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Imagining the Samdhinirmocana Sutra

Meditating on the 3 natures

Henry Frummer
April 2008

Rev 10-13-09

A Personal Story
It was a beautiful day in June when I was waiting for a friend. I passed the time looking
at the world through the eyes of a chemist. It is a game that I play from time to time. I
had spent years looking at the world in just such a way to make a living. A warm breeze
played about my face. "Air: a colorless and odorless gas", I thought. (An old time
physical description of air.) "That is a good thing if were not colorless we would have a
hard time seeing!" I mused. My mind turned to color and I imagined a rainbow.
ROYGBIV came to mind. It is the device that I learnt as child to remember the colors of
the rainbow from red and orange through to indigo and violet. I was thinking about how
colorless light was actually made up of bands of color and imagined how air would look
on a spectrograph, a device that splits the light from an object into its component
wavelengths so that it can be recorded then analyzed. Then it struck me that there are no
bands on a spectrograph! The increasing frequencies of light look like a smooth line. I at
once realized that we see a range of frequencies as red and another as blue. Combinations
of frequencies give rise to all of the colors around us. These frequencies are created by
light bouncing off objects but the sense of color is not in the frequencies. It is our
reaction to them. We arbitrarily see a range of frequencies as red. Redness only exists as
a sensation in our brains and is not a part of the object itself. The object will give off a
reliable set of frequencies when it reflects visible light. It will not give off redness in any
way. It is only the perceiving consciousness that generates the sensation of red. I am
deeply struck by the fact that when I see a bright red apple, that color exists only in my
mind. Redness has no existence or even meaning outside of my brain. It seems so vivid,
so real to me, so a part of the apple. It was hard for me to comprehend that redness was a
mere imagination, a mere creation of appearance and not a solid reality. It made me a
little uncomfortable to think about the idea. To see that what I believed about my senses
was not quite true. Little did I realize that this thought experiment, and subsequent
understanding of its implication, prepared me so well for the study of the
Samdhinirmocana Sutra.

Imagining the Samdhinirmocana Sutra

Henry Frummer

Introduction
This paper is the fruit of my study of the Samdhinirmocana Sutra that was taken up with
Luminous Owl and a small group of people at Green Gulch Zen Center who wanted to
study it. We struggled together to understand the unusual language and the unusual ideas
of the Sutra.
The Sutra is filled with unfamiliar concepts and technical Buddhist terms. The more I
studied the Sutra, the more that I came to feel that these concepts are actually simpler
than they seem. I came to realize that some of the ideas of the Sutra are actually familiar
to modern western readers already.
I will present these ideas in subsequent chapters. They can be used to help understand
the ideas that are developed in the Sutra.
The Sutra relies on logical arguments that perhaps cannot be fully appreciated by the
western reader. For example, it takes a good deal of time and effort to just understand
what the Sutra means by the phrase lack of own being in terms of production. Even
when the concept is understood intellectually, it is not clear to me that it deeply informs
us about the way to perceive the world around us. Yet it is precisely the aim of these
chapters in the Sutra to make a fundamental change in our worldview.
I am not intending this work to be a commentary on the Samdhinirmocana Sutra. It is
intended to be a meditation guide for individuals who have studied Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of
the Sutra. My intention is to present a guided meditation on how to use the thoroughly
established character as an object of meditation for purification leading to the
understanding that all phenomena lack own being, that all phenomena are unproduced,
unceasing, quiescent from the start, and naturally in a state of nirvana.
The heart of this meditation is an act of creative imagination rather than a logical
construction. Logic is used to prepare the mind with certain ideas and sets the stage for
the act of imagination. There are many kinds of meditation and so the term meditation
can be vague as to what the process actually is. I use the term imagination here as
opposed to meditation as it is more descriptive of the process that I am presenting.
Reasoning is Not Enough
The understanding of the Sutra cannot be accomplished by using reasoning alone. We
must understand the concepts contained in the Sutra but then we must somehow apply
these concepts to fully understand the true value of this part of the Sutra.
The Lankavatara Sutra says:
This teaching is found in all the Sutras of all the Buddhas and is
presented to meet the varied dispositions of all beings, but it is not the
Truth itself. These teachings are only a finger pointing towards Noble
Wisdom. They are like a mirage with its springs of water, which the
deer take to be real and chase after. So with the teachings in all the
Sutras: They are intended for the consideration and guidance of the

Imagining the Samdhinirmocana Sutra

Henry Frummer

discriminating minds of all people, but they are not the Truth itself,
which can only be realized within ones deepest consciousness.
Mahamati, you and all the Bodhisattvas must seek for this inner
realization of Noble Wisdom, and not be captivated by word teaching.
(Goddard & Suzuki version: end of chapter 2)

