Natural prajñāpāramitā: Suchness that is never something other and bears the name wisdom, which lacks the duality of apprehender and apprehended.

(1) Causal prajñāpāramitā: Suchness being obscured by various mental formations, which is called “the basic element that is the Sugata heart.”

(2) Fruitional prajñāpāramitā is this Heart being free from all obscurations (the impregnations of negative tendencies), that is, the dharmakāya.

Scriptural prajñāpāramitā: Cognizance that appears as assemblies of names, words, and letters, and is suitable to be observed by the disciple’s consciousness which entails dualistic appearances.

Prajñāpāramitā of the path: The prajñāpāramitā that arises as the nature of nonconceptual wisdom when settling in meditative equipoise.

The prajñāpāramitā sūtras

“The six mothers” are the prajñāpāramitā sūtras in

  • 100,000 lines
  • 25,000 lines
  • 18,000 lines
  • 10,000 lines
  • 8,000 lines

and the Prajñāpāramitāsacayagāthā.

“The eleven children” are

  • Suvikrāntavikrāmīparipṛcchaprajñāpāramitāsūtra
  • Prajñāpāramitāsūtra in 700 Lines
  • Prajñāpāramitāsūtra in 500 Lines
  • Prajñāpāramitāsūtra in 300 Lines
  • Prajñāpāramitāsūtra in One Hundred and Fifty Modes
  • Prajñāpāramitāsūtra in Fifty Lines
  • Kauśikaprajñāpāramitāsūtra
  • Prajñāpāramitāsūtra of the Twenty-Five Gates
  • The Sūtra of the Heart of Prajñāpāramitā
  • Prajñāpāramitāsūtra in a Few Words
  • Prajñāpāramitāsūtra in One Syllable

Two primary subject matters

explicit teachingthe teachings on emptiness (the object to be realized)

hidden meaning—the eight topics of clear realization (the means to fully realize emptiness in meditation as what happens on the subjective side)

21 volumes of the prajñāpāramitā section in the Tibetan Kangyur (Derge and Narthang) = 20%

23 prajñāpāramitā sūtras (plus Prajñāpāramitānāmāṣṭaśatakā and the sūtras taught for Sūryagarbha, Candragarbha, Samantabhadra, Vajrapāṇi, and Vajraketu)

Primary subject matters of the prajñāpāramitā sūtras

explicit teaching the teachings on emptiness (the object to be realized)

hidden meaning—the eight topics of clear realization (the means to fully realize emptiness in meditation, that is, what happens on the subjective side)


The thousands of lines of the Prajñāpāramitā can be summed up in the following two sentences: 1) One should become a Bodhisattva (or, Buddha-to-be), i.e. one who is content with nothing less than all-knowledge attained through the perfection of wisdom for the sake of all beings. 2) There is no such thing as a Bodhisattva, or as all-knowledge, or as a ‘being,’ or as the perfection of wisdom, or as an attainment. To accept both these contradictory facts is to be perfect.


abhisamaya prefixes abhi (toward) and sam (together, fully),verbal root i (going, understanding)

“coming together,” “re-union,” “agreement,” and “full understanding.” “the clear realization of or perfect insight into the supreme spiritual truth, indicating the moments on the path when the meditating mind as the subject fully merges with its object and thus “everything falls into place.”

in the Indian and Tibetan commentaries, abhisamaya is often glossed as “path” (mārga)

alakāra means “ornament”: common genre of brief Indian commentary, which does not provide a detailed and comprehensive exegesis of a given subject matter, but just summarizes the most salient points in verses. Metaphorically, here, the prajñāpāramitā sūtras are like a beautiful woman whose looks are only further enhanced by the ornament of Maitreya’s synopsis.

The Abhisamayālakāra being such an ornamental digest of the prajñāpāramitā sūtras, it is generally related to the three largest sūtras, but most clearly to the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra in 25,000 Lines, as the order of its topics corresponds the closest to the form in which they appear in this sūtra.

