Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the eight liberations (vimoksha)” 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.

Class 5: The eight liberations (vimokṣa)

1. General definition

The eight liberations (aṣṭau vimokṣāḥ): [k. 21, p. 215a]

1) Having [the notion] of inner visibles, he also sees outer visibles, this is the first vimokṣa (adhyātmaṃ rūpasaṃjñī bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyaty ayaṃ prathamo vimokṣaḥ).[1]

2) Not having [the notion] of inner visibles, he sees outer visibles, this is the second vimokṣa (adhyātmam arūpasaṃjñī bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyaty ayaṃ dvitīyo vimokṣaḥ).

3) He physically actualizes the pleasant vimokṣa, this is the third vimokṣa (śubhaṃ vimokṣaṃ kāyena sākṣātkaroty ayaṃ tṛtīyo vimokṣaḥ).

4–8) – The four formless absorptions (catasra ārūpyasamāpattayaḥ) and the absorption of cessation of concept and feeling (saṃjñāveditanirodhasamāpatti) are the [last] five vimokṣas.

In all, eight vimokṣas. They ‘turn the back’ (pei) on the five objects of enjoyment (kāmaguṇa) and [they ‘reject’ (chö)] or eliminate the mind of attachment (saṅgacitta) towards them; this is why they are called ‘turning the mind and rejecting’ (pei-chö, in Sanskrit vi-mokṣa).[2]

2. The first two vimokṣas

The yogin has not destroyed inner and outer visibles: he has not suppressed the notion of both [his own] inner and outer visibles (rūpasaṃjñā) and he sees these visibles with a feeling of horror (aśubhacitta):[3] this is the first vimokṣa.

The yogin has destroyed the inner visibles and suppressed the notion of inner visibles (adhyātmaṃ rūpasaṃjñā), but he has not destroyed outer visibles nor suppressed the notion of outer visibles (bahirdhā rūpasaṃjñā) and it is with a feeling of horror that he sees outer visibles: this is the second vimokṣa.

These two vimokṣas both contemplate the horrible (aśubha): the first contemplates inner as well as outer visibles; the second does not see inner visibles and sees only outer visibles. Why is that?

Beings (sattva) have two kinds of behavior (pratipad):[4] sensualism (tṛṣṇācarita) and rationalism (dṛṣṭicarita). The sensualists (tṛṣṇābahula) are attached to happiness (sukharakta) and are bound (baddha) by outer fetters (bāhyasaṃyojana). The rationalists (dṛṣṭibahula) are strongly attached to the view of the individual (satkāyadṛṣṭi), etc., and are bound by inner fetters (adhyātmasaṃyojana). This is why the sensualists [usefully] contemplate the horrors of outer visibles (bāhyarūpāśubha), whereas the rationalists [usefully] contemplate the horrors (aśubha) and corruption (vikāra) of their own body.

Furthermore, at the beginning of the practice, the yogin’s mind lacks sharpness (asūkṣṃa) and at the start it is difficult for him to fix his mind on a single point [viz,, outer visibles]. That is why he disciplines his mind and tames it by gradual practice (kramābhyāsa) consisting of the [simultaneous] consideration of both outer and inner visibles. Then he can destroy the notion of inner visibles and see only outer visibles

Question. – If the yogin no longer has the notion of inner visbles, why can he see outer visibles?

Answer. – This is a matter of a subjective method (adhimuktimārga)[5] and not an objective method (bhūtamārga). The yogin thinks about his future corpse burned by the fire (vidagdhaka), devoured by insects (vikhāditaka), buried in the ground and completely decomposed. Or, if he considers it at present, he analyzes this body down to the subtle atoms (paramāṇu), all non-existent. This is how ‘he sees outer visibles, not having the notion of inner visibles’.

Question. – In the [first] two abhibhvāyatanas, the yogin sees inner and outer visibles; in the [last] six abhibhvÂatanas he see only outer outer visibles. In the first vimokṣa, he sees inner and outer visibles; in the second vimokṣa, he sees only outer visibles. Why does he destroy only the concept of inner visibles and not destroy the outer visibles?

