Reflections on the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra

This series will expound upon a seminal and early text of the Yogācāra school. The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra (Ārya-saṃdhi-nirmocana-sūtra) actually predates the proclaimed formulators of the Yogācāra school proper, Asanga and his half-brother Vasubandhu. The Sutra is comprised of different parts, the earliest being composed in India during the Second Century AD and its finalized form in the Third. One of the theories, to which I endorse, suggests that the text was written by monks or yogins who comprised exceptional Siddhis-powers and subsequently, (through visualization) inspirationally became the mouthpiece for the Buddha and the Maha-Bodhisattvas who questioned him in the text. According to one of its earliest commentators, Jñānagarbha, Saṃdhinirmocana “means ‘cutting the knots of the afflictive obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience’ through definitely freeing the profound thought [of Buddha]. It is a “sutra” because it is simply a complete statement of what is definite.” (John Powers Two commentaries on the Samdhinirmocana-Sutra /​ by Asanga and Jnanagarbha, pg.68)

The Saṃdhinirmocana is unique in that it bridges the gap between the Prajñāpāramitā scriptures and the teachings of the Abhidharma and Madhyamika schools, thus culminating in a Yogarcara enterprise that encompasses them all. The renowned scholar, Etienne Lamotte, asserted that the text encompassed independent fragments. The first part covers Prajñāpāramitā material, the middle three parts are drawn from a later period elucidating many original constructions, including segments on the sub-consciousness mind, three self-natures (trisvabhāva), and early and therefore initial treatment of the ālaya-vijñāna. The latter three parts develop the precise Yogacara formulations of “Mind Only”. Lamotte provides an early translation of the text from 1935 entitled in the French, Samdhinirmocana Sutra: L’explication des Mysteres. My hopes were dashed in discovering that only his original French translation exists with no English equivalent. The versions we will be employing are John Keenan’s (2000) Scripture on the Explication of the Underlying Meaning, John Power’s (1995) Wisdom of Buddha: The Samdhinirmochana Sutra, and Thomas Cleary’s (1995) Buddhist Yoga: A Comprehensive Course.

Of particular interest is the Saṃdhinirmocana’s formulation of the Three Turnings of the Wheel. This is a marvelous attempt to categorize pertinent philosophical views as well as a large array of Buddhist sutrayana teachings. Thus, the Three Turnings according to the Saṃdhinirmocana are as follows:

First Wheel

The first wheel is from the point of view of the Hinayana Theravada/Fundamental Vehicle), and it refers to the Buddha’s first teaching, the Sutra on the Four Noble Truths  given in the Sarnath deer park near Varanasi to his first five disciples, shortly after his enlightenment.

Since they teach related subject matters, the following sutras pertain to the category of the first wheel (though they are not referred to as the first wheel):

  1. The Sutra of the Close Placement of Mindfulness on the Sacred Dharmas (Skt. Saddharma Smrtyupashthana Sutra)
  2. Hundreds of Karmic Deeds (Skt. Karmashataka Sutra)
  3. Hundreds of Accounts of Realizations (Skt. Avadanashataka Sutras)
  4. The Scriptural Texts of the Rules of Discipline (Skt. Vinayagama).

Second Wheel

The second wheel constitutes Mahayana (Universal Vehicle) teachings and refers to the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, given by the Buddha on Vulture Peak Mountain in Rajghir. They explicitly teach the ultimate truth, and implicitly the meditational paths that lead to full enlightenment.

Sutras that teach related subject matter and therefore pertain to the category of the second wheel are:

  1. The Descent into Lanka Sutra (Skt. Lankavatara Sutra),
  2. The King of Concentration Sutra (Skt. Samadhiraja Sutra),
  3. The Sutra of the Ten Bhumis (Skt. Dashabhumika Sutra),
  4. The Sutra of the Essence of the Tathagata (Skt. Tathagathagarbha Sutra),
  5. The Sutra Requested by the Arya Shrimala (Skt. Aryashrimala Pariprccha Sutra),
  6. The Sutra of the Ornament for the Illumination of Primordial Wisdom (Skt. Jnanaloka Alamkara Sutra),
  7. The Sutra of the Great Nirvana (Skt. Mahaparinirvana Sutra), and the Sutra of the Question of Dharanishvararaja (Skt. Dharanishvararajapariprccha).

Third Wheel

The third wheel is also from the point of view of the Mahayana and refers to the Saṃdhinirmocana in a chapter called, Questions by Paramārthasamudgata, in which Paramārthasamudgata asks the Buddha about the different explanations given in the first and second wheel, and the Buddha replies by expounding the philosophical system of the Chittamatra.

It should be noted that the Lankavatara Sutra as well as other essential Tathagata-garbha texts could also be included in this third Wheel, as witnessed by the following analysis of the Third Turning:

The Third Turning

The Samdhinirmocanasutra says:

First the four truths,

In the middle, the absence of characteristics

Finally, the turning that excellently and thoroughly distinguishes [the provisional from the definitive and the completely false from the actual and genuine].

Name: The dharmachakra of thorough distinction

Time: (not specified). The Samdhinirmocana is dated at around ***

Place: Shravasti (but also Vaisali, Mount Malaya, Bodhgaya, and others).

Teacher: (not specified)

Dharma: Sutra: those sutras which distinguish between neyartha & nitartha. These include the Samdhinirmocana-Sutra, the Lankavatara-Sutra, the Samadhiraja-Sutra, the Avatamsaka-Sutra and the ten Tathagatagarbha-sutras such as the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Tathagatagarbha-Sutra, the Shrimaladevi-Simhanada-Sutra so on.

Shastra: the writings of Asanga & Vasubandhu, especially the five works of

Maitreyanatha. The works of Dolpopa, Rangjung Dorje and Taranatha.

Schools: the Yogachara, the Shentong or Mahamadhyamaka; Hua-Yen and other schools connected with the Content: the three natures, the three turnings, the distinction between nitartha & neyartha; buddha nature, the eight consciousnesses.

A major focus in this series will also be devoted to an extensive study of the Alayavijñana, making major use of Lambert Schmithausen’s monumental study, Ālayavijñāna: On the Origin and the Early Development of a Central Concept of Yogācāra Philosophy, along with his more recent work, The Genesis of Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda : Responses and Reflections, wherein he *responds to his critics; other associated material will be included as well. Hence, one could say that this will be a series within a series.

*Am also awaiting the arrival of the text, The Inception of Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda by Hartmut Buescher, who critiques Schmithausen’s work and also has some fresh insights into the significance of the Saṃdhinirmocana.

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