Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 941,039 words

This page describes “the three meditative stabilizations (samadhi) according to the abhidharma” 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.

I. The three meditative stabilizations (samādhi) according to the Abhidharma

1. Definitions of the Three Meditative Stabilizations (samādhi)

a. Śūnyatā-samādhi.

Question. – What is the gate of nirvāṇa called emptiness (śūnyatā)?

Answer. – It considers dharmas as empty (śūnya), without ‘me’ (ātman) or ‘mine’ (ātmīya). Dharmas being the result of a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagryutpanna), there is neither agent (kāraka) nor patient [206b] (French, sic) (vedaka).[1] This is what is called the gate of emptiness. For more on this gate of emptiness, see what has been said in the chapters on patience (p. 912–926F) and wisdom (p. 1104–1106F)

b. Ānimitta-samādhi.

Knowing that there is neither ‘me’ nor ‘mine’, why do beings become attached mentally (cittenābhiniviśante) to dharmas? The yogin reflects and says to himself: “Dharmas being the outcome of causes and conditions, there is no real dharma (bhūtadharma); there are only characteristics (nimitta)[2] and beings, seizing these characteristics, become attached to ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Now I must see if these characteristics have a perceptible reality or not.” Having examined them and considered them, he determines that they are all non-existent (anupalabdha). Whether it is a matter of the male characteristic (puruṣanimitta) or of the female characteristic (strīnimitta), the characteristics of identity or difference (ekatvānyatanimitta), etc., the reality of these characteristics does not exist (nopalabhyate). Why? Being without me and mine, all dharmas are empty and, being empty, they are neither male nor female. As for the identity and difference, these are names (nāman) valid only in the hypothesis of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. This is why male and female, identity and difference, etc., are really non-existent.

Furthermore, when the four great elements (mahābhūta) and derived matter (upādāyarūpa) limit [the element] space (ākāśa), we say there is a body (kāya). Then, within a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī) with the inner and outer bases of consciousness (ādhyātmikabāhyāyatana), there arises the consciousness element (vijñānadhātu) and the body, making use of this grouping of elements (dhātusāmagrī), performs various activities; it speaks, it sits down, it arises, it goes and it comes. This grouping of six elements, which is empty [of intrinsic nature], is improperly qualified as a man or improperly qualified as a woman.[3]

If each of these six elements were male, there would have to be six men, for it is impossible that one equals six or that six equals one. But in the earth element (pṛthividhātu) [entering into the composition of the body], there is neither male nor female characteristic, and it is the same for the other elements, water, fire, wind, space and consciousness (vijñānadhātu). If these characteristics do not exist in each [of the six elements] taken separately, neither do they exist in the grouping of these six elements. Similarly, if six dogs (kukkura), taken separately, cannot give birth to a lion (siṃha), neither can they do so taken together, for that is not their nature.

Question. – Why would there not be male and female? Although the individuals (puruṣa) are not different, the parts of the body (kāyāvayava) themselves differ and there are sexual distinctions.[4] The body cannot exist independently of the body parts and the body parts themselves cannot exist independently of the body. If we see the foot, which is part of the body, we know that there is a whole (avayavin) called body. The body parts, foot, etc., are different from the body, and it is the body that has the male or female characteristics.

Answer. – The individual has already been refuted above (p. 736F) and I [Kumārajīva] have also refuted the characteristics (nimitta) of the body. Now I must repeat myself.

If there were a whole (avayavin) called body (kāya), all the parts of the body would exist in each part (avayava) of this body; each of the parts would exist in every part. If the body existed fully in all of the parts, the foot (pāda) would exist in the head (śiras). Why? Because in the head there is an entire body. If each part of the body were in all the parts, there would be no difference between the body and its parts, the whole (avayavin) following the parts (avayava).

Question. – If the parts of the body, the foot, etc., were different from the body, the error (doṣa) that you mention would exist. But here the parts of the body, the foot, etc., are not different from the whole, i.e., the body. Therefore there is no error.

Answer. – If the parts of the body were not different from the whole, then the head would be the foot. Why? Because both of them, as body, would not differ. [206c]

Moreover, the parts of the body are many, whereas the whole is just one. It is impossible that a multiplicity should make a unit and that a unit should make a multiplicity.

