Prologue to Abhisamayālaṃkāra Commentary

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English | བོད་ཡིག

Khenpo Shenga


Prologue to Abhisamayālaṃkāra Commentary

by Khenchen Shenpen Nangwa

All Dharma teachings are included within the Buddha’s word and the treatises,
The excellent speech and the commentaries on its intended meaning,
By means of these, the teaching of the Śākya
Will remain for long within this world.

As this says, all the excellent teachings of the Dharma can be included within two categories: the speech of the victorious Buddha and the treatises which provide commentaries on its intended meaning. Among these, if one is to understand the enlightened intention of the Buddha’s words correctly, one must rely on the treatises composed by valid authors. In the present context of the mahāyāna teachings, there were only two great pioneers who were able to comment on the enlightened intent of the victorious Buddha independently. Both these masters thoroughly clarified both the profound and vast aspects of the teachings, but by considering where each placed greater emphasis it is generally said that the glorious lord Nāgārjuna founded the tradition of Profound View and noble Asaṅga the tradition of Extensive Conduct.

Of these, on this occasion we are concerned with the five treatises which the noble Asaṅga heard from the Buddha’s regent, the great lord on the tenth bhūmi [i.e., Maitreya], and then spread throughout the world, teachings that were given in order to explain the intent of the entire mahāyāna. They are:

  • The Ornament of Clear Realization (Abhisamayālaṃkāra), which explains the intent of the sūtras teaching profound emptiness;

  • The Ornament of Sutras (Sūtrālaṃkāra) and the two ‘Distinguishing’s, which explain the intent of the sūtras teaching the aspect of extensive conduct; and

  • The Sublime Continuum (Uttaratantra), which explains the intent of the sūtras teaching the inconceivable nature of reality (dharmatā).

Moreover, these texts were given for the sake of guiding three types of individual:

  • The three intermediate treatises of Maitreya were composed for those to be trained through the teachings of the mahāyāna Mind Only system of philosophy;

  • The Ornament of Clear Realization was composed for those to be trained through the teachings of the mahāyāna Svātantrika system; and

  • The Sublime Continuum was composed for those to be trained through the teachings on the mahāyāna Prāsaṅgika system.

In addition:

The Ornament of Clear Realization was taught as an antidote to six mistaken concepts. In order to counteract clinging to reality, it shows how all phenomena lack inherent existence, and in order to counteract any fixation upon non-reality, it presents all the stages of the paths.

The three intermediate treatises such as The Ornament of Sūtras were taught for those who are unable to understand certain aspects of the absence of extremes. They teach the implied and indirect meanings, the three natures and so on, in order to counteract the tendency to take things too literally, and they teach the ways of engaging in an infinite variety of skilful means in order to counteract a lack of interest in the extensive aspect of the teachings and a narrow-minded wish to meditate upon selflessness.

The Treatise on the Sublime Continuum teaches that all sentient beings possess the buddha nature in order to counteract the five faults such as discouragement, and it gives various explanations, examples and categories of pure awakening in order to counteract the thought that if this is so [i.e., if all beings have the buddha nature] then there can be no decrease in faults and increase in qualities.

Among these treatises we are here concerned with The Ornament of Clear Realization and this is explained in terms of five principal considerations. The following questions are posed: 1) Who composed the text? 2) From which scriptural sources does it draw? 3) To which category does it belong? 4) What is its basic theme from beginning to end? and 5) For what purpose was it composed?

1. The Author

The text was composed by Noble Maitreya, a bodhisattva who has trained in a vast, ocean-like gathering of the two accumulations for thirty-three incalculable aeons, and is now at the end of the tenth bhūmi, just a single birth away from buddhahood.

2. Scriptural Sources

It draws from all the precious prajñāpāramitā sūtras, such as the extensive, medium and condensed ‘mothers’ of the victorious ones.

3. Category

Among the so-called ‘three turnings’ of the Buddha’s teachings, it is a commentary on sūtras such as The One Hundred Thousand Line Prajñāpāramitā, i.e., the sutras of definitive meaning from the intermediate ‘Dharma wheel’ on the absence of characteristics. It is an essential instruction teaching profound emptiness.

4. Theme from Beginning to End

It is summarized in terms of seventy points, from the generation of bodhicitta through to the dharmakāya, all of which are included within eight topics: the three knowledges to be understood, the four applications to be practised, and the result, the dharmakāya.

5. Purpose

This treatise was composed in order to guide beings who are confused as to how the various stages of realization—the hidden meaning of the Mother Prajñāpāramitā—are to be taken into practice.

One might ask which commentary one should follow when explaining this treatise. In response to this it should be related how, when Ācārya Haribhadra was about to teach the prajñāpāramitā with a view to benefitting beings, he grew disheartened upon seeing that the various texts made differing assertions and explanations given by different teachers disagreed with one another. While he was still in a state of extreme despondency, the lord of great compassion, Maitreya, appeared before him and, in order to clear away his sadness, taught him the Bhagavatī Prajñāpāramitā including the clear realizations. He then composed his commentary to the essential instructions on the prajñāpāramitā according to the explanation he received from noble Maitreya.

It is therefore the commentary composed by this master, Clarifying the Meaning, which will now be explained, beginning with the meaning of its title.

| Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2005. Revised 2015.


Primary Sources

dpal sprul 'jigs med chos kyi dbang po. dPal sprul o rgyan 'jigs med chos kyi dbang po'i gsung 'bum. 8 vols. Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang. 2003.

______. Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa'i man ngag gi bstan bcos mngon par rtogs pa'i rgyan gyi spyi don. In dPal sprul o rgyan 'jigs med chos kyi dbang po'i gsung 'bum, vol. 6.

padma badzra, "Sher phyin mngon rtogs rgyan gyi spyi don byams mgon dgongs pa'i gsal byed bla ma brgyud pa'i zhal lung" in rDzogs chen mkhan po padma badzra'i gsung thor bu. Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2001, pp. 36–74 (Translated here).

thub bstan brtson 'grus phun tshogs. mKhan chen Thub bstan brtson 'grus kyi gsung 'bum. 2 vols. Lhasa: Bod ljongs bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang. 2011.

______. Shing rta'i srol 'byed bshad mdo 'grel thsul sogs sher phyin 'chad pa'i sngon 'gro. In Thub bstan brtson 'grus phun tshogs kyi gsung 'bum, vol. 1: 239–66. Mysoorie, India: Nyingma Monastery, Mkhan-po Padma-śes-rab. 1985? (Translated here)

______. Bstan bcos chen po mngon rtogs rgyan gyi lus rnam bzhag gi 'grel pa 'jigs med chos kyi dbang po'i zhal lung. In mKhan chen Thub bstan brtson 'grus kyi gsung 'bum, vol. 2: 103–122 (Translated here)

Secondary Sources

Conze, Edward, trans. Abhisamayālaṃkāra. Serie Orientale Roma 6. Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medi ed Estreme Oriente. 1954.

______. The Prajñāpāramitā Literature. Gravenhage: Mouton & Co. 1960.

Obermiller, Eugene. Prajñāpāramitā in Tibetan Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. 1991.

Samten Chhosphel, "Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa," Treasury of Lives, accessed February 07, 2015,

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