Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the four foundations of mindfulness” 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.

Mahāyāna auxiliaries (A): The four foundations of mindfulness

Answer. – The bodhisattva-mahāsattva practices the four foundations of mindfulness (smṛtyupasthāna).

1. Mindfulness of body

He contemplates his inner body as impermanent, suffering, like a sickness, like an ulcer (so ’dhyātmakāyam anityato duḥkhato rogato gaṇḍataḥ samanupaśyati),[1] a mass of rotting flesh (read jou tsiu), filled with impurities (aśuciparipūrṇa), oozing from nine gates (navadvāra)[2] and a veritable walking latrine. In the same way, he contemplates the repulsive nakedness of the body where there is not even one pure place.

This ‘pile of bones, equipped with flesh and blood, wrapped with tendons’ (asthisaṃkalikā samāṣalohitā snāyusaṃbandhā),[3] this leather bag, that has as causes and conditions (hetupratyaya) the impure actions (sāsravakarman) of earlier lives (pūrvajanman), is provided in this life (ihajanman) with baths (snāpana), flowers (puṣpa) perfumes (gandha), clothes (vastra), food (āhāra), beds and seats (śayanāsana), remedies and medicines (glānapratyayabhaiṣajya), etc. It is like a two-wheeled cart (dvicakra ratha) which, when drawn by the power of an ox (gobala), can move: the causes and conditions of the two lifetimes produce the ‘cart’ of the body and, pulled by this ‘ox’ which is the consciousness (vijñāna), it turns, goes forwards and backwards.

This body formed by of the complex of the four great elements (caturmahābhūtasāmagrī) is not real (abhūta) and without substance (asāra), like a ball of foam (pheṇapiṇḍu).[4]

This body is impermanent (anitya) and must perish after a time. The physical characteristics (kāyalakṣaṇa) are not found inside the body, nor outside, nor in between the two (na te ’dhyātmaṃ na bahirdhā nobhayam antareṇopalabhyante).

The body itself does not know itself: it is ignorant (ajñā), inactive (akāraka), like the tiles (kaṭhalla) and stones (śilā) of a wall (kuḍya).

In this body there are no definite physical characteristis (kāyanimitta). There is no person who makes the body nor anyone who makes him make it. In this body there is no earlier term (pūrvānta) nor later term (aparānta) nor middle term (madhyānta).

Eighty thousand types of worms (kṛmikula), (see Appendix 6) innumerable sicknesses (vyādhi), hunger and thirst (kṣutpipāsā), cold and heat (śītoṣṇa) and weaknesses always torment the body.

The bodhisattva-mahāsattva who considers the body in this way knows that there is neither his own body (ātmakāya) nor the body of another (parakāya). There is neither master (īśvara) nor agent (kāraka) who makes this body. Empty of characteristics (lakṣaṇaśūnya), the body arises from unreal causes and conditions (abhūtahetupratyaya): this body that has but nominal existence (prajñaptisat) depends on previous actions (pūrvakarman) as causes and conditions.

The bodhisattva then says to himself: “I must not spare the life of the body. Why? The bodily characteristics do not unite and do not separate, they do not come and they do not go, they are not born and they are not destroyed; they do not rest upon anything.”

Pursuing the examination of the body, he says to himself: “Being without ‘I’ (anātman) and without ‘mine’ (anātmīya), this body is empty (śūnya). Being empty, it does not have any male (puruṣa) or female (strī) characteristics. Being without characteristics (animitta), it is not to be wished for (apraṇihita).” [203c]

Thinking thus, the bodhisattva enters into the gate of knowledge (jñānamukha) called ‘wishlessness’ (apraṇihita). He knows that the body is not to be considered in the sense that it arises only from a complex of engendering causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī). But these causes and conditions that produce the body also come from mistakes (bhrānti) and errors (viparyāsa). In these causes and conditions, the nature of cause and condition is also lacking, and the arising of causes and condtions is really a non-arising (anutpāda).

Reflecting thus, the bodhisattva knows that the body, from the beginning, is without the nature of arising (utpādalakṣaṇa). He knows that this body, without characteristics (animitta), is ungraspable (agrāhya). Since it is not born, it is without characteristics and, not having any characteristics, it is not born. Only stupid worldly people (bālapṛthagjana) speak about the body.

When the bodhisattva considers the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of the body in this way, he eliminates all desire (rāga) and all attachments (saṅgacitta) and, always fixing his attention on the body, he pursues the examination of the body. That is what is called mindfulness of body (kāyasmṛtyupasthāna) for the bodhisattva.

