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Meditative Experiences of Impurity and Purity—Further Reflection on the aśubhā Meditation and the śubha-vimokṣa

School of Philosophy, Renmin University of China, Beijing 100872, China
Religions 2021, 12(2), 86;
Received: 19 December 2020 / Revised: 15 January 2021 / Accepted: 16 January 2021 / Published: 28 January 2021


In this paper, I would firstly like to supplement my observations and the materials used in the earlier paper “The aśubhā Meditation in the Sarvāstivāda”. I shall remark on the authenticity of the suicide tradition, and show further how the aśubhā meditation continued to be recommended in all the Buddhist traditions. A major concern of my discussion will focus on the Buddhist traditional understanding of the meditative transition from the experience of the impure to that of the pure. In the context of this developmental process, I shall further attempt to demonstrate that: along this traditional understanding, Mahāyānistic and even Tantric elements came to be interfused with the traditional—especially Abhidharma—meditative doctrines in the milieu of an increasing interest relating to buddha-visualization.

1. Preliminary Remarks

In an earlier paper dealing with the aśubhā meditation (Aśu Medn),1 I discussed the Buddhist meditation on the impure or unpleasant (aśubha) in various doctrinal and meditative contexts preserved in the different Buddhist traditions—including the Pāli texts (also the Chinese Āgama texts), Northern Abhidharma tradition (and also to some extent the Yogācāra tradition) and the “dhyāna sūtras”—but with special reference to the Sarvāstivāda sources. I pointed out that quite in spite of the general tradition, both Pāli and “northern” sources, of the episode of monks committing suicide as a result of practicing the aśubhā meditation, this meditation continued to be underscored and in fact developed. I have further highlighted the interesting—and inspiring in terms of doctrinal development—meditative experience of the pure/beautiful (śubha) in connection with, or consequential upon, the aśubhā meditation.
In this paper, I would firstly like to supplement my observations and the materials used in the earlier paper. I shall remark on the authenticity of the suicide tradition, and show further how the aśubhā meditation continued to be recommended in all the Buddhist traditions. A major part of this paper will be a lengthy discussion focusing on the Buddhist traditional understanding of the meditative transition from the experience of the impure to that of the pure. This transition is equally discernible within the three interrelated traditional meditative schemes: the eight vimokṣas, eight abhibhvāyatanas and ten kṛtsnāyatanas. In the context of this developmental process, I shall further attempt to demonstrate that: along this traditional understanding, Mahāyānistic and even Tantric elements came to be interfused with the traditional—especially Abhidharma—meditative doctrines in the milieu of an increasing interest relating to buddha-visualization.
Before proceeding further, some clarification of a few key terms is in order: The term śubha (Pāli: subha) connotes “splendid”, “beautiful”, “pleasant”, “good” (often synonymous with kuśala), “pure” (sometimes also synonymous with śuddha), “auspicious”, etc.2 I mostly render it in this discussion as “pure” or “beautiful”. The term aśubha connotes the opposite; generally rendered here as “impure”.3 The *Śāriputrābhidharma sums up these connotations:
What is said to be śubha (淨)? The rūpas that are beautiful/lovely (好), mutually splendent, agreeable, always pleasant to behold, are said to be śubha.4
The term aśubhā as a feminine noun means “impurity”, “ugliness” or “loathsomeness”, and connotes the meditation on the impure, used synonymously with aśubha-bhāvanā. Thus, in AKB, we have aśubhā-vimokṣa, ‘liberation of the impurity-meditation’ (Tibetan: mi sdug pa’i rnam par thar pa, Xuanzang: 不淨觀解脫); aśubhā-svabhāva “impurity-meditation in intrinsic nature”, etc.5 Likewise, in Sphuṭārthā Abhidharmakośa-vyākhyā, we see clear readings of aśubhā-sahagata, aśubhā-manaskāra, etc.—e.g., aśubhāmanaskārānantaraṃ smṛti-saṃbodhyaṃgaṃ bhāvayati6 “he develops the enlightenment-factor of mindfulness immediately after the mental application (meditation) of the aśubhā”; nāśubhayā kleśaprahāṇaṃ viṣkaṃbhaṇāmātraṃ tu bhavati7 “There is no abandonment of defilements by means of the aśubhā (meditation), but mere suppression occurs”.

2. Further Canonical Evidence for the Consistent Recommendation on the aśubhā

In Asu Medn, I have already referred to the Buddha’s exposition on mindfulness (sati) of the body specifically in terms of contemplating its physical impurities and loathsomeness in such suttas as the Kāyagatāsati-sutta, Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta, etc.8 By way of supplementing the relevant Pāli canonical references and other relatively later sources in the Sanskrit and Chinese translations, I shall begin in this section with a brief survey of numerous places in the Pāli Sutta-piṭaka, where the praxis of asubha contemplation is highly recommended or praised.
In the Kāyagatāsati-sutta, the Buddha explains how kāyagatāsati brings about great fruit and great benefits.9 He explains the development of this mindfulness first in terms of (1) the mindfulness of breathing and of (2) the four postures, followed by (3) contemplation on the bodily impurities, and on (4) the elements (dhātu) constituting the body. This is again followed by (5) the nine charnel ground contemplation, which is another aspect of the impurity meditation, culminating in the contemplation of the skeleton that remains after the other bodily parts have fully decayed. Finally comes the description of (6) the jhāna attainments.
In the Buddha’s explanations herein (as in the Sarvāstivāda Dharmaskandha-śāstra),10 contemplations on the impurities occupy a major part, comprising (3) and (5). Mindfulness of breathing precedes as the first mention, without any suggestion or hint of its superiority or advantages over the impurity contemplation. In fact, all the six types of kāyagatāsati practices are equally described as leading to the state wherein all the practitioner’s recollection and intentions relating to the household life are relinquished, and consequently his thoughts become unified and equipoised.11 It is further to be noted that the jhāna attainments explained in (6) actually presuppose detachment from sensuality, for which the impurity contemplation is taught to be the main antidote.12
There are numerous other suttas in which contemplation of bodily impurities and repulsiveness are decidedly recommended, without even an indirect warning of its possible danger.
In MN (i, 424), the Buddha directly advises Rāhula to practice asubha-bhāvanā for the abandonment of greed (rāga).
AN likewise recommends the asubha contemplation in numerous places. Thus, the Pathamasaññā-sutta speaks of seven ideations (saññā) that beget great fruits and benefits, culminating in the Deathless (amata). Of these, two—asubha-saññā and āhāre paṭikūla-saññā—pertain respectively to impurity-ideation and ideation on the repulsiveness of food.13 The Rāga-peyyāla mentions asubha-saññā as among seven things to be developed for direct knowledge (abhiññā) of rāga.14 In the Pabbajjā-sutta, the Buddha urges the bhikkhus to familiarise their thought in accordance with their going forth (yathāpabbajjā-paricita). This is by way of ten ideations, one being the asubha-ideation. Practicing so leads to either full knowledge or the state of a non-returner.15 There is a rather interesting episode in the Girimānanda-sutta. The Buddha tells Ānanda to preach ten ideations to the sick Girimānanda, saying that after hearing them the latter’s afflictions might on the spot subside. Ānanda does accordingly, and Girimānanda indeed, on hearing them, comes to be cured of his affliction. Both the asubha-ideation and mindfulness of breathing are among the ten.16
In the Aṭṭhikamahapphala-sutta, the Buddha teaches that the skeleton-ideation (aṭṭhika-saññā), when cultivated together with the enlightenment-factors (bojjhaṅga), brings great fruits and benefits: “either perfect knowledge (aññā) in this very life; or, clinging remaining, the state of a non-returner.”17
In the Kāya-sutta of the Bojjhaṅga-saṃyutta, the Buddha highlights the frequent improper attention to the signs of the beautiful (subha-nimitta) as that which nourishes sensual desire.18 In contrast, frequent proper attention to the signs of the impure (asubha-nimitta) is declared as its denourishment.19
In the Mettāsahagata-sutta of the same Bojjhaṅga-saṃyutta, the Buddha explains how the Buddhist praxis of the brahma-vihāra meditations differs from that of the heretics. In the Buddhist case, when a brahmavihāra meditation—e.g., mettā-bhāvanā—is practiced in conjunction with the seven factors of enlightenment (bojjhaṅga), it is firstly on the bases of seclusion (viveka), detachment (virāga) and cessation (nirodha), and is within the context of developing letting-go (vossagga-pariṇāmin). When so practiced, the practitioner comes to achieve mastery over the perception of repulsiveness and non-repulsiveness:
  • If he wishes: “may I abide perceiving the repulsive (paṭikūla) in the non-repulsive (appaṭikūla),” he abides therein perceiving the repulsive.
  • If he wishes: “may I abide perceiving the non-repulsive in the repulsive,” he abides therein perceiving the non-repulsive.
  • If he wishes: “may I abide perceiving the repulsive in both the repulsive and the non-repulsive,” he abides therein perceiving the repulsive.
  • If he wishes: “may I abide perceiving the non-repulsive in both the repulsive and the non-repulsive,” he abides therein perceiving the non-repulsive.
  • If he wishes, “may I abide equanimous, mindful and properly aware, getting rid of both the repulsive and the non-repulsive,” he abides therein being equanimous, mindful and properly aware.
Or, he abides having fully attained the beautiful liberation (subhaṃ … vimokkhaṃ). O bhikkhus, for a bhikkhu, who has acquired wisdom in this case without penetrating into a higher liberation, I say that his mental liberation through loving-kindness culminates in the beautiful (subha-paramā).20
This fivefold mastery is described as ariyā iddhi in the Paṭisambhidāmagga. For II, it is explained that in the agreeable objects he pervades with the asubhā (asubhāya vā pharate) (same can also be seen for IV).21 Accordingly, it is clear that the “repulsive” and “non-repulsive” in the discourse concerned include what are subha and asubha respectively.

3. The Question of Authenticity of the Suicide Story

On the basis of the consistently strong recommendation of the aśubhā practice in the early discourses, as seen above, it begs the question of the authenticity of the account in the Vesāli-sutta of SN, which relates the suicide episode.22
It is true, as pointed out in Aśu Medn, that the later Abhidharma tradition does seem to have inherited this suicide story, and links it up with its doctrine of the cetanā-dharman practitioners.23 For instance, MVŚ enumerates the six types of arhatparihāṇa-dharman, cetanā-dharman, anurakṣaṇā-dharman, sthitākampya, prativedhanā-dharman and akopya-dharman—and explains the cetanā-dharman as one “who volitionally (cetayitvā) kills himself with a knife” (思法者, 謂: 彼思已持刀自害).24 Nevertheless, it is generally a later tradition. The only possibly earlier canonical mention is the Madhyamāgama, which enumerates the cetanā-dharman type as the first, and the ubhayato-vimukta arhat as the last, of nine types of non-trainees (aśaikṣa; i.e., arhat), who, together with the trainees (śaikṣa) are worthy of offerings.25 But the corresponding Aṅguttara-nikāya version here simply states that the sekha and the asekha are the two types of person who are dakkhiṇeyya.26 Accordingly, the Madhyamāgama version—affiliated with the Sarvāstivāda school—could well have been a later insertion when the Sarvāstivādin typology of the arhats, which includes the cetanā-dharman and the ubhayato-vimukta arhats, etc., had come to be more or less standardized.
The episode occurs, in a more elaborate and even bizarre form than the sutta/sūtra version, in the extant Vinaya texts of some six Buddhist schools.27 It constitutes the justification for the Vinaya promulgation of rule for killing. As in at least some other cases, such as the justificatory stories for the promulgation of rules against serious sexual offences, such nidāna stories, to say the least, might not have been wholly factual. They could have been partly fabricated for the purpose of explicating the need for the particular promulgation concerned. I am inclined to believe that the Saṃyutta/Saṃyukta version is actually derived from the Vinaya version; not conversely. In the sūtra version, the Buddha, after emerging from seclusion, simply notices the big decrease of the number of monks participating at the prātimokṣa recitation, and is then told by Ānanda of the mass suicide. For all the severity of the happening, the Buddha gives no explanation at all on why the suicide could have happened, or how it could have been avoided. He simply teaches the monks ānāpānasati as conducing to peaceful and sublime abiding. But how can one reconcile such seeming serious misjudgment and lapse as a spiritual guide with the perfection of the Buddha’s Wisdom and the consistent recognition of his being the anuttaro purisadamma-sāratthi (‘supreme charioteer of persons to be tamed’)? Moreover, as we have stressed above, in all the occasions when the aśubha meditation is praised and recommended, we do not see the Buddha or the Buddhist elders sounding a word of warning. We find, of course, in some dhyāna sūtras of the later period, one or two places where such a danger is alluded to. For instance, in the Chan-mi-yao-fa Jing (禪祕要法經), it advises:
Upon the accomplishment of the aśubhā, the body must not be given up. [Instead,] the pleasant contemplation should be taught. This is the pleasant contemplation: visualize white light issuing from between the [bone-]limbs, intensely radiating, like the snow mountain.28
Likewise, in the Siwei Lüeyao Fa (思維略要法), the meditator on the aśubhā is warned to guard against extreme aversion to the body:
He attentively contemplates that there is nothing worthwhile at all in this body. In this way, disgust will arise in the mind. He remains always mindful of impurity … until [the aśubhā] is achieved. When he becomes extremely disgusted with his body, he should enter into the contemplation on the white bones, or the first dhyāna.
At the time of death, the practitioner committed to the ideal of the Mahāyāna will be reborn into the presence of the Buddhas accordingly as he has wished. Otherwise, he will definitely go to the Tuṣita heaven, where he can meet with Maitreya [Buddha].29 (For the significance of the last paragraph, see discussion below, §8)

Two Contrasting Emphasis: Ānāpānasmṛti vs. Aśubhā

Apart from the Vesāli-sutta and the corresponding Saṃyuktāgama version, there is no evidence in the discourses that the ānāpānasati meditation is taught only after the mass suicide episode. We gather from the Buddha’s biographical accounts that ānāpānasati was in fact a prominent meditative practice in his struggle for Enlightenment. In the Icchānaṅgala-sutta of SN and the corresponding Saṃyuktāgama version, the Buddha instructs the monks to tell the heretical mendicants that during the Rains retreat, he dwells mostly in the equipoise of ānāpānasati.30 He in fact declares the equipoise of ānāpānasati as the “Tathāgata’s dwelling (tathāgata-vihāra)”, praised as a “noble dwelling” and a “divine dwelling”.31 Now, this sutta is under the same Ānāpāna-saṃyutta of the same Mahā-vagga, as the Vesāli-sutta, which almost immediately precedes it (Vesāli-sutta is No. 9; it is No. 11). In fact, the very first sutta under this Ānāpānasati-saṃyutta, praises the ānāpānasati as “the one dhamma, which, when cultivated and repeatedly practised, brings about great fruit and great merits.”32 Noticeably, just as in the Icchānaṅgala-sutta, there is not a word about the asubha-bhāvanā—its danger or otherwise.
The same tradition is found the Sarvāstivādin MVŚ:
The outsiders (外道; heretical wanderers) might come and ask you: “What meditation does your Master enter into in the two (three?) months of meditative [retreat]?” You should answer: “It is the ānāpāna-smṛti.”
Question: “The heretics do not even know the name ‘ānāpāna-smṛti’, how much less its intrinsic nature (svabhāva). Why then does the Fortunate One say thus?”
Answer: “This is in order to attract the vineyas, the heretics, etc., into the Buddha-dharma: There are heretics and their followers who, on hearing that the Buddha, the Fortunate One, enters into ānāpāna-smṛti during the two-month (three-month?) meditative [retreat], generate a thought of wonder. They visit the Buddha. The Buddha preaches to them and they accept and commit to it.
Moreover, it is in order to protect the new bhikṣus so that they do not turn away from the Buddha-dharma: There are some bhikṣus who have newly entered into the Buddha-dharma. Having practised ānāpānasmṛti with a disrespectful attitude, they intend to return to the heretics and seek a different Dharma. On account of these words of the Buddha, the heretics come to the Buddha and respectfully accept the Dharma; as a result, those bhikṣus overcome their thought of retreat [from the Buddha-dharma].”
Question: “When the Buddha is meditating, he enters into all dhyānas, vimokṣas, samādhis and samāpattis; why is he only said to enter into ānāpāna-smṛti?”
Answer: “Although he enters into all dhyānas, vimokṣas, samādhis and samāpattis; ānāpāna-smṛti is foremost of them all. Hence, it is specifically mentioned. Moreover, all dhyānas, vimokṣas, samādhis and samāpattis are the retinues (眷属; parivāra) of ānāpāna-smṛti—either preceding or succeeding it. Hence the Fortunate One [specifically] mentions it.”33
The general Abhidharma tradition promotes both the aśubhā and the ānāpānasati as the two “amṛta-dvāra” (‘gateway to immortality’) leading to Nirvāṇa.34 However, the above MVŚ passage, besides showing the Abhidharma continuation of the sūtra tradition of the Buddha’s own emphatic recommendation of the ānāpānasati—without a negative contrast with the aśubhā—further underscores the practice as being unique to the Buddha-dharma, unshared by the heretical traditions. From this perspective, we might even consider the possibility that the mass suicide account in the Vesāli-sutta could suggest a tension between two sections among meditators:
One section is more concerned with the uniqueness and the temperament-wise universal applicability of the Buddhist practice of ānāpāna-smṛti, and perhaps also less ascetic. It advocates the latter over the aśubhā. These meditators are amply discernible in the forgoing survey. The following is yet another context essentially highlighting the superiority of ānāpāna-smṛti over the aśubhā––but again noticeably without contemning the latter as conducive to a suicidal tendency:
Question: Why does the sūtra speak of ānāpāna-smṛti as being applicable in all the four smṛty-upasthānas?
Answer: It is thus spoken of because it can induce the four smṛty-upasthānas. … Moreover, ānāpāna-smṛti enhancing the dharma-saṃjñā as it does, constitutes the basis for contemplation on emptiness, and can therefore swiftly induce the four smṛty-upasthānas. … The aśubhā enhances the sattva-saṃjñā, and thus cannot swiftly induce the four smṛty-upasthānas, … Moreover, ānāpāna-smṛti is generated only among the Buddhists, unshared by the heretics, and therefore capable of swiftly inducing the four smṛty-upasthānas, … The aśubhā is also generated among non-Buddhists, and [thus] incapable of swiftly inducing the four smṛty-upathānas. …35
The other section, more fundamentally concerned with the problem of overcoming sensual attachment in the spiritual struggle, and perhaps also more ascetic, seriously examines and consistently highlights the Buddha’s recommendation of the aśubhā meditation in its various forms and contexts. In MVŚ, we see this section of meditators explaining why the aśubhā is highlighted as the “pratimukhī smṛti” (‘face-to-face mindfulness’):36
Question: Why herein, the aśubhā alone is said to be “pratimukhī smṛti”, not the ānāpāna-smṛti and the dhātu-bheda contemplation?
Answer: … Further, the aśubhā is the initial contemplation. That is: the aśubhā precedes all contemplations. The meditators mostly enter into the Noble Path with the aśubhā as the supporting base, not with ānāpāna-smṛti or dhātu-bheda contemplation; hence it is specifically mentioned. … Among the five hindrances [to be eradicated for meditative success], sensual craving is the most serious. Moreover, it is [enumerated] at the beginning, hence specifically mentioned. Its direct antidote is the aśubhā; when sensual craving is abandoned, the other [hindrances] will accordingly be abandoned.37

