamp of the teachings, the great light of the dharmakāya
manifests to persons who are in accord with the meaning.[17]

The following quotation from The Mirror of the Mind of Samantabhadra is drawn from the Lungi Terdzö:[e]

You should understand that the nature of all phenomena is that of the five aspects of Samantabhadra.

What are these? you ask
They are Samantabhadra as nature,
Samantabhadra as adornment,
Samantabhadra as teacher,
Samantabhadra as awareness, and
Samantabhadra as realization .[18][19][f]

Namkhai Norbu[edit]

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).[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ For instance, a search for "sabhāv" in the SLTP edition of the Pali literature [6] identifies this term as arising only once in the first four Nikāyas (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)
  2. ^ According to Rhys Davids & Stede (1921–25), pp. 502–3,[7] "sva+bhāva" is equivalent to the Pāli word "sabhāva".
    The entry for "Sabhāva" (p. 681) is as follows:[8] 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 Theravādin denotations lack the technical specificity of the Mahāyāna 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):[9] the Jātaka tales (J), Milindapañha) (Miln) and the Pāli commentaries (e.g., PvA).
  3. ^ 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)."
  4. ^ 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 "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.
    In regards to which texts Williams was writing of when he mentioned "Abhidharma scholars" above, Y Karunadasa (1996/2007) states that sabhāva is first used in place of dhamma in the post-canonical Pāli commentaries to the Abhidhamma. Relatedly, a search of the Pāli Canon for "sabhāv" identified no pertinent hits in the Pāli Abhidhamma itself. In the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, for example, the only hits were for the compound term purisabhāvo – that is, purisa-bhāvo – which Rhys Davids [1900, p. 191] translates as "masculine in... being.")
  5. ^ The Lungi Terdzö (Wylie: lung-gi gter-mdzod) is the prose autocommentary by Longchenpa (1308–1364 or possibly 1369) to his Chöying Dzö (Wylie: chos-dbyings mdzod) -- which are numbered amongst the Seven Treasuries (Wylie: mdzod chen bdun). This text is rendered into English by Barron, 'et al.' (2001: p. 8) and the Wylie has been secured from Wikisource and interspersed and embedded in the English gloss for probity
  6. ^ chos thams cad kun tu bzang po lnga'i rang bzhin du shes par bya'o
    de yang gang zhe na 'di lta ste
    rang bzhin kun tu bzang po dang
    rgyan kun tu bzang po dang
    ston pa kun tu bzang po dang
    rig pa kun tu bzang po dang
    togs pa kun tu bzang po'o.


  1. ^ Alternative Sanskrit orthographies are swabhawa, swabhava and svabhaava.[citation needed]
  2. ^ Dharma Dictionary (2008). rang bzhin. Source: [1] (accessed: January 29, 2008)
  3. ^ Ruegg, D. Seyfort (1976). 'The Meanings of the Term "Gotra" and the Textual History of the "Ratnagotravibhāga"'. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 39, No. 2 (1976), pp. 341–363
  4. ^ Source: [2] (accessed: Tuesday April 6, 2010)
  5. ^ Overzee, Anne Hunt (1992). The body divine: the symbol of the body in the works of Teilhard de Chardin and Rāmānuja. Issue 2 of Cambridge studies in religious traditions. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-38516-4, ISBN 978-0-521-38516-9. Source: [3] (accessed: Monday April 5, 2010), p.74
  6. ^ [4]
  7. ^ entry for "Bhāva" (retrieved 2007-06-24)
  8. ^ [5]
  9. ^ [6]
  10. ^ 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."
  11. ^ A well-known example of a Prajñāpāramitā sutra that declares the emptiness of the aggregates (skandhas), is the Sanskrit (although not the antecedent Chinese) version of the Heart Sutra in which Avalokiteśvara "looked upon the five skandhas, ... seeing they were empty of self-existence ..." (vyāvalokayati sma pañca skandhās tānsh ca svabhāva śūnyān pashyati sma ...) (Red Pine, 2005, pp. 2, 56, 67).
  12. ^ 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: [7] (accessed: Saturday March 21, 2009), p.300
  13. ^ Thondup Rinpoche, Tulku (1989). The Practice Of Dzogchen. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion. ISBN 1-55939-054-9, p.103
  14. ^ Namkhai Norbu, Chögyal (2006). Dzogchen Teachings. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion. ISBN 1-55939-243-6, p.55
  15. ^ Source: Union of the Sun and Moon (Wylie: nyi zla kha sbyor) (accessed: Friday March 19, 2010)
  16. ^ Rossi, Donatella (1999). The Philosophical View of the Great Perfection in the Tibetan Bon Religion. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion. ISBN 1-55939-129-4, p.58
  17. ^ 'Kun tu bzang po thugs kyi me long gi rgyud'. Source: [8] (accessed: Monday April 5, 2010)
  18. ^ Longchenpa (author, compilor); Barron, Richard (translator, annotator) (2001). A Treasure Trove of Scriptural Transmission (autocommentary on Precious Treasury of the Basic Space of Phenomena). Padma Publishing, p.8.
  19. ^ 'Kun tu bzang po thugs kyi me long gi rgyud'. Source: [9] (accessed: Monday April 5, 2010)
  20. ^ 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


  • 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 978-0-415-02537-9.

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