Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the eight spheres of mastery (abhibhvayatana, abhibhu-ayatana)” 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 6: The eight spheres of mastery (abhibhvāyatana, abhibhu-āyatana)

1. General definition

The eight spheres of mastery (aṣṭāv abhibhvāyatanāni):

1) Having the notion of inner visibles, he sees outer visibles, few in number, beautiful or ugly, and he cognizes these visibles by mastering them, he sees them by mastering them; this is the first abhibhu (adhyātmam rūpasaṃjnī habirdhā rūpaṇi paśyati parīttāni suvarṇadurvarṇāni, tāni khalu rūpāṇy abhibhūya jānāty abhibhūya paśyatīdaṃ prathamamam abhibhvāyatanam).

2) Having the notion of inner visibles, he sees outer visibles, numerous, beautiful or ugly, and he cognizes these visibles by mastering them, he sees them by mastering them; this is the second abhibhu (adhyātmaṃ rūpasaṃjñī nahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyaty adhimātrāṇi suvarṇadurvarṇāni, tāni khalu rūpāṇy abhinhūya jānāty abhibhūya paśyatīdaṃ dvitīyam abhibhvāyatanam).

3–4) It is the same for the third and fourth abhibhvāyatana, with the only difference that, not having the notion of inner visibles, he sees outer visibles (adyātmam arūpasaṃjñī bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyati).

5–6) [In these āyatanas], not having the notion of inner visibles, the yogin sees outer visibles blue, yellow, red or white (adhyātmam arūpasaṃjñī bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyati nīlapītalohitāvadātāni).

These are the eight abhibhvāyatanas.

2. The first abhibhu

“Having the notion of inner visibles, he sees outer visibles “ (adhyātmaṃ rūpasaṃjñī bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyati): himself unhurt, he sees outer objects (bāhyālambana).

“He sees few of them” (parīttāni): being rare, these objects are said to be ‘few in number’. The path of seeing not being developed in him, the yogin sees objects few in number for, if he saw a large number of them, he would grasp them with difficulty. In the same way, when deer run about in confusion, one cannot see them from far away.

“He sees the beautiful or ugly” (suvarṇadurvarṇāni). At the start of the practice, the yogin fixes his mind on an object (ālam,bana), the space between the eyebrows, the forehead or the end of the nose. With the notion of unpleasant inner visibles (adhyātmam aśubhasaṃjñī) and the notion of unpleasant things in his own body, the yogin sees outer visibles which sometimes will be beautiful (suvarṇāni) by virtue of the retribution for good actions (kuśalakarmavipāka), sometimes ugly (durvarṇāni) by virtue of retribution for bad actions (akuśalakarmavipāka).

Furthermore, when the yogin, following the instructions of his teacher, grasps and sees all kinds of unpleasant things (nānāvidhāny aśubhāni) in outer objects (bāhyālambana), this is a matter of ‘ugly visibles’ (durvarṇāni rūpāṇī). But sometimes when, by loss of attentiveness (smṛtihāni), the yogin conceives a pleasant notion (śubhasaṃjñā) and sees pleasant visibles (śubhāni rūpāṇī), this is then a matter of ‘beautiful visibles’ (suvarṇāni rūpāṇī).

Furthermore, when the yogin by himself fixes his mind on a given place, he sees two kinds of visibles (dvividhāni rūpāṇī) inherent in the desire realm (kāmadhātu): i) the visibles that give rise to lust (rāga), ii) the visibles that give rise to hatred (dveṣa). Those that give rise to lust are pleasant visibles (śubhāni rūpāṇī) described here as beautiful (suvarṇāni); those that give rise to hatred are unpleasant visibles (aśubhāni rūpāṇi) described here as ugly (durvarṇaÌi).

The yogin is master (vaśavartin) over these objects (ālambana):[1] “He cognizes them by mastering them, he sees them by mastering them” (abhibhūya jānāty abhibhūya paśyati). Faced with beautiful visibles (abhirūpa) capable of generating lust (rāga), the yogin feels no lust; faced with ugly visibles capable of generating hatred (dveṣa), he feels no hatred. He sees only that visibles coming from the four great elements (mahābhūta) and from a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī) are lacking in substance (asāra) like a water bubble (budbuda).[2] That is how it is for beautiful and ugly visibles.