4. The Psycho-Spiritual Significance of the aśubha-to-śubha Transition and the Eight-Vimokṣa Scheme of Praxis

It follows from the foregoing discussion (§2) that, when mental liberation (cetovimukti) is acquired through a properly practiced meditative praxis, the mind becomes spiritually pliable, rather than being rigidly conditioned to only one or the other mode of perception––the experience exclusively of what is śubha/apratikūla or of what is aśubha/pratikūla. The important implication is that the aśubhā, properly practiced, does not render the practitioner incapable of perceiving the beautiful/pure as the beautiful/pure, less still becoming pathologically depressed.
This point is also corroborated by the Pāṭika-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya. There, certain recluses and Brahmins falsely accuse the Buddha as teaching that in the subha-vimokkha (the meditative attainment of the ‘beautiful liberation’) the meditator perceives exclusively everything as being ugly/impure (asubhanteva sañjānātīti). The Buddha denies this, and states his teaching thus: “When one abides having fully attained the subha-vimokkha, one truly knows it exclusively as beautiful.”38 Thus, the Buddha, while affirming the exclusive perception of the ugly or impure in the aśubhā practice, does not deny the practitioner’s capability of the pure and beautiful.
In this connection, it is noteworthy that the above-cited Mettāsahagata-sutta (loc. cit.) states that the mental liberation through the mettā meditation in conjunction with the enlightenment factors can culminate in the beautiful. In the same manner, the mental liberation acquired through the Buddhist karuṇā meditation is said to be capable of culminating in meditative attainment of the sphere of the infinity of space (ākāsānañcāyatana-paramā); muditā, the sphere of the infinity of consciousness (viññāṇañcāyatana); upekkhā, the sphere of nothingness (ākiñcaññāyatana).
In brief: In the Abhidharma—and for that matter, early Buddhism in general—progressive meditative attainments are accompanied by a state of joy or happiness. Thus, when a practitioner progresses from the sensuality sphere and enters into the first dhyāna(/jhāna), he experiences rapture and happiness born of seclusion (vivekajaṃ prītisukham); ascending from the first dhyāna, he experiences rapture and happiness born of equipoise (samādhijaṃ prītisukham); etc. The Pañcakaṅga-sutta speaks of happiness of the first jhāna as being more excellent and sublime (sukhaṃ abhikkantatarañ ca paṇītatarañ ca) than sensual happiness; more excellent and sublime than that is happiness in the second jhāna; more excellent and sublime than that is happiness in the third jhāna; more excellent and sublime than that is happiness in the fourth jhāna; more excellent and sublime than that is happiness in the sphere of infinity of space; more excellent and sublime than that is happiness in the sphere of infinity of consciousness; more excellent and sublime than that is happiness in the sphere of nothingness; more excellent and sublime than that is happiness in the sphere of neither-ideation-nor-non-ideation; more excellent and sublime than that is happiness in the sphere of cessation of ideation and sensation (saññā-vedita-nirodha).39 In brief, the progressive spiritual attainments in Buddhist praxis are characterized by increasingly subtler states of blissfulness and peace—the most profound of which is the bliss of Nirvāṇa. (See also §7 below)

4.1. The Eight-Vimokṣa Scheme of Praxis

The above description of the culminating state of the beautiful in such early discourses as the Mettāsahagata-sutta will make better sense when we consider the doctrinal scheme of the eight liberations (vimokkha; vimokṣa). I have discussed this scheme at some length in the context of the aśubhā meditation in Aśu Medn.40 What follows may be considered supplementary to the earlier discussion.
The term “vimokṣa” may be rendered as “liberation” or “emancipation”. There are eight progressive states of attainment in this scheme:
Possessing matters, one sees matters (rūpī rūpāṇi paśyati).
Internally without matter-ideation, one sees matters externally (adhyātmam arūpasaṃjñī bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyati)
Realizing the pure/beautiful through the body, one abides having accomplished it. (śubhaṃ vimokṣaṃ kāyena sākṣātkṛtvopasaṃpadya viharati)
Correspondingly, the four successive meditative attainments pertaining to the non-materiality sphere.
The meditative attainment of cessation (nirodha-samāpatti)41
Among other things, the eight vimokṣas are eight increasingly higher domains of meditative experiences. In this context, “vimokṣa” is glossed as “vaimukhya”,42 which represents experiential transcendence. MVŚ explains as follows:
What is the meaning of vimokṣa?
Answer: Its meaning is vaimukhya (棄背; ‘turning away from’, ‘turning the back on’).
… The first two vimokṣas turn away from the thought of craving for visible forms (varṇa-rāga). The third vimokṣa turns away from the thought of the aśubhā. The four non-materiality-spheres (ārūpyāyatana), in each case, turns away from the thought of the sphere immediately below. The [last], saṃjñāveditanirodha-vimokṣa turns away from all thoughts having cognitive objects (sālambana-citta).
According to Venerable Vasumitra: they are called liberation because the thought is liberated from defilements and becomes pure. According to the Bhadanta: they are called vimokṣa on account of vimokṣa being acquired by virtue of adhimokṣa/adhimukti (‘affirmative resolve’).43 According to Pārśva: It is vimokṣa because of something being turned away from.44
The first two liberations counteract greed for the visible forms: Cultivated in the first two dhyānas, they counteract greed for the visible forms pertaining to the sensuality-sphere; cultivated in the second dhyāna, they counteract those pertaining to the first dhyāna. But the sunken mind resulting from the aśubha meditation must now be counteracted for the practitioner to ascend to the higher meditative domains. This is achieved by the śubha meditation, the third liberation.45

4.2. Sarvāstivāda Explanation of the Process of Successive Achievement of the Vimokṣas

The Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma tradition provides comparatively more detailed and articulate explanations on the actual process in the development of the vimokṣas. I shall quote below a lengthy description from Saṃghabhadra’s *Nyāyānusāra explaining the progression from the first to the third, śubha-bhāvanā––the impurity-to-purity transition that we are chiefly interested in:
… the first vimokṣa has not eradicated ideation of the inner rūpas. … The meditator, though having been freed from sensual greed, in order to consolidate [the detachment], further meditates on the external rūpas with the mode of activity (ākāra) of impurity. As a result of repeatedly contemplating on the external rūpas [as impure], he comes to generate dispassion/disgust (nir-√vid) with regard to the internal rūpas as well. … It is only after having in this way first meditated on the external signs of impurity that, the inner material body being likewise impure and the meditating thought being pure, he perceives—as [clearly as] the various distinctly coloured things within a case—the body within as being filled with thirty-six types of impurity. This is said to be the stage of full accomplishment of the first vimokṣa. At this stage of accomplishment, what dharma has been liberated from? With regard to rūpas, the thought does not delight therein; it is averse to them, scorns them, loathes them, and prevents sensual greed towards them. This is the liberation from sensual greed, being non-greed in its nature.
Subsequent to this, the meditator gradually further eradicates the ideation that takes the inner rūpas as cognitive objects (adhyātmarūpa-ālambana). That is: by means of adhimokṣa, he visualizes himself dying; his body being brought and abandoned at the grave-yard, devoured by competing beasts and animals, … dissipated through fire, water, etc.; until the body is no more and only the fire etc. is visible. This is said to the “vimokṣa of one devoid of ideation of the inner rūpas contemplating the external rūpas.” (adhyātmam arūpasaṃjñī bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyati. See §4.1 above) Because this adhimokṣa effectuates the eradication of rūpa-ideation, it does not perceive the body even though it arises taking the body as cognitive object. Having eradicated the ideation that takes the inner rūpas as cognitive objects, his thoughts serially continue without other activities, and the sublime happiness of pliability (praśrabdhi) manifests spontaneously. At this stage, he repeatedly practices taking objects of the rūpāyatana with the mode of activity of aversion (vaimukhya). This is said to be the accomplishment of the second vimokṣa. Just as the first [liberation], it is a liberation from sensual greed.
But although previously by cultivating the aśubhā ideation, he has acquired liberation from sensual greed taking rūpas as objects, yet it is difficult to get rid of self-attachment (ātma-sneha) which has existed from beginningless time. Worrying that if he perceives the body as being existent, he might still retrogress to generate [self-attachment], he thus subsequently again practises the ideation without inner rūpas, his meditation on loathing rūpa becoming purer than before. The meditator then becomes deeply attached to these two meditations acquired with the first dhyāna as support. To develop this further, he enters into the second dhyāna and again practises the two vimokṣas, again practising the two dharmas in the same sequence as before. Why is it that the ideation therein, loathing rūpas as it does, can be said to be conjoined with the sensation of rupture (prīti-saṃprayukta)? This is so by virtue of the stage (bhūmi) pertaining thereto, … Or rather, seeing that the skilful roots (kuśala-mūla) being cultivated have now been accomplished, he gives rise to rapture. Since he has acquired liberation with regard to ideation of the visibles, rapture can arise even in meditating on the loathsome.
Next, he further enters into the third dhyāna. Being obsessed with the sublime happiness [therein], his thought becomes indulgent. He therefore cannot cultivate the vimokṣas, and generates only skilful roots that are semblance of a vimokṣa. In this dhyāna, it is the nature of things that by virtue of the stage, neither a meditation effectuating delight nor disgust can be accomplished.
Following this, he enters into the fourth dhyāna. Owing to the dominance of equanimity (upekṣā), thought comes to be gradually purified, and the ideation of impurity is no more dominant. Thus it is not called the first two vimokṣas, but only “semblance of the skilful roots”.
[The purity-meditation (śubha-bhāvanā)]
The yogācāra having meditated on the aśubhā for a long time, operating in the mode of loathefulness, his thought becomes depressed. To temporarily gladden his thought, or to be temporarily relieved from tiredness, or for the sake of testing for himself the capability of the aśubhā,46 he further supported upon the fourth dhyāna, generates the adhimukti for purity with regard to the rūpas pertaining to the sensuality-sphere. First he apprehends the sign of purity of a jewel, garment, flower, etc.; and through the force of adhimukti he gradually expands (√sphar) his visualization to pervade the entirety of the cognitive objects with the mode of activity of purity (i.e., he pervasively visualizes all cognitive objects as being pure). Just as is said in the sūtra: “He subsequently should apprehend a limited sign of purity, and applies his thought [in this way] to all rūpas.” This exercises (pra-√grah) thought without exciting it. While meditating on the sign of purity, he does not give rise to greed. Having known the dominance of the power of the skilful root, he further concentrates his thought on the object-domain, and abides contemplating purity with regard to a single cognitive object. This is said to be the consummation of the śubha-vimokṣa, capable as he is of abandoning the impurity ideation…
Why does a practitioner cultivate the vimokṣas, etc?
In order to further distance from the defilements, and to acquire mastery (vaśitva) over the meditative attainments (samāpatti). With the acquisition of [this] mastery, he can then effectuate various qualities, such as non-conflict (araṇā), etc., and also supernormal powers with which he can transform object-domains and perform acts of extending and shortening (utsarjanādhiṣṭhāna) [his life-span], etc.47
Among other things, the above account shows that, in the Abhidharma context, the śubha-bhāvanā is not an automatic sequel necessarily occurring after the aśubhā. It has to be intentionally cultivated after the aśubhā by applying adhimukti on a śubha object. MVŚ in fact narrates a story which shows that there are certain innately endowed individuals, such as those reborn from among the gods delighting in purity, who specifically cultivate the śubha-bhāvanā culminating in the attainment of arhathood.48
On the other hand, we have also pointed out in Aśu Medn that according to the Abhidharma master, Saṃghabhadra, all araṇyaka meditators proclaim that upon the ultimate completion of the aśubhā, “a sign of purity manifests all of a sudden.”49 However, this latter tradition need not contradict our earlier observation. It represents the meditator’s ultimate culmination of the meditative achievement of complete detachment from sensuality (vairāgya). It can therefore be properly understood as being quite in line with the overall picture that emerges for us throughout this paper: The higher meditative progression requires detachment from sensuality, to be achieved either through aśubhā or otherwise. Once the meditator has been fully detached from sensuality, he necessarily experiences joy, pleasantness, equanimity, etc. As Saṃghabhadra explains, the vimokṣas are practiced not as ends in themselves, but as means for further spiritual development.

4.3. The *Tattvasiddhi (成實論) Perspective of the Vimokṣas

Harivarman (c. 4th century CE.), the author of the *Tattvasiddhi, was said to have studied under the Dārṣṭāntika master, Kumāralāta, and been influenced by the Mahāsāṃghikas. According to Yinshun:
The *Tattvasiddhi is [doctrinally] close to the Sautrāntika doctrines. But it cannot be described as Sautrāntika. In terms of its sectarian affiliation, it can be considered as constituting a school in its own right.”50
It is well known that this text advocates the doctrine of emptiness (śūnyatā)—though not necessarily identical with that of the full-fletched Mahāyāna. Its śūnyatā perspective is also clearly discernible in its comments on the progressive attainments of the vimokṣas.51 It criticizes the Abhidharma perspective, and instead explains in terms of the meditator’s progressive realization of emptiness—from emptiness of the rūpas to the emptiness of the vijñānas to finally the total cessation (emptiness) of all rūpas and cittas in the eighth vimokṣa:
The Sūtra teaches the eight vimokṣas. In the first, the meditator, internally having the rūpa-saṃjñā, contemplates on the external rūpas, and with this he destroys (i.e., he realizes the emptiness of) the rūpas. How is it known? In the second vimokṣa, it is said that internally without rūpa-saṃjñā, he contemplates on the external rūpas. He is said to be internally without rūpa-saṃjñā on account of having destroyed the internal rūpas. Thus, we know that in the first vimokṣa, the meditator has gradually destroyed the bodily rūpas. When he enters into the second vimokṣa, the internal rūpas have been destroyed and only the external rūpas exist.
In the third vimokṣa, the external rūpas too having been destroyed, he sees neither any internal nor external rūpa. This is called the emptiness of rūpas. …
In the [next] four [ārūpya] vimokṣas, [the Sūtra] teaches the emptiness of the vijñānas. … In these four vimokṣas, the vijñānas are destroyed. In the eighth vimokṣa, all are ceased (一切滅盡; *sarvaṃ niruddhaṃ). This is because: when both rūpa and citta are ceased, all the conditioned things (saṃskṛta) is absolutely ceased. This is called the fruit of arahat-hood. It is through such a progressive sequence that the nirodha[-samāpatti] can be attained. These are called the eight vimokṣas.
(Criticism of the Abhidharma perspective)
According to some: “The first two vimokṣas are aśubha; the third is śubha.” This is not correct. These are called “vimokṣas”. No one can be liberated (vimucyate) by means of the aśubha-bhāvanā; nor is there vimokṣa through the śubha-bhāvanā. It is only through meditation on emptiness (śūnyata-saṃjñā) that vimokṣa can be attained. Moreover, the outsiders (followers of the heretical traditions) [also] can attain the aśubha- and śubha-bhāvanā; yet they are not said to attain liberation (vimokṣa).52
It is to be noted in this connection that, from the perspective of the *Tattvasiddhi, the Sūtra speaks of nirodha in a generic manner, without distinguishing the nirodha of thought and that of defilements. In fact, the Sūtra teaches two types of nirodha––gradual nirodha (次第滅) and the nirodha that is Nirvāṇa. It also teaches two types of Nirvāṇa––Nirvāṇa at the present and absolute Nirvāṇa. (And, likewise, two types of yoga-kṣema; etc.) It teaches only that a trainee (śaikṣa; an ārya who is not yet an arhat) can attain the nine successive samāpattis; but not the (true) nirodha.53 Accordingly, from the *Tattvasiddhi perspective: the vimokṣa doctrine is a doctrine of liberation from defilements and the gradual spiritual progression culminating in the attainment of Nirvāṇa––and this progression is only possible through gradual realization of firstly śūnyatā of rūpa; and then of citta/vijñāna; and finally, of all conditioned things.