Clearly words, and the teachings they contain are vital, but the real meaning lies in the
consciousness of the practitioner. Without this inner self-realization, the words
themselves will be of little benefit for the practitioner.
Jeffery Hopkins warns against too much reasoning in Emptiness Yoga:
This is very important. It is possible to become so addicted to
reasoning that when you arrive at the point where you are about to
cognize emptiness, you leave it and return to the reasoning. If you
find that one of these diamond instruments of reasoning works, settle
down and stay with it, getting used to the result of the reasoning, a
cognition of emptiness. (page 41)
Hopkins makes a key distinction between direct cognizing and reasoning. Understanding
the Sutra requires a certain kind of experience or response to the ideas of Sutra. It cannot
take place without using reasoning, but it wont happen with reasoning alone.
Understanding stands outside the reasoning. Hopkins warns that if the reasoning is not
abandoned at the correct time, the wished for result will not take place. The following
analogy may help elucidate this view:
The study of realizing emptiness is much like learning how to create fire. To create fire
you take two sticks and rub them together and eventually flames appear. In realizing
emptiness, the ideas of the Sutra are the sticks and meditation is akin to the rubbing the
sticks together. Inspecting the sticks will not give fire, it is nothing like fire. The sticks on
their own yield no insights as to what is fire. If you have never seen fire, the sticks would
convey no idea of what the experience of fire is.
In a similar way, the texts give no indication of what the experience of cognizing
emptiness is. There is no clue to fire in sticks, and there is no sense of emptiness in the
words. The text needs to be meditated on. It is akin to rubbing the sticks. Again, rubbing
is not fire and meditation is not realization of emptiness. When the sticks are rubbed,
something completely unexpected happens. The flame in its light and heat are a radical
departure from the nature of the sticks. The realization of emptiness springs unexpectedly
from the meditations on the words as fire leaps from the rubbed wood.
Reasoning is vital to create the correct ideas to meditate on, and so reasoning is the first
step in the process. Once the ideas are properly understood, these ideas can be meditated
on. The term cognizing emptiness has to be left unexplained. It must be left
undefined, ready to be discovered by the practitioner.

Imagining the Samdhinirmocana Sutra

Henry Frummer

The gap between reasoning and realization needs to be filled using meditation. In
Chapter 6 of the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, there are explicit meditation instructions for
filling this gap and potentially leading to realization of emptiness.
Gunakara, in dependence upon names that are connected with signs,
the imputational character is known. In dependence upon strongly
adhering to the other-dependent character as being the imputational
character, the other-dependent character is known. In dependence
upon absence of strong adherence to the other-dependent character as
being the imputational character, the thoroughly established character
is known. (Powers Page 87)

These are the instructions that I am attempting to make more accessible to the modern
practitioner.
Cognizing Emptiness is vital
No matter how cognizing emptiness is defined, it is a vital experience for the Mahayana
path. For example in Chapter 9 on Wisdom, The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva
writes:
52. To linger and abide within samsara,
But freed from every craving and from every fear,
To work the benefit of those who ignorantly suffer:
Such is the fruit that emptiness will bear.
Cognizing emptiness will help the practitioner with the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva
vows. Shantideva further writes:
53. From this, the voidness doctrine will be seen
To be immune from all attack.
And so, with every doubt abandoned,
Let us meditate upon this emptiness.
54. Afflictive passion and the veils of ignorance
The cure for these is emptiness.
Therefore, how could they not meditate upon it
Who wish swiftly to attain omniscience?
55.Whatever is the source of pain and suffering,
Let that be the object of our fear.
But voidness will allay our every sorrow;
How could it be for us a thing of dread?
56. If such a thing as "I" exists indeed,
Then terrors, granted, will torment it.
But since no self or "I" exists at all,
What is there left for fears to terrify?

Imagining the Samdhinirmocana Sutra

Henry Frummer

The Ultimate in the Samdhinirmocana Sutra


The first four chapters of the Samdhinirmocana Sutra are descriptions of the Ultimate.
In John Powers own commentary on the Samdhinirmocana Sutra (Hermeneutics and
Tradition in the Samdhinirmocana-Sutra), he writes about the contradiction of using
words to express the inexpressible, and in the end, it is clear that all he can do is speculate
on the matter. (See pages 49-52) He includes a lengthy and interesting discussion on the
relationship between the thoroughly established character and the ultimate. It is a
repetition of the problem of defining cognizing emptiness. Again, the lack of
intellectual clarity about the Ultimate is not really a problem as Anne Klein in Knowledge
& Liberation says:
a scholastic tradition, source of the meditative dialectic, may
be considered an essential formulator of a certain type of mystical
experience. Indeed, Gelukba scholars and meditation masters scoff
at the notion that someone would study one way and meditate
another. Detailed knowledge of the books is deemed useful for a
scholar, but essential for a meditator.
At the same time, Gelukbas must remain cognizant of the fact
that inexpressibility as an epithet of the ultimate is frequently
mentioned in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist texts. As generations of
scholars have noted, this description has in no way impeded a
massive scholastic tradition grown up in an endeavor, presumably,
to be informative about ultimate truth or the nature of reality.
Since the inexpressibility of the ultimate is said to refer to the
inability of words to convey a yogi's non-dualistic perception of
ultimate reality exactly as it is experienced, there is no
contradiction in words and thought leading to that experience.
(Page 14)

Not a model of Reality


It is important to understand that the Samdhinirmocana Sutra is not attempting to create a
model of reality or an ontology of phenomena. It is creating a meditation to liberate our
minds from suffering. Garma C. C. Chang in his The Buddhist Teaching of Totality:
writes:
Philosophers both inside and outside of Buddhism have fought
bitterly over anatman mainly because they have treated it as a
philosophical concept or doctrine. Actually, anatman or No-Self,
is only a meditational device, a practical instruction to be applied
in yogic contemplation for the purpose of liberation, as is clearly
shown in the meditation technique of the Four Mindfulnesses. No
wonder most of the debatants on anatman have missed the point
by a wide margin! Buddha was never a philosopher; His primary
concern was to point out the way to liberation - liberation from