Besides, although it is true that the fruit (phala) does not exist when the cause (hetu) does not exist, it is not true that the cause does not exist when the fruit does not exist. If, [as you claim], the parts of the body are not different from the whole, the cause would not exist when the fruit does not exist. Why? Because cause and fruit would be identical.

The body does not exist (nopalabhyate) whether you look for it in identity (ekatva) or in difference (anyatva) and, as the body does not exist, on what basis (sthāna) would the male or female characteristics reside? If the latter exist, they are either bodily or different from the body. But the body does not exist. If they occur in some dharma other than the body, since this other dharma is non-material (arūpa), there would be no difference between male and female. It is simply a matter of a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī) in the course of two successive existences and we speak of male and female out of mental error (viparītacitta). Thus it is said:

Lower you head or raise it up,
Bend (samiñite) or stretch (prasārite),
Stand up (sthite), go forth (pratikrānte) or return (abhikrānte),
Look straight ahead (ālokite) or to the side (vilokite),
Speak or babble:
In all of that, there is nothing true.
It is because the wind moves the vijñāna
That these activities take place.
But this vijñāna is of temporary nature (kṣayadharman)
And it exists no longer from one moment to the next moment.

The distinction
Between male and female
Comes from my mind.
It is out of lack of wisdom
That I see them wrongly exist,
Structures of bones tied one to another,
Without skin or flesh,
Impulses in movement,
Like a mannequin!

No reality on the inside
Outwardly called a man.
Like a foreign coin thrown into the water
Or a jungle fire devouring a bamboo forest,
Sounds issue forth out of it
As a result of a complex of causes and conditions.

For other similar characteristics, see above (p. 1095–1106F). This is the gate of signlessness (ānimittadvāra).

c. Apraṇihita-samādhi.

There is wishlessness (apraṇihita) when, having knowledge of the non-existence of characteristics, there is no longer any reaction.[5] This is the gate of wishlessness (apraṇihitadvāra).

2. Nature of the Three Concentrations

Question. – But it is by means of wisdom that these three things contemplate śūnyatā, ānimitta and apraṇihita respectively. If these are wisdoms, why call them concentrations (samādhi)?

Answer. – If these three kinds of wisdoms were not in meditative stabilization, they would be wild wisdoms (unmattaprajñā); many people would fall into pernicious doubts (mithyāśaṅkhā) and do nothing further. But when these wisdoms are in concentration, they are able to destroy all the defilements (kleśa) and find the true nature (bhūtadharma) of dharmas.

Furthermore, they are dharmas of the Path (mārga), different from the world and in opposition to the world (lokaviruddha). The saints (ārya) who are in these meditative stabilizations find the true nature and preach it; and this is not the language of a wild mind.

Finally, the other trances (dhyāna) and absorptions (samāpatti) in which these three things do not occur, are not called meditative stabilizations (samādhi).[6] Why? Because one can stray away from them, lose them and fall back into saṃsāra. This is what the Buddha said:

The person who observes pure morality
Is called a monk (bhikṣu).
The person who contemplates emptiness (śūnyatā)
Is called an ecstatic (dhyāyin).
The mindful (smṛtimat), vigorous (ātāpin), energetic (vīryavat) person
Is called the real yogin.

The foremost of all happiness (sukha)
Is cutting desires (tṛṣṇā) and destroying madness.
Rejecting the group of the five aggregates (skandha) and the dharmas of the Path
Is eternal happiness, arriving at nirvāṇa.[7]

It follows from these stanzas that the Buddha calls the concentration the three gates of liberation (vimokṣamukha). [207a]

Question. – Why are they called gates of liberation?

Answer. – When they are practiced, liberation (vimokṣa) is attained and one reaches nirvāṇa without residue of conditioning (nirupadhiśeṣanirvāṇa); this is why they are called gates of liberation. Nirvāṇa without residue of conditioning is true liberation for in it one finds liberation from physical and mental suffering (kāyamānasikaduḥkha). Nirvāṇa with residual conditioning (sopadhiśeṣanirvāṇa) is the gate to it and, although these three concentrations are not nirvāna [proper], they are the cause (hetu) of nirvāṇa and that is why they are called nirvāṇa. In the world, it is common usage to designate the cause by the effect and the effect by the cause.