4.4. Why the Śubha-Vimokṣa and the Nirodha-Samāpatti Are Described as Being Directly Realized through the Body

The Ābhidharmikas and other Buddhist masters highlight the fact that, of the eight vimokṣas, the śubha meditation and the nirodha-samāpatti alone are specifically spoken of in the sūtras as being directly realized through the body (kāyena sākṣātkṛta). We have seen in Aśu Medn, §4.1, that according to the MPPU, in the case of the śubha-vimokṣa, it is because it is an experience of rapture and happiness pervading the whole body.54 MVŚ offers various reasons. Among them: (1) Because they pertain, respectively, to the final sphere of the rūpa- and ārūpya-dhātu. (2) Because each is attained through great effort.55 (3) The śubha-vimokṣa is so described because it is distinguished—it does not generate defilement despite grasping the pure/beautiful signs of visible forms. The saṃjñā-vedita-nirodha-vimokṣa is so described because, being devoid of mentation (acittaka), it pertains to the body and is generated by virtue of the body.56
Saṃghabhadra records another reason:
According to some: the third [vimokṣa] at first, through the power of adhimukti, grasps the pure sign with regard to the body, and then gradually eradicating [it] accomplishes vimokṣa. Being the culmination of the vimokṣa that takes the body as cognitive object, it is specifically said to be directly “realized through the body.”57
Yaśomitra additionally explains in terms of their excellence in accomplishing the transformation of the basis (āśraya-parivṛtti):
Because the third vimokṣa excels the first and second vimokṣas in respect of the transformation of the basis (āśraya-parivṛtti) on account of the complete abandonment of the hindrance to the vimokṣas of the rūpi [dhyānas], the third [vimokṣa] is spoken of as a direct realization. Likewise, it is because of the excellence of the eighth [vimokṣa] in respect of the transformation of the basis on account of the complete abandonment of the hindrance to the ārūpya vimokṣas that it is spoken of as a direct realization…58
Sthiramati also offers a similar reason in his Abhidharmasamuccaya-bhāṣya:
These eight vimokṣas are called [noble] abodes, because of the noble ones abiding in them. Among these, though, they abide mostly in the third and the eighth, on account of their excellence. Hence, [the sūtra] statement with regard to these two, and to other [vimokṣas], “having directly realized with the body, he abides in full attainment”—because of the complete abandonment of the hindrances to the vimokṣas, respectively, of the rūpa-[dhyānas] and the ārūpya-[samāpattis]. For another reason: it is because of the realization of the full transformation of the basis.59
But the “transformation of the basis” in the above MVŚ passage is not necessarily a Yogācāra doctrine. In MVŚ, the Sarvāstivāda master Vasumitra explains that one entering the fourth dhyāna acquires the “transformation of the basis” (轉依): Subtle Great Elements pertaining to the fourth dhyāna arise in the body, closing all its pores rendering the body incapable of functioning as the support-basis for breathing––and according breathing ceases.60

5. The Canonical Mention of the Seven-Element Doctrine and the Vimokṣa Doctrine

A possible early inspiration for the eight-vimokṣa doctrine is the seven-element doctrine in the Sattadhātu-sutta. Seven elements are enumerated therein: (1) light-element (ābhā-dhātu), (2) purity-element (subha-dhātu), (3) infinity-of-space-sphere element (ākāsānañcāyatana-dhātu), (4) infinity-of-consciousness-sphere element (viññāṇañcāyatana-dhātu), (5) nothingness-sphere element (ākiñcaññāyatana-dhātu), (6) neither-ideation-nor-non-ideation-sphere element (nevasaññānāsaññāyatana-dhātu) and (7) element of cessation of ideation and sensation (saññāvedita-nirodha):
[1] The ābhā-dhātu is discerned (paññāyati) on the basis of darkness (andhakāra); [2] subha-dhātu, impurity (asubha); [3] ākāsānañcāyatana-dhātu, visible matter (rūpa); [4] viññāṇañcāyatana-dhātu, ākāsānañcāyatana-dhātu; [5] ākiñcaññāyatana-dhātu, viññāṇañcāyatana-dhātu; [6] nevasaññānāsaññāyatana-dhātu, ākiñcaññāyatana-dhātu; [7] saññāvedayitanirodha-dhātu, nirodha.
These elements are said to be attained as meditative attainment (samāpatti pattabbā): The ābhā-dhātu upto ākiñcaññāyatana-dhātu are to be attained as meditative attainments of ideation (saññā-samāpatti). The nevasaññānāsaññāyatana-dhātu is to be attained as meditative attainment with residual conditionings (saṅkhārāvasesa-samāpatti). The saññāvedayitanirodha-dhātu is to be attained as meditative attainment of cessation (nirodha-samāpatti).61
The Saṃyuktāgama version is very similar. But there are some differences as regards how these dhātus are discerned: As regards the bases for discerning the ākiñcanyāyatana-dhātu, the naiva-saṃjñā-nāsaṃjñā-āyatana-dhātu and the nirodha-dhātu, the description62 essentially agree with those in MVŚ (see below). The same remark also applies to the differences as regards the type of samāpattis with which corresponding dhātus are to be attained.
The *Śāriputrābhidharma, in a long enumeration of over 150 dhātus, also mentions towards the end the seven dhātus. But it differs slightly from the above-mentioned sūtra list in giving the “material dhātu (色界)”63 as the third (see the MVŚ description below, especially on the ākāsānantyāyatana-dhātu being designated on the basis of “the material domain”), and culminating with the naiva-saṃjñā-nāsaṃjñā-āyatana-dhātu, and not nirodha-dhātu:64 “光界、淨界、色界、空處界、識處界、不用處界、非想非非想處界”. Its explanation on the śubha-dhātu is perhaps also noteworthy:
What is the śubha-dhātu? The śubha-vimokṣa, and other śubha rūpas: that which beautifies rūpas, [rendering them] agreeable and are untiring to behold, is called the “śubha-dhātu”. (Or: ‘The śubha-vimokṣa, and other śubha rūpas can beautify rūpas, [rendering them] agreeable and are untiring to behold; thus, called the “śubha-dhātu”)65
What is sufficiently clear is that: the śubha-dhātu is said to comprise not just the śubha-vimokṣa, but also “other śubha rūpas.” For one thing, this may imply that, in a broader sense, not only the third vimokṣa in the fourth dhyāna is to be regarded as a śubha—properly so called—but also all the meditative attainments, rūpa- and ārūpya-, which are devoid of akuśala states, and in which there are increasingly pleasant experiences. This is in line with what we have tried to describe in §4. At least in the northern Abhidharma tradition, the śubha-dhātu could have been conceived as an efficacy or potentiality for the spiritually beautiful meditative experiences.

5.1. Commentarial Remarks in MVŚ

The commentarial tradition sees the above doctrine as being in correlation to the eight-vimokṣa doctrine. Thus, MVŚ alludes to the above sūtra statement, which apparently in their version is given as the Buddha’s answer to a bhikṣu’s questions on his teaching of the seven elements. It comments that the bhikṣu asks implicitly in relation to the eight vimokṣas, and the Buddha too answers with the same implicit reference:
The ābhā-dhātu refers to the first two vimokṣas. The śubha-dhātu refers to the third vimokṣa. The four ārūpya-āyatana dhātus refers to the four ārūpya-vimokṣas. The nirodha-dhātu refers to the saṃjñāveditanirodha-vimokṣa. …
“The ābhā-dhātu is designated on the basis of darkness”: Darkness refers to the greed that takes the rūpāyatanas in the kāma-dhātu as cognitive object. The first two vimokṣas counteract this; thus, it is designated on the basis of this.
“The śubha-dhātu is designated on the basis of the aśubha”: The aśubha refers to the first two vimokṣas. The third vimokṣa counteracts this; thus, it is designated on the basis of this.
“The ākāsānantyāyatana-dhātu is designated on the basis of the material domain66“: material domain refers to the fourth dhyāna. The fourth vimokṣa counteracts it; thus, it is designated on the basis of this.
“The vijñānānantyāyatana-dhātu is designated on the basis of the extremity (paryanta)”: The extremity refers to the ākāsānantyāyatana, on account of it being situated at the extremity of rūpa. The fifth vimokṣa counteracts it; thus, it is designated on the basis of this.
“The ākiñcanyāyatana-dhātu is designated on the account of some existent (所有)”: ‘Some existent’ refers to the vijñānānantyāyatana-dhātu, on account of there being infinite ākāras arising. The sixth vimokṣa counteracts it; thus, it is designated on the basis of this.
“The naiva-saṃjñā-nāsaṃjñā-āyatana-dhātu is designated on the basis of the existent body”: The ‘existent body’ refers to the ākiñcanyāyatana, on account of there still being the body subject to death and birth, and not that there is absolutely nothing. The seventh vimokṣa counteracts it; thus it is designated on the basis of this.
“The nirodha-dhātu is designated on the basis of the cessation of the existent body (有身; satkāya)”: The ‘cessation of the existent body’ refers to the naiva-saṃjñā-nāsaṃjñā-āyatana, on account of its bringing to cessation the existent-body dharmas of the ākiñcanyāyatana. The eighth vimokṣa counteracts it; thus it is designated on the basis of this. …
Among the MVŚ comments on the śubha-dhātu, the expositions by “some” (有作是說, 有說; *kecid āha) are of interest:
According to some: “The śubha-dhātu indicates succinctly the detachment from sensuality (kāma-vairāgya; Xuanzang: 離欲界染67 ‘detachment pertaining to the sensuality-sphere’)”68
Some say: … The śubha-dhātu indicates in details detachment pertaining to the rūpa-dhātu. For, all the four dhyānas are said to be śubha.69
The above commentarial remarks once again indicates that although śubha-bhāvanā properly so called refers to the third vimokṣa pertaining to the fourth dhyāna; in a broader or more general sense, all the meditative attainments pertaining to the rūpa-dhātu are all described as śubha. Among other things, it means that on account of the absence of the akuśala therein, these higher meditative domains are states of increasing pleasantness and peace.

5.2. Commentarial Remarks in YBŚ

The Vastu-saṃgrahaṇī of YBŚ also contains commentarial explanations corresponding to the seven dhātus in the Saṃyuktāgama context.70 They help us somewhat better understand the MVŚ statements on the designation of the ākiñcanyāyatana-dhātu and the nirodha-dhātu: They are designated in relativistic terms. Thus, the ākiñcanyāyatana-dhātu is designated on account of kiñcana (由少所有以為緣故, 施設無所有處).71 The nirodha-dhātu is designated as the highest nirodha (施設滅界為滅無上) on account of the abandonment of the defilements associated with the satkāya.72 It is attained by not applying the mind to all signs (mtshan ma thams cad yid la mi byed pa) and applying the mind to the signless dhātu—the nirodha-samāpatti, the nirodha-dhātu, is attained on account of the absence of signs; not attained by means of effortful samāpatti.73 The existence-peak (bhavāgra) is the highest of existence; nirodha is the highest of all dharmas.74
The comments therein also specifically correlate the seven dhātus with the meditative attainment of the eight vimokṣas:
Among them, with the attainment of the first dhātu (ābhā-dhātu), the first and second vimokṣas can be attained. With the second dhātu (śubha-dhātu), the third vimokṣa can be attained. With the remaining five dhātus, the other five vimokṣas, respectively, can be attained.75

5.3. Summary

The above discussion on the Sattadhātu-sutta and its corresponding Saṃyuktāgama version, together with the commentarial explanations in MVŚ and YBŚ, suggest that the eight-vimokṣa doctrine had probably derived inspiration from an early sūtra source. In the above-discussed related sources, we may well discern the doctrinal significance of the śubha-dhātu, and the corresponding śubha-vimokṣa: The notion of the śubha-dhātu may indicate the early Buddhist awareness of the potential causal efficacy in innate human experience—an important signification of “dhātu”—that can bring about the experience of “purity”, “goodness” and “pleasantness” in the spiritual development through meditative praxis. The process of this praxis necessarily entails a transcendence of sensual attachment (whether through the aśubhā or meditative practices), which necessarily results in the “pure” and progressively peaceful higher meditative attainments––all capable of being predicated in a broader sense as “śubha”.

6. The Abhibhvāyatana-Scheme and the Kṛtsnāyatana-Scheme, and Their Correlation with the Vimokṣa-Scheme

In the Buddhist system of meditative praxis, the eight-vimokṣa scheme came to be considered as intimately related to two other schemes: the eight “spheres of conquest” (abhibhvāyatanas) and the ten “spheres of entirety/pervasiveness” (kṛtsnāyatana) (§5.2).
The Eight Spheres of Conquest (abhibhv-āyatana)
  • Internally possessing matter-ideation, one sees matters externally, limited, beautiful or ugly. Conquering/mastering those matters he knows them, conquering/mastering them he sees them—and he comes to ideate thus. (adhyātmaṃ rūpasaṃjñī, bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyati parittāni suvarṇadurvāṇāni|tāni khalu rūpāṇy abhibhūya jānāti abhibhūya paśyati; evaṃsaṃjñī ca bhavati|).
  • Internally possessing matter-ideation, one sees matters externally, unlimited, beautiful or ugly. Conquering/mastering those matters he knows them, conquering/mastering them he sees them—and he comes to ideate thus (adhyātmaṃ rūpasaṃjñī, bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyaty adhimātrāṇi suvarṇadurvāṇāni|tāni khalu rūpāṇy abhibhūya jānāti abhibhūya paśyati; evaṃsaṃjñī ca bhavati|).
  • Internally without matter-ideation, one sees matters externally, limited, beautiful or ugly. Conquering/mastering those matters he knows them, conquering/mastering them he sees them—and he comes to ideate thus (adhyātmaṃ arūpasaṃjñī, bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyaty parittāni suvarṇadurvāṇāni|tāni khalu rūpāṇy abhibhūya jānāti abhibhūya paśyati; evaṃsaṃjñī ca bhavati|).
  • Internally without matter-ideation, one sees matters externally, unlimited, beautiful or ugly. Conquering/mastering those matters he knows them, conquering/mastering them he sees them—and he comes to ideate thus. (adhyātmaṃ arūpasaṃjñī, bahirdhā rūpāṇi paśyaty adhimātrāṇi suvarṇadurvāṇāni|tāni khalu rūpāṇy abhibhūya jānāti abhibhūya paśyati; evaṃsaṃjñī ca bhavati|).
  • Internally without matter-ideation, one sees matters externally—blue (nīla), of blue colour (nīla-varṇa), … like the umaka-puṣpa (flax flower). …
  • Internally without matter-ideation, one sees matters externally—yellow (pīta), of yellow colour (pīta-varṇa), … like the karṇikāra-puṣpa (pterospermum acerifolium). …
  • Internally without matter-ideation, one sees matters externally—red (lohita), of red colour (lohita-varṇa), … like the karṇikāra-puṣpa (pterospermum acerifolium). …
  • Internally without matter-ideation, one sees matters externally—white (avadāta), of white colour (avadāta-varṇa), … just like the planet Venus (osadhi-tārakā). … 76
Of these eight: the first two correspond to the first vimokṣa; the next two, to the 2nd vimokṣa; the other four, to the third, śubha-vimokṣa. The difference between the vimokṣa-scheme and the abhibhvāyatana-scheme is that: through the former, the practitioner only becomes capable of “turning his back” on the cognitive object (he achieves vaimukhya = vimokṣa). But through the latter, he furthermore achieves mastery or conquest of the cognitive object (ālambanābhibhavana): He can cognize them in any manner as he affirmatively resolves—i.e., through an affirmative resolve of the object as blue or green, etc., (nīlapītādy-adhimokṣāt), 77 he can accordingly cognize blue in one moment or yellow in another moment, etc.—and no arising of defilement results in cognizing them.78
The Ten Spheres of Pervasiveness (kṛtsna-āyatana)
  • The earth element as being all-pervasive.
  • The water element as being all-pervasive.
  • The fire element as being all-pervasive.
  • The wind element as being all-pervasive.
  • The colour blue as being all-pervasive.
  • The colour yellow as being all-pervasive.
  • The colour red as being all-pervasive.
  • The colour white as being all-pervasive.
  • The sphere of infinity of space (ākāśa-ānantya-āyatana).
  • The sphere of infinity of consciousness (vijñāna-ānantya-āyatana).
In brief: The ten kṛstna-āyatanas (Pāli: kasiṇa–āyatana) consist of ten basal elements: earth, water, fire, air, blue, yellow, red, white, space and consciousness. As shown in the table above, the first eight are of the same nature as the śubha-vimokṣa, and likewise to be developed in the fourth dhyāna. MVŚ explains that “pervasion” refers to two aspects:
They are called ‘pervasion-spheres’ (/‘spheres of pervasiveness’) because of the total pervasion of their cognitive objects (廣普 *kṛtsna-spharaṇālambana)79, and their affirmative resolve (adhimukti/adhimokṣa) is boundless (nirananta).80
Elsewhere, MVŚ offers a similar definition, but with some elaboration:
For two reasons they are called ‘pervasion-spheres’: (1) because of being non-intervened, (2) because of being pervasive (廣大, *spharaṇa). Being ‘non-intervened’ refers to the fact that the adhimukti-manaskāras on the exclusively blue, etc., are not intermixed (相間雜 *vyavakīrṇa). Being ‘pervasive’ refers to the fact that the object-sign (境相; *viṣaya-nimitta) of the adhimukti-manaskāras on the exclusively blue, etc., are boundless.81

