Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the three faculties of understanding 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.

II. The three faculties of understanding according to the Mahāyāna

1. In the Darśanamārga

The faculty signifying “I will understand that which I do not understand” (anājñātamājñāsyāmīndriya) concerns the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas. Wishing to understand that which he has not yet understood, [the yogin] produces the five faculties, faith, etc. (śraddhādīndriya) and by the power of these five faculties, he is able to discover the true nature of dharmas.

Thus, when a person enters the womb (garbha), he acquires two organs: i) the bodily organ (kāyendriya) and ii) the vital organ (jīvitendriya). At that time, he is like a piece of shapeless meat and his organs are unable to discern anything. But when these five organs, [eye, ear, nose, tongue and body] are completed (saṃpanna), he will be able to cognize the five objects [color, sound, smell, taste and touch].

It is the same for the bodhisattva. From his first production of the Bodhi mind (prathamacittotpāda) he wants to become Buddha but he has not yet perfected (na paripūrayati) the five moral faculties [faith, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom]. Although he has the aspiration (praṇidhāna) for it and wants to know the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas, he has not yet come to the cognition of it. But when the bodhisattva produces these five faculties, faith, etc., he will be able to cognize the true nature of dharmas.

It is like the eye (cakṣus). What we call ‘eye’ is an assemblage of the four great elements (mahābhūta) and a [subtle] matter derived from the four great [235a] elements (mahābhautikarūpa).[1] But at the beginning, although he already possesses the four great elements, the [subtle] matter derived from these four great elements has not yet crystallized. This is why this eye is not yet [a real] visual organ (cakṣurindriya).

Similarly, every person who has not broken the roots of good (asammucchinnakuśalamūla) possesses faith (śraddhā), but as the latter is not clear, it is not yet [a real] faculty of faith (śraddhendriya).[2]

1) If the bodhisattva acquires the five moral faculties, faith, etc. (śraddhendriya), he will then be able to believe in the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas. This nature is unborn (anutpanna) and unceasing (aniruddha), neither defiled (asaṃkliṣṭa) nor purified (avyavadāta), neither existent nor non-existent (naivasan nāsat), neither accepted (anupātta) nor rejected (aparityakta), always at peace (śānta), perfectly pure, like space (ākāśasama), ineffable (anirdeśya), inexpressible (anabhilāpya); it is the cessation of all ways of speech (sarvavādamārgagoccheda), it surpasses the realm of all the minds and mental events (sarvacittacaitasikadharma-gocarasamatikrānta); it is like nirvāna; it is the Dharma of the Buddhas.[3]

2) Using the power of the faculty of faith (śraddendriya), the bodhisattva acquires the faculty of energy (vīryendriya); he progresses energetically without regressing or straying.

3) By the power of the faculty of mindfulness (smṛtīndriya), he prevents bad dharmas from entering and gathers all the good dharmas.

4) By the power of the faculty of concentration (samādhīndriya), when his mind is distracted (vikṣipyate) by the five objects of enjoyment (pañcakāmaguṇa), he concentrates it on the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa).

5) By the power of the faculty of wisdom (prajñendriya), he obtains a greater or lesser participation in the wisdom of the Buddhas, the taste (rasa) of which cannot be destroyed.

6–9) The support of these five faculties (pañcendriyāśraya), his mental faculty (manaindriya) is inevitably joined with the sensations (vedanā): sensation of satisfaction (saumansaya), pleasure (sukha) or indifference (upekṣā).

Being supported by these [nine] indriyas, the bodhisattva will enter into the assurance of the ultimate attainment of enlightenment of the bodhisattva (bodhisattvaniyāma). (see Appendix 1) But as long as he has not obtained the fruit resulting from the conviction that dharmas do not arise (anutpattikadharmakṣānti), it is not yet a matter of the anājñātamājñāsyāmīndriya, the faculty signifying “I will understand that which I do not yet understand”.

2. In the bhāvanāmārga

Here the Bodhisattva cognizes the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas and, because he understands it well, it is a matter of the ājñendriya, the faculty of understanding.

From the time when he has obtained the fruit attached to the conviction that dharmas do not arise (anutpattikadharmakṣāntiphala), when he is installed in the irreversible level (avaivartikabhūmi), when he has received the prophecy (vyākaraṇa), up to the time when he completes the ten levels (daśabhūmi), when he is seated on the seat of enlightenment (bodhimaṇḍa) and when he obtains the diamond concentration (vajrasamādhi), all of this is included in the interval called ājñendriya.[4]

3. In the Aśaikṣamārga

Finally, the bodhisattva cuts through all the habitual propensities (sarvakleśavāsanā) and obtains supreme perfect enlightenment (anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi). Because he has understood and completely fulfilled everything to be known (sarvajñeyadharma), this is called ājñātāvīndriya ‘faculty of that which has been understood’.

Footnotes and references:


On the distinction between the four great elements (mahābhūta) and the subtle matter derived from the four great elements (upādāya rūpa, bhautika, rūpaprasāda), see Kośa, I, p. 22, 63–66.


Here the Traité will repeat, point by point but interpreting them from the Mahāyāna perspective, the nine indriyas taking place in the constitution of the three faculties of understanding above, (p. 1496F).


Compare the definitions of ‘the true nature of all dharmas’ in Pañcavimśati, T 223, k. 2, p. 231b13–14; k. 3, p. 234c12; k. 4, p. 244a1–2; k. 6, p. 257b13–14; k. 23, p. 392a19–24; k. 27, p. 416c8–11.


The functioning of the ājñendriya extends from the eighth to the tenth bhūmi. The latter is called Dharmamegha ‘Cloud of Dharma’ (Saṃgraha, p. 202–203), Paramavihāra ‘Ultimate abode’ (Bodh. bhūmi, p. 367, l. 13), Sarvajñānābhiṣekabhūmi ‘Level of consecration into omniscience’ (Daśabhūmika, p. 82, l. 8) or Abhiṣekāvasthā ‘State of consecration’ (Madhyāntavibhāga, p. 190, l. 24). According to the Pañcaviṃśati, p. 225, l. 8 and Āloka, p. 104, l. 8–9: Bodhisattvo daśamyāṃ sthtitaḥ saṃs Tathāgataeveti vaktavyo na tu Samyaksaṃbuddhaḥ: “The Bodhisattva who is on the tenth level ahould be called simply tathāgata, but not yet the completely and fully Enlightened One.