Imagining the Samdhinirmocana Sutra

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the deep-rooted attachment to a delusory self which is the source


of all passion-desires and their resultant pains and frustrations.
Philosophical speculations were persistently rejected and
denounced by Buddha as useless, foolish and unsalutary.
Actually, in Buddha's teachings we do not find a philosophy of
No Self; what we find is a significant therapeutic device, the
instruction on how to get rid of the deep ego-clinging attitude.
(Page 74)
Or said succinctly in a often quoted phrase by Buddha himself:
I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of
suffering.
Majjhima Nikaya 22 The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha P.
234
Perhaps the clearest way of putting it is by Reb Anderson in his forward to Andy
Fergusons book Zens Chinese Heritage:
It's not that one of these stories [our day to day stories and the
enlightenment stories] is true and the other is false, and it's not that one is
better than the other. The two are intimately connected, and the one liberates us from the other. Zen practice is not about preferring one of these
stories over the other; it's about letting go of both of them. (Page XVI)
Cognizing emptiness is not an end in itself or a final understanding. It is a beginning, a
starting point. It can give direction to ones practice. Just as Muslims face Mecca when
at prayers, we can face emptiness with our practice.
The Approach
Buddhists teach that there are two truths, conventional and ultimate. The conventional
truth is what we all believe in as the nature of the world. It is the very experience of our
every day lives.
The second truth is unfamiliar to us in our day-to-day experience. This is a truth that must
be somehow experienced to be understood. Once this second truth is understood, then our
views of the first truth will be altered in an unexpected way. The first truth will remain
the first truth, but we will not understand it as we did before. For many of us, that
understanding will echo the first koan many of us ever heard:
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
(Donovan Lyrics in There Is a Mountain)
The meditations found in the Samdhinirmocana Sutra are designed to catch glimpses of
the second truth. In order to help understand this second truth, we need to first accept the
possibility of this truth. Our faith in Buddhism will allow us to suspend our normal
judgments and points of view and enter into new ideas that may seem strange and outside
everything we know.

Imagining the Samdhinirmocana Sutra

Henry Frummer

As we go through life, there is little that we can fully rely on. We are sure that we will
wake up each morning, and we will be ourselves. This will be true even if some great
tragedy sweeps away all other things in our lives. We can accept the fact that we can lose
friends and family and all of our possessions. This is not outside of our accepted reality.
We can imagine waking up and finding that we have become a giant cockroach, but none
think that this is actually ever going to happen to anyone. Despite this complete belief in
the self, Buddhism teaches there is no self in the way we understand it to be. The very
thing that we are most sure of does not exist in the way we think it does. We are
convinced that we live in a world of external objects whose nature is well understood. If
we are thirsty, it is the most normal action to pick up a glass of water and drink it. Both
the glass and the water are external objects whose nature is completely known to us. It is
inconceivable that they are not external objects. And yet Buddhists teach that there is a
way to see that glass not as an external object in the usual sense.
My suggested approach is an openness to the ideas of the Sutra. We should work with the
ideas. We should try to see how they might be true rather than to argue against them. We
need to try them on for size and live with them and see what happens.
My Sincere Hope
I am hoping that the reader will find this work useful in understanding the
Samdhinirmocana Sutra and emptiness. The Samdhinirmocana Sutra radically changed
my understanding of Buddhism and the world around me. I sincerely hope that it will do
the same for you.

Imagining the Samdhinirmocana Sutra

Henry Frummer

Section One
Chapter 5 of the Samdhinirmocana Sutra
Chapter five of the Samdhinirmocana Sutra is a dialogue between Visalamati and the
Buddha about the nature of consciousness. We are told that Bodhisattvas are wise with
respect to the secrets of mind, thought, and consciousness. This chapter goes on to say
what that means.
We are presented with several ideas:
Initially, in dependence upon two types of appropriation - the
appropriation of the physical sense powers associated with a support
and the appropriation of predispositions which proliferate conventional
designations with respect to signs, names, and concepts-the mind
which has all seeds ripens; it develops, increases, and expands in its
operations. Although two types of appropriation exist in the form
realm, appropriation is not twofold in the formless realm. (Page 71)
This opening description of consciousness is a foreshadowing of the 3 natures
which are explicitly discussed in the next sections. It is introducing the idea of
the arising of phenomenon in the mind that are then named. We are told that
our mind learns and grows by our sense organs, and our ability to name the
things perceived gets stronger with use. The Sutra goes on to say:
An eye consciousness arises depending on an eye and a form in
association with consciousness. Functioning together with that eye
consciousness, a conceptual mental consciousness arises at the same
time, having the same objective reference. (Page 71)
I find this simple statement interesting in that it says the eye consciousness
arises at the same time that it perceives an object. It means that there is no eye
consciousness waiting around to see something. The eye consciousness, the
object and the mental consciousness all arise together. It could be said that in a
real sense the object is not separate from the consciousness. The eye
consciousness creates the perception of the object and the object creates the
eye consciousness. With each arising with the other, we need to loosen our
grip on the idea that one causes the other.
Also,
If the causal conditions for the single arising of up to the fivefold
assemblage of consciousness are present, then up to that fivefold
assemblage of consciousness will also arise one time. (Page 75)
This means that not only a single consciousness like eye consciousness can
arise but any combination of the fives consciousness can arise given the correct
conditions. It is now possible that simultaneously with an object of perception