6.1. The Correlation of the Three Meditative Schemes in the Context of the aśubha-to-śubha Transition

I tabulate below the correlation of these three meditative schemes with the two spheres (rūpa-dhātu and ārūpya-dhātu), the meditative attainments (samāpatti), in respect of the aśubha-to-śubha transition (Figure 1):
As is clear from the Figure above, besides the eight-vimokṣa scheme, in the eight-abhibhvāyatana and the ten-kṛtsnāyatana schemes too, the aśubha–śubha division is unmistakable. Of the eight abhibhvāyatanas, the first four are like the aśubha meditation,82 and the remaining four are like the śubha meditation.83 Of the ten kṛtsnāyatanas, all the first eight are śubha meditations, and like the śubha-vimokṣa belong to the fourth dhyāna. The last two are equipoised pure ārūpyas.84 It should be noted that these aśubha and śubha states, distinctively highlighted in the three meditative schemes, are meditative experiences pertaining to the higher spheres: the fine-materiality-sphere (rūpa-dhātu) and non-materiality-sphere (ārūpya-dhātu). This means that the meditator must first experientially transcend the lower and inferior sphere of sensuality (kāma-dhātu)—he must be “detached” from sensual greed (vīta-rāga) rooted in the very existence of all unenlightened worldlings. This explains why the aśubhā is so fundamentally important as a first step.
The nine meditative attainments (samāpatti) are called “sequential meditative attainments” (anupūrva-samāpatti), because the meditator can progress upwards only sequentially. That is, he must first be detached from sensuality to enter the first dhyāna, then the second, then the third, then the fourth––in each transition he must become freed from the greed for the lower state and inspired by and drawn towards the superior state. It is in the fourth dhyāna that he can attain the śubha experiential state. I have marked out the meditative states pertaining to the non-materiality-sphere with an asterisked śubha (*śubha) by way of indicating that: although in the narrower sense, it is the fourth dhyāna that is specified as the “pure liberation” (śubha vimokṣa), all the non-materiality are also “śubha” in the broader sense since they are freed from unwholesomeness (they cannot be akuśala), and peaceful and blissful in nature (see §4, §5).

6.2. Progressive Development from the Vimokṣas to the Abhibhvāyatanas and the Kṛtsnāyatanas and the aśubha-to-śubha Transition

In the early discourses, these three meditative schemes are proclaimed by the Buddha as three distinct doctrinal categories of praxis. For instance, in the Mahāsakuludāyi-sutta, at the end of each of the three descriptions, the Buddha says:
Therein, many are my disciples who abide having attained consummation and perfection of direct knowledge85
This clearly means that, according to the Buddha: each of the three meditative schemes is in itself sufficient as a praxis leading right up to arahant-hood.
The Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma tradition also distinguishes the three schemes. For instance, in the canonical Abhidharma text, Saṅgītipariyāya, the three categories are separately discussed, in each in great details.86
However, the three came to be taught as interrelated meditative achievements, and spoken of as being one leading on to another. Thus, MVŚ:
The vimokṣas effectuate vaimukhya. The abhibhvāyatanas effectuate conquest/mastery (abhibhava) over the object-domains. The kṛtsnāyatanas effectuate pervasiveness in respect of cognitive objects.
Furthermore, one who acquires the vimokṣas has not necessarily acquired the abhibhvāyatanas and the kṛtsnāyatanas. One who acquires the abhibhvāyatanas has not necessarily acquired the vimokṣas, has not necessarily acquired the kṛtsnāyatanas. [On the other hand,] if one acquires the kṛtsnāyatanas, one has necessarily acquired the vimokṣas and the abhibhvāyatanas. This is because: from the vimokṣas one enters into the abhibhvāyatanas; from the abhibhvāyatanas one enters into the kṛtsnāyatanas.87
MVŚ explains how, on the basis of the śubha-vimokṣa, the meditator can progressively enter into the other two. The explanation at the same time shows the interrelatedness of the three schemes of praxis:
[The meditator gives rise to] the śubha-vimokṣa in the fourth dhyāna, whence he can enter into the last four abhibhvāyatanas. [From] these last four abhibhvāyatanas he can further enter into the first eight kṛtsnāyatanas. … The first four kṛtsnāyatanas do not only conceptualize blue, yellow, red and white; they can also effectuate the mode of activity of infiniteness (無邊行相; *ananta-ākāra, *kṛtsna-ākāra). That is: he visualizes blue, etc., in each case, being infinite. Then reflecting on the support-basis of blue, etc., he realizes that they are supported upon the Great Elements (mahābhūta-āśrita). He thus further visualizes earth etc., in each case, being infinite. Further reflecting on how this rūpa being cognized comes to be pervasive, he realizes that it is on account of space (ākāśa), and next gives rise to the ākāśānantyāyatana. Further reflecting on the support-basis of this awareness, he realizes that it is supported upon the pervasive consciousness, and thus gives rise to the vijñānānantyāyatana. Since this supporting consciousness is not supported by anything else, the higher [ārūpya stages] are not designated as kṛtsnāyatanas.88
Succinctly put: what emerges distinctively from all the explanations of the three schemes is the tradition of meditative praxis involving a progression from the aśubhā meditation to the śubha meditation, both being centred around firstly the contemplation of the impurity of visible forms and then going on to the attainment of the contemplation of purity. The necessary contribution of the śubha meditation to the progression onto the higher meditative attainments is also underscored by MVŚ, which explains why the śubha meditation must have the fourth—not the third—dhyāna as its support basis:
The first three dhyānas are accompanied by vitarka, vicāra, prīti and sukha, and are disturbed by breathing, etc.; hence there is no śubha meditation therein. The latter four abhibhvāyatanas and the first eight kṛtsnāyatanas, which cognize pure and sublime objects [and yet] can suppress defilements––such an extremely difficult task can only be accomplished with the undisturbed stage (i.e., fourth dhyāna) as the support-basis.89
AKB likewise describes the successive achievement from the vimokṣas to the abhibhvāyatanas to the kṛtsnāyatanas; “because that which arises subsequently excels that which precedes.”90 The Yogācāra tradition too describes similarily.91
The description below in MPPU, which continues immediately from the passage quoted in more details in §7.1, also explains how the śubha-vimokṣa so achieved being further developed into the corresponding abhibhv-āyatana and kṛtsnāyatana:
Since he has not destroyed the outflows (āsrava), thoughts of defilement might in the interim arise, following which he can become attached to the śubha rūpas. He therefore further applies effort vigorously to eliminate this attachment. [He comes to realize that] such a śubha vision is generated from a mental ideation—just as a magician watching his own magical creation, he is aware that the vision is generated from his own mind. He does not give rise to attachment, becoming free from the sway of the cognitive objects. Thereupon, the vaimukhya (/vimokṣa) is transformed into what is called an “abhibhvāyatana”.
But although he has thus conquered (abhi-bhū) over the śubha vision, he is still unable to expand (√sphar) it. The practitioner then returns to grasp the śubha-nimitta, by means of the power of vimokṣa (/vaimukhya) and abhibhvāyatana. He grasps the sign of the pure Earth (śubha-pṛthivī), and gradually expands it in the empty space of the ten directions; likewise, water, fire and wind. He grasps the sign of Blue, gradually expanding, also extensively throughout the empty space in the ten directions; likewise, yellow, red and white. At that time, the abhibhvāyatana is further transformed into a “kṛtsnāyatana”.92

7. The Significance of the aśubha-to-śubha Transition in Terms of the Meditative Doctrines

Thus, in both the vimokṣa-scheme and the abhibhvāyatana-scheme, meditative progress proceeds sequentially from the contemplation of the impure (aśubha) to that of the pure and pleasant (śubha). The praxis of the kṛtsnāyatana-scheme begins in the fourth dhyāna, and the first eight practices are śubha meditations, and the last two are also subsumable as “śubha” in the broader sense. Among other things, this is because, as argued above (§§ 2, 4, 6.1), in one’s progressive experiences of the higher and sublime meditative stages––starting from sensual pleasure in the kāma-dhātu (see above, especially the Pañcakaṅga-sutta) to the subtle pleasure in the nirodha-samāpatti—one must first detach from sensual desires. This is achievable through the aśubhā which is in fact practiced only by one in the kāma-dhātu, not one in the rūpa- or ārūpya-dhātu.93 The intrinsic nature of the aśubhā is non-greed (alobha), and it has the mode of activity (ākāra) of impurity. Saṃghabhadra explains that, “being of a skilful (kuśala) nature, its intrinsic nature is pure. It is said to be [a contemplation on the] impure because of its mode of activity.”94
Having been detached from the kāma-dhātu, one must then ascend successively to the higher and more sublime happiness in a positive mind-frame; and the śubha meditation serves as a most effective means for this. Abhidharma explains that in meditative progression, defilements are to be further distanced from (dūrī-√kṛ) and meditative mastery is to be advanced in the ārūpya-dhātu, through the cultivation of the vimokṣas.95
From the second dhyāna onwards, the meditator (and one born into these realms) is freed from greed for visible forms (varṇa-vītarāga), there being no visual consciousness;96 there is therefore no use for the aśubhā. But the practitioner must be uplifted from the sunken mental mode for his mind to experience the higher and subtler happiness of the higher meditative stages. The śubha meditation (3rd vimokṣa) serves this purpose. It is in fact explained that, on account of this absence of greed for visible forms and of being agitated by the cream of happiness (sukhamaṇḍeñjita) that there is no vimokṣa in the third dhyāna.97 Going further up in the ārūpya-dhātu, there also cannot be the aśubhā which necessarily takes rūpa-dharmas as cognitive objects.98 The ārūpya vimokṣas (4th to 7th vimokṣas) have the śubha ārūpyas as their intrinsic nature. Here “śubha” (‘good’) signifying the equipoised skilful (kuśalāḥ samāhitāḥ) ārūpyas.99 (See also §6.1 above) Thus, from this perspective, the śubha vimokṣa serves as the necessary transitional stage to render the mind fit for experiencing the higher meditative bliss, wherein the good/pure and the beautiful converge.
This is not to say that the śubha meditation is taught as a sine qua non for higher meditative attainment. There are indeed practices such as ānāpānasmṛti, etc., which can also conduce to the achievement of sensual detachment. In fact, MVŚ asserts that not all practitioners are fit or capable for the aśubhā.100 But it is a very effective cultivation, because it completes and ensures the achievement of detachment from sensual greed, and renders the mind fit for and in tune with the higher meditative experience. But irrespective of whether one cultivates the śubha meditation or not, the suttas teach that, for emancipation, the prospective practitioner necessarily goes through a progressive sequence—as a matter of natural principle—of more and more sublime joy, peacefulness and mental integration. The Cetanākaraṇīya-sutta, for instance teaches the following sequence:
ethical alignment (sīla) → non-regret (avippaṭisāra) → joyousness (pāmojja) → rapture → tranquillity (passaddhi) → happiness (sukha) → equipoise/integration (samādhi) → knowledge of things truly as they are (yathābhūta-ñāṇa) → disenchantment (nibbidā) → knowledge-vision of emancipation (vimutti-ñāṇadassa)
The sutta states that, in each case, no volition need be exerted (na cetanāya karaṇīyaṃ) for the achievement of the succeeding factor (e.g., rapture) so long as the preceding factor (e.g., joyousness) has been fulfilled.101 (See also §4 above)

