Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the four trances (dhyana) 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 four trances (dhyāna) according to the Mahāyāna

The bodhisattva possesses the skillful means of trance (dhyānipāya),[1] the characteristics of trance (dhyānanimitta)[2] and the factors of trance (dhyānāṅga).[3] This has all been fully explained already in the context of the dhyānapāramitā (p. 1043–1057F).

Question. – In the present Prajñāpāramitopadeśa,[4] you speak only of dharmas empty of characteristics (lakṣaṇaśūnya); then how is the bodhisattva able to produce trance (dhyāna) or absorption (samāpatti) on empty dharmas?

Answer. – The bodhisattva knows that the five objects of enjoyment (pañcakāmaguṇa) and the five obstacles (pañcanīvaraṇa) are the result of causes and conditions (hetupratyaya) without intrinsic nature (niḥsvabhāva), empty (śūnya) and non-existent (anupalabdha). Thus it is very easy for him to reject them. But under the influence of errors (viparyāsa), beings are attached to ordinary pleasures and are guilty of abandoning the profound and wonderful happiness of dhyāna.

The bodhisattva experiences great compassion (mahākaruṇā) for these beings and practices (bhāvayti) trance and concentration:

1) Being attached to the object of mind (cittālambana), he avoids the five objects of enjoyment (pañcakāmaguṇa), rejects the five obstacles (pañcanivaraṇa) and enters into the first dhyāna which is great joy (mahāprīti).

2) Suppressing investigation (vitarka) and analysis (vicāra) and concentrating his mind, he penetrates deeply into inner peace (adhyātmasaṃprasāda), obtains a subtle and wonderful joy (prīti) and enters into the second dhyāna.

3) Because this profound joy is distracting to concentrations, the bodhisattva avoids all joy, obtains a complete happiness (sukha) and enters into the third dhyāna.

4) Destroying all suffering and all happiness, rejecting all sadness (daurmanasya) and all satisfaction (saumanasya) as well as inhalation and exhalation (ānāpāna), he adorns himself with a pure and subtle equanimity (upekṣā) and enters into the fourth dhyāna.[5]

This bodhisattva knows well that dharmas are empty (śūnya) and without characteristics (animitta), but as beings themselves do not know it, he resorts to the signs of dhyāna (dhyānanimitta) in order to convert them.

If the emptiness of dharmas (dharmaśūnyatā) truly existed in itself, we would not call it emptiness and it would not be necessary to abandon the five objects of enjoyment (pañcakāmaguṇa) to obtain dhyāna since, existing substantially, this emptiness would involve neither abandoning (tyāga) nor acquiring (lābha). [208c] But the empty nature of dharmas also being non-existent, you cannot raise the objection [that you have just brought up] by saying: “How can the bodhisattva produce trance on empty dharmas?”

Furthermore, the bodhisattva practices dhyāna without being attached to grasping characteristics (animittodgrahṇabhiniveśāt). And in the same way that a man swallows medicine (bhaiṣajya) to eliminate sickness (vyādhi) and not because of its taste, so the bodhisattva practices dhyāna for the purification of morality (śīlaviśodhana) and the perfecting of wisdom (prajñāsaṃpādana).

In each dhyāna, the bodhisattva cultivates great loving-kindness (mahāmaitrī ). In dhyāna, the contemplation of emptiness (śūnyatāsamanupaśyanā) does not take place. Since it is a matter [of overcoming] the five objects of enjoyment (pañcakāmaguṇa), gross errors and mistakes (viparyāsa), it is necessary to resort to subtle (sūkṣma) but false (vitatha) subterfuges to destroy them, in the same way that a poison (viṣa) is required in order to destroy other poisons.

Footnotes and references:


The bodhisattva uses the dhyānas as salvific skillful means (upāya) to convert beings: this perfection of trance (dhyānapāramitā) has been the object of a description in 18 points above (p. 1043–1057F).


These nimittas are 23 in number: see above, p. 1038F.


These aṅgas are 28 in number:

First dhyāna: vitarka, vicāra, prīti, sukha, samādhi.

Second dhyāna: adhyātmasaṃprasāda, prīti, sukha, samādhi.

Third dhyāna: upekṣā, smṛti, saṃprajanya, sukha, samādhi.

Fourth dhyāna: upekṣā, upekṣapariśuddhi, smṛtipariśuddhi, samādhi.

For details, see Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 80, p. 412a21–412b3; Kośa, VIII, p. 147;

Abhidharmadīpa, p. 407–409. Cf. Visuddhimagga, ed. Warren, p. 71.


The seven Chinese characters Pan-jo-po-lo-mo-louen-yi appearing here remove any doubt about the exact title of the present work, [Mahā]Prajñāpāramitopadeśa and not [Mahā]Prajñāpāramitāśāstra. See above the Introduction to the present volume.


Here the Traité, taking a few liberties, reproduces the canonical definitions of the four dhyānas, the original formulation of which in Pāli and in Sanskrit has been cited above (p. 1024F, n.). This formula is commented on word by word in Vibhaṅga, p. 256–261, Visuddhimagga, ed. Warren, p. 112–115, 126–137, etc.

It is to this information that the great exegetists of the 4th century turned: the five hundred arhats of Kaśmir who compiled the Mahāvibhāṣa (T 1545, k. 85, p. 442a1–8) and, as we will see, the author or authors of the Traité.

2) When Devadatta asked the Buddha to retire and to entrust the community to him, the Buddha refused curtly and treated his cousin as a mūḍha ‘fool’”, śava ‘corpse, and kheṭāśika ‘eater of spit’. Those who recalled the kiss exchanged between Devadatta and Ajātaśatru could not help but see an allusion to this repugnant action. This is why the translators of the afore-mentioned sources translated kheṭāśika as follows:

a. Tan t’o ‘eater of spit’ (Sarv. Vin., T 1435, k. 36, p. 258b7),

b. Che t’o tchö, ‘eater of spit’ (Mūlasarv. Vin., T 1450, k. 13, p. 169b26).

c. Che jen t’o tchö,’ eater of human spit’ (Mahāvibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 85, p. 442a6–7).

d. Seou t’o jen, ‘swallower of spit’ (Traité, T 1509, k. 26, p. 252c3).

If the Buddha treated Devadatta as a swallower of spit, it is because the latter had taken Ajātaśatru’s spit, and the Buddha spoke only the truth.

Now in the Majjhima, I, p. 395, the Buddha said: Yañ ca kho Tathāgato vMacaṃ jānmati bhūtaṃ… tatra kālaññā Tathāgato hoti tassā vācāya veyyākaraṇāya: “Every word that the Buddha knows to be true, he waits for the opportunity to utter it”, and that whether it is unpleasant or pleasant for others.

In this case, the Buddha was completely right in calling Devadatta kheṭāśika and the accusation against the Buddha does not hold. In the words of the 14th āveṇikadharma, every word of the Buddha is preceded by knowledge and accompanied by knowledge.