In this abhibhvāyatana, the yogin stays on the threshold of the [meditation] on the horrible (aśubhabhāvana). When the fetters of lust, hate, etc. (rāgadveṣādisaṃyojana) occur, he does not follow them: that is the sphere of mastery [of the object] for he masters the mistake that consists of taking as pure that which is impure (aśucau śucir iti viparyāsa) and the other defilements (kleśa).

Question. – While having the notion of inner visibles (adhyātmaṃ rūpasaṃjñā), how does the yogin see outer visibles (bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyati)?

Answer. – The eight abhibhvāyatanas can be attained (prāpti) by ascetics who have entered deeply into concentration and whose mind is disciplined and softened. Sometimes the yogin sees the horrible (aśubha) of his own body and [216b] also sees the horrors of outer visibles.

The contemplation of the horrible (aśubhabhāvana) is of two types: i) that which contemplates all kinds of impurities (nānāvidhāśuci), such as the thirty-six bodily substances (dravya), etc.; ii) that which, disregarding in one’s own body as in others’ bodies, the skin (tvac), flesh (māṃsa) and the five internal organs,[3] contemplates only the white bones (śvetāsthika), like a conch-shell (śaṅkha), like snow (hima). The sight of the thirty-six bodily substances is called ‘ugly’ (durvarṇa); the sight of the conch or snow is called “beautiful’ (suvarṇa).

3. The second abhibhu

At the time he is contemplating inner and outer [visibles], the yogin is distracted (vikṣiptacitta) and only with difficulty can he enter into dhyāna. Then he excludes notions of his own body (ādhymatmikasaṃjñā) and considers only outer visibles (bāhyarūpa). As is said in the Abhidharma, the yogin who possesses vimokṣa contemplates and sees the dead body: after death, the latter is picked up and taken to the charnel-ground (śmaśāna) where, burned by fire (vidagdhaka) and devoured by insects (vikhāditaka), it disintegrates. From then on, the yogin sees only the insects and the fire, but does not see the body: this is why the Sūtra says that “not having the notion of inner visibles, he sees outer visibles” (adhyātmam ārūpasaṃjñī bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyati).

In accordance with instructions, the yogin perceives and looks at the body as a skeleton (kaṅkāla). When his mind is distracted outwardly, he brings it back and concentrates on the skeleton as object. Why is that? At the beginning of the practice, this person was unable to see subtle objects (sūkṣmālambana), and that is why the sūtra said [in regard to the first abhibhu that the yogin sees only] visibles “few in number” (rūpāṇi parīttāni). But now, this yogin, whose path of seeing is developing, deepening and broadening, uses this skeleton in order to see Jambudvīpa as skeletons everywhere, and this is why the Sūtra says here that he sees ‘numerous visibles’ (rūpāṇy adhimatrāṇi).

Then he concentrates his mind again and no longer sees a single skeleton; this is why the sūtra says that “he cognizes visibles by mastering them and sees visibles by mastering them” (tāni khalu rūpāṇy abhibhūya jānāty abhibhūya paśyati).

And since, the yogin is able at will (yatheṣṭam) to master the concept of man and woman (puruṣastrīsaṃjñā) and the concept of beauty (śucisaṃjñā) in regard to the five objects of enjoyment (kāmaguṇa), that is indeed a ‘sphere of mastering the object’ (abhibhvāyatana).

Thus a strong man (balavat) mounted on his horse who captures the enemy is able to destroy them is said to ‘master’ them and, as he is also able to control his horse, he ‘masters’ it. It is the same for the yogin: in the meditation on the horrible (aśubhabhāvana), he is able to do a lot with just a little, and do a little with a lot: that is an abhibhvāyatana. He is also able to destroy his enemies, the five objects of enjoyment (kāmaguṇa); that also is an abhibhvāyatana. When without destroying inwardly [the notion] of his own body, the yogin sees visibles outwardly, numerous or few in number, beautiful or ugly, that is a matter of the first and second abhibhvāyatanas.