Imagining the Samdhinirmocana Sutra

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consciousness itself can arise. Objects of perceptions, thoughts and even the
sense of self will arise together.
Bodhisattvas who rely on knowledge of the system of doctrine and
abide in knowledge of the system of doctrine are wise with respect to
the secrets of mind, thought, and consciousness. (Page 75)

I have read this line a number of times and understood it to mean following the Buddhist
teachings in general. Then, I realized that the Buddha is talking about this very sutra. If
we abide in the sutra we become wise with respect to the secrets of mind, thought, and
consciousness. It was like suddenly I was reading an ancient wisdom text revealing the
mystery of life; which of course we are.
Chapter 5 ends with this meaning of being wise with respect to the ultimate:
They do not perceive a nose, nor do they perceive a smell, nor do they
perceive a nose-consciousness. They do not perceive a tongue, nor do
they perceive a taste, nor do they perceive a tongue consciousness.
They do not perceive a body, nor do they perceive a tangible object,
nor do they perceive a bodily consciousness. Visalamati, these
Bodhisattvas do not perceive their own particular thoughts, nor do
they perceive phenomena, nor do they perceive a mental consciousness, but they are in accord with reality. These Bodhisattvas are
said to be 'wise with respect to the ultimate'. The Tathagata designates
Bodhisattvas who are wise with respect to the ultimate as also being
`wise with respect to the secrets of mind, thought, and consciousness'.
(Page 75-77)
This passage gives a glimpse into emptiness. The language closely follows that of the
Heart Sutra.

Imagining the Samdhinirmocana Sutra

Henry Frummer

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Section Two
Chapter 6 of the Samdhinirmocana Sutra
Chapter Six introduces us to the three characteristics of phenomenon.
Gunakara, there are three characteristics of phenomena. What are
these three? They are the imputational character, the other-dependent
character, and the thoroughly established character. (Page 81)
The three characters are also known as the three natures. These terms can be used
interchangeably. Phenomena are all objects that are generated by consciousness. Any
thing that we think hear, see and think is considered a phenomenon.
The imputational character is the names that we give phenomena creating a whole
constellation of thought processes. This leads to the idea of self and others which we
imagine to have inherent existence.
It is that which is imputed as a name or symbol in terms of the ownbeing or attributes of phenomena in order to subsequently designate
any convention whatsoever. (Page 81)

The other-dependent character is:


It is simply the dependent origination of phenomena. (Page 81)
The sutra uses the standard formulation of dependent origination, Because this exists,
that arises. It is the source of the myriad things. Phenomena have no inherent existence
because they are dependent on many causes and conditions to exist. Phenomena arise
and disappear in each moment depending on all things. They have no fundamental
inherent existence. We imagine that these arisings have substance and this is called
ignorance.
Vasubandhu in his Trisvabhavanirdesa (Treatise on the Three Natures) describes the
other-dependent character in this way:
2. Arising through dependence on conditions and
Existing through being imagined,
It is therefore called other-dependent
And is said to be merely imaginary.
The other-dependent character is a main theme of chapter 5 (the arising of
consciousness).
Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen says in Mirror of Wisdom,

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An example we could use is the reflection of our own face in the


mirror. We all know that the reflection is not the real face, but how is
it produced? Does it come just from the glass, the light, the face? Our
face has to be there, but there also has to be a mirror, enough light for
us to see and so on. Therefore, we see the reflection of our face in the
mirror as a result of several things interacting with one another. We
can investigate the appearance of our self to our perception in the
same way. The self appears to us, but where does this appearance
come from? Just like the reflection of the face in a mirror, it is an
example of dependent arising.
This is a way of talking about dependent arising. It makes one feel as if they understand
dependent arising. I feel that it is a simple explanation rooted in our ideas of cause and
effect of the imputational character. I believe that in actuality dependent arising is far
subtler. It is a simple idea that is hard to explain but with time, understanding deepens.
It is one of the original and fundamental teachings of the Buddha.

The thoroughly established character is described this way:


Gunakara, what is the thoroughly established character of
phenomena? It is the suchness of phenomena. Through diligence and
through proper mental application, Bodhisattvas establish realization
and cultivate realization of [the thoroughly established character].
Thus it is what establishes [all the stages] up to unsurpassed,
complete, perfect enlightenment. (Page 82)
This is a very exciting statement. It points to a straightforward way to attain
enlightenment. It parallels Shantidevas statements quoted in the introduction about
emptiness.
Vasubandhu in his Trisvabhavanirdesa describes the thoroughly established character in
this way:
3. The external non-existence
Of what appears in the way it appears,
Since it is never otherwise,
Is known as the nature of the consummate...
4. If anything appears, it is imagined.
The way it appears is as duality.
What is the consequence of its non-existence?
The fact of non-duality!
5. What is the imagination of the non-existent?
Since what is imagined absolutely never
Exists in the way it is imagined,
It is mind that constructs that illusion.