Śūnyatā, ānimitta and apraṇihita are concentrations (samādhi) by nature (svabhāva). The mind and mental events associated with these concentrations (samādhisaṃprayukta-cittacaittasikadharma), bodily actions (kāyakarman) and vocal actions (vākkarman) that arise following them, the formations dissociated from the mind (cittaviprayuktasaṃskāra) that come forth, form a complex (sāmagrī) called concentration. Thus, when the king (rājan) arrives, with him, of necessity, come the prime minister (mahāmātya) and some soldiers (sainika).[8] Here concentration (samādhi) is like the king, wisdom (prajñā) is like the prime minister, and the other dharmas are like the soldiers. Even if these other dharmas are not mentioned, they must necessarily be present. Why? Concentration does not arise by itself; it is unable to have all the activity by itself. The other dharmas arise along with it, endure with it, perish with it, and collaborate with it in realizing the good (hita).

3. Aspects of the Three Concentrations [185]

A. The meditative stabilization on emptiness (śūnyatāsamādhi) has two aspects (ākāra):

1) Because it considers (samanupaśyati) the five aggregates of attachment (pañca upādānaskandha) as having neither sameness (ekatva) nor difference (anyatva), it is ‘empty’ (śūnya).

2) Because it considers the ‘me’ (ātman) and the ‘mine’ (ātmīya) as non-existent (anupalabdha), it is ‘without self’ (anātmaka).

B. The meditative stabilization of signlessness (ānimittasamādhi) has four aspects:

1) Because it considers nirvāṇa as the cessation of all types of suffering (nānāvidhaduḥkhanirodha), it is ‘cessation’ (nirodha).

2) Because it considers it as the extinctions of the fires of the threefold poison (triviṣa) and the other defilements (kleśa), it is ‘peace’ (śanta).

3) Because it considers it as the foremost of all dharmas, it is ‘excellent’ (praṇita).

4) Because it considers it as separated from the world (lokavisaṃyukta), it is ‘exit’ (niḥsaraṇa).

C. The meditative stabilization of wishlessness (apraṇihitasamādhi) has two aspects:

1) Because it considers the five aggregates of attachment (pañcopādānaskandha) as coming from causes and conditions (hetupratyayaja), it is ‘impermanent’ (anitya).

2) Because it considers them as the torments of the body and mind (kāyikamānasikaviheṭhana), it is ‘suffering’ (duḥkha).

Next, insofar as it considers the causes (hetu) of the five skandhas of attachment (upadānaskandha), it has four more aspects:

3) Because the complex of defilements and impure actions (kleśasāsravakarmasāmagrī) produces a fruit of suffering (duḥkhaphala), it is ‘origin’ (samudaya).

4) Because the six causes (hetu)[9] produce a fruit of suffering (duḥkhaphala), it is ‘cause’ (hetu).

5) Because the four conditions (pratyaya)[10] produce a fruit of suffering (duḥkhaphala), it is ‘condition’ (pratyaya).

6) Because a certain number of similar causes and conditions [follow one another] so as to produce this fruit, it is ‘stream’ (prabhava).               

Finally, insofar as it considers the aggregates of detachment (anupādānaskandha), it has four more aspects:

7) Because the eight members of the noble [path (āryamārgāṅga) can lead to nirvāṇa, it is ‘path’ (mārga).

8) Because [this path] is free of errors (viparyāsa), it is ‘reasonable’ or ‘practical’ (nyāya).

9) Because all saintly people (āryapudgala) make use of this path, it is ‘path’.

10) Because the defilements (kleśa) that depend on thirst (tṛṣṇāpatita) and those that depend on wrong views (dṛṣṭipatita)[11] do not obscure this path, it is ‘definitive exit’ (nairyāṇika).

4. Distribution of the Three Concentrations in the Levels. [189]

The three gates of liberation (vimokṣamukha) occur in nine levels (bhūmi):

1–4) the four trances (dhyāna),

5) the level of anāgamya [the preparatory trance of the first dhyāna]

6) the dhyānāntara [the intermediate trance, subdivision of the first dhyāna]

7–9) the [first]three formless (ārūpya) absorptions, because the three gates of liberation are essentially pure (anāsravasvabhāva).

Some say that the three gates of liberation (vimokṣamukha) are absolutely pure (atyantam anāsrava), whereas the three concentrations (samādhi) are sometimes impure (sāsrava), sometimes pure (anāsrava). For those who say this, the concentrations occur in eleven levels:

1–6) the six bhūmis [namely, the four dhyānas, the anāgamya and the dhyānāntara].