7.1. Contribution of the 3rd Dhyāna in the aśubha-to-śubha Transition

As seen above, the 3rd dhyāna is not apt for supporting the generation of the śubha-bhāvanā. MVŚ explains this ineptitude in various ways. The following passage illustrates this:
The third vimokṣa occurs in the fourth dhyāna. Although there are also semblances of the kuśala-mūla in the lower stages (bhūmi), the third vimokṣa is not established [therein]. This is because, the establishing of the śubha-vimokṣa is intended for turning the back (vaimukhya) on the thought of the aśubhā. In the lower stages, [the śubha-vimokṣa] is not established because therein [the thought] is overpowered by the power of the aśubhā, and there is thus no extensiveness and clarity. Although the aśubha-vimokṣa is absent in the third dhyāna, there is perturbation (迷亂; *vibhrama) by excellent happiness (sukha), thus no [mental] extensiveness and clarity; hence [the śubha-vimokṣa] is not established therein.102
In a similar manner, AKB underscores this inaptitude of the third dhyāna as owing to being agitated by the quintessence of happiness (sukhamaṇḍeñjita).103 Elsewhere, MVŚ explains the ineptitude of the first three dhyānas as due to the presence of vitarka, vicāra, prīti, sukha and breathing; the sukha in the third dhyāna being the most excellent in saṃsaric existence.104 We saw above also similar explanation by Saṃghabhadra (§4.2), who asserts further that: “in this dhyāna, it is the nature of things that by virtue of this [third] stage, neither a meditation effectuating delight nor disgust can be accomplished.” Thus, Saṃghabhadra too, throughout his detailed description of the whole process of attaining the vimokṣas, simply denies any contribution from the third dhyāna.
However, it would still seem unreasonable to assume that, of all the nine successive samāpattis, the third dhyāna alone makes no contribution at all to this continuous meditative progression.
In this connection, it is interesting to observe the description in MPPU on the developmental process of the śubha-vimokṣa:
Furthermore, the meditator first contemplates that the body is impure. … He then generates disgust (nirveda), and his craving, hatred and delusion become thinned. Thereupon he is awakened in shock: “I have been without eyes –– this body being [impure] like this, how could I have come to be attached?” He concentrates his thought on the truth, so as not to err any more. His thought having been tamed and pliable, he visualizes the impurities of the skin, flesh, blood and marrows being removed, with only the white bones remaining. He fixes his thought on the skeleton; if it wanders outward, he concentrates on it to fetch it back. As a result of concentrating his thought profoundly, he sees light issuing from the white bones, like conches and shells which illuminate things within and without. This constitutes the initial gateway of the śubha-vimokṣa (淨背捨).
Following this, he visualizes the skeleton being dissipated, and sees only the light of the bones. He grasps the sign (相; nimitta) of pure external rūpas. Furthermore, he grasps these signs and focusses his thought for the meditation on purity (繫心淨觀): diamond, pearl, jewels like gold, silver, … Accordingly as each of these rūpas, [he sees] in the corresponding case, its illumination of purity. At that time, the meditator acquires the experience of joy (prīti) and happiness (sukha) pervading the whole body. This constitutes the śubha-vimokṣa. Because it takes the śubha as cognitive object (ālambana), it is called the “śubha-vimokṣa”. Because of the experience of happiness pervading his body, he is said to have realized it by the body” (kāyena sākṣāt-√k). Having acquired this mental happiness (心樂), he turns his back on the fivefold sensuality, and there is no more joy or happiness therein; hence it is said to be vaimukhya/vimokṣa.105
According to the above passage (especially the underlined parts), the śubha-bhāvanā is progressively achieved, beginning with the aśubhā. It is when the meditator comes to be awakened—through the aśubhā—into the folly and worthlessness of clinging to the impure body that he proceeds further to visualize removing the impurities of the skin, etc., until white bones are left, whereupon he sees white light issuing from the white bones. Up to this point, he has gained entry into the śubha-vimokṣa (its “initial gateway”). But this is not the attainment of the śubha-vimokṣa yet.
Next, he continues to visualize the skeleton dissipating and grasps the sign of an external pure object, and with intense concentration he sees its illumination of purity, and experiences joy (prīti) and happiness (sukha). This is likely to be an allusion to the contribution in the aśubhā process in the 2nd dhyāna. We saw above Saṃghabhadra’s explanation (§4.2) that prīti can arise even in the aśubhā when vimokṣa from the visibles is achieved. He must now grasp the nimitta of a pure rūpa and fix his thought on the śubha visualization until he sees its pure radiance. This is the attainment of the śubha-vimokṣa. But this it would seem, is not its culmination, and he now experiences the mental happiness (citta-sukha) pervading his body. This can only be the third dhyāna.
It is noteworthy that MPPU agrees with the general tradition that “there is great prīti in the second dhyāna, and great sukha in the third dhyāna;”106 and describes that “this sukha of the third dhyāna pervades the whole body”.107 Just as in Abhidharma, MPPU also asserts that “because of there being little (spiritual) qualities but abundant happiness, no vimokṣa, abhibhvāyatana or kṛtsnāyatana occur in the third dhyāna.”108
Returning to the above passage: The meditator is now able to “turn his back on the fivefold sensuality; and there is no more joy and happiness therein.” This is the culmination of the śubha-vimokṣa, wherein the meditator now transcends both joy and happiness. He is now in the fourth dhyāna—where according to MPPU, in agreement with the Abhidharma tradition—only aduḥkhāsukhā vedanā, upekṣāpariśuddhi smṛtipariśuddhi (besides samādhi) are said to occur (no prīti or sukha).109
Accordingly, the above MPPU passage seems to account for the successive contribution, from initial entry to culmination of the śubha-vimokṣa. And among other things, the role and contribution of the third dhyāna therein are articulated: From 2nd dhyāna (prīti, sukha) → 3rd dhyāna (sukha) → 4th dhyāna (altogether transcending prīti and sukha, and all attachment to rūpas: “不復喜樂”)—perfection of the śubha-vimokṣa.
In his Great Śamatha-vipaśyanā (摩訶止觀), Zhiyi (智顗; 538–597 CE), the founding master of the Chinese Tiantai school, certainly understands the above passage as stating that the śubha-vimokṣa is developed in both the third and fourth dhyānas—the former is its initial stage; the latter, its full accomplishment:
Here, [MPPU] regards the two dhyānas as both pertaining to the śubha-vimokṣa. Since it states that there is happiness pervading the body in the third dhyāna, this is proof that [the third dhyāna] is the initial stage [of the śubha-vimokṣa]. Its full accomplishment occurs in the fourth dhyāna, which is capable of accomplishing the abhibhvāyatana. Accordingly, it is understood that the stage of śubha-vimokṣa is in the third dhyāna. The word “śubha” is glossed in the Commentary (MPPU) thus: “It is said to be ‘śubha[-vimokṣa]’ because it takes śubha cognitive objects.”110 The eight visibles are already pure (śubha) dharmas [in themselves]; but they have not been polished by the pure cognitive objects. The culmination of a pure visible occurs in the fourth dhyāna. When this visible arises, it polishes the eight visibles, rendering them more resplendently pure. Hence it says, “It is said to be ‘śubha[-vimokṣa]’ because it takes śubha cognitive objects.” “Experiences [happiness] pervading his body”: the culmination of happiness occurs in the third dhyāna—thus, the two dhyānas (third and fourth) are together taken as the śubha-vimokṣa.111

7.2. Summary on the aśubha-to-śubha Discussion So Far

(1) From the period of Early Buddhism, the four dhyānas (and not the ārūpya samāpattis) occupy the central position in the cultivation of meditative insight, and the fourth dhyāna is the supporting basis for the development of not only the important spiritual qualities like non-conflict (araṇā) and the supernormal powers (ṛddhi) of the noble ones, but most importantly, liberative insight itself.112
(2) The Abhidharma tradition inherited this, though at the same time apparently influenced by the development of the scheme of the nine anupūrva-samāpattis which had already come to be integrated into the meditation doctrines since the Sūtra-piṭaka period.
(3) The transition from the aśubha to the śubha meditation is a decisively significant step of meditative progress in several ways: (i) It positively strengthens the meditator’s mind so that it becomes fit for experiencing progressively blissful and peaceful meditative stages. (ii) That the śubha-vimokṣa is said to occur only in the fourth dhyāna, is itself probably indicative of the central emphasis of the dhyānas—not the higher ārūpya stages—in Early Buddhism.
(4) Already in the Sutta-piṭaka, we see the four ārūpya stages, plus the nirodha-samāpatti, being systematized with the four rūpa dhyāna and integrated into a scheme of nine successive meditative attainment. The Ābhidharmikas (and also the Yogācāras), duly recognizing this fact, had to provide the rationale for, as well as correlate, the three distinctive meditative schemes—eight vimokṣas, eight abhibhvāyatanas and ten kṛtsnāyatanas. Their attempt at this is not adequately satisfactory, and at times only goes to betray the fourth dhyāna—along with the śubha contemplation––as the culminative and decisive transformational meditative stage serving as the proper basis for achieving final liberative insight.

8. From the aśubhā to śubha-bhāvanā, to Mahāyānistic Buddha-Visualization

8.1. Some Clues to the Development from the Early Discourses

In an article discussing the aśubha-bhāvanā in the Śrāvaka-bhūmi, Abe Takako concludes that the light-ideation (ālokasaṃjñā) in the process of aśubha-bhāvanā is a teaching unique to the śrāvaka-bhūmi, and this has extremely important implication for the development of the doctrines on meditative praxis in the Vijñaptimātratā texts.113 In this connection, he points out that, of the various aspects of the contemplation on the body in the Pāli Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta, there is no item on the purity of the body, which however is found in the corresponding version of the Chinese Madhyamāgama (T01, No. 26). The aśubha-bhāvanā in the second Yogasthāna of the śrāvaka-bhūmi accords with this Madhyamāgama version.114 But, Takako’s observation notwithstanding, it should be noted that in another related discourse, the Kāyagatāsati-sutta, this item does indeed occur, immediately following the nine charnel ground contemplation and the first three jhānas––i.e., significantly, in the description of the fourth jhāna:
Furthermore, … after abandoning pleasure and pain, … a bhikkhu abides in full attainment of the fourth jhāna. He sat down, pervading this very body with a fully purified and bright mind (kāyaṃ parisuddhena cetasā pariyodātena pharitvā nisinno). There is no part of his whole body that is not pervaded with the fully purified and bright mind. … In this way too, … a bhikkhu develops mindfulness of the body.115
The sequence in this connection is noteworthy: it follows immediately after the nine-charnel-ground contemplation of impurity, and develops in the fourth jhāna. This sequence is significantly in line with the eight-vimokṣa praxis in which the śubha-vimokṣa is developed in the fourth dhyāna after the impurity contemplation of the preceding dhyānas.
The same item is also discernible in the corresponding Madhyamāgama version (T26, No. 81), in a similar, though not exactly the same sequence: … ānāpānasmṛti, the first three dhyānas, and the contemplation on the mentally purified body. In the case of this sūtra, the impurity contemplation on the 32 loathsome bodily parts comes almost immediately after this item. The description here also more explicitly relates the contemplation to adhimokṣa/adhimukti:
The bhikṣu, with regard to this body, abides in full attainment, entirely pervading it through resolute affirmation (意解; adhi-√muc) of a purified mind. …116
Equally significantly, exactly as in the Madhyamāgama Smṛtyupasthāna-sūtra (No. 98), –––and in virtually identical wording—this is immediately followed by the item of āloka-saṃjñā:
A bhikṣu develops mindfulness of the body. The bhikṣu attends to the āloka-saṃjñā, well grasped (善受善持; sugṛhīta) and well kept in mind (善意所念; *sumanaskṛta, *susmṛtita)—as in front, so behind; as behind, so in front; as by day, so at night; as at night, so by day; as below, so above; as above, so below. In this way, not being topsy-turvy, not mentally entangled, he develops the thought of āloka, and his thought is never concealed by darkness. …117
The association of the contemplation of purity with that of impurity—whether one preceding or succeeding the other—and the practice of the āloka-saṃjñā following the purity contemplation in the fourth dhyāna, may well have contributed to visualization, and the resulting vision, of radiance of light at the last stage of the impurity contemplation in the form of the nine charnel ground, as seen in MPPU and the dhyāna sūtras. This extent of development is made possible with the doctrine of adhimukti/adhimokṣa as applied to meditative visualization. For through adhimukti, the aśubha and then śubha visualization become comprehensible. Equally, the doctrine of the progression too, from the vimokṣas to the abhibhvāyatanas, and further, to the kṛtsnāyatanas, can well account for achievement of the vision of the pervasiveness of the pure cognitive object—including white light-radiance.
In fact, the possibility of this kind of buddha-visualization may be said to be anticipated from some early discourses such as the Gayāsīsa-sutta and the corresponding Tianji (天經)118 in the Madhyamāgama.119 In the Gayāsīsa-sutta, the meditator first visualizes light through adhimutti (the actual word used therein is sañjāneyyaṃ: ‘if I would perceive/ideate light’). When this is accomplished, he is able to see the pure forms of the devatās in the light envisioned:
… Later on, O bhikkhus, dwelling heedful, zealous, intent, I indeed perceive light as well as the [divine] rūpas. And I stay together with those devatās, converse with them and engage in discussion with them …120
Yinshun remarks that this type of adhimukti-based meditative vision—of pure rūpas and divine beings, with whom the meditator can engage in conversation—in fact would have contributed to the proto-Mahāyāna and Mahāyāna teaching of meeting buddhas in meditation in such scriptures as the *Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi-sūtra:
Such kind of meditative vision (定境) reminds us of manifestation of Amitābha-buddha in the 《般舟三昧經》 (*Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi-sūtra) before the meditator, with whom he can engage in discussion (he does not only see physical forms, but also hear sound). Asaṅga practises the Maitreya-dharma, ascending to Tuṣita, meeting with Maitreya Bodhisattva and receiving the Yogācārabhūmi from him; in the Trantric School, when one accomplishes the practices, the deity (本尊) manifests before one and gives instructions—the principle involved is the same [in these cases]. The only difference is with regard to the practitioner’s object of faith. …121