Structure of the Abhisamayālakāra (8 topics, 70 points, 1,200 subpoints)

  • (1) the knowledge of all aspects (sarvākārajñatā)
  • (2) the knowledge of the path (mārgajñatā)
  • (3) the knowledge of all (bases) (sarvajñatā)
  • (4) the full realization of all aspects (sarvākārābhisabhoda)
  • (5) the culminating clear realization (mūrdhābhisamaya)
  • (6) the gradual clear realization (anupūrvābhisamaya)
  • (7) the clear realization in a single instant (ekakṣaṇābhisamaya)
  • (8) the dharmakāya

(1)–(3) what are to be realized on the path to buddhahood

(4)–(7) the four kinds of yogic practice (prayoga) or training as the means to realize these

(8) fruition of these trainings.

(1) “the knowledge of all aspects” refers to a Buddha’s omniscience of all aspects of the true nature of phenomena and their entire appearing variety.

(2) “The knowledge of the path” means that bodhisattvas realize on the five paths of the mahāyāna, in particular on the ten bhūmis, that all three paths—those of śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas—are without any nature of their own, which eventually results in (1).

(3) “The knowledge of all bases” is the full knowledge of śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha arhats, in particular that all bases—skandhas, dhātus, and āyatanas—are empty of a personal self. This knowledge includes being fully aware of antagonistic factors and their remedies, and is to be known by both bodhisattvas and Buddhas too, in order to help those on the paths of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas with it, but not to be practiced as something that leads to their own specific realizations on the path of the mahāyāna. In other words, the teachings on the three knowledges serve to cut through doubts, with the respectively higher ones of the three knowledges including the lower.

(4) “The full realization of all aspects” discusses the 173 aspects of the three knowledges in terms of practically realizing and mastering them on the path.

(5) “The culminating clear realization” speaks about the various stages of “breakthrough experiences” as a result of (4) on the five paths of bodhisattvas.

(6) “The gradual clear realization” is basically a brief overview of the progressive nature of the path, emphasizing the gradual stabilization of momentary insights in terms of the three knwoledges.

(7) “The clear realization in a single instant” refers to a bodhisattva’s simultaneous realization of all aspects of the three knowledges in the vajralike samādhi during the last moment of the tenth bhūmi, which is immediately followed by the attainment of buddhahood.

(8) The last chapter called “dharmakāya” discusses this fruition in terms of the three or four kāyas of a Buddha, including their enlightened activities.

As masterful and admirable as Maitreya’s condensation of the entire contents of the prajñāpāramitā sūtras in about 13,600 pages (Derge Kangyur) into only 274 verses in twelve pages is for well-versed scholars and realized beings, for the ordinary reader, it requires a huge amount of commentary (and, ideally, should be read together with the corresponding sections in these sūtras). Somewhat ironically, in both India and Tibet, this has resulted in the largest and most complex corpus of commentarial literature on a single genre in the entire Buddhist exegetical world, even surpassing in length the prajñāpāramitā sūtras themselves (which are not exactly known for their conciseness) and further proliferating into many volumes of supplementary elaborations on more or less directly related topics. In other words, the Abhisamayālaṃkāra is like an extremely compressed zip file of the prajñāpāramitā sūtras (less than one thousandth of their contents) that can only be read when extracted through being fleshed out by the commentaries. Or, it may be considered the isolated DNA of Prajñāpāramitā, from which the beauty of her their entire body with all its limbs and physical expressions can only be brought to live in the laboratory of sophisticated hermeneutics.

Many Indian commentaries, twenty-one of which were transmitted to Tibet (three the main ones)

As for the question of the Abhisamayālaṃkāra‘s affiliation with the view of a particular school:

primarily a commentary on what the prajñāpāramitā sūtras say on the levels of the internal path to develop the wisdom of realizing emptiness. Tellingly, the Indian commentaries do not address this issue much (if at all) nor the earlier Tibetan commentators

Gelugpa: *Yogācāra-Svātantrika-Mādhyamika school (First, it hinges on putting Haribhadra as the text’s principal commentator into this category and then simply transposes this category onto the Abhisamayālaṃkāra. Haribhadra’s Ālokā suggests indeed that he mainly comments from a Madhyamaka point of view in general, without specifying this any further (given said lack of subschools). However, when it comes to the details, Haribhadra’s view is a quite complex synthesis of Yogācāra and Madhyamaka on several levels.

Even more important, it is far from self-evident that the view of the Abhisamayālakāra is purely or even predominantly Mādhyamika (let alone any of its assumed subschools). Many modern scholars who not simply follow Gelugpa schemata regard the text as Yogācāra. As Conze, Makransky, and others have pointed out, it exhibits many traits very characteristic for Yogācāra and several of its Sanskrit verses greatly resemble those in the other works by Maitreya.

