Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the three faculties of understanding 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 faculties of understanding according to the Abhidharma

1. Definition of the three faculties of understanding

1. The faculty signifying “I will understand that which I do not understand” (anājñātamājñāsyāmīndriya) is a group of nine pure faculties (navānāsravendriyasāmagrī).

In the individual who follows the truth as a result of faith (śraddhānusārin) or who follows the truth as a result of scripture (dharmānusārin)[1] and who is on the Path of seeing the truths (satyadarśanamārga), this group is called anājñātamājñāsyamīndriya and includes [the following nine indriyas]:

1–5) the five faculties, namely, faculty of faith (śraddhendriya), [faculty of energy (vīryendriya), faculty of mindfulness (smṛtīndriya), faculty of concentration (samādhīndriya) and faculty of wisdom (prajñendriya)].

6) the sensation of satisfaction (saumansayensdriya).

7) the sensation of pleasure (sukhendriya).

8) the sensation of indifference (upekṣendriya).

9) the mental organ (manasindriya).[2]

2. In the person liberated by faith (śraddhādhimukta) or in the view-attainer (dṛṣṭiprāpta)[3] who is on the path of meditation (bhāvanāmārga), this [group] of nine indriyas changes its name and is called faculty of understanding (ājñendriya). [234c]

3. In the path of those of no more learning (aśaikṣamārga), this [group] of nine indriyas is called the faculty of those who have understood (ājñatāvīndriya).

2. Excellence of the three faculties of understanding

Question. – Of all the twenty-two indriyas, why does [the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra] choose these three indriyas [of understanding]?

Answer. –We call indriya [from the root ind] that which has a penetrating and obvious nature of dominance (ādhipatya).[4] But this characteristic of dominance is not completely perfected (paripūrṇa) in the other nineteen indriyas. This is why [the Prajñāpāramitā] does not mention them here. On the other hand, the three indriyas [of understanding] are sharp (tīkṣṇa) and lead directly to nirvāṇa.[5] Dominant (adhipati) among all the conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma), they hold sovereignty (ādhipatya, aiśvarya) and surpass all the other indriyas.

Furthermore, [among the other nineteen indriyas], ten are exclusively impure (sāsrava) and therefore are of no benefit.[6] [These are: 1) the eye organ (cakusurindriya), 2) the ear organ (śrotrendriya), 3) the nose organ (ghrānendriya), 4) the tongue organ (jihvendriya), 5) the body organ (puruṣendriya), 6) the female organ (strīndriya), 7) the male organ (puruṣendriya), 8) the vital organ (jīvitendriya), 9) the sensation of displeasure (duḥkhendriya), 10) the sensation of dissatisfaction (daurmansayendriya)].

[Further, among the other nineteen indriyas], nine are morally indeterminate (aniyata), sometimes impure (sāsrava) and sometimes pure (anāsrava). [These are: 1) the mental organ (manaindriya), 2) the sensation of pleasure (sukhendriya), 3) the sensation of satisfaction (saumanasyendriya), 4) the sensation of indifference (upekṣendriya), 5) the faculty of faith (śradddhendriya), 6) the faculty of energy (vīryendriya), 7) the faculty of mindfulness (smṛtīndriya), 8) the faculty of concentration (samādhīndriya), 9) the faculty of wisdom (prajñendriya).]

[Since, of these other nineteen indriyas, some are always impure and others are sometimes impure and sometimes pure], the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra is careful not to say that the bodhisattva should fulfill them completely.

Question. – But the ten concepts (daśasaṃjñā) examined above (p.1433F) were also sometimes impure and sometimes pure. Why did the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra say there that the bodhisattva should fulfill them completely?

Answer. – Because these ten concepts are auxiliaries to the Path and the pursuit of nirvāṇa. But here the ten faculties, faith, etc., (śraddhenndriya), although good (kuśala), do not seek nirvāṇa exclusively.[7]

As is said in the Abhidharma: “Who is endowed with the five faculties, faith, etc. (śraddhādīndriyasamanvāgata)? The person who has not cut the roots of good (samaucchinnakuśalamūla).”[8]

Furthermore, when these five faculties become clear and pure (anāsrava), they are included in the three faculties [of understanding].

In the three faculties of understanding, there is inevitably the mental organ (manaindriya), and of the three sensations (vedanā) – [pleasure (sukha), satisfaction (saumanasya) and indifference (upekṣā] – there is one inevitably.[9] This is why the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra speaks here only of the three faculties [of understanding].

Finally, among the twenty-two indriyas, there are good ones (kuśala), bad ones (akuśala) and indeterminate ones (avyākṛta).[10] This is why the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra does not say that all of them should be fulfilled perfectly.

3. Levels, objects, associates and causality of the three faculties

1) The three faculties [of understanding] are contained (saṃgṛhita) in the aggregate of feeling (vedanāskandha), the aggregate of volition (saṃskāraskandha) and the aggregate of consciousness (vijñānaskandha).

2) The anājñātamājñāsyāmīndriya occurs in six levels (bhūmi), [namely, the four dhyānas, the anāgamya and the dhyānantara]. – The ājñātāvīndriya occurs in nine levels [adding the first three ārūpyasamāpattis to the preceding levels].[11]

3) The three faculties [of understanding] take as object (ālambante) the four noble Truths (catuḥsatya).

