Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “formless absorptions (arupyasamapatti) 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.

The formless absorptions (ārūpyasamāpatti) according to the Abhidharma

The four formless absorptions (ārūpyasamāpatti) are: i) the sphere of infinity of space (ākāśānantyāyatana), ii) the sphere of infinity of consciousness (vijñānānantyāyatana), iii) the sphere of nothing at all (ākiṃcanyāyatana), iv) the sphere of neither-discrimination-nor-non-discrimination (naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāyatana).

1. Defiled absorptions, acquired by birth, acquired by effort.

These four formless absorptions are each of three kinds: stained (samala), acquired by birth (upapattiprātilambhika) or acquired by effort (prāyogika).[1] [212a]

1) The thirty-one bad propensities (anuśaya) contained in the four ārūpyas[2] and the formations associated with the mind (cittasaṃprayuktasaṃskāra) arising within these propensities are stained (samala).

2) Acquired by birth (upapattiprātilambhika). – Those who have practiced the four immaterial absorptions (ārūpyasamāpatti) are reborn by virtue of ripening of these actions (karmavipāka) in the formless realm (ārūpyadhātu) and obtain four clear (vispaṣṭa) and morally undefined (avyākṛta) skandhas.[3]

3) Acquired by effort (prāyogika). – Examining the grossness (audārya) and harmfulness of form (rūpa), the cause of old age (jarā), sickness (vyādhi), death (maraṇa) and all kinds of suffering, the yogin considers it ‘as a sickness, as an ulcer, as a poisoned arrow’ (rogato gaṇdatah śalyatah samanupaśyati).[4] He tells himself that all of it is deception (vañcana) and falsehood (mṛṣāvāda) that he must avoid. Having reflected in this way, he overcomes all notion of matter, he destroys all notion of resistance, he forgets all notion of multiplicity and penetrates into the absorption of infinity of space (sa sarvaśo rūpasaṃjñānāṃ samatikramāt pratighasaṃjñānām astaṃgamān nānātvasaṃjñānām amanasikārād ākāśānatyāyatanasamāppattiṃ praviśati).[5]

2. Process of access to the absorptions

Question. – How can these three kinds of notions [of matter, resistance, multiplicity] be destroyed?

Answer. – These three kinds of notions (saṃjñā), all coming from a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī), are without intrinsic nature (niḥsvabhāva) and, since their intrinsic self nature does not exist, they are all deceptions, non-realities, easily destroyed.

Furthermore, [the yogin says to himself], distinctions (vikalpa) regarding form are eliminated little by little (bhāgaśaḥ) and finally no longer exist. This is why, if they do not exist later, neither do they exist now. Under the influence of error (viparyāsa), beings seize the characteristics of identity (ekatva) and difference (anyatva) in composite matter, and their minds become attached to the nature of matter. As for me, I must not imitate these fools; I must seek the true reality (bhūtavastu) in which there is neither identity nor difference.

Furthermore, the yogin reflects thus:[6]

1) When I rejected and avoided dharmas, I obtained considerable benefits. First I abandoned my wealth, my wife and children; I left home and found the pure discipline (viśuddhaśīla); my mind is secure (yogakṣema); I have no more fear.

2) Putting away desires (kāma), evil and wicked dharmas (pāpā akuśala dharmāḥ), I obtained the first dhyāna. joy and happiness (prītisukha), the result of detachment (vivekaja),

3) By suppressing enquiry and analysis (vitarkavicārāṇāṃ vyutpaśamā), by inner purification (adhyātmaṃ saṃprasādāt), I obtained the second dhyāna where there is great joy and happiness (mahāprītisukha).

4) By renouncing joy (prīter virāgāt), I found myself in the third dhyāna which is by far the happiest.

5) Suppressing this happiness (sukhasya prahāṇāt), I obtained the fourth dhyāna, purified by renunciation and reflection.

6) Now I abandon these four dhyānas, for it is still necessary to obtain the wonderful absorptions (samāpatti).

This is why the yogin ‘transcends the notion of matter (rūpasaṃjñām atikrāmati), destroys the notion of resistance (pratighasaṃjñām nirodhayati) and no longer thinks about the notion of multiplicity (nānātvasaṃjñāṃ na manasikaroti)’.

3. Transcending ideas

The Buddha spoke of three kinds of form (rūpa): “1) There is form that is visible and resistant (asti rūpaṃ sanidarśanaṃ sapratigham); 2) There is invisible resistant form (asti rūpam anidarśanaṃ sapratigham); 3) There is invisible non-resistant form (asti rūpam anidarśanam apratigham).”[7]

When the yogin ‘transcends the notion of matter (rūpasaṃjñā)’, this concerns visible resistant form (sanidarśana-sapratigha); when he ‘destroys the notion of resistance (pratisaṃjñā)’, this concerns invisible resistant form (anidarśana-sapratigha); when he ‘no longer thinks about the notion of multiplicity (nānātvasaṃjñā)’ this concerns invisible non-resistant form (anidarśanāprtigha).

Furthermore, by the destruction of visibles seen by the eye (cakṣus), the yogin ‘transcends matter’; by the destruction of the ear (śrotra) and sounds (śabda), the nose (ghrāṇa) and smells (gandha), the tongue (jihvā) and tastes (rasa), the body (kāya) and tangibles (spraṣṭavya), he ‘transcends the notion of resistance’. In regard to other forms and many varieties not described as form, we speak of ‘the notion of multiplicity’.[8]

Seeing this, the yogin eliminates the defilements (saṃkleśa) of the form realm (rūpadhātu) and obtains the ākāśānantyāyatana. In regard to the causes and methods of obtaining the other three ārūpyas, refer to what was said in the chapter on the Dhyānapāramitā (p. 1032–1034F).