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The terms thoroughly established character and consummate nature are different
translations for the same word.
The understanding of three characters bear the following fruit:
Therefore, Gunakara, Bodhisattvas know the imputational character
of phenomena, the other-dependent character, and the thoroughly
established character of phenomena as they really are. Once they
know characterlessness, the thoroughly afflicted character, and the
purified character as they really are, then they know characterless
phenomena as they really are. They completely abandon the
phenomena of afflicted character, and when they have completely
abandoned phenomena of afflicted character, then they realize
phenomena of purified character.
This is how Bodhisattvas are wise with respect to the character of
phenomena. When the Tathagata designates Bodhisattvas as being
wise with respect to the character of phenomena, he designates them
as such for this very reason. (Page 89)
Vasubandhu presents the fruits of the understanding in this way:
31. When one understands how things are,
Perfect knowledge, abandonment,
And accomplishment -These three characteristics are simultaneously achieved.
32. Knowledge is non-perception;
Abandonment is non-appearance;
Attainment is accomplished through non-dual perception.
That is direct manifestation.
34. through the non-perception of duality
There is the vanishing of duality.
When it vanishes completely,
Non-dual awareness arises.
35. Through perceiving correctly,
Through seeing the non-referentiality of mental states,
Through following the three wisdoms,
One will effortlessly attain liberation

The Samdhinirmocana Sutra tells us how to cultivate this realization:


Gunakara, in dependence upon names that are connected with signs,
the imputational character is known. In dependence upon strongly

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adhering to the other-dependent character as being the imputational


character, the other-dependent character is known. In dependence
upon absence of strong adherence to the other-dependent character as
being the imputational character, the thoroughly established character
is known. (Page 87)
As stated in the introduction, this is the heart of the meditation on the three characters.
This leads to the establishment of the stages to enlightenment can be entered by
understanding the nature of three characters.

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Section Three
Chapter 7 of the Samdhinirmocana Sutra
Chapter seven develops the ideas introduced in chapter six. This chapter is
philosophically complex and its approach may not communicate effectively to a western
reader. These ideas are the ones that I will recast in the next section.
This chapter is Buddhas response to the Paramarthasamudgatas question,
Why was the Bhagavan thinking, All phenomena lack own-being; all
phenomena are unproduced, unceasing, quiescent from the start, and
naturally in a state of nirvana? I ask the Bhagavan the meaning of
this. (Page 97)
The Buddha goes on to explain about the different kinds of own being. The imputational
character is a lack of own being only in terms of character. It is merely names and
nothing else. The other-dependent character lacks own being in terms of production. It
is produced independence on others. The thoroughly established character is an ultimate
lack of own-being. It is distinguished as the lack of own-being of all phenomena. Since
all the characters of phenomena lack own being then phenomena must itself lack own
being.
The Buddha teaches that phenomena lack own being because people confuse the creation
of names with the actual nature of phenomenon.
"To the extent that they subsequently attribute such conventions, their
minds are infused with conventional designations. Thereafter, because
of being bound to conventional designations or due to predispositions
toward conventional designations, they strongly adhere to the
character of the own-being of the imputational as the own-being of
the other-dependent and the thoroughly established. (Page 105-107)
This has grave consequences. If the mind attaches strongly to conventional designations,
beings will attach to these designations as being substantial and will lead beings to
become involved with behaviors that will create negative karma creating rebirth. It might
be a good or bad rebirth but it prevents liberation and dooms the beings to wander from
birth to birth without end.
"To the extent that they strongly adhere [to this], they strongly adhere
to the own-being of the imputational as the own-being of the otherdependent. Due to these causes and conditions, in the future [this view
of] the own-being of the other-dependent proliferates. Based on this,
the afflictive afflictions give rise to further afflictions.
"The afflictions of actions and the afflictions of birth give rise to
further afflictions. For a long time sentient beings will wander,
transmigrating among hell beings, or animals, or hungry ghosts, or

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gods, or asuras, or humans. They will not pass beyond cyclic


existence. (Page 107)
Buddha explains that to beginning students he teaches impermanence. This is the
teaching of dependent origination. This teaching alone is not enough. If people only
hear this teaching,
They do not become separated from attachment. They do not become
fully liberated. They do not become fully liberated from the afflictive
afflictions nor fully liberated from the afflictions of actions nor fully
liberated from the afflictions of birth. (Page 109)
The Buddha continues,
The Tathagata further teaches them doctrines beginning with lack of
own-being in terms of character and ultimate lack of own-being. Thus
they become wholly averse toward all compounded phenomena,
separated from attachment, and liberated; they pass beyond the
afflictive afflictions, pass beyond the afflictions of actions, and pass
beyond the afflictions of birth. (Page 109)
The Buddha tells use that we must understand the teaching of the three natures to gain
liberation. These teachings will change the view of the nature of phenomenon for the
practitioner:
Hearing these doctrines, they do not strongly adhere to the own-being
of the other-dependent as being of the character of the own-being of
the imputational. Further, they become confident that the lack of ownbeing in terms of production does not exist as an ultimate own-being
in the sense that it is just an absence of own-being in terms of
character with respect to those phenomena. They fully distinguish
this. They realize it as it is and, in this way, their understanding is not
infused with conventional designations. Thereafter, because they are
not bound to conventional designations and because their
understanding is free from predispositions toward conventions, in this
lifetime they produce the ability to understand the other-dependent
character. In future lives they achieve cessation through cutting off
the continuum. (Page 111)
Here is repeated the concept that one should not confuse the nature of the imputational
with the other-dependent character. Even Sravakas who do this will attain complete
enlightenment!
The answer to the question put in the beginning of the chapter is summarized this way,
Paramarthasamudgata, thinking of just these three types of lack of
own-being, through the teachings that are Sutras of interpretable
meaning, the Tathagata taught such doctrines as: `All phenomena lack

