Samata and Vipasyana


See also: Dhyāna sutras

The now defunct Sarvāstivāda tradition, and its related sub-schools like the Sautrāntika and the Vaibhāṣika, were the most influential Buddhists in North India and Central Asia. Their highly complex Abhidharma treatises, such as the Mahavibhasa, the Sravakabhumi and the Abhidharmakosha, contain new developments in meditative theory which had a major influence on meditation as practiced in East Asian Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism. Individuals known as yogācāras (yoga practitioners) were influential in the development of Sarvāstivāda meditation praxis, and some modern scholars such as Yin Shun believe they were also influential in the development of Mahayana meditation.[81] The Dhyāna sutras (Chinese: 禪経) or "meditation summaries" (Chinese: 禪要) are a group of early Buddhist meditation texts which are mostly based on the Yogacara[note 17] meditation teachings of the Sarvāstivāda school of Kashmir circa 1st-4th centuries CE, which focus on the concrete details of the meditative practice of the Yogacarins of northern Gandhara and Kashmir.[1] Most of the texts only survive in Chinese and were key works in the development of the Buddhist meditation practices of Chinese Buddhism.

According to K.L. Dhammajoti, the Sarvāstivāda meditation practitioner begins with samatha meditations, divided into the fivefold mental stillings, each being recommended as useful for particular personality types:

  1. contemplation on the impure (asubhabhavana), for the greedy type person.

  2. meditation on loving kindness (maitri), for the hateful type

  3. contemplation on conditioned co-arising, for the deluded type

  4. contemplation on the division of the dhatus, for the conceited type

  5. mindfulness of breathing (anapanasmrti), for the distracted type.[82]

Contemplation of the impure, and mindfulness of breathing, was particularly important in this system; they were known as the 'gateways to immortality' (amrta-dvāra).[83] The Sarvāstivāda system practiced breath meditation using the same sixteen aspect model used in the anapanasati sutta, but also introduced a unique six aspect system which consists of:

  1. counting the breaths up to ten,

  2. following the breath as it enters through the nose throughout the body,

  3. fixing the mind on the breath,

  4. observing the breath at various locations,

  5. modifying is related to the practice of the four applications of mindfulness and

  6. purifying stage of the arising of insight.[84]

This sixfold breathing meditation method was influential in East Asia, and expanded upon by the Chinese Tiantai meditation master Zhiyi.[82]

After the practitioner has achieved tranquility, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma then recommends one proceeds to practice the four applications of mindfulness (smrti-upasthāna) in two ways. First they contemplate each specific characteristic of the four applications of mindfulness, and then they contemplate all four collectively.[85]

In spite of this systematic division of samatha and vipasyana, the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharmikas held that the two practices are not mutually exclusive. The Mahavibhasa for example remarks that, regarding the six aspects of mindfulness of breathing, "there is no fixed rule here — all may come under samatha or all may come under vipasyana."[86] The Sarvāstivāda Abhidharmikas also held that attaining the dhyānas was necessary for the development of insight and wisdom.[86]

East Asian Yogācāra methods

The East Asian Yogācāra school or "Consciousness only school" (Ch. Wéishí-zōng), known in Japan as the Hossō school was a very influential tradition of Chinese Buddhism. They practiced several forms of meditation. According to Alan Sponberg, they included a class of visualization exercises, one of which centered on constructing a mental image of the Bodhisattva (and presumed future Buddha) Maitreya in Tusita heaven. A biography the Chinese Yogācāra master and translator Xuanzang depicts him practicing this kind of meditation. The goal of this practice seems to have been rebirth in Tusita heaven, so as to meet Maitreya and study Buddhism under him.[108]

Another method of meditation practiced in Chinese Yogācāra is called "the five level discernment of vijñapti-mātra" (impressions only), introduced by Xuanzang's disciple, Kuījī (632–682), which became one of the most important East Asian Yogācāra teachings.[109] According to Alan Sponberg, this kind of vipasyana meditation was an attempt to "to penetrate the true nature of reality by understanding the three aspects of existence in five successive steps or stages". These progressive stages or ways of seeing (kuan) the world are:[110]

