Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “how to meditate on the nine notions (navasamjna)” 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. How to meditate on the nine notions (navasaṃjñā)

Question. – How does the yogin meditate on these nine things, the bloated corpse (vyādhmātaka), etc?

1. Reflection on death

Answer. – First the yogin observes pure discipline (śīlaśuddhi) in order to have no regrets (kaukṛtya), and thus he will easily find the meditation subjects (bhāvanadharma) to destroy the enemies (amitra) that are the negative emotions, lust, etc. (rāgādikleśa).

He thinks about a man on the very day of his death: the words of farewell that he speaks, the outbreath (apāna) which does not return and, immediately afterwards, his death. The family is in turmoil: they weep and invoke the heavens saying: “Just a moment ago he passed away; his breath is no more, his body is cold, he is no longer conscious.”

Death is a great calamity; it is impossible to avoid it. It is like the fire at the end of the kalpa (kalpoddāha) from which there is no escape. Thus it is said:

When death comes, neither rich nor poor,
Neither benefactors nor criminals,
Neither nobles nor lowly people
Neither old nor young can escape it.

There are no prayers that can save you,
There are no tricks by which you can escape,
There are no stratagems to free you,
There is no way to avoid it.

Death is the place where one leaves one’s attachments forever; it is hated by all, but no matter how much one hates it, no one can escape it. The yogin says: “Soon my body will be like this, no different from a piece of wood or stone. Therefore, from now on I must not covet the five objects of enjoyment (kāmaguṇa) and I must not think of the coming of death like oxen and sheep. Even when these animals see a dead animal, they leap about and squeal without taking anything into account. I, who possess a human body and differentiate between beautiful and ugly, must seek the ambrosia (amṛta) of immortality.” Thus it is said:

Having the six faculties (ṣaḍindriya), the human being is complete,
His knowledge is clear and his vision is keen,
But he does not seek the Dharma of the Path;
It is in vain that he has received body and knowledge.

All animals also are able to free themselves
From the objects of enjoyment (kāmaguṇa)
But they do not know how to cultivate [217b]
The good in view of the Path.

The person who has acquired a human body
But who only devotes himself to licentiousness
And does not know how to develop the good practices,
How is he different from the animals?

The beings in the three unfortunate destinies (durgati)
Are incapable of accomplishing the deeds of the Path.
The person who has obtained a human body
Must look after his own interests.

2. Vyādmātaka-saṃjñā

The yogin goes to a dead body (mṛtaśarīra) and sees this corpse bloated (vyādhmātaka) like a leather bag blown up by the wind and quite different from what it was originally. He feels disgust (nirveda) and fear of it and says to himself: “My body too will be like that and will not escape this end. In this body a sovereign consciousness governed it, saw, heard, spoke, committed wrong deeds (āpatti), won merits (puṇya) and used it as it pleased: where has it gone? Now I see only an empty house (śūnyagṛha). This body had fine features (lakṣaṇa): a fine waist, nice shoulders, long eyes, a straight nose, a smooth forehead, arched eyebrows, and all these beautiful things troubled men’s hearts; now I see only a swollen thing: where has its beauty gone? The characteristics of man or woman (puruṣastrīnimitta), they too, are unrecognizable.”

Having made this meditation, the yogin condemns any attachment to lust (rāgādhyavasāna). Indeed, this bloated sack of rotten excrement is detestable; how could it evoke any lust?

3. Vidhūtaka-saṃjñā

With the heat of the wind, the corpse gets bloated and lies on the ground, split open and broken up (vidhūtaka). The five viscera ooze forth excrement (viṣ), urine (mūtra), pus (pūya) and blood (śoṇita) and a repugnant liquid appears.

The yogin grasps this ‘notion of the torn-up corpse’ (vidhūtakasaṃjñā) and compares his own body to it, saying to himself: “I too, in the same way, contain all these horrible things; how am I any different? I was very foolish to allow myself to be seduced by this fine skin, a simple sack of excrement. Like moths (adhipātika) flying into the fire,[1] I coveted bright colors without knowing that they burn the body, At last I have seen this split and torn corpse in which the male and female characteristics (puruṣastrīnimitta) have disappeared. Everything that I was attached to is nothing but that.”

4. Vilohitaka-saṃjñā  

When the corpse is torn up, a ‘jumble of flesh and blood’ (māṃsavilohitaka) spreads out.

5. Vinīlaka-saṃjñā

Sometimes the yogin sees some ‘bluish’ (vinīlaka), yellowish, reddish or even, under the sun’s heat, blackish, spots on the corpse of a flogged man. Grasping all these signs, the yogin contemplates them and says to himself: “Then how is the purity and beauty of the red and white colors to which I am attached different from these?”

6. Vipūyaka-saṃjñā

The yogin soon sees these bluish, yellowish, reddish and blackish spots which the birds and beasts have not devoured or buried or hidden, putrefy; all kinds of worms develop in it. Seeing all of that, the yogin says to himself: “Once this corpse had lovely colors; the body was smeared with fine makeup, dressed in superb garments and adorned with flowers. Today it is no more than a rotten mass, torn up and ‘putrid’ (vipūyaka): that is its real constitution; the former adornments were nothing but deceptions.”