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own-being; all phenomena are unproduced, unceasing, quiescent from


the start, and naturally in a state of nirvana. (Page 115)
Here is where a western reader may feel unconvinced. The link between lack of own
being and the fact that all phenomena are naturally in a state of nirvana may be unclear.
It is this link between the two ideas that is so critical. I have trouble seeing the
connection in an intellectual way. I feel that it is necessary to meditate on the thoroughly
established character to see into this idea.
The next part of the chapter (pages 115-125), Buddha talks about the various ways that
people can react to the teachings. In summary form:
1. The people who thoroughly understand the teachings and put it into practice.
2. The people who dont understand the teachings but have faith in them. They
study and the teachings and increase their merit.
3. The people who dont understand the teaching and fall into nihilism.
4. People who adhere to the teachings without understanding them, fall away from
virtuous qualities.
5. People who are fearful of teachings and say that it is not the word of Buddha.
They speak badly of the Sutra. They use their intellect to undermine the Sutra.
The verse that follows summarizes the teachings of lack of own being, the centrality of
this doctrine, the need to realize it for all beings and the fruits of the teachings.
The chapter goes on with Paramarthasamudgata giving his understanding of the
teachings. (Pages 125- 137) It is a restatement of the teachings. This part and the
following part talking about the three turnings of the dharma tie in all of the previous
schools to the current teachings.
The chapter concludes with the praising of the teachings. Buddha says:
I have described the merit [generated] by people who develop
conviction in Sutras of interpretable meaning up to those who apply
themselves to the types of meditative cultivation. (Page 143)
This leads us to the next sections dealing with the meditative cultivation of the teachings.

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Section Four
Perceiving Reality
Seeing External Objects
The idea that the world as we know it is a creation of our minds, is starting to filter into
the consciousness of western thinking. As a culture we are starting to understand that
what we perceive does not exactly correspond to reality.
This world is alive with sight sounds textures and smells. Walking into a meadow in the
spring with its flowers in bloom, their scent can bring back distant memories and their
colors are a delight to behold. We hold an apple in our hands, bright red and luscious
looking. Its smooth skin is cool to the touch. We take great pleasure in our senses but
what exactly are we perceiving? Everything that we have been told and experienced,
says that the world is exactly what it appears to be. The apple is exactly as it appears.
Its color, size, smoothness and weight are properties of the apple. We are seeing exactly
what is there. We know that color blindness or nearsightedness can alter the way
something appears, but that is a defect of the eyes. If we had normal sight, we would see
the apple just as it is. We take it for granted that what we are seeing is real. After all, it
all looks and feels so real! The Samdhinirmocana Sutra is telling us that this may not be
the case.

Size Matters
It is with surprise and delight when we look at an apple under a microscope and see that
the surface is far more complex than it first appears. As we look at the apple with greater
and greater magnification the apple keeps changing its appearance. Eventually, It loses
all appearance that we would recognize as apple. What are we to think about the
appearance of an apple? It would be reasonable that as we magnify an image we get to
see more of the way it truly is. That is why we use a magnifying glass to remove a
splinter. The splinter and the skin come into greater focus. Because we are seeing reality
more clearly, it is now easier to extract the splinter. And yet with greater and greater
magnification, we tend to lose sense of the object we are looking at. The magnified
image now appears nothing like what we are used to seeing. What is the correct
appearance of the object? Is it both or perhaps neither?
For example, the pictures below are that of a needle shown in larger and larger
magnification.

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As you can see at a certain level of magnification the needle does not look very needlelike. With further magnification, we would lose all sense of needle.
Here is highly magnified snow:

Some toilet paper:

A staple in a piece of paper:

We think of the surface of a billiard ball as being smooth and the surface of the earth as
being rough. We are seeing these objects from our perspective. If the billiard ball was

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enlarged to the size of the earth, then it would have mountains bigger than Everest and
canyons that would make the Grand Canyon look puny. What we think of as smooth is
what looks smooth to us. What we think of as rough, is rough to us. An ant perceives a
closely mowed lawn as a jungle. For us, it is a like a carpet. Smoothness and roughness
are properties of our perception and not of the thing itself.
In fact, our view of reality is really quite limited. We have difficulty conceiving of
objects that are over a certain size. We may drive to work each day and perhaps by noting
the time it takes or replaying the drive as a movie in our head we can get some idea of the
distance involved. Distances larger than that are beyond us. We are told that this forest
fire or that flooded area is the size of Rhode Island, all we can think of is that they must
mean that it is big. If we are told that the distance from the earth to the moon is a quarter
of million miles we can accept that as a fact but have little real feel for it. What about
distances of light years? There are completely beyond our conception. The universe is
measured in a way that is beyond all comprehension for us.
Similarly if we get to small sizes beyond what can be seen by magnifier, we are
completely lost. We may look into a microscope and see microbes, but we have no real
comprehension of the actual size of them. The vast world of atoms and subatomic
particles are beyond actual description. In terms of size, we perceive a very small slice
of all that is physical universe.
Light Matters
In the same way that we are limited in our perception of what we can see because of size,
we are limited in the kind of light by which we can see. We see objects that reflect
visible light but that is only a very small fraction of light available in our environment.
These other wavelengths of light are simply ignored by our eyes.