It is the same in regard to the consideration of the outer body (bahirdhākāya) and the consideration of the inner and outer body (adhyātmabahirdhākāya).

2. Mindfulness of feeling

How does the bodhisattva consider feelings (vedanā)? He considers inner feeling (adhyātmavedanā). This feeling is of three kinds: unpleasant (duḥkha), pleasant (sukha) neither unpleasant nor pleasant (aduḥkhāsukha). These feelings do not come from anywhere and, once destroyed, do not go anywhere. They arise only from error (bhrānti), mistakes (viparyāsa) and thought-construction (vikalpa). They are fruit of retribution (vipākaphala), depending on causes and conditions (hetupratyaya) constituted by the actions of previous lifetimes (pūrvajankakarman).

In this way, the bodhisattva considers these feelings that are neither in the past (atīta) nor in the future (anāgata) nor in the present (pratyutpanna). He knows that these feelings are empty (śūnya), without ‘I’ (anātman) or ‘mine’ (anātmīya), impermanent (anitya) and changing (vipariṇāmadharman). Considering the feelings distributed in the three times (tryadhvan) as empty (śūnya), without characteristics (ānimitta) and unworthy of being considered (apraṇihita), he penetrates into the gates of deliverance (vimokṣamukha).[5]

He also considers the arising (utpāda) and the cessation (nirodha) of feelings. He knows that feelings are not united, are not separated, do not arise and do not cease. Thus he penetrates into the gate of non-production (anutpādamukha).

He knows that feelings do not arise, are without characteristics (ānimitta) and, being without characteristics, are not born.

Knowing this, he is not attached to the objects (ālambana) of the mind. If he experiences an unpleasant feeling (duḥkha), pleasant feeling (sukha) or a neither unpleasant nor pleasant feeling (aduḥkhāsukha), his mind does not feel it (na vedayati), is not attached to it (nābhiniviśate), does not rest on it (nāśrayate).

Considering feelings in this way (etena paryāyena) is what is called mindfulness of feelings (vedanāsmṛtyupasthāna) for the bodhisattva.

It is the same in regard to the consideration of outer feeling (bahirdhāvedanā) and the consideration of both inner and outer feeling (adhyātmabahirdhāvedanā).

3. Mindfulness of mind

What is mindfulness of mind (cittasmṛtyupasthāna) for the bodhisattva? The bodhisattva considers the inner mind (adhyātmacitta). This inner mind has three characteristics (lakṣaṇa): arising (utpāda), duration (sthiti) and cessation (bhaṅga). He has the following thought: “This mind comes from nowhere and once destroyed, does not go anywhere. It arises only from a complex of inner and outer causes and conditions (adhyātmabahirdhāhetupratyayasāmagrī).”

This mind has no fixed and real nature, has no real birth, duration or cessation (utpādasthitibhaṅga); it does not occur in past (atīta), future (anāgata) or present (pratyutpanna) existence.

This mind is neither inner nor outer nor between the two (na tad adhyātmaṃ na bahirdhā nobhayam antareṇopalabhyate).

This mind is also without intrinsic nature (niḥsvabhāva) and without characteristics (nirmitta) and there is nothing that arises or anything that makes it arise. Outwardly, there are various (nānāvidha) mixed (miśra) causes and conditions (hetupratyaya), namely, the six objects (viṣaya); inwardly, there are erroneous notions (viparītasamjñā). But due to the succession of births and cessations (utpādanirodhaprabandha), the name of mind (citta) is habitually given to all of that.

The true nature of the mind (cittasya bhūṭalakṣaṇa) does not exist (nopalabhyate) in this mind. In its intrinsic nature (svabhāvena), the mind is not born (notpadyate) and does not cease (na nirudhyate). This mind is always [204a] luminous (prabhāsrava) but, because of adventitious passions (āgantuka kleśa), we [wrongly] speak of the soiled mind (upakliṣṭacitta).

The mind does not recognize itself. Why? Because this mind is empty of characteristics of mind (cittalakṣaṇaśūnya). From the beginning to the end, this mind has no real attributes.

This mind is not joined with nor separated from dharmas. It has neither an anterior term (pūrvānta) nor a posterior term (aparānta) nor a middle term (madhyanta). It has neither color (rūpa), shape (saṃsthāna) nor resistance (pratigha). It arises only from mistakes (viparyāsa) and error (bhrānti).

This mind is empty (śūnya), without ‘I’ (anātman), without ‘mine’ (anātmīya), impermanent (anitya) and unreal (asat). That is a consideration in accordance with the mind.

