Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the three concentrations (samadhi) 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.

I. The three concentrations (samādhi) according to the Abhidharma

1. The three kinds of concentration

All the trances (dhyāna) and all the absorptions (samāpatti) that concentrate the mind are called concentration (samādhi), ‘sphere of action of right thought’ in language of the Ts’in. During this beginningless universe (anādikāliko lokadhātu), the mind is always wandering (kuṭila) and without uprightness; but when these spheres of action of right thought are obtained, the mind is straightened out. Thus the progress of the snake (sarpagati) is always sinuous, but when it enters into a bamboo tube, it is corrected.

This concentration is of three types:[1]

1) In the desire realm (kāmadhātu), the preparatory concentration (anāgamya) of the first trance and the first trance (dhyāna), the concentration is associated with conceptualization (vitarka) and analysis (vicāra) and consequently is called ‘furnished with conceptuality and analysis’ (savitarakaḥ savicāraḥ).

2) In the dhyānāntara, [a variety of the first trance, the concentration is associated with analysis alone and is consequently called ‘without conceptuality but with analysis only’ (avitarko vicārammatraḥ).

3) From the second trance (dvitīyadhyāna) up to the level of the summit of existence (bhavāgra, or the fourth ārūpyasamāpatti), the concentration is associated with neither conceptuality nor analysis and consequently is called ‘without conceptuality or analysis’ (avitarko ‘vicāraḥ).

2. Vitarka and Vicāra. [556]

Question. – The mind (citta) and mental events (caitasikadharma) associated with concentration (samādhisaṃprayukta) are as many as twenty.[2] Why mention only two here, namely, conceptualization (vitarka) and analysis (vicāra)?

Answer. – Vitarka and vicāra cause disturbance (vicakṣuḥkaraṇa) in concentration: this is why we limit ourselves to mentioning two here. Even if they are good (kuśala), they are enemies to meditative stabilization and it is difficult to escape from them. Some even say that a mind furnished with vitarka and vicāra is not concentrated. This is why the Buddha stated that the concentration with vitarka and vicāra lacks solidity.[3]

When the power of vitarka and vicāra is minimal, it is possible to obtain concentration. Vitarka and vicāra are able to produce concentration and are also able to destroy it. They are like the wind (vāyu) which is able to bring rain (varṣa) and also able to destroy it. Good vitarka and vicāra, which are of three types, [234b] can produce the first dhyāna; but when the first dhyāna has been obtained, as a result of the vitarka and vicāra that have caused great joy (mahāprīti), the mind is distracted (vikṣipta) and loses concentration. That is why only vitarka and vicāra are mentioned here.

Question. – What are the differences between vitarka and vicāra?

Answer. –Vitarka is the coarseness of mind (cittaudārikatā) and vicāra is the subtlety of mind (cittasūkṣmatā).[4] Vitarka is the first movement of the mind toward its objects (prathamaṃ svālambane cittasyohanam); the vicāra that follows is an analysis (vibhaṅga), a judgment on the beautiful and the ugly (suvarṇadurvarṇa).

There are three kinds of coarse (audārika) vitarka: i) the mind of lust (kāmavitarka), ii) the mind of malice (vyāpādavitarka), iii) the mind of harmfulness (vihiṃsāvitarka).

There are three kinds of good (kuśala) vitarka: i) the mind of renunciation of desire (naiṣkramyavitarka), ii) the mind of non-malice (avyāpādavitarka), iii) the mind of non-harmfulness (avihiṃsāvitarka).[5]

There are three kinds of subtle (sūkṣma) vitarka: i) thinking of one’s relatives (jñātivitarka), ii) thinking of one’s country (janapadavitarka), iii) thinking of not dying (amaraṇavitarka).[6]

Six kinds of vitarka prevent samādhi. The three kinds of good vitarka can open the gate to samādhi, but if the vitarka and vicāra are too prominent, they lead to the loss of samādhi. It is like the wind (vayu) that propels ships (nau); beyond certain limits, it destroys the ship.

These are the many distinctions to make in regard to vitarka and vicāra.

3. Dharmas with vitarka, etc.

Question. – The sūtras speak of three kinds of dharmas: i) with both vitarka and vicāra, ii) without vitarka and with vicāra, iii) with neither vitarka or vicāra.[7]

They also speak of the levels (bhūmi) with vitarka and with vicāra, without vitarka and with vicāra, with neither vitarka nor vicāra.[8] Why speak here of the concentrations with vitarka, etc., only?

Answer. – Because here we note only what is most useful.

1) The dharmas with vitarka and with vicāra are dharmas associated with vitarka and vicāra and occur in kāmadhātu (desire realm), in the anāgamya (preparatory concentration of the first dhyāna), and in the first dhyāna. These dharmas are good (kuśala), bad (akuśala) and indeterminate (avyākṛta).

2) The dharmas without vitarka but with vicāra are dharmas associated with vicāra alone and are found in the dhyānāntara (type of the first dhyāna). These dharmas are good, bad or indeterminate.

3) The dharmas with neither vitarka or vicāra are deprived of vitarka and vicāra, namely: a. all matter (sarvaṃ rūpam), b. formations dissociated from the mind (cittaprayuktasaṃskāra), c. unconditioned dharmas (asaṃskṛtadharma).