4) The three faculties [of understanding] are associated (saṃprayukta) with six concepts: i) the concept of impermanence (anityasaṃjñā), ii) the concept of suffering (duḥkhasaṃjñā), iii) the concept of non-self (anātmasaṃjñā), iv) the concept of abandonment (prahāṇasaṃjñā), v) the concept of detachment (virāgasaṃjñā), vi) the concept of cessation (nirodhasaṃjñā).

5) The anājñātamājñāsyāmīndriya is cause (hetu) of three indriyas: [itself and the two following ones].[12]

The ājñendriya is cause of two indriyas, [itself and the following one].

The ājñātāvīndriya is cause of ājñātāvīndriya only.

6) The anājñātamāsyāmīndriya in its turn produces two indriyas.

The ājñendriya produces in its turn either an impure (sāsrava) indriya or the ājñendsriya or the ājñātāvīndriya.

The ājñātāvīndriya produces either an impure indriya or the ajñātāvīndriya.

This is fully explaind in detail in the Abhidharma.

Footnotes and references:


These terms have been defined above, p. 1390F.


Cf. Kośabhāṣya, p. 42: Manaḥsukhasaumanasyopekṣāḥ śraddhādini ca pañca tāni navendriyāṇI triṣu mārgeṣu trīṇīndriyāṇy apy ucyante: darśanamārge anājñātamājñāsyamīndriyaṃ, bhāvanāmārge ājñendriyam, aśaikṣamārge ājñātāvīndriyam: “In the three paths, these nine indriyas, the mental organ, the sensations of pleasure, satisfaction and indifference and the five faculties, faith, etc., are also called the three faculties [of understanding]: in the path of seeing, they constitute the anāñātamājñāsyamīndriya; in the path of meditation, the ājñendriya; in the path of the aśaikṣas, the ājñātāvīndriya.”

But it should be noted that the three indriyas of understanding made up in theory of these nine indriyas actually consist of seven because the sensations of pleasure, satisfaction and indifference never co-exist: the sensation of satisfaction is present in the first two dhyānas; the sensation of pleasure, in the third dhyāna; the sensation of indifference in the anāgamya, the dhyānantara, the fourth dhyāna and the first three ārūpyasamāpattis.


Terms defined above, p. 1390F.


Cf. Kośabhāṣya, p. 38: Kaḥ punar indriyārthaḥ. idi paramaiśvarye. tasya indantīti indriyāni. atha ādhipatyārtha. See also Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 142, p.730c6–10; Abhidharmāmṛta, rec. Sastri, p. 75, l. 3; Visuddhimagga, p. 417–418.


The three faculties of understanding are dominant as to the ascending acquisitions (uttarottarasaṃprāpti), to nirvāṇa, etc.: cf. Kośabhāṣya, p. 40; Abhidharmadīpa, p. 49, l. 1–2.


On the division of the twenty-two indriyas into three moral categories, see Kośabhāṣya, p. 42, commenting on the kārikā, II, 8: Amalaṃ trayam, rūpīni jīvitaṃ duḥkhe sāsravāṇi, dvidhā nava: “The three faculties of understanding are pure (amala = anāsrava); the seven material organs, the vital organ, the two sensations (pleasure and dissatisfaction) are impure; the remaining nine organs are of two types, sometimes impure, sometimes pure).


Actually, although they are always good (kuśala), the ten faculties, faith, etc., are sometimes impure and sometimes pure. They are perfected in the ārya to the extent that the latter conquers the various fruits of the religious life, but they are perfectly pure only in the arhat. On this subject, see Ekabhiññasutta in Saṃyutta, V, p. 204–205, the Sanskrit recension of which is in Kośavyākhyā, p. 103, l. 1–9.


As a result, the person who retains some roots of good, absence of desire (alobha), absence of hatred (adveṣa) and absence of error (amoha), has so far not entered onto the Path of nirvāṇa.


See above, p. 1495F, note.


Eight indriyas, the five faculties, faith, etc., and the three faculties of understanding are alone good (kuśala). Dissatisfaction (daurmanasya) is good or bad. The mental organ (manaindriya) and four sensations (sukha, duḥkha, saumanasya and upekṣa) are good (kuśala), bad (akuśala) or indeterminate (avyākṛta). The five material organs, sight, etc., the vital organ and the sexual organs are indeterminate (avyākṛta): cf. Kośabhāṣya, p. 46; Abhidharmāmṛta, rec. Sastri, p. 75, l. 20–24; Vibhaṅga, p. 125 (differs).


Cf. Abhidharmadīpa, p. 53: Anājñātamājñāsyāmīndriyaṃ ṣaṭsu bhūmiṣu: caturṣu dhyāneṣv anāgamye dhyānāntarikāyāṃ ca… Ājñendriyam ājñātāvīndriyaṃ ca navasu bhūmiṣu: āsv eva ṣaṭsu triṣu cādyāsv ārūpyabhūmiṣu.


Here, by cause we should understand ‘dominant condition’ (adhipatipratyaya). The three faculties of understanding are dominant with regard to their own ascending acquisitions (uttarottarasaṃprāpti) and dominant among them in the sense that the first is dominant in regard to acquisition of the second, the second in regard to acquisition of the third, and the third in regard to acquisition of nirvāṇa: cf. Kośabhāṣya, p. 40, l. 3–4.