8.2. Development: From aśubhā to Vision of Light-Radiance, to buddha-Visualization

But for the gradual development of this meditative doctrine of buddha-vision resulting from the śubha-to-aśubha transition, in the meditation manuals (dhyāna sūtras) discussed above, we probably have to wait till the milieu of 4th or 5th century CE, when buddha-visualization was gaining ground as an important meditative praxis, and the development was promoted by the interfusion of traditional meditative praxis with Mahāyānistic elements, including those of Tantric Mahāyāna.
Apart from the above-mentioned early discourses, which provide us with some general clues to this development; in the later period, there is only the “Yogalehrbuch” which offers us some further clues in this direction. This text has been carefully analyzed in this connection by Yamabe (1999b).122 Other than these, there is no extant Indic text that can directly help us understand the textual tradition on the basis of which the continuous process of development can be mapped.
It is true that, as we have mentioned, the doctrine is clearly seen in the MPPU. But scholars have raised doubt as to the extent to which it is properly a translation of an original Indic text.123 Moreover, at least half of the extant dhyāna sūtras124 are notably translation by the same Kumārajīva, the purported translator of MPPU, with the assistance of his Chinese colleagues and disciples. Buddhabhadra is said to have translated two.125 Both Kumārajīva and Buddhabhadra were meditation masters and had several learned Chinese disciples practising meditation and learning under them. MPPU, intended as a commentary on the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra, is probably a translation from an Indic text, with insertions and elaborations made by Kumārajīva and his Chinese disciples and assistants. Sengrui’s (僧叡) preface in Chu Sanzang Ji to Kumārajīva’s translation of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra (《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》), we learn of the process of his translation of the sūtra and MPPU: He read out the Sanskrit text, and some 500 scholarly Chinese monks participated in the deliberation of the Chinese rendering, finally written down by Sengrui. The translation of MPPU, was then commenced. But as this was proceeding, the sūtra translation was continually checked against it, and necessary adjustments were made on the latter; it was finalized only when the MPPU translation was concluded (是以隨出其論, 隨而正之。釋論既訖, 爾乃文定).126 However, notwithstanding that the Chinese accounts appear to suggest the credibility of the Indic original of MPPU, some of its contents could well have been contributed by Kumārajīva himself, or his assistants, on the basis of oral teachings learned or of their own convictions derived from their own meditative praxis. Influences from other contemporary textual traditions must have also been a contributing factor.127
At any rate, the Chinese accounts show unmistakably that Kumārajīva, Buddhabhadra, etc. are all associated with regions in Central Asia (Jibin, Yutian, “Western Region” 西域); so are at least some of their Chinese disciples and colleagues. This was the region, wherein, in that milieu, Mahāyāna teachings and meditative praxis, including buddha-visualization, were flourishing. It was in this same milieu that Tantric elements within the Mahāyāna were seen to be gaining ground. As Yinshun points out: there existed considerable common tacit acceptance at the time, by both the Śrāvakayāna and Mahāyāna meditative traditions, that visualization practices serve as a means for attaining samādhi. As a result, we can discern some interfusion of Śrāvakayāna, Mahāyāna, and even Buddhist Tantric elements in these meditation manuals (the “dhyāna sūtras”). Referring to Buddhabhadra’s translation of *Dharmatrāta Dhyāna Sūtra, Yinshun opines that the meditative doctrines transmitted therein represent the Śrāvakayāna Yoga of the Sarvāstivādin yogācāras:
During this period, when Mahāyāna was flourishing and Trantric Mahāyāna (秘密大乘) were also gradually in the making, all the Sarvāstivādins in Jibin, excepting the strictly conservative Ābhidharmikas, were exhibiting considerable amount of tacit mutual agreement (for instance, in replacing dhātu-bheda with buddhānusmṛti)—all the more so since Mahāyāna and Tantric Mahāyāna have as a matter of fact evolved within the commonly inherited Buddhist tradition.128
The Sūtra on the Samādhi-ocean of Buddha Visualization (《觀佛三昧海經》) is another important meditative manual translated by Buddhabhadra. Nobuyoshi Yamabe, through a thorough philological analysis of this manual, concludes that it “was a cross-cultural product compiled in Central Asia”129, and “an apocryphal text originally written in Chinese”.130 Like the *Dharmatrāta Dhyāna sūtra, and in fact more so, this text exemplifies the interfusion of Sarvāstivāda and Mahāyānistic meditative doctrines. As its title indicates, its central concern is the exposition of buddha-visualization. In this exposition, we firstly see the influence of the Avataṃsaka-sūtra—perhaps in part due to Buddhabhadra’s own involvement with this textual tradition, being its first translator (sixty-fascicle, Chinese version). In the “Chapter on former Acts 本行品” (chapter 8), it actually refers directly to the *Avataṃsaka-sūtra/Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra (雜華經):
The Buddha tells Ānanda: “The Tathāgata possesses the thirty-two marks of a Great Man and eighty secondary marks. … Now, to this assembly and to King Śuddhodana, I shall briefly expound on the marks and secondary marks. … When I first attained Enlightenment in Magadha, in the Nirvāṇa-bodhimaṇḍala, I have already expounded in details in the Avataṃsaka-sūtra (/Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra; 雜華經) to the great bodhisattvas, Samantabhadra, Mañjuśrī, etc. …”131
The recurring description in this text of the majestic manifestation on lotus flowers, of innumerable buddhas and bodhisattvas in the ten directions, unmistakably reminds us of the majesty of the vision of the Kusumatalagrabha-vyūhālaṅkāra (華藏莊嚴世界) in the Avataṃsaka-sūtra. The allusion to mantra recitation132 and abhiṣeka (also occurring in other dhyāna sūtras) indicate Tantric influences.133 Yet, at the same time, the fundamental Buddhist doctrines and doctrinal concerns are far from being absent. In the above-cited passage, it proceeds to state that the Dharma is there briefly expounded
for the sake of those who vilify the Vaipulya sūtras (a Mahāyāna stress), commit the five ānantaryas, transgress the fourfold serious prohibitions (i.e., the pārājikas), steal from the Saṅgha, have sex with the bhikṣuṇīs, break the eightfold poṣadha precepts, commit all evil deeds, harbor false views (all, excepting perhaps the first, are common Buddhist emphases)—so that if they can for even a single day and night mindfully focus on the Tathāgata’s lakṣaṇas and anulakṣāṇas, their hindrances of evil transgressions would be fully ceased.134
The purpose of teaching the buddhānusmṛti is further underscored as not just the cultivation of faith, but for all those desiring to practice mindfulness, contemplation, dhyāna, and attain samādhis and samāpattis.135 Similar inclusivistic—i.e., not excluding or humiliating any particular Buddhist tradition—common Buddhist concerns are also reflected in the following exhortation:
In the future times, the disciples should practice three dharmas. What are the three? (1) recite the sūtras and the profound scriptures; (2) observe with purity the precepts without any transgression; (3) mindful meditation, without the thoughts being dispersed.136
In chapter six, on visualization of the Tathāgata’s four deportments, among the innumerable buddhas emanating from the pores of the Buddha, some are said to teach the “Śrāvaka Dharma” to the śrāvakas, in the form of innumerable ideations, including ānāpānasmṛti, issuance of light from the white bones, ideation of purity (śubha-saṃjñā), ideation of the aśubhā, etc.137 The highlighting of the śubha and aśubha meditations are of especial interest for our discussion. The following is a most spectacular and interesting account in chapter nine—exhibiting influence from the *Avataṃsaka Sūtra—of the meditator’s transition from the aśubhā to the vision of purity—with the spiritual empowerment of the emanation buddhas in his visualization of walking of the buddha-statues:
One visualizing the walking of the buddha-statues sees that the spheres of the ten directions are full of statues walking in the sky and on ground. He sees each statue rising up from the seat. When each statue is rising up, there are 500 billions of jewel-flowers, each possessing infinite radiance, and in each radiance innumerable emanation buddhas appear accordingly as wished in the mind. During the interval between the seated statue’s rising up and standing, the white turf (ūrṇā) between the eye-brows curl and stretch becoming long or short, as if a real Buddha is radiating white light; … within a multitude of white light are innumerable silver statues, with bodies of white silver, … Then, both the golden and silver statues move their bodies, getting ready to rise up. In the navel of each statue are generated lotus flowers; and from these lotus flowers spring up innumerable hundreds of thousands of emanation buddhas. Each emanation buddha radiates golden light, illuminating the meditator’s body.
Thereupon, the meditator, entering into samādhi, sees the thirty-six parts of his own body exposing as impurities. When these impurities appear, he should quickly eliminate them, thinking thus: “Buddhas in the three periods of time are pure in body and mind. I shall now train in the truly pure Dharma-body of the buddhas. This envisioning of impurity is produced from greed; it is false and unreal. What is the use of this visualization!” Having reflected thus, he should himself meditate on his own body, transforming the impurities into white crystals. He sees his body like a white crystal vessel, empty both within and without. When he is doing this visualization, he should take ghee and medicines to ensure that the body does not become feeble. When this contemplation/ideation (saṃjñā; 想) is accomplished, all the statues rise up as before, standing …138
The aśubhā exposition is also met with elsewhere in the sūtra. In chapter seven,139 the Buddha is described as confronting the evil prostitutes himself, in order to tame them. At the end, these prostitutes become remorseful after hearing the censor of the buddhas emanated from the Buddha. Hearing their words of remorse, these emanation buddhas
expound to them in details the aśubhā meditation: the nine-ideation, the ten-ideation, the thirty-ideation, the ānāpānasmṛti. Hearing the aśubhā, those women come to find delight in the Dharma and the dhyānas, not in sensual desires.140
Another occurrence of the mention of aśubhā is in chapter three, the longest chapter, on the Buddha’s bodily marks. The description, in the context of the Bodhisattva conquering Māra, subduing the latter’s three daughters—personifying greed, hatred and delusion—is rather elaborate. The Buddha causes them to see all the impurities within their bodies: pus, snot, saliva, billions of worms moving within the big and small intestines, etc (description is quite “graphic”). “Seeing them, the daughters begin to vomit endlessly. They then see that in their bodies, on the left is born a snake-head; on the right, a fox-head; in the middle, a dog-head. On these heads are emanated carcasses of nine colours, as in the visualization on the nine-stage decomposition of a corpse141 (described here in great details).” “This is the Bodhisattva’s first discourse under the Bodhi-tree, on the gateway of the aśubhā.” The three daughters further have the vision that they are carrying an old mother, aged and black-skinned like a living carcass. In their chests, they are carrying a little dead child, with bus oozing from the six cavities, … Finally, they manage, with great hardship, to get back to Māra, who out of anger wants to destroy the Bodhisattva with his sword. But his son advises against it, saying that the Bodhisattva coursing in purity (行淨) cannot be destroyed. “Upon this advice, the Bodhisattva then with the radiation of white light from his turf, causes Māra’s retinue to become happy in body and mind, just as a bhikṣu entering the third dhyāna (wherein happiness is supreme)” The pretas too, witness tens of thousands of billions of great emanation bodhisattvas, who enter into the Samādhi of Excellent Maitrī-citta (勝意慈心三昧), causing the fire experienced by the pretas to be extinguished.
Being then spontaneously free from hungry, the pretas rejoice in mind and body, and generate the bodhi-citta. They now see their bodies like white crystals, like vaidūrya (琉璃) mountains, like sphaṭika mountains, like gold mountains, like aśma-garbha (瑪瑙) mountains; … Some of these pretas generate the bodhicitta. Some, having established the causal conditions of being śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas, will be reborn in the happy abodes among humans and gods.142
This elaborate account constitutes the Mahāyānistic symbolization of the transition from the aśubha to the śubha meditative experience. It can also be taken as an account of the spiritual transformation achievable through the aśubhā meditation—a doctrine already taught in the Sūtra-piṭaka, Abhidharma and the dhyāna-sūtras, etc. This then excellently exemplifies a doctrinal interfusion of Mahāyāna with Śrāvakayāna. Moreover, the specific mention of the Buddha’s transforming power through maitrī is interesting. It reminds us of the Mettāsahāgata-sutta, which already teaches that the brahma-vihāra meditation, when practiced in conjunction with the bojjhaṅgas, leads to the mastery over the perception of repulsiveness and non-repulsiveness (cf. supra, §1). The result of this transformation here is the pretras’ experience of joy, beauty and purity—the pretas’ vision of their bodies as vaidūrya, etc. While some of them are said to generate the bodhi-citta—undoubtedly a Mahāyānistic stress—others are said, without any suggestion of derogation, to have established the causal conditions as śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas.
There is a much simpler and much less colourful, but chronologically earlier, Chinese translation of Mahāyāna sūtra, in which we find the description of the Buddha vision following the white-bone culminative stage of the aśubhā practice. This is the longer version of the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra (《大般涅槃經》) translated by Dharmakṣema. In its 7th chapter entitled “The Noble Practice” (聖行品), there is a description of the aśubha-bhāvanā. The tone is decidedly Mahāyānistic. The bodhisattva mahāsattva begins by contemplating that the body contains nothing but impurities—hairs, nails, teeth, … (a long list of bodily parts). He inquires: “Who has this Self?”, “To whom does the Self belong?” “Where does it abide”, “Who belongs to the Self?”. “Then, he removes the skin and flesh, contemplating only on the white bones.” When he accomplishes this contemplation, he eradicates greed for appearance, postures and fine tangibles. Next, he contemplates the bones as being green, yellow, red, etc., seeing in each the green sign everywhere.
Contemplating in this way, there issues from between the Bodhisattva’s eyebrows, in each corresponding case, radiation of green, yellow, etc. In each radiation of light, he sees Buddha images. Whereupon he asks: “Such a body being formed from an assembly of impure causal conditions—how is it capable of sitting, arising, walking, …? There is no controlling agent therein; who brings about these [actions]?” Having asked thus, the Buddhas in the radiance suddenly disappear. He further thinks: “Perhaps consciousness is the Self, due to which the Buddhas do not explain to me.”
In a similar manner, he comes to reflect: “Perhaps the in- and out-breathing is the Self;” “Perhaps the four mahābhūtas are the Self.” Eventually he realizes that there is no Self in all that pertains to the body. “Thus, this body is formed by an assembly of causal conditions whence arises this sensual greed? … whence arises this hatred? …” He realizes that there being the body, he is susceptible of being attacked. If he cannot endure, he will lose proper mindfulness (samyak-smṛti), as a result of which he will commit evil. “Contemplating thus, the bodhisattva, having acquired the fourfold smṛtyupasthāna, comes to abide in the Stage of Endurance (堪忍地).”143
In the Tiantai tradition, this is said to be the first stage (bhūmi) in the Bodhisattva’s path of progress, equated with the Pramuditā Bhūmi in the standard Mahāyāna list of daśa-bhūmi. Zhiyi explains it as a unique spiritual attainment of the bodhisattva:
Just as among the śrāvakas, those who abide in the endurance dharma will never retrogress to commit the fivefold ‘mortal sin’ (pañcānantaryāṇi) and become icchantikas, a bodhisattva abiding in the Endurance Stage will never give rise to any serious transgression that obstructs the Path.”144
Zhiyi, who is much influenced by Dharmakṣema’s version of the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra, stresses the fourfold smṛtyupasthānas in connection with the eight-vimokṣa meditation, etc., and underscores that the Bodhisattva’s praxis of the smṛtyupasthānas, being grounded on great compassion, is superior and thus uniquely capable of leading to this Mahāyāna Stage of Endurance:
The eight vimokṣas constitute the contemplation (觀) of the fourfold smṛtyupasthānas. The nine successive samāpattis constitute the refining (練) of the fourfold smṛtyupasthānas. The Siṃha-vijṛmbhita(-samādhi) constituters the perfuming (熏) of the fourfold smṛtyupasthānas. The Vyutkrāntaka-samādhi constitutes the development (修) of the fourfold smṛtyupasthānas. The two yānas cultivate these … for the sake of their own salvation; … their accomplishment of the fourfold withered smṛtyupasthānas are not called the ‘Stage of Endurance’. The Bodhisattvas deeply contemplate on the smṛtyupasthānas for the sake of transforming sentient beings, … accomplishing the flourished fourfold smṛtyupasthānas. This is Mahāyāna, and is called the ‘Stage of Endurance’.”145
However, this portion of the sūtra (fascicle 12), was translated by Dharmakṣema (421–428 CE), and is supplementary to the earlier six-fascicle (六卷) version by Buddhabhadra (416–418), in which no such white-bone radiance is found. Its account of the buddha-vision in the radiance from the bones may well be a later insertion on the part of Dharmakṣena or his Chinese associates. Moreover, its authenticity has been doubted by scholars. And, like in the case of at least some of the dhyāna sūtras discussed above, its composition has been argued to be at best of Central Asian origin. On this issue, Stephen Hodge’s observation below seems pertinent:
[I]t seems to be tacitly accepted by many critical scholars that this part of the text is, at best, of Central Asian origin—indeed, there are some who believe that no underlying Sanskrit version ever existed, the whole thing having been written in Chinese from the start. I would not go so far to assert that such is the case, for such would have required a fairly extensive conspiracy involving Daolang, Huisong and many others to conceal the deception, but circumstantial evidence tends to suggest that there is little likelihood that this material did actually originate in any Indian Buddhist community. In other words, it must be assumed that it was composed in somewhere Central Asia. But I shall go even further than this: I suspect that this material was actually manufactured by Dharmakṣema himself somewhere during his absence from Guzang, or else, at best, “commissioned” by him for his own reasons. This, in my view, considerably reduces the value of this material, despite the high esteem in which it was held amongst Chinese Buddhists in the past and apparently by some scholars in the present.146

8.3. Summary

In the milieu of the 5th century CE, we witness in Chinese translations of the dhyāna-sūtras, proto-Mahāyāna and Mahāyāna texts, an interfusion of Śrāvakayāna doctrinal and meditative concerns with the majestic Mahāyāna buddha-visualization. This was the milieu of increasing popularization of Mahāyānistic doctrines and practice of buddha-visualization, much of which being centred around the aśubhā praxis. Excellent exemplification of this interfusion are such dhyāna-sūtras as the Dharmatrāta Dhyāna Sūtra and the Sūtra on the Samādhi-ocean of Buddha-visualization. But these texts are unlikely to be of Indic origin, and probably composed in Central Asia. The same remark applies to the chronological earlier longer version of Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra, said to be “translated” by Dharmakṣema, in which this interfusion is also evident. The “Yogalehrbuch”, decidedly an Indic text, is an exception—although the extant portion is fragmentary, and it is probably of a somewhat later date.147
There is, therefore, still much to be desired in terms of understanding the developmental process culminating in the doctrines of (1) the meditative vision of radiance and purity at the final stage of the aśubhā contemplation of the white bones, and (2) the vision of encountering buddhas in such radiance—prominently featuring in the above-discussed texts. However, we may see such early discourses as the Kāyasatī-sutta and the Gayāsīsa-sutta (and their corresponding Chinese Āgama correspondences) as having possibly provided some initial inspiration, at least in a generic sense, for the development in this direction.

9. Concluding Summary

Even a brief survey of the relevant material in the Sutta-piṭaka should suffice to show that the goal of Buddhist praxis is the attainment of perfect peace, bliss and harmony. The early discourses amply illustrate how a genuine and successful practitioner naturally experiences progressively higher states of peace and bliss, conducive for the final spiritual perfection. But to begin with, he must develop an awareness or mindfulness of the fact that the type of sensual pleasure––though not to be denied, and less still escaped from—is intrinsically unsatisfactory and detrimental to the unfolding of the human potential. It must be transcended through dedicated effort of meditation (samādhi, samāpatti). This is the essential meaning and doctrinal significance of transcending sensual attachment (virāga, vairāgya). The culmination of the Buddhist spiritual struggle is nibbāna/nirvāṇa, an absolute state of perfect harmony (freedom from the existential disharmony highlighted by the Buddha as dukkha). I believe the discussion in this paper has demonstrated that: for Buddhism, in this perfect state, beauty or purity (subha/śubha) in the spiritual sense is also at once the true and the good—all three being included within the connotation of the notion of the śubha. And for this attainment, the Buddha has consistently recommended the aśubhā meditation.
In this connection, the episode of mass suicide as a result of the aśubhā practice probably originated as a justificatory nidāna in the Vinaya tradition, and subsequently also used in the Sutta/Sūtra tradition as a rationale for the Buddha’s teaching of the mindfulness of breathing. Its reverberation is undoubtedly also seen in some later contexts, such as the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma doctrine of the cetanā-dharman type of arhats and some Sarvāstivāda meditation manuals that remind us not to be overwhelmed by any suicidal thoughts possibly arising in the praxis. I have further suggested that the episode might be an indication of a tension between two divisions of Buddhist meditators, one advocating the aśubhā, the other the mindfulness of breathing.
The lengthy discussion, spanning sections four to seven, constituting a major focus of this paper, reinforces the preceding observation that both the early discourses and Abhidharma texts, while differing in certain aspects of interpretation, essentially agree that the meditator, through progressively higher levels of transcendence, arrives at the culminative experience of the pure/good (= the beautiful = the true). This is here particularly demonstrated in the various doctrinal explanations of the progression within the eight-vimokṣa scheme, and that, interrelatedly, through the schemes of the eight vimokṣas, eight abhibhvāyatanas and ten kṛtsnāyatanas. Most of the traditional explanations could yield the impression that the third dhyāna (/jhāna) serves no function in the said progression, particularly as regards the attainment of the śubha vimokṣa. However, on the basis of MPPU (c. 3rd century CE) and Zhiyi’s Great Śamatha-vipaśyanā (6th century CE), I have attempted to show that the third dhyāna does indeed make a specific contribution in this regard. In fact, according to Zhiyi’s understanding, both the third and the fourth dhyānas pertain to the śubha-vimokṣa. As regards the common Buddhist tradition that the śubha-vimokṣa and the nirodha-samāpatti, alone, are described as being “directly realized through the body”, I have offered here some lesser known explanations by the Sarvāstivāda and Yogācāra masters. Both Yaśomitra and Sthiramati explain this in terms of the excellence of these two meditative attainments in accomplishing āśraya-parivṛtti.
In section five, I highlighted the sutta/sūtra doctrine of the seven dhātus—of which the śubha-dhātu is one—as possibly an early inspiration for the meditative doctrine of the eight vimokṣas. This suggestion is unmistakably corroborated by the commentarial expositions on this doctrine in MVŚ and the Vastu-saṃgrahaṇī of YBŚ. This suggestion, if essentially valid, points to the fact that, in respect of the three meditative schemes (vimokṣa, abhibhvāyatana and kṛtsnāyatana), the eight-vimokṣa scheme was the first that came to be fully formulated in Buddhist meditative praxis, on the basis of which the other two came to be developed. This, of course, does not preclude the possibility that, in terms of praxis, at least some aspects or constituent forms of all the three schemes could have practiced more or less concurrently. Furthermore, the sūtra and commentarial sources herein can be an indication of the early Buddhist awareness of the potential causal efficacy, signified by the notion of dhātu, in innate human experience that contributes to the experience of the pure and beautiful in meditative praxis.
In the final section, I made a brief attempt to derive some understanding of the developmental process leading to the doctrine of the meditative vision of purity and beauty at the culminative stage of the aśubhā meditation, and of encountering buddhas in the issuing radiance. This development, exhibiting an interfusion of Śrāvakayāna doctrines and praxis with Mahāyānistic and Tantric teaching of buddha-visualization, is majestically illustrated in some dhyāna-sūtras, proto-Mahāyāna and Mahāyāna scriptures in the milieu of the 5th century CE. It was probably initially inspired in some way by such early discourses as the Kāyagatāsati-sutta and the Gayāsīsa-sutta (and their Chinese Āgama counterparts). We can in fact also see it as a culminating manifestation of the Buddhist meditative doctrine, essentially common to all Buddhist traditions, of the transformation of the aśubha into the śubha: of the impure and unwholesome into the pure/good, the true and the beautiful.
All Buddhist traditions of meditation—early Buddhism and Abhidharma on the one hand, and proto-Mahāyāna, Mahāyāna and Tantric Buddhism, on the other—acknowledge the same basic premises and principles. But within the context of the three meditative schemes, the former, conserving the early teachings, developed the meditative experience of the vision of pure radiance issuing from the white-bones. The latter proceeded in a different direction. Increasingly stressing buddha-visualization and following the Mahāyāna ideal, it developed the vision further into one of encountering buddhas, in the form of Śrāvakayāna-Mahāyāna interfusion as seen in the dhyāna-sūtras, etc.