Answer. – When the yogin sees with his eyes this body marked with the marks of death (maraṇanimitta), he grasps the future characteristics of death; as for the actual body, in it he sees, to a lesser degree, the disappearance (nirodhalakṣaṇa) of the outer four great elements (mahābhūta). Therefore, since [215b] it is difficult for him to see that they do not exist, the [Sūtra] does not speak of the destruction of the visibles. Besides, at the time when the yogin will have transcended the form realm (rūpadhātu),[6] he will no longer see outer visibles.

3. The third vimokṣa

“He actualizes the pleasant vimokṣa” (śubhaṃ, vimokṣaṃ kāyena sākṣātkaroti). – This is a pleasant meditation in regard to unpleasant things (aśubheṣu śubhabhāvanā), as is said about the eight abhibhāyatanas.

The first eight kṛtsnāyatanas contemplate, in the pure state (śuddha),:[7] 1) earth (pṛthivī), 2) water (ap), 3) fire (tejas), 4) wind (vāyu), and also 5) blue (nīla), 6) yellow (pīta), 7) red (lohita), 8) white (avadāta).

The [fifth] sees visibles as blue (rūpāṇi nīlāni) like the blue lotus flower (nīlotpalapuṣpa), like the kin-tsing-chan,[8] like the flax flower (umakapuṣpa) or like fine Benares muslin (saṃpannaṃ vā vārāṇaseyaṃ vastram). It is the same for the visions of yellow (pīta), red (lohita) and white (avadāta), each according to its respective color. The entire thing is called ‘the pleasant vimokṣa’.

Question. – If all of that is the pleasant vimokṣa, it should not be necessary to speak of the kṛtsnāyatanas [under the pain of repeating oneself].

Answer. – The vimokṣas are the initial practice (prathamacaryā); the abhibhvāyatanas are the intermediate practice (madhyamacaryā) and the kṛtsnāyatanas are the long-standing practice.[9]

The meditation of the horrible (aśubhabhāvatana) is of two types: i) unpleasant (aśubha); ii) pleasant (śubha). The [first] two vimokṣas and the [first] four abhibhvāyatanas are of the unpleasant type. One vimokṣa, [i.e., the third], the [last] four abhibhvāyatanas and the [first] eight kṛtsnāyatanas are of the pleasant type.

Question. – When the yogin takes as pleasant (śubha) that which is unpleasant (aśubha), he is making a mistake (viparyāsa).[10] Then why is the meditation that he practices in the course of the pleasant vimokṣa not erroneous?

Answer. – The error is in seeing wrongly as pleasant a woman’s beauty which is unpleasant, but the meditation practiced during the pleasant vimokṣa is not a mistake due to the extension (viśālatva) of all true blue color, [etc].

Moreover, in order to tame the mind (cittadamanārtham), the pleasant meditation presupposes a lengthy practice of the meditation on the horrible (aśubhabhāvana) and on mental revulsion (cittanirveda): this is why practicing the pleasant meditation is not a mistake and there is no desire (lobha) in it.[11]

Moreover, the yogin begins by contemplating the horrors of the body and fixes his mind on all the inner and outer horrors in bodily things. Then he feels revulsion (nirveda): [his negative emotions], lust (rāga), hatred (dveśa) and stupidity (moha) decrease; he becomes frightened and understands: “I do not possess these characteristics as a person at all: it is the body that is like that. Then why am I attached to it?”

He concentrates his mind and really meditates so as not to commit mistakes. As soon as his mind becomes disciplined and gentle, he avoids thinking of the horrors of the body, such as skin (tvac), flesh (māṃsa), blood (lohita) and marrow (asthimajjan): for him there are only white bones (śvetāsthika) and he fixes his mind on the skeleton (kaṅkāla). If his mind wanders outward, he concentrates and gathers it back. Concentrating his mind deeply, he sees the diffused light of the white bones (śvetāsthika) like a conch-shell (śaṅkha),[12] like shells (kapardaka), lighting up inner and outer things. This is the gateway of the pleasant vimokṣa.