4. Levels with vitarka, etc.

1) The levels (bhūmi) with both vitarka and vicāra are: a. kāmadhātu, b. anāgamya (preparatory concentration of the first dhyāna), c. part of the brahmaloka (namely, the first two stages of the first dhyāna inhabited by the Brahmakāyikas and the Brahmapurohitas respectively.

2) The level without vitarka but with vicāra is the dhyānantara (higher stage of the first dhyāna). Those who develop this level thoroughly are the Mahābrahmarajās.

3) The levels with neither vitarka nor vicāra are the levels [inhabited by the following gods]:[9] a. All the Ābhāsvaras, (namely, the Parittābhas, the Apramāṇābhas and the Ābhāsvaras occupying the three stages of the second dhyāna), b. all the Śubhakṛtsnas, (namely, the Parīttaśubhas, the Apramāṇaśubhas and the Śubhakṛtsnas occupying the three stages of the third dhyāna), c. all the Bṛhatphalas, (namely the Anabhrakas, the Puṇyaprasavas and the Bṛhatphalas occupying the first three stages of the fourth dhyāna),[10] d. all the formless gods: Ārūpya (belonging to the four dhyānas of ārūpyadhātu: ākāśānantyāyatana, vijñānānantatyāyatana, ākiṃcanyāyatana and naivasaṃjñāsaṃjñā āyatana, also called bhavāgra).

Footnotes and references:


Cf. Daśottara, p. 58; Dīgha, III, p. 219. 274; Majjhima, III, p. 162; Saṃyutta, IV, p. 362–363: Anguttara, IV, p. 300: Paṭisambhidā, I, p. 48; Vibhaṅga, p. 228; Kathāvatthu, p. 413; Tchong a han, T 26, k. 17, p. 538c3–6; k. 18, p. 543c20–21; Kośa, VIII, p. 183.


Cf. Kośa, II, p. 167.


Laṭukikopamasutta of Majjhima, I, p. 454 (Tchomg a han, T 26, k. 50. p. 743b2–3): Idaṃ kho ahaṃ. Udāyi iñjitasmiṃ vadāmi. kiṃ ca tattha iñjitasmiṃ. yad eva tathha vitakkavicārā aniruddhā honti idaṃ tattha iñjitasmiṃ: “Wherever vitarka and vicāra have not been destroyed, there is agitation.”

Kośabhāṣya, p. 227, l. 14–15: Nanu ca trīṇi dhyānāni señjitāny uktāni bhagavatā. yad atra vitarkaṃ vicāraritam atrāryā iñjitam ity āhuḥ: “Did not the Bhagavat say that the [first] three dhyānas are agitated? And the Āryas have said that [the first dhyāna] where there is vitarkita and vicārita is agitated.”


Atthasālinī, p. 114: Vitakkanaṃ vā vitakko ūhanam ti vuttaṃ hoti. svāyaṃ ārammane cittasa abhiniropanalakkhaṇo, so hi ārammaṇo cittaṃ āropeti.


In regard to these two classes of vitarka, cf. Majjhima, I, p. 114 (Tchong a han, T 26, k. 25, p. 589a14–18) where the Buddha said: Yan nūnāhaṃ dvidhā katvā dvidhākarvā vitakke vihareyyan ti. So kho ahaṃ bhikkhave yo cāyaṃ kāmavitakko yo ca byāpādavitakko yo ca vihiṃsāvitakko imaṃ ekabhāgaṃ akāsiṃ, yo cāyaṃ nekkhammavitakko yo ca abyāpādavitakko yo ca avihiṃsāvitakko imaṃ bhāgaṃ akāsiṃ.

This classification appears frequently in the canonical texts, e.g., Anguttara, I, p. 275; II, p. 76; III, p. 429


These three vitarkas are taken from Saṃyutta, T 99, k. 16, p. 109c4–6. They appear in the Pāli sources also: ñātivitakka, janapadavitakka and amaravitakka (Mahānidesa, p. 501, l. 21–22; Vibhaṅga, p. 346, l. 18–20, but the last one is sometimes replaced by anavaññapaṭisaṃyutta vitakka ‘the worry of not being mistaken’ (Anguttara, I, p. 254). On this last word, see also Itivuttaka, p. 72; Vibhaṅga, p. 356.


Vibhaṅga, p. 434–435 gives the complete list.


The samādhis should not be confused with their respective levels. Whether it is a question of dhyāna or samāpatti, the samādhis are of two types: i) the samādhi proper, namely, the concentrations raising the ascetic momentarily to certain psychic planes of rūpa-or ārūpyadhātu; ii) the samādhi spheres of existence where the gods of rūpa- or ārūpyadhātu have taken birth for a determined lifespan. The first are called cause-samādhi (kāraṇasamādhi), the second are called existence-samādhi (upapattisamādhi) or effect-samādhi (kāryasamādhi). See Kośa, VIII, p. 128.


The first three dhyānas each entail three stages or levels (bhūmi), the fourth entails eight. Each stage is inhabited by a class of gods. Here, out of concern for conciseness, the Traité designates the group of deities of a dhyāna by giving the name of their highest category.


The fourth dhyāna is inhabited by eight categories of gods: 1) Anabhraka, 2) Puṇyaprasava, 3) Bṛhatphala, the only ones mentioned here, plus five categories of Śuddhāvāsikas: 1) Avṛha, 2) Atapa, 3) Sudṛsa, 4) Sudarśana, 5) Akaniṣṭha. See Kośa, III, p. 2.

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