Both radio waves and radar waves are examples of light that are the same as visible light
expect for the fact that the waves are longer. X-Rays and Ultra-Violet light are examples

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of light with shorter wavelengths. Except for the length of the wave they are all the
same. One could think of radio waves as just another color of light we do not see. There
are animals that use either a broader part of the spectrum or a narrower part of the
spectrum for vision. The way they see the world must look very different to them.
When we are in a room illuminated only by red light, we see the colors of the room
differently than when normal lighting is used. If the same room is illuminated with only
green light, all of the colors that we perceive in the room are different yet again. The
appearance of color is fully dependent on the nature of the light that is illuminating the
object.
Speed Matters
Not only is color important but even the movement of an object can change the way we
perceive it. Fast moving objects are not clearly perceived. That is why the series of still
frames that make up a movie appears to be a smooth continuous motion. If our
perception were different we would see the same movie as a slide show. Fast moving
objects can appear as a blur. We literally cant see things moving too fast. Similarly we
cant see the movement of objects that are moving too slowly. It is always a marvel for
me to see time lapse photography of a plant growing. The seemingly motionless plant
comes alive and moves in what appears to be a purposeful and intelligent way. The
mountain that does not change over the course of ones lifetime will alter greatly over the
course of geologic time and eventually disappear completely. In order for us to see
something, it cant be too big or too small or moving too fast or moving too slow. It is
also distorted or invisible, if it is illuminated with the wrong kind of light.
Sound and Smell
We are also limited in what we hear and smell. Our ears are only sensitive to certain
wavelengths of sound. We know that other creatures can hear higher and lower
frequencies than we can. We also know that our sense of smell is quite limited when
compared with that of a dogs. Years ago, when I walked my dog and his focus was
completely on what he was smelling, I wondered what world he was perceiving. I
imagined it was a world as rich as the visible world was to me. This world was one that I
was almost totally blind to.
Our ability to perceive the world around us is limited. We only see things that are of a
certain size and we really cannot even conceive of things that are much bigger or much
smaller than ourselves. We see only certain colors, we hear only certain sounds. We feel
that the world looks sharp and in focus and perfectly real but that is only in the context of
our particular perception. These perceptions are all humans really need to see and
understand. That is the point, we see and understand what we need in order to survive as
a species. There was little reason to see more. We have evolved just enough sensory
apparatus to survive in this world.
The Case of Color
My personal story at the beginning of this paper describes how I realized that the
property that we call color exists only in my head. The redness of an apple seemed as
real as anything else in the world. It did remind me of what Ive known most of my life,
that I see red differently than most people. I am red-green color blind. I am not

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completely blind to these colors but they appear color distorted. I create these colors
differently than normal people. Most of the time, I am unaware of this difference. I
know when a stop light changes from red to green without any problem. I can identify
the color of clothing as well as anyone.
From time to time, this different creation of color is striking. My high school had green
black boards. My high school math teacher loved to use colored chalk. When she
wrote with red chalk, it was completely invisible to me but totally visible to the rest of the
class. Sometimes when playing pool, and the felt was a certain color green, the red ball I
was aiming at would no longer look solid. The ball itself would flash from red to black
and the outline of the ball would shimmer as though it was liquid. I found myself
searching the table for a different shot to make! It is easy to understand that in these
moments what I see is a creation of my mind.
The red color of a rose appears for all the world as an integral part of the rose itself. How
could it be that when looking at a vibrantly colored rose, the sensation of color was
actually only in my mind? Clearly, it only appears to be a quality of the rose. It is
actually a quality in my mind.
I have been trying to show that the properties of things that we perceive are not inherent
properties of the object itself. These properties are properties that we create with our
mind. What feels smooth is what feels smooth to us. What looks big is what looks big to
us. What is fast is fast to us. What is red is only red to us. *

The monk Yin Zong expounded on the Buddhist sutras. One day
during his lecture a storm came up. Seeing a banner waving in the
wind, he asked his audience,
"Is the wind moving or is the flag moving?"
Someone said, "The wind is moving."
Someone else said, "The flag is moving."
The two people held fast to their viewpoints and asked Yin Zong to
say who was right. But Yin Zong had no way to decide, so he asked
Huineng, who was standing nearby, to resolve the issue.
Huineng said, "Neither the wind nor the flag is moving."
Yin Zong said, "Then, what is it that is moving?"
Huineng said, "Your mind is moving."
(Zen's Chinese Heritage P 39)

* And of course to other sentient creatures who like us create red. We were not the
inventors of creating red but inherited that ability from our ancestors perhaps hundreds of
millions of years ago.

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Section Five
Imaging the Samdhinirmocana Sutra

What you see is what you get


David Komito in his introductory remarks on his translation of Nagarjunas Seventy
Stanzas writes,
Now, it may seem that this is just an intellectual exercise, for even if
one accepts that existence is merely designated upon appearing
phenomena, still something does appear in perception. Nagarjuna
does not refute this. Indeed, this is precisely his point, and he refers to
this mere appearance as the true status of phenomena; the ultimate
truth about phenomena is that they are mere appearances which are
empty of the characteristics we attribute to them.... (Page 71)

Komito is interpreting Nagarjuna as saying that the ultimate truth of what we perceive is
that we take these perceptions and we impute properties upon them in such a way that we
believe that they are exactly as they appear to be and not products of our minds.
In the last section, I talked about how it is our common knowledge that the things that we
see are the products our senses and how they can be perceived differently given different
circumstances. The perception of things around us is dependent on the prevailing
conditions of our perception. What we see, for example, is dependent on the nature of
ambient light, the size of the object, the speed of the object. I dare say that what we see
is also dependent on the nature of our attention to seeing at the time as well as any of the
other physical factors. If we are not paying much attention to the object it might
appear indistinct or completely altered in its nature. As glancing at a rope, we see a
snake. We then have a familiar double take and it transforms into a rope before our
eyes.
If you read the above paragraph and agree with its basic ideas, then you understand of the
ultimate truth of appearances. The truth of appearances is that they are merely
appearances and have more to do with our brains than the object itself. And yet when you
turn away from this page, you immediately believe that whatever your eye lands on next
is real and not a product of your senses. Nothing has changed in your view of the world
and your idea of the objects in it. It is important that when you have the rope/snake
experience that you are reminded that you have the ability to create a completely false
view of reality and completely believe it. You then can understand the rope is the same
kind of creation as the snake. It is not that the snake was not real and the rope is real,
they are both equally creations of our minds.
Really, this is the heart of this meditation. It requires a firm believe through intellectual
investigation, that what we see is not the way things really are. They are a product of our
brains creating an image from a set of changeable sensory inputs.