4. Moral qualities of the absorptions

Of the four formless (ārūpya) [absorptions], one, namely, the [212b] naivasaṃjñānā-saṃjñāyatana, is always impure (sāsrava).[9] For the other three, one can single out: the ākāśasnantyāyatana is sometimes impure (sāsrava) and sometimes pure (anāsrava). If it is impure, this ākāśāyatana contains four impure aggregates (sāsravaskandha); if it is pure, it contains four pure aggregates. It is the same for the vijñānānantyāyatana and the ākiṃcanyāyatana.

All these absorptions are conditioned (saṃskṛta) and good (kuśala). If it is impure, the ākāśāyatana involves retribution (savipāka) and is morally indeterminate (avyākṛta); if it is pure, it does not involve retribution (avipāka). It is the same for the vijñānāyatana and the ākiṃcanyāyatana.

If it is good, the naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāyatana involves retribution and is morally indeterminate, but [in itself] it does not involve retribution.[10]

Footnotes and references:


Like the dhyānas, the samāpattis may be samāpattis of enjoyment (āsvādana) associated with craving (satṛṣṇa) or pure samāpattis (śuddhaka), but of worldly order (laukika) and still involving āsrava: see above, p. 1027F, and also Kośa, VIII p. 145–146, with notes by de La Vallée Poussin. Moreover, the samāpattis may be acquired by birth (upapattiprātilambhika) as is the case among beings who, in the form of a ‘mental series without body’, come to be reborn in the four spheres of the formless realm (ārūpyadhātu). Finally, the samāpattis may be acquired by effort (prāyogika) as is the case for ascetics who momentarily become concentrated on these spheres: cf. Kośa, VIII, p. 134.


There are six anuśayas: 1) rāga, 2) pratigha, 3) māna, 4) avidyā, 5) dṛṣṭi, 6) vimati. These six make ten by dividing dṛṣṭi into five. These ten anuśayas constitute the thirty-six anuśayas of kāmadhātu, thirty-one of rūpadhātu, the thirty-one of ārūpyadhātu, in all ninety-eight anuśayas: cf. Jñānaprasthāna, T 1544, k. 5, p. 943a, discussed by Kośa, V, p. 9.


Whereas the dhyānas are accompanied by the five skandhas, the samāpattis have only four, because all rūpa (dhyānasaṃvara, anāravasaṃvara) is absent there (anuparivartakarūpābhāvāt). This is why the four samāpattis as well as the preliminary absorptions (sāmantaka) of the three higher samāpattis are called vibhūtarūpasaṃjña ‘having overcome the notion of form’. The samantaka of the first samāpatti, the ākāśānantyāyatana, is not given this name because the notion of rūpa is not completely overcome. It is actually in this samantaka that the ascetic overcomes the notion of matter (rūpasaṃjñām atikrāmati) and connected notions. See Kośa, VIII, p. 134–135; Abhidharmadīpa, p. 412.


Cf. Majjhima, I, 436, 500; Anguttara, IV, 422–423: So yad eva tattha hoti… te dhamme aniccato dukkhato rogato gaṇḍato sallato aghato ābādhato parato palokato suññato anattato samanupassati.


The overcoming of these notions takes place in the preliminary (sāmantaka) of the first ārūpyasamāpatti.


Here the Traité repeats the old canonical phrases already quoted above, p. 1025, n.


Rūpasaṃgrahasūtra cited in Kośavyākhyā, p. 352; Pāli correspondent, Dīgha, III, p. 217; Vibhaṅga, p. 13, 72, 89; DhammasaṅgaṇI, p. 125, 146–147, 244–245.


An obscure and possibly corrupt passage. For the Kośavyākhyā, the rūpasanidarḷsana-sapratigha is the rūpa to be cognized by the eye consciousness; the rūpa anidarśana-sapratigha is the eye, etc. and also the nine material bases of consciousness; the rūpa anidarśana-apratigha is the avijñapti.

For the Visuddhimagga, ed. Warren, p. 273–274, the rūpasaṃjñās are the dhyānas of subtle form mentioned here under the name of ‘notion’, and things that are their object (rūpasaññānan ti saññāsīsena vuttarūpavacarajjhānānañ c’eva tadārammaṇānan ca). The pratighasaṃjñās are the notions of resistance coming from the contact between the physical bases of consciousness, eye, etc., and their respective objects, color, etc. (cakkhādīnaṃ vatthūnāṃ rūpādīnaṃ ārammaṇāñ ca paṭighātena samuppannā paṭighasañnnā). The nānātvasaṃjñās are the notions that function with variety as their domain (nānatte vā gocare pavattā saññā) or that are varied themselves (nānattā vā saññā), The Visuddhimagga is here inspired by the Vibhaṅga, p. 261–262.


In this āyatana, also called the bhavāgra ‘Summit of existence’, awareness is so weak that in it one cannot meditate on the Path: cf. Kośa, VIII, p. 145.


Here the Traité continues with a series of technical considerations which I [Lamotte] do not translate. The reader may find a similar set of analyses in the Vibhaṅga, p. 269–271.

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