This research received no external funding.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


AKBAbhidharmakośa-bhāṣyam of Vasubandhu. Ed., Pradhan, P. 2nd ed. (Patna, 1975).
AKB(C)阿毗達磨俱舍論T29, no. 1558. Xuanzang’s translation of the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya.
ANAṅguttara Nikāya.
Aśu MednDhammajoti, K.L. “The Aśubhā Meditation in the Sarvāstivāda.” Journal of the Centre for Buddhist Studies Sri Lanka VII (Dhammajoti 2009).
DergeDerge edition of the Tibetan Tripiṭaka.
DNDīgha Nikāya.
MPPU*Mahāprajñāpāramitā-upadeśa 大智度論 (T25, no. 1509).
MNMajjhima Nikāya.
MVŚ*Abhidharma-mahā-vibhāṣā 阿毗達磨大毗婆沙論 (T27, no. 1545).
Ny*Abhidharma-nyāyānusāra 阿毗達磨順正理論 (T 29, no. 1562).
SNSaṃyutta Nikāya.
TTaishō Shinshū Daizōkyō 大正新修大藏經. Ed., Takakusu, J. (1924–1932).
TibTibetan text quoted from the Derge Edition of the Tibetan Tripiṭaka
VySphuṭārthā Abhidharmakośabhāṣya-vyākhyā. Ed., Wogihara U (Tokyo, 1971).
YBŚ = YBŚ(C)Yogācāra-bhūmi-śāstra of Asaṅga (T30, no. 1579).


