Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the three concentrations (samadhi) according to the mahayana” 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.

II. The three concentrations (samādhi) according to the Mahāyāna

1. Profound Meaning of the Three Concentrations

a. Śūnyatā-samādhi.

Furthermore, there are two ways of understanding emptiness according to whether one considers all dharmas as empty of existence (sattvaśūnya) or empty of dharmas (dharmaśūnya).[1]

Emptiness of existence (sattvaśūnyatā) is what we have just explained [according to the Abhidharma system]. The emptiness of dharmas (dharmaśūnya) is the fact that all dharmas are empty of intrinsic nature (svalakṣaṇaśūnyatā), as the Buddha said to Subhūti:

“Form (rūpa) is empty of the nature of form (rūpatvā), and feelings (vedanā), concepts (saṃjñā), volitional formations (saṃskāra) and consciousnesses (vijñāna) are empty of the natures of [feeling, concept, volitional formation] and consciousness.”{GL_NOTE::}

[The emptiness of dharmas]

b. Signlessness.

When the yogin has understood (udgṛhṇāti) the empty nature (śūnyalakṣaṇa) of dharmas, he produces the fetters of pride, etc. (abhimānādisaṃyojana) by that very fact, and he says: “I have understood the true nature of dharmas.” It is then that he must practice the gate of signlessness (ānimittadvāra) in order to destroy his grasping onto the empty nature (śūnyanimittodgrahaṇa).

c. Wishlessness.

When the yogin gives himself up to futile proliferation (prapañca) in regard to signlessness (ānimitta), when he is about to imagine something as desirable, when he becomes attached (abhiniviśate) to signlessness, then he must say to himself: “I am wrong. Why find characteristics, why grasp characteristics, why give myself up to futile proliferation about empty dharmas without characteristics? [207c] Now is the time to be based in emptiness and signlessness in order to control the body (kāya), speech (vāc) and mind (manas). One should not have praṇidhāna, ‘desire for’. One should consider this nature of wishlessness (apraṇihitalakṣaṇa) to destroy the three poisons (triviṣa). One should not be producing actions, bodily, vocal or mental. One should not be seeking rebirth in the threefold world (trailokya).” By reflecting in this way, the yogin enters into apraṇihitavimokṣamukha.

2. Sameness of the Three Concentrations

These three gates of liberation (vimokṣamukha) in the Mahāyāna are one and the same thing: it is as a result of the way they are practiced that we speak of three things.[2]

Considering the emptiness of dharmas is called śūnyatā. When there is no place to grasp characteristics in this emptiness, this śūnyatā changes its name and is called ānimitta. When there is no place in the presence of this signlessness to experience ‘desire for’ or rebirth in the threefold world, this ānimitta changes its name and is called apraṇihita.

It is like a city with three gates. A single person cannot simultaneously enter by the three gates. If he enters, it is by going through one single gate.

Here the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas is the City of nirvāṇa (nirvāṇagara). This City has three gates, Śūnyatā, Ānimitta and Apraṇihita.

If a person enters the śūnyatā gate, does not hypostatize this śūnyatā and no longer grasps at characteristics (nimitta), this person penetrates directly [into the City of nirvāṇa] and, with his end attained, has no need of the other gates.

But if he enters the śūnyatā gate, grasps at its characteristic and hypostatizes śūnyatā, the śūnyatā is not a gate for this person: the path of entry is closed to him. And so in order to avoid the characteristic of śūnyatā, he makes use of the ānimitta gate.

If his mind becomes attached to the characteristics of ānimitta and he gives himself up to futile chatter (prapañca), then he stops grasping the characteristics of ānimitta and goes through the apraṇihita gate.

3. Single Object of the Three Concentrations

In the system of the Abhidharma, the emptiness gate of liberation (śūnyatāvimokṣamukha) has as its object (ālambate) the truth of suffering (duḥkhasatya) and comprises (saṃgṛhṇati) the five skandhas.[3] The signlessness gate of liberation (ānimittavimokṣamukha) has as its object a single dharma, the pratisaṃkhyānirodha [or disjunction from impure dharmas obtained by understanding the truths].[4] The wishlessness gate of liberation (apraṇihitavimokṣamukha) has as its object three truths [a part of the truth of suffering (duḥkhasatya), the truth of the origin of suffering (samudayasatya) and the truth of the cessation of suffering (nirodhasatya)]; it comprises five aggregates (skandha).