  1. "dismissing the false - preserving the real" (ch 'ien-hsu ts'un-shih)

  2. "relinquishing the diffuse - retaining the pure" (she-lan liu-ch 'un)

  3. "gathering in the extensions - returning to the source" (she-mo kuei-pen)

  4. "suppressing the subordinate - manifesting the superior" (yin-lueh hsien-sheng)

  5. "dismissing the phenomenal aspects - realizing the true nature" (ch 'ien-hsiang cheng-hsing)


The Mahāyānasaṃgraha (MSg) (Sanskrit; Chinese: 攝大乘論; pinyin: Shè dàchéng lùn, Tibetan: theg pa chen po bsdus pa), or the Mahāyāna Compendium/Summary, is a key work of the Yogācāra school of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy, attributed to Asanga (c. 310–390 CE).[1] The MSg is a comprehensive work on the central doctrines and practices of the Yogacara school. It was translated into Chinese by Paramartha (499–567 CE) and became the central text of the Shelun school. Although no Sanskrit original has been found, the work survives in Tibetan (Tohoku, 4050; Peking, 5551.) and Chinese translations (Taishō Tripiṭaka 1592, 1593, 1594), together with commentaries. There are two commentaries to the work; Vasubandhu's Mahāyānasaṃgraha-bhāṣya and the Mahāyānasaṃgraha-panibandhana by Asvabhava (first half of the sixth century).


Asanga's Mahāyānasaṃgraha expounds the major doctrines of the Mahayana Yogacara school such as the ālayavijñāna (storehouse consciousness), the 'three forms of existence' (trisvabhāva), the five paths (pañcamārga) and the Dharmakaya.

In its first chapter, the compendium offers the most extensive analysis of the Yogacara concept of "storehouse consciousness" of any early Yogacara text.[2] According to Asanga, this is a subliminal consciousness in which impressions (vasanas) from past experiences are stored as the seeds (bija) of future experiences. The active consciousness (pravrtti-vijñana) of present experience grows from these seeds.[3] According to Asanga, humans are just this stream of consciousness formed from the ālayavijñāna and the "active consciousness" arising from it and planting new seeds in the storehouse consciousness.

The second chapter of the MSg is devoted to the doctrine of the 'three forms of existence' or 'three patterns' (trisvabhāva). This doctrine holds that all beings possess three patterns - the dependent (paratantra), the imagined (parikalpita) and the consummate (pariniṣpanna). John Keenan explains the three patterns thus:

The most basic is the other dependent pattern (paratantra-svabhåva), which, in a word, is the above structure of consciousness as co-arising in an interplay between the container and the active consciousnesses and in the interplay between image and insight in thinking. The imagined pattern (parikalpita-svabhåva) is the failure to understand this basic structure and the consequent clinging to things as if they had enduring essences. Frozen at the presentation of images as essences, one mistakenly affirms the reality of things that are in their very being empty and nonexistent. All things are empty inasmuch as all the ideas that are projected in the imagined pattern are without essence. The perfected pattern (parinipanna-svabhåva), which Paramårtha renders as reality pattern, is the absence of imagining in the other dependent pattern and the consequent recovery of its basic nature as other-dependent.[4]

Chapter three expounds the doctrine of representation only as a rejection of the subject-object dichotomy. Chapters four to nine are an overview of the Bodhisattva's advance through the practice of the paramitas (perfections) and the stages of realization. Chapter ten discusses the nature of wisdom as related to the Trikaya doctrine.

Unknown Authors

Bottom line, it's not settled exactly when these sutras were written, and the authors themselves are unknown. And while it was assumed for a long time they originally were written in India, more recent scholarship suggests that some of them may have originated in Gandhara. There is evidence an early school of Buddhism called Mahasanghika, a forerunner of Mahayana, possessed early versions of some of these sutras and may have developed them. But others may have originated with the Sthaviravadin school, a forerunner of today's Theravada Buddhism.

Barring some invaluable archaeological discovery, the precise origins of the Prajnaparamita Sutras may never be known.

O'Brien, Barbara. "The Prajnaparamita Sutras." Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021,

Notes on Mahayanasamgraha+

Madhyammaka after vaibhasika sautrantika yogacara