7–9) the [first] three ārūpya.

10) the desire realm (kāmadhātu).

11) the sphere of the summit of existence (bhāvagra or 4th ārūpya).

When the three samādhis are impure (sāsrava), they are linked (baddha) to these eleven levels. When they are pure (anāsrava), they are not linked to but are associated with the organ (or dominant faculty) of satisfaction (saumanasyendriya), the organ of pleasure (sukhendriya) and the organ of equanimity (upekṣendriya).[12]

Beginners (ādikārmika) in the practice of the three concentrations are in [207b] the desire realm (kāmadhātu), the advanced (pariniṣpanna) are in the form realm (rūpadhātu) or the formless realm (ārūpyadhātu). See what has been set forth fully in the Abhidharma on all of those, whether they are advanced or non-advanced, practiced or non-practiced.

Footnotes and references:


Monier Williams: vedaka = making known, announcing, proclaiming, restoring to consciousness


In this paragraph, the Traité is roughly keeping to the classical definitions mentioned above (p. 1213F seq.) which it has reproduced more faithfully on p. 322F. But in regard to the marks (nimitta) of which the Ānimitta is free, it adds to the ten traditional marks (pañcaviṣaya-strī-puruṣa-trisaṃskṛtalakṣaṇāni daśa) those of identity (ekatva) and difference (anyatva).


The human being consists of six elements (dhātu) – earth, water, fire, wind, space and consciousness – but, whether they are taken separately or together, they do not constitute any difference in sex.

The analysis of the human being into six elements is of canonical origin: cf. Majjhima, III, p. 239: Chadhāturo ayaṃ, bhikkhu, puriso to iti kho pan’ etaṃ vuttaṃ. Kiñ c’etaṃ paṭicca vuttaṃ? Paṭhavidhātu āpodhātu tejodhātu vāyodhātu ākāsadhātu viññāṇadhātu.

For these six elements, see also Anguttara, I, p.176; Vibhaṅga, p. 82–85; Tch’ang a han, T 1, k. 8, p. 52a6–7; Tchong a han, T 26, k. 3, p. 435c21–22; K. 7, p. 468a27–28; k. 21, p. 562c17–19; k. 42, p. 690b27–28; k. 47, p. 723b20–21; k. 49, p. 732c28–29; Tsa a han, T 99, k. 9, p. 60c28–29 (cf. E. Waldschmidt, Das Upasenasūtra, Nach. Göttingen, 1957, No. 2, p. 38, ;. 11–12); Tsa a han, T 99, k. 17, p. 119a3; k. 37, p. 269c20–21; k. 43, p. 315b16; Tseng yi a han, Y 125, k. 29, p. 710b14–15; Pitāputrasam„ama, T 320, k. 16, p. 964b21–22, the original Sanskrit of which is cited in Śikṣāsamuccaya, p. 244, and Pañjikā, p. 508. – See also Madh. avatāra, p. 262 (tr. L. de La Vallée Poussin, Muséon, 1911, p. 307–308); Garbhābakrāntisūtra cited in Kośa, I, p. 66.


The problem of the whole and its parts (avayavin, avayava), which opposes the Buddhists and the Vaiśeṣikas, is treated fully in the Kośa, III, p. 210–214.


Or any effort (abhisaṃskāra).


Among the innumerable samādhis, those of śūnyatā, etc., are the only true ones: this idea has already been developed above, p. 324–325F.


A new translation of two stanzas already cited above, p. 325F. These are two stanzas of the Udānavarga, XXXII, 81 and 82 of the Sanskrit edition (F. Bernhard, p. 458–459), XXXII, 78 and 79 of the Tibetan edition (H. Beckh, p. 142):

“The person who possesses the precepts is a bhikṣu; he who is [in the concentration of] emptiness is an ecstatic; he who is in constancy is a yogin; that is the happiness of extinction.”

“Actually the bhikṣu who endures pleasure and displeasure, whose bed and seat are isolated (prāntśayanāsana), who is settled in purity who is based in mindfulness (apramāda), will uproot the perverse tendency of the desire for existence.”


Same comparison above, p. 135F.


See above, p. 386F, 1038F.


See also p. 386F and 1038F.


Two classes of passions already noted above, p. 424F.


Three organs appearing in the list of 22 indriyas which will be discussed below, p. 1494F.

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