To give a few examples, the text’s frequently recurring format of the cognitive obscurations consisting of the split into a separate apprehender and apprehended a classical Yogācāra paradigm and certainly not Madhyamaka. Also, to speak of three kāyas is the standard approach of Yogācāra (Nāgārjuna etc. two kāyas) The list of twenty-two examples of bodhicitta in Abhisamayālakāra I.19–20 is not found in the prajñāpāramitā sūtras, but greatly resembles Mahāyānasūtrālakāra IV.14–20 (which gives the Akayamatinirdeśasūtra as its source). The description of the “disposition” (gotra) in I.38–39 is clearly not sheer emptiness, but the dharmadhātu serving as the foundation for various accomplishments on the path of bodhisattvas. Verse V.21 also appears as Uttaratantra I.154 and the text’s eighth chapter on dharmakāya is very similar to both the abhisamaya chapter in Asaga’s Abhidharmasamucchaya and the tenth chapter of his Mahāyānasagraha. The sixteen moments of the path of seeing as well as the afflictions to be relinquished through the path are also treated in the same way in the Abhidharmasamucchaya, whose presentations are explicitly usedalso on other topicsin Haribhadra’s Abhisamayālakārālokā. It should also be noted that the Abhisamayālakāra and its commentaries are greatly based on and use a large number of abhidharma terms and classifications (relying primarily on the Abhidharmakośa and the Abhidharmasamucchaya)

In sum, the Abhisamayālakāra does not simply echo the contents of the prajñāpāramitā sūtras, but also maps a number of terms and schemata unknown in these sūtras onto them (such as the names svabhāvikakāya, sambhogakāya, and nirmāṇakāya) and even adds things that are not found there (such as the twenty-two examples of bodhicitta and the thirteen aspects of practice based on the disposition). Many of these mappings and additions are typical Yogācāra presentations. In light of what the Abhisamayālakāra is teaching—the hidden meaning of the prajñāpāramitā sūtras as the stages of subjectively realizing emptiness through various kinds of meditative yogic practices—this strong Yogācāra underpinning makes great sense, since this school (as its name says) and its texts always have focused on and specialized in the experiential side of the Buddhist teachings

Why is philosophy so complicated? It ought to be entirely simple. Philosophy unties the knots in our thinking that we have, in a senseless way, put there. To do this it must make movements as complicated as these knots are. Although the results of philosophy are simple, its method cannot be, if it is to succeed. The complexity of philosophy is not its subject matter, but our knotted understanding.

arhats heart attacks

AA often said to be on grounds and paths, but definitely not in the usual sense. Among the five paths, only the names of two (path of seeing and cultivation) are mentioned in the text, while the names of the ten bhūmis are not at all mentioned. It is definitely not a systematic or even linear presentation of these, in fact, it is very far from it. Many themes recur, bits and pieces in one chapter and others in another one. Same topic treated from slightly different angles. For example, if you want to know what the path of seeing is, you have to read in several chapters. Reason: AA follows the presentation in the sūtra in 25,000 lines, which teaches the same or different topics to different audiences in various ways.

Practical value:

each point in the verses can be regarded as a little koan on its own, or a contemplation of emptiness

So the whole AA becomes like one big koan, because all of these little koans always point to the same pointprajñāpāramitā, emptiness, lack of nature, mental nonengagement etc. PP sutras were not just intended to simply be read, but to be recited and re-read again and again, in fact being contemplative manualsmeant to be used as practice texts―to make the one single message of emptiness sink in by repetition and multifaceted contemplation. Since the AA represents the contents of these sūtras in a nutshell, it just seems to be natural to work with it in the same way―as a contemplative manual

2 Responses to “Karl’s Presentation of the Abhisamayalamkara”

  • Hi Karl,

    Would you like to have the complete oral teaching on the abhisamayalamkara given by Guéshé Jampya Gyatso, at Lama Tsongkhapa Institute (Pomaïa, Italy) which is part of the seven-year Basic Program ? I’ve found it in my archives : I could send you the CD.

  • karl:

    Hi Christian,

    yes, that would be very good. Please send me the CD. My address

    Karl Brunnholzl
    3645 Whitman Ave N #301
    Seattle WA 98103


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