Then, noting the disappearance of the skeleton, the yogin sees only the light of the bones (asthiprabhā) and grasps the characteristics (nimitta) of outer and inner visibles. For example:

1) diamond (vajra), pearl (maṇi), precious golden and silver objects (hemarajataratnavastu),[13]

2) very pure (supariśuddha) earth (pṛthivī):[14] [first kṛtsna],

3) pure water (ap): [second kṛtsna],

4) pure fire (tejas) without smoke (dhūma) or kindling (indhana): [third kṛtsna],

5) pure wind (vāyu), without dust (rajas): [fourth kṛtsna],

6) blue visibles (rūpāṇi nīlāni), like the kin-tsing-chan: [fifth abhibhu and fifth kṛtsna],

7) yellow visibles (rūpāni pītāni), like the ginger flower (campakapuṣpa): [sixth abhibhu and sixth kṛtsna],

8) red visibles (rūpāni lohitāni), like the flower of the red lotus (padmapuṣpa): [seventh abhibhu and seventh kṛtsna]. 9) white visibles (rūpāṇy avadātāni), like white snow (hima): [eighth abhibhu and eighth kṛtsna].

Grasping these characteristics (nimittāny udgṛhṇan), the yogin fixes his mind on the pleasant meditation (śubhabhāvana) on the pure light (pariśuddhaprabhā) belonging to each of these visibles. Then the yogin experiences joy (prīti) and happiness (sukha) filling his entire body (kāya): this is what is called the pleasant vimokṣa (śubha vimokṣa). Since it has pleasant things as object (ālambana), it is called ‘pleasant’ vimokṣa. Since the ascetic experiences this [215c] happiness in his whole body, it is said that the yogin ‘actualizes it physically’ (kāyena sākṣātkaroti). Having obtained this mental happiness (cittasukha), the yogin ‘turns his back and rejects’ (vi-muc) the five objects of enjoyment (kāmaguṇa) and is henceforth without joy (prīti) or happiness (sukha):[15] this is indeed a vimokṣa.

As the yogin has not yet destroyed the impurities (akṣīṇāsrava), it happens that, from time to time, passionate thoughts (saṃyojanacitta) arise in him and he becomes attached (anusajate) to pleasant visibles (śubharūpa). Then he vigorously (ātāpin) and energetically (vīryavat) cuts this attachment (tam āsaṅgaṃ samucchinatti). Actually, this pleasant meditation is a result of his mind. And just as a master magician (māyākāra), in the face of objects that he has created magically, knows that they come from him, so the yogin is no longer attached (āsaṅga) and no longer pursues objects (ālambana). Then the vimokṣa ‘liberation’ changes its name and is called ‘sphere of mastery over the object’ abhibhvÂatana.

Although the yogin thus masters (abhibhavati) the pleasant meditation (śubhabhāvana), he is still incapable of extending it (vistārayitum). Then he returns to grasp the pleasant characteristics (śubhanimitta):

a. Using the power of the vimokṣas and the power of the abhibhvāyatanas, he grasps the nature of pleasant earth (śubhapṛthivī) and gradually extends it (krameṇa vistārayati) to all the empty space (ākāśa) of the ten directions. He does the same with water (ap), fire (tejas) and wind (vāyu).[16]

b. He grasps the nature of blue (nīlanimitta) and gradually extends it to all the space of the ten directions. He does the same with yellow (pīta), red (lohita) and white (avadāta).[17]

Now the abhibhvāyatanas are transformed and become the kṛtsnāyatanas ‘spheres of totality of the object’.

These three, [namely the vimokṣas, the abhibhvāyatanas and the kṛtsnāyatanas], are one and the same thing (ekārtha), with three name-changes.

Question. – The [first] three vimokṣas, the eight abhibhvātanas and the ten kṛtsnāyatanas are either objective considerations (bhūtapratyavekṣā) or subjective considerations (adhimuktipratyavekṣā).

If they are objective considerations, since the body still contains skin (tvac) and flesh (māṃsa), how can one see only white bones (śvetasthika) in it? Besides, the body is constituted by an assemblage of thirty-six substances (ṣaṭtriṃḷśaddhātusāmagrī);[18] why distinguish them and consider them separately? The four great elements (mahābhūta) [entering into the constitution of the body] each have their own nature (svalakṣaṇa);[19] why exclude three of them [water, fire and wind] and consider just the earth element (pṛthivīmahābhūta)?[20] The four colors are not blue (nīla) exclusively; why then practice meditation just on blue (nīlabhāvana)?[21]

Answer. – [In these considerations] there is an objective consideration (bhūtapratyavekṣā) as well as a subjective consideration (adhimuktipratyavekṣā).

