Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “the three concentrations (samadhi)” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Bodhisattva quality 2: the three concentrations (samādhi)

2. samādhigocara:

The three concentrations (samādhi) are those of emptiness (śūnyatā), wishlessness (apraṇihita) and signlessness (ānimitta).[1] [96c]

1) Some say: Śūnyatā is seeing that the five aggregates (skandha) are not the self (anātman) and do not belong to the self (anātmya). – Apraṇihita is, within the śūnyatāsamādhi, not producing the three poisons (triviṣa, namely, passion, aggression and ignorance) in the future.[2]Ānimitta has for its object (ālambana) the dharma free of the following ten marks (daśanimittarahita): a) the five dusts (rajas, namely, color, sound, smell, taste and touch); b) male and female; c) arising (utpāda), continuance (sthiti), cessation (bhaṅga).

2) Others say: Śūnyatāsamādhi is the concentration in which one knows that the true nature of all dharmas (sarvadharmasatyalakṣaṇa) is absolutely empty (atyantaśūnya). – When one knows this emptiness, there is apraṇidhāna.

What is apraṇidhāna? It is not considering dharmas to be empty (śūnya) or non-empty (aśūnya), existent (sat) or non-existent (asat), etc. The Buddha said in a stanza from the Fa kiu (Dharmapada):

When one considers existence, one is afraid;
When one considers non-existence, one is also afraid.
This is why one should not be attached to existence
Or to non-existence.

This is aparaṇihitasamādhi.

What is ānimittasamādhi? All dharmas are free of marks (animitta). Not accepting them, not adhering to them is ānimittasamādhi. A stanza says:

When words (vāda) are stopped
The functioning of the mind (cittapravṛtti) also ceases.
This is non-arising (anutpāda), non-cessation (anirodha)
The similarity with nirvāṇa.

3) Furthermore, śūnyatā is the eighteen emptinesses (aṣṭadaśaśūnyatā).[3]Apraṇihitasamādhi is not searching for any kind of bhāva or existence. (Note: the five gatis, upapattibhava, pūrvakālabhava, maraṇabhava, antarābhava and karmabhava; cf. Kośa, III, p. 117). – Ānimittasamādhi is suppressing all the marks of the dharmas (sarvadharmanimitta) and not paying attention to them (amanasikāra).

Question. – There are dhyānas and attainments (samāpatti) of all sorts. Why talk here only about these three concentrations (samādhi)?

Answer. – In these three samādhis, the attentiveness (manasikāra) is close to nirvāṇa; as a result, the mind of the person is neither too high nor too low, but evened out (sama) and motionless (acala). This is not the case in other states [of mind]. This is why we speak here only of these three samādhis. In the other samāpattis, sometimes it is desire (kāma) that predominates, sometimes pride (māna), sometimes wrong views (dṛṣṭi); but in these three samādhis, it is the absolute (paramārtha), the true reality (bhūtārtha), the ability to attain the gates of nirvāṇa. This is why, among all the dhyānas and samāpattis, these three emptinesses are the three gates of deliverance (vimokṣamukha) and are also called the three samādhis, for these three samādhis are the true samādhi. The other samāpattis also have the name ‘samāpatti’. Moreover, except for the four principal dhyānas (mauladhyāna), the concentrations from the anāgamya up to the bhavāgra [97a] are called samāpatti and also samādhi, but not dhyāna. As for the four dhyānas, they are called samāpatti or also dhyāna or also samādhi. The other concentrations as well are called samāpatti or also samādhi: for example, the four apramāṇas, the four ārūpyasamāpattis, the four pratisaṃvids, the six abhijñās, the eight vimokṣas, the eight abhibhvāyatanas, the nine anupūrvasamāpattis, the ten kṛtsnāyatanas and the other samāpattidharmas.

Some say that there are twenty-three kinds of samādhi; others say sixty-five, still others say five hundred. But as the Mahāyāna is great, there are innumerable samādhis, such as:

Pien fa sing tchouang yen san mei, Neng tchao yi ts’ie san che fa to san mei, Pou fen pie tche kouan fa sing ti san mei, Jou wou ti fo fa san mei, Jou hiu k’ong wou ti wou pien tchao san mei, Jou lai li hung kouan san mei. Fo wou wei tchouang yen li p’in chen san mei, Fa sing men siuan tsang san mei,

Yi ts’ie che kiai wou ngai tchouang yen pien yue san mei, Pien tchouang yen fa yun kouang san mei.