4. The third and fourth abhibhus

When, no longer having the notion of visibles concerning his own body, the yogin sees visibles outwardly, numerous or few, beautiful or ugly, that is the third and fourth abhibhu.

5. The four last abhibhus

When, having concentrated his mind, the yogin deeply penetrates into the absorptions (samāpatti), suppresses [the concept] of inner body (adhyāymakāya), sees outer objects perfectly pure (bāhyapariśuddhālambana), blue (nīla) and blue in color (nīlavarṇa), yellow (pīta) and yellow in color (pītavarṇa), red (lohita) and red in color (lohitavarṇa), white (avadāta) and white in color (avadātavarṇa), this is a matter of the last four abhibhvāyatanas.

Question. –What is the difference between the last four abhibhvāyatanas and the last four kṛtsnāyatanas of color, blue, etc., that are part of the ten kṛtsnāyatanas?

Answer. – The kṛtsnāyatana of blue grasps absolutely everything as blue; the corresponding abhibhvāyatana sees a large number or a small number of objects only as blue, at will (yatheṣṭam), without, however, eliminating foreign thoughts. Seeing and mastering these objects, it is called abhibhvāyatana.

Thus, for example, whereas the noble cakravartin king totally dominates the four continents (cāturdvīpaka), the king of Jambudvīpa dominates only a single continent. In the same way, whereas the kṛtsnāyatanas totally dominate all objects, the abhibhvāyatanas see only a small number of visibles and dominate them but are unable to include all objects.

This is a summary (saṃkṣepeṇa) explanation of the eight abhibhvāyatanas.

Footnotes and references:


Although the vimokṣas liberate from the object, the abhibhus exert a real mastery (aiśvarya) over it. According to the Kośa, VIII, p. 213, this domination (abhibhavana) over the object is twofold: i) yatheṣṭam adhimokṣaḥ: the voluntary seeing of the object as one wants it to be; ii) kleśānutpatti: the absence of negative emotion evoked by the object. Here the Traité particularly stresses this second point: the ascetic in possession of the abhibhus no longer feels any lust (rāga) for pleasant objects or any hatred (dveṣa) toward unpleasant objects.

But the abhibhus still allow one to see the object as one wishes it to be. Indeed, “when the mind is absorbed, very pure, very clean, stainless, free of impurities, supple, ready to act, the ascetic can direct his mind (cittaṃ abhinīharati) to the supernatural powers (abhijñā) and especially toward magical power (ṛddhi)” (Dīgha, I, p. 77). Then he can, at will, transform the great elements and the colors so as to see them as he wishes. See Visuddhimagga, ed. Warren, p. 142–143. Thus, the contemplation on yellow can have the effect of creating yellow forms (pītakarūpanimmānaṃ), the volition that something be golden (suvaṇṇan ti adhimuccanā), etc. This creative power of ‘volitional seeing’ (adhimokṣa) is mentioned in the canonical sources, e.g., Saṃyutta, I, p. 116: Ākaṅkhamāno Bhagavā Himavantaṃ pabbatarājaṃ suvaṇṇaṃ tv eva adhimucceyya, suvaṇṇañ ca pabbat’ assā tī.


See above, p. 359, n.


A typically Chinese expression appearing in the canonical versions, although the Indian originals show no trace of it: cf. Fo pan ni yuan king, T 5, k. 1, p. 163c15; k. 2, [. 171a16; Fo k’ai kiai, T 20, p. 262a3; Hong chouei, T 33, [. 817b3; Ni-li, T 86, p. 908b15; Tseng yi a han, T 125, k. 25, p. 6587b12; k. 51, p. 828c18. The five viscera are the kidneys, the heart, the liver, the lungs and the spleen. The Commentary to the Vibhaṅga, p. 249, also speaks of the vakkapañcaka “the five [constituents of the body] starting with the kidneys.”

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