Knowing that the nature of the mind is unborn is to enter into ‘the dharmas that do not arise’ (anutpattikadharma). Why? Because this mind is without birth (utpāda), without intrinsic nature (svabhāva) and without characteristics (lakṣaṇa). The wise person (jñānin) can know it. And although the wise person considers the characteristics of birth (utpāda) and cessation (nirodha) of this mind, he will find no true birth, no true cessation. Not finding any defilement (saṃkleśa) or purification (vyāvadan) in it, he discovers this luminosity of the mind (cittasya prabhāsvara), a luminosity by virtue of which the mind is not defiled by the adventitious passions (na khale āgantukair upakleśair upakliṣyate). (see Appendix 7)

This is how the bodhisattva considers the inner mind (ādhyātmacitta), and it is the same in regard to the outer mind (bahirdhācitta) and the both inner and outer mind (adhyātmabahirdhācitta).

4. Mindfulness of dharmas

How does the bodhisattva practice mindfulness of dharmas (dharmasmṛtyupasthāna)? He considers that all dharmas are neither on the inside nor on the outside nor in between (na te ’dhyātmaṃ na bahirdhā nobhayam antareṇopalabhyante); they are not in the past (atīta) lifetime, the future (anāgata) lifetime, or the present (pratyurpanna) lifetime. They arise only from the complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī) and wrong views (mithyādṛṣṛti). There is no fixed reality; there is no dharma that is any dharma whatsoever.

In the dharmas there is no characteristic of dharmas and there is no dharma that unites or is separated. All dharmas are non-existent like space (ākāśa); all dharmas are deceptive like a magic show (māyā).[6] The purity of nature (svabhāvaviṣuddhi) of dharmas[7] has no contact with defilement (saṃkleśa). Dharmas are not felt (vedita) because feelings (vedanā) do not exist; dharmas are not cognized (jñāta) because the mind (citta) and mental events (caitasikadharma) are deceivers.

Considering things in this way, the bodhisattva sees neither identity (ekatva) nor difference (anyatvā) among dharmas. He considers that all dharmas are empty (śūnya) and without self (anātman). Thus, he has the following thought:

Coming from causes and conditions (hetupratyaya), all dharmas have no intrinsic nature (svabhāva) and are empty of reality (tattvaśūnya). Being empty of reality, they have no characteristics (animitta). Not having characteristics, they are not to be taken into consideration (apraṇihita). Not being taken into considertion, one does not see any dharma that is born, that perishes or that lasts. In this wisdom (prajñā), the bodhisattva penetrates into the gateway of ‘conviction that dharmas do not arise’ (anutpattikadharmakṣānti).

From that time on, even if he notices birth (utpāda) or cessation (nirodha) among dharmas, he enters into the gateway of ‘signlessness’ (ānimitta). Why? Because all dharmas are without characteristics. That is what is understood by the wise person (jñanin).

Considering things in this way, he is not attached to objects of the mind (cittālambana) and, while submitting (anugacchan) to the characteristics of dharmas (dharmalakṣaṇa), he does not think about the body (kāya) or ahout feeling (vedanā) or about the mind (citta) or about dharmas. He knows that these four things are without a basis (apratiṣṭhāna).[8]

That is mindfulness of inner dharmas (adhyātmadharma). It is the same for mindfulness of outer dharmas (bahirdhādharma) and mindfulness of both inner and outer dharmas (adhyātmabahirdhādharma).

Footnotes and references:


Canonical reminiscence: cf. Majjhima, I, p. 500: Ayaṃ kāyo rūpī… aniccato dukkhato rogato gaṇḍato sallato aghato ābādhato parato palokato suññato anattato samanupassitabbo. Same wording in Majjhima, I, p. 435.


See above, p. 1154F, n. 2.


Also a canonical expression: cf. Dīgha, II, p. 296; Majjhima, I, p. 58, 89; Anguttara, III, p. 324. For the Sanskrit correspondents, see Edgerton, Dictionary, p. 85 under asthi-śakatā.


The pheṇapiṇḍūpamaṃ rūpaṃ of Saṃyutta, III, p. 142; see above, p. 370F.


The three samādhis which will be studied in the following chapter.


These two examples are part of the stock phrases of the ten comparisons explained above, like space, p. 364–368F; like a magic show, p. 358–363F.


We have just seen that this purity of nature is a pure and simple (cittabhāvamātra) non-existence.


For the apratiṣṭhāna of all dharmas, see Vimalakīrti, p. 47–51, 269–271, 283.