The bodhisattva acquires innumerable samādhis of this kind.

Furthermore, in the Prajñāpāramitā, in the Mo ho yen yi chapter (Mahāyānārtha),[4] the 108 samādhis are enumerated as a whole (samāsataḥ: the first is the Hiu k’ong pou tche pou jan san mei (Śūraṃgamasamādhi) and the last is the Hiu k’ong pou tche pou jan san mei (Ākāśasaṅgavimuktinirupalepasamādhi). If they were to be enumerated in detail, there are innumerable samādhis. This is why the sūtra says that the bodhisattvas have acquired the concentrations (samādhipratilabdha) and course in emptiness, wishlessness and signlessness (śūnyatāpraṇihitānimittagocara).

Question. – The sūtra says first of all that the bodhisattvas have obtained the concentrations (samādhi-pratilabdha); why does it then say that they course in emptiness, wishlessness and signlessness (śūnyatāpraṇihitānimittagocara)? [Is that not a tautology?]

Answer. – First the sūtra speaks about samādhi but says nothing about its characteristics. Now it wants to speak about its characteristics and it enumerates emptiness, wishlessness and signlessness. When someone courses in emptiness, wishlessness and signlessness, it can be said that they have acquired the true samādhis (bhūtalakṣaṇasamādhi). Some stanzas say:

He who observes the purity of the precepts (śīlavisuddhi)
Is called a true bhikṣu.
He who contemplates emptiness (śūnyatā)
Has truly obtained the samādhis.

He who demonstrates zeal (vīrya)
Is called a true devotee.
He who has attained nirvāṇa
Is called truly blessed.

Footnotes and references:


The three samādhis are not always cited in the same order or defined in the same way:

i) The Pāli sources have suññato samādhi, animitto samādhi, appaṇihito samādhi: Vinaya, III, p. 93; Dīgha, III, p. 219; Saṃyutta, IV, p. 360; Milinda, p. 337. Definitions in Atthasālinī, p. 179 sq. – Same order in Kośa, VIII, p. 184.

ii) Śūnyatāsamādhi, apraṇihitasamādhi, ānimmittasamādhi in most of the Sanskrit and Chinese sources: Tch’ang a han, T 1 (no. 9), k. 8, p. 50b; Tseng yi a han, T 125, k. 16, p. 630b; P’i p’o cha. T 1545, k. 104, p. 538a; Sūtrālaṃkāra, XVIII, 77, ed. Lévi, p. 148; Bodh. bhūmi, p. 276, which has good definitions.


In śūnyatāsamādhi, one knows that whatever is conditioned (saṃskṛta) is not the self, does not belong to the self, that it is empty (śūnya) without self nature (svabhāvavena virahita). As a result, in the next samādhi, the apraṇihitasamādhi, one does not form either praṇidhāna or apraṇidhāna towards them or, in the words of the Mppś, one does not feel passion (rāga), aggression (dveṣa) or ignorance (moha) towards them. Apraṇihita thus consists of not producing the three poisons towards future conditioned phenomena. Cf. the definition of Bodh. bhūmi, p. 276: apraṇihitasamādhiḥ katamaḥ. iha bodhisattvasya … ity ucyate.


List and definition of the 18 śūnyatās in Pañcavimśati, ed. N. Dutt, p. 24, 195–198; commentary in Mppś, k. 31, p. 285b–296b.


This chapter, dedicated to the Meaning of the Mahāyāna and where the 108 samādhis are enumerated, is part of the Pañcaviṃśati. It is entitled Mo ho yen p’in (Mahāyānaparivarta) in Mokṣala’s version, T 221, chap. XIX, k. 4, p. 22c–24c; – San mei p’in (Samādhiparivarta) in Dharmarakṣa’s version T 222, chap. XVI, k. 6, p. 188c–193a; – Wen tch’eng (Yānaparipṛcchā) in Kumārajīva’s version, T 223, XVIII, k. 5, p. 250a–253b. – A Sanskrit list of the 108 samādhis occurs in the Pañcaviṃśati,. ed. N. Dutt, p. 142–144; Mahāvyutpatti, no. 506–623.