Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “nine notions 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.

Part 2 - The nine notions according to the Mahāyana

Question. – The śrāvaka who meditates [on the nine notions] in this way experiences disgust (nirveda) and wants to enter nirvāna quickly. But the bodhisattva has compassion for all beings; he gathers all the attributes of the Buddha, saves all beings and does not seek to enter nirvāṇa quickly. Then, by meditating on these nine notions, why does he not fall into the class of an adept of the first two Vehicles, [i.e., that of the śrāvakas and of the pratyekabuddhas]?

Answer. – The bodhisattva feels compassion for beings. He knows that, because of the three poisons (triviṣa) [passion, aggression and ignorance], beings experience mental and physical suffering (caitasikakāyikaduḥkha) in the present lifetime (iha janmani) and in the future lifetime (paratra). The three poisons are not destroyed by themselves, and there is no other way to destroy them than to contemplate the inner and outer physical characteristics (ādhyātmikabāhyakāyanimitta) to which one is attached [but that are repulsive]. The three poisons are destroyed only after this contemplation. That is why the bodhisattva who wants to destroy the poison of lust (rāgaviṣa) contemplates the nine notions [so as to teach them to beings]. The bodhisattva is like a person who, out of compassion for the ill, gathers all the medicines (bhaiṣajya) to cure them. To beings who love colors (varṇarakta), the bodhisattva preaches the notion of the bluish corpse (vinīlakasaṃjñā) and, according to that to which they are attached, he explains the other notions [of the horrible] of which we have spoken above. This is how the bodhisattva practices the meditation on the horrible (aśubhabhāvanā). [218c]

Furthermore, the bodhisattva who is practicing these nine notions with a mind of great compassion (mahākaruṇācitta) has the following thought: “Not completely possessing all the attributes of the Buddha, I do not enter into nirvāṇa: this would be using only one gate of the Dharma (ekadharmadvāra); but I should not keep to a single gate, I should use all the gates of the Dharma.” This is why the bodhisattva practices the nine notions without any restriction.

When the bodhisattva practices these nine notions, it may happen that thoughts of disgust (nirvedacitta) rise up in him and he may say: “This horrible body is hateful and miserable: I want to enter nirvāṇa.” Then the bodhisattva has the following thought: “The Buddhas of the ten directions have said that all dharmas are empty of nature (lakṣaṇaśūnya). But in emptiness, there is no impermanence (anitya): then how (kaḥ punarvādaḥ) could there be impurities (aśuci)? This meditation on the horrible is practiced only to destroy the error consisting of taking [what is impure] to be pure (aśucau iti viparyāsaḥ). These horrors (aśubha) that come from a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī) are without any intrinsic nature (niḥsvabhāva) and all end up in emptiness. And so I cannot cling (udgrah-) to these horrors (aśubhadharma) that come from a complex of causes and conditions and are without intrinsic nature to allow me to enter into nirvāṇa.”

[Āsvādasūtra] – Moreover, it is said in a sūtra: “If there were no satisfaction (āsvāda) derived from the visible (rūpa), beings would not be attached to the visible; but because there is satisfaction deriving from the visible, beings are attached to the visible. If there were no defects (ādīnava) in the visible, beings would not be revolted by the visible; but because there are defects in the visible people are revolted by the visible. If there were no exit (niḥsaraṇa) from the visible, beings would not come out of the visible; but because there is an exit from the visible, beings come out of the visible.”[1]

Therefore satisfaction (āsvāda) is the cause and condition of pure notions (śubhasaṃjñā). This is why the bodhisattva does not pay attention to the horrible and abstains from entering nirvāṇa prematurely.[2]

This ends the explanations of the nine notions.

Footnotes and references:


Assādasutta, no. 3, in Saṃyutta, p. 29–30. Tsa a han, T 99, no. 13, k. 1, p. 2b15–c10): No cedaṃ bhikkhave rūpassa assādo abhavissa … rūpassa nissaraṇaṃ, tasmā sattā rūpasmā nissaranti.


By considering pleasant visibles and then determining their defects (ādīnava), the bodhisattva accounts for the fact that they are completely empty (śūnya), without nature and, from the point of view of the true nature of things, unworthy of acceptance or rejection. The meditation on the horrible thus leaves him quite cold and in no way encourages him to hasten into nirvāṇa, as is the case for the śrāvaka. Personally, he does not believe in these horrors, but he preaches them to those whom he judges to be too attached to visibles. Briefly, preaching the horrible is one of the skillful means (upāya) used by the bodhisattva to ripen beings.