Bodily characteristics (kāyanimitta), objectively, are unpleasant (aśubha): that is an objective consideration. Among outer things (bāhyadharma), there are all kinds of colors of pleasant nature (śubhalakṣaṇa): this is also an objective consideration. The pleasant (śubha) and the unpleasant (aśubha) come within objective considerations.

On the other hand, when one takes the small number of pleasant things and extends it to consider everything as pleasant,[22] when one chooses the single element water and extends it to see everything as water,[23] when one chooses the small amount of blue that exists and extends it to see everything as blue[24] and so on, those are subjective considerations that are not objective.

4. Vimokṣas four to seven

The four formless vimokṣas (ārūpyavimokṣa) are similar to meditations practiced in the four formless absorptions (ārūpyasamāpatti).[25] The person who wants to acquire these vimokṣas first enters into the formless absorptions: the latter are the gateway into these vimokṣas, for the sphere of the infinity of space (ākāśānantyāyatana) ‘turns the back on and rejects’ material objects (rūpyālambana).

Question. – If it is the same for the formless absorptions, how do [the formless vimokṣas] differ?

Answer. – The worldly person (pṛthagjana) who acquires the formless absorptions is arūpin [‘without form’ or without the concept of form]. But when the saint (āryapudgala) with high resolve (adhyāśaya) acquires these formless absorptions, [he is arūpin] absolutely and without regression: that is why it is called vimokṣa.

It is the same for the other vimokṣas coming within the spheres of infinity of consciousness (vijñānānantyāyatana), nothing at all (ākiṃcanyāyatana) and neither identification nor non-identification (naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāyatana).

5. The eighth vimokṣa

Turning the back on and suppressing feelings (vedita) and concepts (saṃjñā) as well as all mind (citta) and all mental events (caitasikadharma) is what is called ‘liberation consisting of the cessation of feeling and concept’ (saṃjñāveditanirodhavimokṣa).

Question. – Why is the absorption of non-identification (asaṃjñāsamāpatti) not a vimokṣa?[26]

Answer. – Because when beings with wrong view (mithyādarśin) who do not discern the defects (doṣa) of dharmas enter into the absorption [216a] [of non-identification], they identify it with nirvāṇa and when they emerge from of this absorption, they feel regret (vipratisāra) and fall back into their wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi). This is why the absorption [of non-identification] is not a vimokṣa.

On the other hand, by the cessation of feeling and concept that suppresses all distraction (vikṣiptacitta), the yogin penetrates into a nirvāna-like[27] cessation (nirodha). Since he acquires it by attaching to it [just] his body, the Sūtra says that he ‘actualizes it physically’ (kāyena sākṣātkaroti).

Footnotes and references:


In place of the canonical phrase rūpī rūpāṇi paśyati, the Traité substitutes this new wording borrowed from the definition of the first abhibhu. Harivarman does the same in his Satyasiddhiśāstra, T 1646, k. 12, p. 339a17.


This paragraph is undoubtedly a note by Kumārajīva aimed at justifying the translation of vimokṣa by the Chinese characters pei-chö.

For the Indian exegesis, see Athasālinī, p. 191–192: Āraṃmane adhimuccanaṭṭhena paccanīkadhammehi vimuccanaṭṭhena vimokkho ti vuttaṃ; Kośavyākhyā, p. 689: sarvasaṃskṛtavaimukhyād vimoṣaḥ, samāpattyāvaraṇavimokṣaṇād vimokṣa iti.


Actually, during the first two vimokṣas, the ascetic cultivates the nine notions regarding the decomposing corpse, notions that will be the subject of the next chapter.


For these two kinds of behavior, see Nettippakaraṇa, p. 7, 109; Kośa, IV, p. 174, 208; V, p. 82; Kośavyākyā, p. 427.