In the Mahāyāna, these three gates of liberation (vimokṣamukha) pertain to the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas. By means of these three gates of liberation, the ascetic sees that saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are the same Why? Because nirvāṇa is empty (śūnya), without characteristics (ānimitta), not worthy of being taken into consideration (apraṇihita), and saṃsāra likewise.

Question. – If the Sūtra says that nirvāṇa has only one gate,[5] why is it a matter of three gates here?

Answer. – I have already said above that, although the dharma is single, its meaning (artha) is threefold.

Furthermore, beings to be converted (vineya) are of three kinds: those who abound in craving (tṛṣṇābahula), those who abound in wrong views (dṛṣṭibahula) and those in whom craving and wrong views are equal.

To those who abound in wrong views, the śūnyatāvimokṣamukha is preached. In this way they will see that all dharmas are impermanent (anitya), suffering (duḥkha), the result of causes and conditions (hetupratyayaja), have no intrinsic nature (svabhāva); not having intrinsic nature, they are empty (śūnya). By means of this emptiness, wrong views (dṛṣṭi) are stopped.

To those who abound in craving, the apraṇihitavimokṣamukha is preached. In this way they will see that all dharmas are impermanent, suffering, the result of causes and conditions. Having seen in this way, they will be mentally detached from thirst and will enter into the Path.               

To those in whom craving and wrong views are balanced, the ānimittavimokṣamukha is preached. Learning that the characteristics of male and female do not exist, they will cut through craving. Learning that the characteristics of sameness (ekatva) and difference (anyata) do not exist, they will cut through wrong views.

Sometimes the Buddha preaches two gates of liberation at the same time, sometimes he preaches three at the same time. Since the bodhisattvas must [208a] always exert themselves in knowing all the paths, he preaches the three gates to them.

We could say yet other things, but the question of the three gates of liberation is treated here in summary (saṃkṣepeṇa).

Footnotes and references:


See the lengthy study dedicated to the two emptinesses above, p. 1078–1095F.


However, even in the Lesser Vehicle, there was a suspicion of the identity of three samādhis also called vimokṣamukha and cetovimukti. On this subject, see Saṃyutta, IV, p. 296–297; Tsa a han, T 99, k. 21, p. 149c: Ya cāyaṃ āvuso appamāṇā cetovimutti yā ca ākiñcañña cetovimutti … ekaṭṭhā, byañjanam eva nānaṃ.

Transl. – “In regard to the mind-liberations called Immeasurable, Nothing-at-all, Emptiness and Signlessness respectively, there is, O venerable One, a way of teaching in which these dharmas are at the same time of different meaning and of different words, and there is also a way of teaching according to which these dharmas are of the same meaning and different words.”

Developing the second point, the text explains that the Immeasurable, the Nothing-at-all, the Emptiness and the Signlessness are alike empty of desire (rāga), hatred (dveṣa) and ignorance (moha), the three bad roots (akuśalamūla) that create standards (pramāṇakaraṇa) [Fr., measures, p. 1230F, n.] constitute obstructions (kiṃcana) and produce signs (nimittakaraṇa). The result is that in their unchangeable (akopya) form, the four mind-liberations are one and the same thing under different names. – For detail see translation and notes of I. B. Horner, Middle Length Sayings, p. 358, 260.


Whoever enters into samādhi necessarily possesses the four formless aggregates depending on mind and mental events, namely, saṃjñā, vedanā, saṃskāra and vijñāna, plus the ‘discipline (saṃvara) of concentration’ which is rūpa. Cf. Kośa, VI, p. 107, 170; VIII, p. 128 and n. 4.


For more details, see Kośa, VIII, p. 190.


The single gate of Immortality (ekaṃ amatadvāram) mentioned in the Sūtras: Majjhima, I, p. 353; Aṅguttara, V, p. 346.

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