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In terms of moral actions, śubha and aśubha also connote kuśala and akuśala respectively. e.g., AKB, 8: śubhāśubha iti kuśalākuśalaḥ|.
Elsewhere, I have rendered this also as “loathsome”.
《舍利弗阿毘曇論》T 28, No. 1548, p. 640a24–25: 何謂淨? 諸色好、展轉相照、適意、觀無厭, 是名淨。
See Hirakawa A., et al. Index to the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. Part I, under “aśubhā”.
Vy, 247.
Vy, 526.
See Aśu Medn; §2.
MN, sutta No. 119, 89 ff: kāyagatāsati kathaṃ bahulīkatā mahapphalā hoti mahānisaṃsā?
Cf. Aśu Medn, 255 f.
tassa evaṃ appamattassa ātāpino pahitattassa viharato ye gehasitā sarasaṅkappā te pahīyanti|tesaṃ pahānā ajjhattam eva cittaṃ santiṭṭhati sannisīdati ekodī hoti samādhiyati|.
See Aśu Medn, §2.2, and n. 29.
AN, Sattaka-nipāta, 46.
AN, Sattaka-nipāta, 148; in Nava-nipāta, it is listed as one of nine.
AN, Dasaka-nipāta, 107 f.
AN, Dasaka-nipāta, Girimānanda-sutta, 108 ff.
SN, V, 129.
SN, V, 64, 102 f.
SN, V, 105.
SN, Mahāvagga, Bojjhaṅga-saṃyutta, Mettāsahagata-sutta
kathaṃ bhāvitā ca, bhikkhave, mettācetovimutti, kiṃgatikā hoti, kiṃparamā, kiṃphalā, kiṃpariyosānā?
idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu mettāsahagataṃ satisambojjhaṅgaṃ bhāveti…pe… mettāsahagataṃ upekkhāsambojjhaṅgaṃ bhāveti vivekanissitaṃ virāganissitaṃ nirodhanissitaṃ vossaggapariṇāmiṃ|
so sace ākaṅkhati “appaṭikūle paṭikūlasaññī vihareyyan”ti, paṭikūlasaññī tattha viharati|sace ākaṅkhati “paṭikūle appaṭikūlasaññī vihareyyan”ti|appaṭikūlasaññī tattha viharati|sace ākaṅkhati “appaṭikūle ca paṭikūle ca paṭikūlasaññī vihareyyan”ti, paṭikūlasaññī tattha viharati|sace ākaṅkhati “paṭikūle ca appaṭikūle ca appaṭikūlasaññī vihareyyan”ti, appaṭikūlasaññī tattha viharati|sace ākaṅkhati “appaṭikūlañ ca paṭikūlañ ca tadubhayaṃ abhinivajjetvā upekkhako vihareyyaṃ sato sampajāno”ti, upekkhako ca tattha viharati sato sampajāno|
subhaṃ vā kho pana vimokkhaṃ upasampajja viharati|subhaparamāhaṃ, bhikkhave, mettācetovimuttiṃ vadāmi, idhapaññassa bhikkhuno uttarivimuttiṃ appaṭivijjhato|
Khuddaka-nikāya, Paṭisambhidāmagga, Paññāvagga, Dasaiddhiniddesa:
kathaṃ appaṭikūle paṭikūlasaññī viharati? iṭṭhasmiṃ vatthusmiṃ asubhāya vā pharate|aniccato vā upasaṃharati|evaṃ appaṭikūle paṭikūlasaññī viharati|
kathaṃ appaṭikūle ca paṭikūle ca paṭikūlasaññī viharati? iṭṭhasmiñ ca aniṭṭhasmiñca vatthusmiṃ asubhāya vā pharate|aniccato vā upasaṃharati|evaṃ appaṭikūle ca paṭikūle ca paṭikūlasaññī viharati|
Cf. Aśu Medn, §2.2.
Aśu Medn, §§ 2.2, 6.
MVŚ, 319c8-14.
T01, No. 26, 616a17–19.
AN, II, 4.4: dve kho, gahapati, loke dakkhiṇeyyā: sekho ca asekho ca|ime kho, gahapati, dve loke dakkhiṇeyyā|ettha ca dānaṃ dātabbaṃ|.
I have briefly discussed this in Aśu Medn, 256 f. For a recent comprehensive discussion on the suicide episode, see Anālayo (2014).
《禪祕要法經》T15, No. 613, p. 244b29–c1: 不淨想成時, 慎莫棄身。當教易觀。易觀法者: 想諸節間, 白光流出; 其明熾盛, 猶如雪山。
《思惟略要法》T15, No. 617, p. 298c10–18: 諦觀此身, 無一可取。如是心則生厭惡。常念不淨三十六物, ⋯⋯ 令得成就。若極厭惡其身, 當進白骨觀; 亦可入初禪。行者志求大乘者, 命終隨意, 生諸佛前。不爾, 必至兜率天上, 得見彌勒。See also, Yinshun (1989), 《華雨集(二)》, 245a10–246a5.
SN V, Mahāvagga, Icchānaṅgala-sutta: tesaṃ aññatitthiyānaṃ paribbājakānaṃ evaṃ byākareyyātha: “ānāpānassatisamādhinā kho, āvuso, bhagavā vassāvāsaṃ bahulaṃ vihāsīti|T02, 207a14–24.
loc. cit: yañ hi taṃ, bhikkhave, sammā vadamāno vadeyya: “ariyavihāroiti pi, “brahmavihāroiti pi, “tathāgatavihāroiti pi; ānāpānassati-samādhiṃ sammā vadamāno vadeyya: “ariyavihāroiti pi, “brahmavihāroiti pi, “tathāgatavihāroiti pi|T02, 207a28–b4.
SN, Mahāvagga, Ānāpāna-saṃyutta, Ekadhamma-vagga, Ekadhamma-sutta: ekadhammo, bhikkhave, bhāvito bahulīkato mahapphalo hoti mahānisaṃso|katamo ekadhammo? ānāpānasati|.
MVŚ, 136a1–16.
Cf. MVŚ, 384b16–17, 662c8–9.
MVŚ, 134b17–c15.
Cf. Aśu Medn, 254 f.
MVŚ, 205a21–b9.
DN, iii.24, Pāṭika-sutta: evaṃvādiṃ kho maṃ, bhaggava, evam akkhāyiṃ eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā asatā tucchā musā abhūtena abbhācikkhanti: “viparīto samaṇo gotamo bhikkhavo ca|samaṇo gotamo evam āha: “yasmiṃ samaye subhaṃ vimokkhaṃ upasampajja viharati|sabbaṃ tasmiṃ samaye asubhanteva sañjānātīti|na kho panāhaṃ, bhaggava, evaṃ vadāmi: “yasmiṃ samaye subhaṃ vimokkhaṃ upasampajja viharati, sabbaṃ tasmiṃ samaye asubhantveva pajānātīti|evañ ca khvāhaṃ, bhaggava, vadāmi:yasmiṃ samaye subhaṃ vimokkhaṃ upasampajja viharati, subhanteva tasmiṃ samaye pajānātīti|
SN, Saḷāyatana-vaggga, Vedanā-saṃyutta, Pañcakaṅga-sutta. See also the Nirāmisa-sutta (loc. cit.), which likewise speaks of progressively more profound and spiritual (nirāmisa) types of rapture (pīti), happiness (sukha), equanimity (upekkha) and liberation (vimokkha). The equanimity “more spiritual than the spiritual” (nirāmisā nirāmisatara) is the blissful state of mind wherein all defilements are destroyed; the liberation “more spiritual than the spiritual” is that resulting therefrom.
Aśu Medn, especially §2.4.
In the Theravāda: Mahānidāna-sutta, DN, ii, 70 f; Mahāparinibbāna-sutta, DN, ii, 111 f; Mahāsakuludāyi-sutta, MN, ii, 12 f; Atthasālinī, 190; etc. In the Sarvāstivāda, references are numerous, especially in the Abhidharma texts; Dīrghāgama, T1, 490c, 489b; Madhyamāgama, T1, 582a, 694a f; SgPŚ, T26, 443a–b, Saṅgītiparyāya-pāda, T26, No. 1536, 443a26–445b13; Prakaraṇa-pāda, T26, 712c–713a; MVŚ, 434b–c; *Śāriputrābhidharma, T28, 639c–642a; *Amṛtarasa-śāstra, T28, 976a; AKB, 454–456; etc.
Cf. AKB, 455: vaimukhyārthao hi vimokṣārtha iti|.
For adhimokṣa/adhimukti as a meditative experience, see Dhammajoti (2019), “Adhimukti, Meditative Experience and Vijñaptimātratā”, 135 ff.
MVŚ, 434c1–9.
For a fuller Abhidharma account for the rationale for the practice of the śubha meditation after the aśubhā, see Aśu Medn, 277 f.
For other reasons given here for the need now to cultivate śubha-bhāvānā, see §7.
Ny, 772c4–773c8.
See Aśu Medn, p. 278.
Ny, 672a3–6: …至此不淨觀成, 諸所應為皆究竟故。住空閑者作如是言: 「此觀爾時有究竟相, 謂: 有淨相欻爾現前。」See Aśu Medn, p. 276.
Yinshun (1968), 《說一切有部為主的論書與論師之研究》, 580a13–14.
See discussion by Fukuhara (1969, p. 318 f).
《成實論》, T32, No. 1646, 339a16–b4.
《成實論》, T32, No. 1646, 339b11–28.
T25, no. 1509, 215c1: 遍身受樂, 故名為「身證」.
Cf. AKB, 456: kasmāt tṛtīyāṣṭamayor eva sākṣātkaraṇam uktaṃ nānyeṣām ? pradhānatvād dhātubhūmi-paryantāvasthitatvāc ca|.
Cf. MVŚ, 776a19–b10.
Ny, 773b27–29.
Vy, 690: prathamadvitīyābhyāṃ vimokṣābhyāṃ tṛtīyasya vimokṣasya prādhānyāt|rūpivimokṣāvaraṇa-sākalyaprahāṇād āśrayaparivṛttitas tṛtīyasya sākṣātkaraṇam uktam|evam aṣṭamasyāpi prādhānyāt|ārūpyāvimokṣāvaraṇa-sākalyaprahāṇād āśrayaparivṛttitaḥ sākṣātkaraṇam uktam|
Abhidharmasamuccaya-bhāṣya, §153: ete cāṣṭau vimokṣā vihārā ity ucyante, ebhir āryāṇāṃ viharaṇāt|tatrāpi bahulam ābhyāṃ vimokṣābhyāṃ viharanti, tṛtīyenāṣṭamena ca pradhānatvāt|ata eva cānayoḥ kāyena sākṣātkṛtyopasaṃpadya viharatīti vacanaṃ nānyeṣu, rūpyarūpivimokṣāvaraṇāśeṣaprahāṇād yathākramam|tayoḥ saṃpūrṇāśrayaparivṛttisākṣātkaraṇam upādāyety aparaḥ paryāyaḥ||.
Cf. T31, No. 1606, 758b29–c4; Derge, 264a: འཕགས་པ་རྣམས་ལ་ནི་འདི་དག་གིས་གནས་པའི་ཕྱིར། འདི་དག་ནི་འཕགས་པ་གནས་པའི་རྣམ་པར་ཐར་པ་བརྒྱད་ཅེས་བྱའོ། ། དེ་ལ་འཕགས་པ་དག་ནི་གནས་པ་གཉིས་ཀྱིས་ལན་མང་དུ་གནས་ཏེ། གསུམ་པ་དང་བརྒྱད་པས་དེ་མཆོག་ཏུ་གནས་པའི་ཕྱིར་རོ། ། དེའི་ཕྱིར་དེ་གཉིས་ལུས་ཀྱི་མངོན་སུམ་དུ་བྱེད་དེ་རྫོགས་པར་བྱས་ནས་གནས་སོ་ཞེས་གསུངས་ཏེ་གཞན་རྣམས་ལ་ནི་མ་ཡིན་ནོ། ། གཟུགས་ཅན་དང་གཟུགས་མེད་པའི་རྣམ་པར་ཐར་པ་ལ་སྒྲིབ་པ་མ་ལུས་པར་སྤངས་པའི་ཕྱིར་གོ་རིམས་བཞིན་ནོ། ། རྣམ་གྲངས་གཞན་དུ་ན་དེ་གཉིས་ཀྱི་གནས་གྱུར་པ་རྫོགས་པར་མངོན་དུ་བྱེད་པའི་ཕྱིར་རོ། །
In AKB, the Sautrāntikas ­mention their doctrine of āśraya-parivṛtti in two contexts: when repudiating the Sarvāstivāda doctrine of prāpti (AKB, 63), and when discussing what constitute the fivefold puṇya-kṣetra (AKB, 232). Noticeably, in the corresponding contexts in Ny, Saṃghabhadra, while disagreeing with Vasubandhu/Sautrāntikas, does not specifically reject this notion, even though ostensibly avoiding using the term.
MVŚ, 132b21–24.
SN, Nidāna-vagga, Dhātu-saṃyutta, sattadhātu-sutta, 149 f: “sattimā, bhikkhave, dhātuyo|katamā satta? ābhā-dhātu, subha-dhātu, ākāsānañcāyatana-dhātu, viññāṇañcāyatana-dhātu, ākiñcaññāyatana-dhātu, nevasaññānāsaññāyatana-dhātu, saññāvedayitanirodha-dhātu|imā kho, bhikkhave, satta dhātuyo”ti|…
yāyaṃ, bhikkhu, ābhā-dhātu—ayaṃ dhātu andhakāraṃ paṭicca paññāyati|yāyaṃ, bhikkhu, subha-dhātu—ayaṃ dhātu asubhaṃ paṭicca paññāyati|yāyaṃ, bhikkhu, ākāsānañcāyatana-dhātu—ayaṃ dhātu rūpaṃ paṭicca paññāyati|yāyaṃ, bhikkhu, viññāṇañcāyatana-dhātu—ayaṃ dhātu ākāsānañcāyatanaṃ paṭicca paññāyati|yāyaṃ, bhikkhu, ākiñcaññāyatana-dhātu—ayaṃ dhātu viññāṇañcāyatanaṃ paṭicca paññāyati|yāyaṃ, bhikkhu, nevasaññānāsaññāyatana-dhātu—ayaṃ dhātu ākiñcaññāyatanaṃ paṭicca paññāyati|yāyaṃ, bhikkhu, saññāvedayitanirodha-dhātu—ayaṃ dhātu nirodhaṃ paṭicca paññāyatī”ti|
… imā nu kho, bhante, dhātuyo kathaṃ samāpatti pattabbā”ti ?
yā cāyaṃ, bhikkhu, ābhā-dhātu yā ca subha-dhātu yā ca ākāsānañcāyatana-dhātu yā ca viññāṇañcāyatana-dhātu yā ca ākiñcaññāyatana-dhātu—imā dhātuyo saññā-samāpatti pattabbā|yāyaṃ, bhikkhu, nevasaññānāsaññāyatana-dhātu—ayaṃ dhātu saṅkhārāvasesa-samāpatti pattabbā|yāyaṃ, bhikkhu, saññāvedayitanirodha-dhātu—ayaṃ dhātu nirodhasamāpatti pattabbā”ti|
Cf. Saṃyuktāgama, T02, 116c.
無所有入處界者, 緣所有(故)可知。非想非非想入處界者, 緣有第一故可知。滅界者, 緣有身(故)可知。
This is unlikely to be identical to the first 色界 mentioned at the very beginning, and the 色界 mentioned later on clearly in the standard three-dhātu context—欲界、色界、無色界—of its enumeration. However, the enumeration appears to be quite an unorganized one.
I have used the Sanskrit terms here for reason of convenience, though we in fact cannot be certain as regards the language of the Indian original.
云何淨界? 淨解脫, 及餘淨色。能淨色, 適意見無厭, 是名淨界。My translation here is somewhat tentative.
色趣, probably corresponding to rūpagata (གཟུགས་ཀྱི་རྣམ་པ།).
See his corresponding trans in AKB(C).
有作是說: 淨界者略顯離欲界染。
淨界者廣顯離色界染; 以四靜慮等皆名淨故。
Lü Cheng, had demonsatrated for the first time in his 《雜阿含經刊定記》 (first published in 1924) that fascicles 85–98 of this early stratum of YBŚ constitute largely a mātṛkā of the Saṃyuktāgama. Yinshun (1981) subsequently elaborated (with supplementation and revision) on Lü Cheng’s original discovery.
Tib is not expressed in quite the same way as YBŚ(C): ཅི་ཡང་མེད་པ་ནི་དངོས་པོ་མེད་པ་ཙམ་གྱི་ཕྱིར་རོ། །
Tib: འགོག་པའི་ཁམས་ནི་འཇིག་ཚོགས་དང་ལྡན་པའི་ཉོན་མོངས་པ་ཐམས་ཅད་སྤངས་པ་ལ་བརྟེན་ནས་ཡོད་དོ། །
Tib: འགོག་པའི་ཁམས་ཀྱང་མཚན་མ་ཐམས་ཅད་ཡིད་ལ་མི་བྱེད་པ་དང་། མཚན་མ་མེད་པའི་ཁམས་ཡིད་ལ་བྱེད་པས་ན་འཇིག་ཚོགས་ལ་འགོག་པའི་སྙོམས་་པར་འཇུག་པ་མཚན་མ་མེད་པས་ཐོབ་པར་བྱ་བ་ཡིན་གྱི་འདུ་བྱེད་ཀྱི་སྙོམས་པར་འཇུག་པས་ནི་མ་ཡིན་ཏེ།
YBŚ(C): 於一切相不思惟故。於無相界正思惟故。薩迦耶滅由無相故。隨順獲得滅定滅界。如是二種。不由行定隨順獲得。
YBŚ(C): 當知有頂是有無上, 滅於諸法皆是無上。 Tib: སྲིད་པའི་རྩེ་མོ་ནི་སྲིད་པའི་ནང་ན་བླ་ན་མེད་པའི་ཕྱིར་རོ། ། འགོག་པའི་ཆོས་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱི་ནང་ན་བླ་ན་མེད་པའི་ཕྱིར་རོ། །
Derge, 131-1-290b. YBŚ(C), 847c14–18.
Saṅgītiparyāya-śāstra《阿毘達摩集異門足論》T26, No. 1536, 445b22–c18. For the Sanskrit, which agrees perfectly with the Chinese, see Lamotte (1970). Le traité de la grande vertu de sagesse de Nāgārjuna (Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra), Tome III, 1283–1285; AKB, 457 (only Sanskrit for the 1st abhibhvāyatana is given in full).
For the power of affirmative resolve (adhimokṣā/adhimukti) in cognitive transformation, see Dhammajoti (2019), “Adhimukti, Meditative Experience and Vijñaptimātratā”, 135 ff.
Cf. AKB, 457: yathā prathamo vimokṣa evaṃ dve abhibhvāyatane prathama-dvitīye|… yathā dvitīyo vimokṣa evaṃ dve abhibhvāyatane tṛtīya-caturthe|… yathā śubho vimokṣa evam anyāni catvāri|ayaṃ tu viśeṣaḥ tair vaimukhya-mātram|ebhis tv ālambanābhibhavanaṃ yatheccham adhimokṣāt kleśānutpādāc ca|; Vy, 691 f.
Cf. AKB, 457: daśa kṛtsnāyatanāni nirantarakṛtsnaspharaṇāt|.
Also cf. Pradhan, P. (ed), Abhidharmasamuccaya, 96: kṛtsnaspharaṇālambanatām upadāya kṛtsnāyatanānīty ucyate|.
MVŚ, 727a23–24: 問: 何故名遍處? 答: 所緣廣普, 勝解無邊, 故名遍處。
MVŚ, 440b17–23.
AKB, 457: teṣāṃ
dvayam ādyavimokṣavat |
yathā prathamo vimokṣa evaṃ dve abhibhvāyatane prathama-dvitīye |
dve dvitīyavat
yathā dvitīyo vimokṣa evaṃ dve abhibhvāyatane tṛtīya-caturthe |
AKB, 457: yathā śubho vimokṣa evam anyāni catvāri |
Cf AKB, 458.
MN, sutta No. 77, 13, 14, 15: tatra ca pana me sāvakā bahū abhiññāvosānapāramippattā viharanti|.
For the 8 vimokṣas: T26, No. 1536, 443a26–445b13; for the 8 abhibhvāyatanas: 445b22–446a19; for the 10 kṛtsnāyatanas: 447a24–449c2.
MVŚ, 442b6–14.
MVŚ, 440b27–c9: … 以淨解脫在第四靜慮; 由此能入後四勝處。此後四勝處復能入前八遍處。… 謂: 觀青等一一無邊。復思青等為何所依; 知依大種故, 次觀地等一一無邊。復思此所覺色, 由何廣大? 知由虛空故, 次起空無邊處。復思此能覺, 誰為所依? 知依廣識故, 次復起識無邊處。此所依識無別所依, 故更不立上為遍處。
MVŚ, 441b23–26.
AKB, 458: vimokṣaprāveśikāny abhibhvāyatanāni | abhibhvāyatanaprāveśikāni kṛtsnāyatanāni | uttarottaraviśiṣṭatvāt |
Delhey (ed), Samāhitā Bhūmi ( pūrvaṃ tāvad yogy adhimucyate, tato ’bhibhavati|tato ’bhibhavavaśitāṃ labdhvā paścāt tad eva kṛtsnam āyatanaṃ yathākāmam adhimucyate|ata eṣām iyam ānupūrvī|T30, 337a15–18.
MPPU, 215c2–10.
MVŚ, 206c22–23: 所依者, 唯依欲界身; 以色無色界身不起此觀故。
Ny, 672c5–7.
Cf. AKB, 456: dvābhyāṃ hi kāraṇābhyāṃ yogino vimokṣādīn utpādayanti|kleśadūrīkaraṇārthaṃ samāpattivaśitvārthaṃ ca|.
Cf. Vy, 688.
AKB, 456: kasmān na tṛtīye dhyāne vimokṣaḥ ? dvitīyadhyānabhūmikavarṇarāgābhāvāt, sukhamaṇḍeñjitatvāc ca|.
MVŚ, 206c20–21: For this reason the aśubhā pertains to only the kāmadhātu and the rūpadhātu.
AKB, 455.
See Aśu Medn, §4.2.
AN, Dasa-nipāta, Ānisaṃsa-vagga, Cetanākaraṇīya-sutta; Madhyāma-āgama, T01, No. 26, 485b22–c18 (which describes the progressive sequence as a ‘natural nature of things’ 但法自然). As another example, we may consider the transcendental twelve-link principle of conditioned co-arising in SN, Nidāna-saṃyutta, Upanissa-sutta: dukkhasaddhāpāmojjapītipassaddhisukhasamādhiyathābhūta-ñāṇadassananibbidāvirāgavimuttikhaye ñāṇa.
MVŚ, 434c18–24. See also, Aśu Medn, §4.2.
AKB, 456.
MVŚ, 441b23–26. See also above, §6.2.
MPPU, 215b16–c2.
MPPU, 123a6–7:二禪大喜、三禪大樂, 喜、樂放逸。
MPPU, 186b13–14: 「受身樂」者, 是三禪樂, 遍身皆受。However, it is an Abhidharma controversy as to whether the sukha in the third dhyāna is bodily only, or is both bodily and mental. (Cf. AKB, p. 439).
MPPU, 121a5–6: 三禪中諸功德少, 樂多故, 無背捨、勝處、一切入。
MPPU, 186b19–23: 以斷苦樂, 先滅憂喜故, 不苦不樂, 捨念清淨, 入第四禪。」是四禪中無苦無樂, 但有不動智慧。以是故, 說第四禪「捨念清淨」。第三禪樂動故說苦, 是故第四禪中說「斷苦樂」。
See AKB, p. 438: caturthaṃ dhyānam antyam|tatra catvāry aṅgāni|aduḥkhāsukhā vedanā upekṣāpariśuddhiḥ smṛtipariśuddhiḥ samādhiś ca|.
緣淨故淨。MPPU, 215b29–c1: 緣淨故, 名為「淨背捨」。遍身受樂, 故名為「身證」。
《摩訶止觀》(Mohe Zhiguan) T46, No. 1911, 123b5–12: 今以兩禪共淨背捨。既言三禪有遍身樂, 可以為證, 即是其初。成就在四禪; 能具足勝處。故知, 淨背捨位, 在三禪也。「淨」者, 釋論云: 「緣淨故淨」。八色已是淨法; 而未被淨緣瑩練。淨色極在四禪; 此色起時, 瑩於八色, 更轉明淨。故言「緣淨故淨」。「遍身受」者: 樂之極, 在三禪。故總此二禪為淨背捨也。See also the sub commentary《止觀輔行傳弘決》by 湛然, T46, No. 1912, 421a15–b5.
e.g., see the Bhayabherava-sutta account in MN, of the Buddha’s achievement of final liberation on the basis of the jhānas.
See Abe (2018).
Abe Takako, loc. cit.
MN, No. 119, Kāyagatasat-sutta: puna caparaṃ, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sukhassa ca pahānā … pe … catutthaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati|so imam eva kāyaṃ parisuddhena cetasā pariyodātena pharitvā nisinno hoti|nāssa kiñci sabbāvato kāyassa parisuddhena cetasā pariyodātena apphuṭaṃ hoti|…evam pi, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kāyagatāsatiṃ bhāveti|.
《中阿含經》T01, No. 26, p. 555c17–19: 比丘修習念身, 比丘者於此身中, 以清淨心意解遍滿成就遊; 於此身中, 以清淨心無處不遍。
T01, No. 81, 555c26–556a2. 比丘修習念身。比丘者念光明想, 善受善持, 善意所念, 如前後亦然, 如後前亦然, 如晝夜亦然, 如夜晝亦然, 如下上亦然, 如上下亦然, 如是不顛倒, 心無有纏, 修光明心, 心終不為闇之所覆。
T01, No. 73, 540b–c.
See Dhammajoti (2019), pp. 163–66.
AN, Aṭṭhakanipāta, Gayāsīsa-sutta, 303: so kho ahaṃ, bhikkhave, aparena samayena appamatto ātāpī pahitatto viharanto obhāsañceva sañjānāmi, rūpāni ca passāmi; no ca kho tāhi devatāhi saddhiṃ santiṭṭhāmi sallapāmi sākacchaṃ samāpajjāmi.
Yinshun (1984), 《空之探究》, 75a7–10. Also cf. Yinshun (1976) 《初期大乘佛教之起源與開展》, 847f.
See Yamabe (1999b), 300 ff.
For instance, see discussion in Yinshun (2005).《永光集》, 102a2–110a6. Yinshun himself, however, defends the traditional Chinese view that Nāgārjuna was indeed the author.
e.g., 《坐禪三昧經》 T15, No. 614, 《禪法要解》 T15, No. 616,《思惟略要法》T 15, No. 617,《禪祕要法經》 T No. 613.
《達摩多羅禪經》 T15, No. 618,《佛說觀佛三昧海經》 T15, No. 643.
《出三藏記集》 T55, No. 2145, p. 53b3–13: 以弘始五年歲在癸卯四月二十三日, 於京城之北逍遙園中出此經。法師手執胡本, 口宣秦言。… 與諸宿舊義業沙門釋慧恭 … 等五百餘人, 詳其義旨, 審其文中, 然後書之。以其年十二月十五日出盡。校正檢括。明年四月二十三日乃訖。文雖粗定, 以釋論撿之, 猶多不盡。是以隨出其論, 隨而正之。釋論既訖, 爾乃文定。See also Yinshun’s discussion on this (《永光集》2005: 5a11–7a8).
For instance, it is not easy to imagine how someone like the author of MPPU—focussing on the śūnyatā doctrine of the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra as he does—could subscribe emphatically to such doctrines as rebirth (pariṇāminī cyutiḥ; 變易(生)死) of arhats as a result of anāsrava-kleśas outside the triple sphere of existence, asserted with citation from the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra. See MPPU, 714a9–15: 問曰: 阿羅漢先世因緣, 所受身必應當滅。住在何處而具足佛道? 答曰: 得阿羅漢時, 三界諸漏因緣盡, 更不復生三界。有淨佛土, 出於三界, 乃至無煩惱之名。於是國土佛所, 聞法華經, 具足佛道。如《法華經》說: 「有羅漢, 若不聞法華經, 自謂得滅度。我於餘國, 為說是 事: 『汝皆當作佛。』」。
Yinshun (1968). 《說一切有部為主的論書與論師之研究》, p. 629.
Yamabe (1999b), p. 2.
ibid, p. 17.
T15, No. 643, pp. 687–18.
e.g., T15, 647b3–6.
See Yinshun (2005), 《永光集》, 161a02–163a6. Yamabe (1999a), op. cit., section III.I.
T15, 687b14–18.
T15, 647c7–9.
T15, 648a1–4. See also the sūtra’s statement on the fourfold dharmas as sufficient consituents of the “Bodhisattva Dharma”: T15, 682b29–c3.
T15, 682b26–29.
T15, No. 643, p. 692a6–23.
See discussion in Yamabe (1999b) on this chapter: op. cit., 377 ff. The part on the aśubhā translated here is omitted in Yamabe’s discussion (ibid, p. 383).
T15, 685b2–8.
On the meditation on the nine-stage decomposition of a corpse, see Aśu Medn, §2.2.1.
Cf. T15, 652b10–653a26.
《大般涅槃經》 T12, No. 374, pp. 433c25–434b23.
Cf Zhiyi’s Mohe Zhiguan 《摩訶止觀》 T46, No. 1911, 129a26–28: 如聲聞若住忍法, 終不退作五逆闡提。菩薩住堪忍地, 終不起障道重罪也。
《妙法蓮華經玄義》 T33, No. 1716, p. 720a19–24: 八背捨觀四念處、九次第定練四念處、奮迅熏四念處、超越修四念處。二乘為自滅度, 修此五禪, 成四枯念處, 不名堪忍地。菩薩為化眾生, 深觀念處, 慈悲誓願, 荷負眾生, 成四榮念處。是摩訶衍, 名堪忍地也。
Hodge (2012), p. 26.
CfYamabe (1999b), p. 64.
Figure 1. Correlation among the vimokṣas, abhibhvāyatanas, kṛtsnāyatanas and the two dhātus, in respect of the aśubha–to-śubha transition.
Figure 1. Correlation among the vimokṣas, abhibhvāyatanas, kṛtsnāyatanas and the two dhātus, in respect of the aśubha–to-śubha transition.
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Dhammajoti, K.L. Meditative Experiences of Impurity and Purity—Further Reflection on the aśubhā Meditation and the śubha-vimokṣa. Religions 2021, 12, 86.

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