An adhimuktimanasikāra or adhimuktisaṃjñāna or ‘voluntary seeing’ of the object; see Kośa, VIII, p. 198–199 and notes.


I.e., in the five vimokṣas and the two kṛtsnas called ārūpya.


This detail is necessary because, in the course of the first eight kṛtsnas, the yogin contemplates the four great elements and the four colors in their most pure form, without the intrusion of foreign elements or colors. This is what the Visuddhimagga calls the ‘counter-sign’ (paṭihāganimitta) of the object: see above, p. 1287F.


This must be a flower or a blue metal. However, there is a mountain in Kiang-Si with this name.


Cf. Kośa, VIII, p. 215.


The third of the four errors consisting of taking what is impure to be pure (aśucau śucir iti viparyāsaḥ).


The third vimokṣa is the root of good, alobha: cf. Kośa, VIII, p. 206; Abhidharmadīpa, p. 430.


Cf. the aṭṭikāni satāni saṅkhavaṇṇūpanibhāni about which the canonical sources speak: Dīgha, II, p. 297; Majjhima, I, p. 58,59; III, p. 93; Anguttara, III, p. 324.


The contemplation of these precious objects is not mentioned in the traditional list of the kṛtsnas.


Cf. the first eight counter-signs (paṭibhāganimitta) defined by the Visuddhimagga in the chapters on the kasiṇas (above, p. 1288F)


This is explained by the fact that the third vimokṣa and consequently the eight abhibhus and the first eight kṛtsnas are practiced in the fourth dhyāna where there is no longer any happiness or suffering, neither joy nor sadness: see above, p. 1031–1032F.

The expression kāyena sākṣātkṛtvā is absent in the Pāli canonical sources and is used by the Sanskrit sources only in regard to the fourth and eighth vimokṣa. This is due to their excellence (prādhānya) and because they are in the final stages of rūpadhātu and ārūyadhātu respectively: cf. Kośa, VIII, p. 210–211; Kośavyākhyā, p. 690.


In the course of kṛtsnas 1 to 4.


In the course of kṛtsnas 5 to 8.


In the Sanskrit sources of both the Lesser and the Greater Vehicles, physical substances are 26 in number (cf. Tseng yi a han, T 125, p. 687b9; k. 27, p. 712b7; k. 49, p. 815c5; Kalpanāmaṇḍitikā, T 201, k. 5, p. 285b1; Po yu king, T 209, k. 4, p. 555b15; Tch’ou yao king, k. 212, k. 1, p. 612b17; k. 5, p. 632c22; k. 17, p. 699c7; k. 26, p. 749c16). They are listed, with many faulty readings, in the Sanskrit editions of the Pañcaviṃśati, p. 205, l. 16–19 (T 223, k. 5, p. 253c26–29) and the Śatasāhasrikā, p.1431, l. 9–13 (T 220, k. 53, p. 298b26–28).

The Pāli suttas list 31 (Dīgha, II, p. 293; III, p. 104;Majjhima, I, p. 57; III, p. 90; Saṃyutta, IV, p. 111; V, p. 278; Anguttara, III, p. 323; V, p. 109). The Visuddhimagga gives their number as 32 and discusses them at length.

Also see Appendix 3.


The nature of the four great elements is, respectively, solidity (khakkhatatva), moistness or fluidity (dravatya), warmth (uṣṇatva) and movement (īraṇatva).


This is done in the first kṛtsna.


This is done in the fifth abhibhu and the fifth kṛtsna.


In the course of the third vimokṣa.


In the course of the second kṛtsna.


In the course of the fifth abhibhu and the fifth kṛtsna.


See above, p. 1274F seq.


The yogin who has entered into cessation is dṛṣṭadharmanirvāṇaprāpta: in the present lifetime (dṛṣṭe janmani) is in the nirvāṇa with residue of conditioning (sopadhiśeṣanirvāṇastha).


The absorption of non-identification is practiced by worldly people (pṛthagjana) who identify non-identification with true liberation. The saints (ārya) do not practice it; they reserve their efforts for the absorption of cessation which they consider to be the peaceful absorption: cf. Kośa, II, p. 201–214.