7. Vikhāditaka-saṃjñā

If the corpse has not been burned or buried but abandoned in a deserted place (kāntāra), it is ‘devoured’ (vikhāditaka) by the birds and beasts. The crows (kāka) tear out the eyes; the dogs (śvan) share its hands and feet amongst themselves; the jackals (śṛgāla) and wolves (vṛka) tear up the belly, and the corpse is completely torn to pieces.[2]

8. Vikṣiptaka-saṃjñā

The pieces lying on the ground are more or less complete. Seeing that, the yogin feels disgust (nirveda) and says to himself: “This body, when it was not yet torn to pieces (vidhūtaka), was an object of attachment for people; now that it is torn to pieces and ‘scattered’ [218c] (vikṣiptaka), it no longer has its original characteristics and only the pieces are seen: the place where the birds and beasts have devoured is appalling.”

9. Asthi-saṃjñā

When the birds and animals have gone, when the wind has blown it about and the sun has heated it up, the tendons (snāyu) become detached and the bones (asthi) are scattered, each in a different place. The yogin says to himself: “Once I saw the bodily elements, the combination (sāmagrī) of which formed a body and I was able to distinguish a man or a woman. Now that the corpse has been scattered in different places, the whole body has disappeared and the body itself no longer exists. It is completely different from what it was originally. Where is that which I once loved?”

The body is now white bones (śvetāsthika) scattered in various places. When the birds and beasts have devoured the corpse, there is nothing but bones. When one contemplates this skeleton (asthisaṃkhalikā), there is the ‘notion of the corpse reduced to bones’ (asthisaṃjñā).

There are two kinds of skeletons (asthisaṃkkhalikā): i) the skeleton in which the tendons and bones are still attached (snāyvasthisaṃbandha); ii) the skeleton in which the tendons and bones are separated (apagatāsthisnāyusaṃbandha).[3] The skeleton in which the tendons and bones are still attached already excludes the notions of male or female (puruṣastrī), of tall or short (dīrghahrasva), of fine colors, of slenderness and gentleness (sūkṣmaślakṣaṇa). That in which the tendons and bones are separated excludes the original notion (maulasaṃjñā) of human being (sattva).

Furthermore, there are two kinds of bones (asthi): i) beautiful (śubha) bones, and ii) ugly (aśubha) bones. The beautiful bones are those that are always white, free of blood (lohita) and fat (vasā), the color of which is like white snow. The ugly bones are those where the bloody (vilohitaka) and greasy remains have not yet disappeared.

10. Vidagdhaka-saṃjñā

The yogin goes to a charnel-ground (śmaśāna) and sees that sometimes piles of grass and wood have been collected and that corpses are being burned. The belly bursts open, the eyes pop out, the skin burns and becomes blackened; it is truly dreadful. In a moment (muhūrta), the corpse becomes ashes (bhasman). The yogin grasps this ‘notion of the burned corpse’ (vidagdhakasaṃjñā) and says to himself: “Before he died, he bathed this body in perfumes and gave himself up to the five objects of enjoyment (kāmaguṇa); now it is burned in the fire, it is worse than if he had suffered the soldier’s sword (śastra). Immediately after death, this corpse still resembled a man, but as soon as it is burned, its original marks (maulanimitta) have all disappeared. All physical (dehin) beings end up in impermanence (anityatā). I too will be like that.”

These nine notions destroy the negative emotions (kleśa) and are very powerful in destroying lust (rāgaprahāṇāya). It was to destroy lust that [the Buddha] preached the nine notions.[4]

Footnotes and references:


See also below, k. 37, p. 333b17. This is a canonical comparison: cf. Udāna, p. 72: Patanti pajjotam iv’ādhipātā, diṭṭhe sute iti h’eke niviṭṭhā: “Like moths that fall into the flame of a lamp, some people become attached to what they see and hear.”


Cf. Majima, I, p. 58: Sarīraṃ sīvathikāya chaḍḍitaṃ kākehi vā khajjamānaṃ kulalehi vā khajjamānaṃ gijjhehi vā khajjamānaṃ supāṇehi vā khajjamānaṃ sigālehi vā khajjamānaṃ vividehi vā pāṇakajātehi khajjamānam.


Cf. Dīgha, II, p. 296; Majjhima, I, p. 58, 89; III, p. 92; Saṃyutta, II, p. 255; Anguttara, III, p. 324: Sarīraṃ sīvathikāya chaḍḍitaṃ, aṭṭhikasaṅkhalikaṃ samaṃsalohitaṃ nahārusambandhaṃ, aṭṭhikasaṅkhalikaṃ nimmaṃsaṃ lohitamakkhitaṃnahārusambandhaṃ, aṭṭhikasaṅkhalikaṃ apagatamaṃsalohitaṃ nahārusambandhaṃ, aṭṭhikāni apagatasambadhāni.


The Buddha said in several places (Anguttara, III, p. 446; IV, p. 353, 358) that the horrible should be cultivated in order to destroy lust (asubhā bhāvetabbā rāgassa pahānāya). The fact remains that the horrible does not destroy the negative emotions but merely weakens them (Kośavyākhyā, p. 526: Nāśubhayā kleśaprahāṇaṃ viṣkaṃbhaṇamātraṃ tu bhavati), for, as an act of attention on an imaginary object (adhimuktimanasikāra), it is impure (sāsrava) and only meditations that entail the view of the sixteen aspects of the noble truths cut through the negative emotions. Cf. Kośa, VI, p. 150; Satyasiddhiśāstra, T 1646, k. 16, p. 367b1–2.

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