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In section Two, I quoted Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen from Mirror of Wisdom, about the
appearance of our face in a mirror. The appearance of our face in the mirror and objects
appearing are not mistaken for real objects. We know that it is a mirror and we know that
objects appearing in mirrors are not real and are only mere appearances. If we are in
certain state of mind and we are in a room unknown to us, we may be startled by our
appearance in a mirror, believing it to be another person. Then we realize that it is a
mirror and relax. Even though objects appearing in a mirror look exactly like real objects
we are never fooled as long we know that the objects are appearing in a mirror.
Images in a mirror are not the only things we should not take seriously. Perhaps it is time
not to take the images appearing in our minds so seriously. After all, that is what they
are; images in our head. They have the same kind of reality as images in a mirror. They
are both arisings in the mind.
When we look at a plain wooden chair, we see something that we can sit in. If feels
smooth and cool to the touch. It has a certain color. We can certainly sit on it but it feels
smooth and cool only to us. Its color is only the color we see. It seems reasonable as we
sit on it that something is there but everything about it is an arising in our minds.
Everything that we perceive, including the chair pushing back our bottom against gravity,
is a product of our consciousness.
What we perceive is an overlay over some incomprehensible manifestation of dependent
arising. The world out there may or may not exist (I will let the adherents of the various
tenet schools argue this point), but it certainly does not exist in any way that we perceive
it. We are not witnessing a world of external objects but a creation of our mind. The
very objects that we perceive are our own creation. That is the nature of perception. The
external world is unknowable in the way it is. It is only knowable in the way it appears.
Finally the meditation
The meditation is a simple extension of the ideas already presented. The first step is
believing that what we see are mere appearances of what things are. Deeply ponder these
ideas. This is very important. We must feel the deep wonder of the fact that we are
looking at the inside of our head when we see the world. We must understand that the
characteristics of what we perceive are merely arbitrary assignments in the brain. If you
can intellectually understand that what our senses tell us is only our story about the world
then we can move onto the next step.
The act of imagination is really quite simple. Try to locate all that you perceive as
happening inside of your head. Stop thinking of a world filled with external objects. See
the all that is happening as a creation of your mind. There is nothing that we are aware
of except for the products of our thinking. See the world as if you dont believe it.
Locate it all in your head. Try to feel that what we are perceiving is not outside of us but
intimately connected with our consciousness. The table and the tree are not external to us
but part of our consciousness. Stop believing that a tree as we perceive it, is an object
that exists outside of our consciousness. This meditation can be done anywhere and at
any time. It is an eyes open meditation because you are questioning the very world that
you are seeing in the moment.

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The point is to start to break the habitual pattern that we find ourselves in. Eventually, it
can happen that you can, for a moment, see the actual truth of this simple idea. You will
then understand the complete inconceivability of the external world. The Tibetans call
this stage along the path, the path of seeing. The Tibetans feel that this is about half way
to enlightenment.
Back to the Samdhinirmocana Sutra
Gunakara, in dependence upon names that are connected with signs,
the imputational character is known. In dependence upon strongly
adhering to the other-dependent character as being the imputational
character, the other-dependent character is known. In dependence
upon absence of strong adherence to the other-dependent character as
being the imputational character, the thoroughly established character
is known. (Page 87)
This quote from the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, I identified in section two as the basic
meditation instructions. Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsens example of the mirror is an example
of In dependence upon strongly adhering to the other-dependent character as being the
imputational character, the other-dependent character is known. The idea is that the
light, the object and mirror really give rise to the image. That is a strong adherence of the
other-dependent character as being the imputational character. With continued meditation
on this idea of the way an image is formed in a mirror will give a stronger and stronger
sense of the other-dependent character. At first pass, the idea of the other-dependent
character is a rather simple idea of cause and effect. Eventually the idea of the
inconceivable nature of dependent arising takes form.
Similarly if we begin to see the things around us (that which is dependently arisen) as
only the names and forms that we give to it, we can begin to understand the
inconceivable nature of dependent arising. That is In dependence upon absence of
strong adherence to the other-dependent character as being the imputational character, the
thoroughly established character is known. If we no longer think that what we are
seeing is connected at all to our names and labels, we can know the thoroughly
established character. This is the idea of the meditation, I am proposing.

As I was the doing research for the paper, I made an unexpected find. The ideas and
meditations that I came to understand were the heart of the Samdhinirmocana Sutra are
really a standard part of Tibetan teaching. The path to cognizing emptiness is clearly
presented using Tibetan terminology by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in his Understanding the
Mind,
When we hear teachings on emptiness we begin to consider the
possibility that phenomena lack inherent existence. At first we will
generate a doubt, thinking "Probably phenomena exist in the way that
they appear, but it is possible that they do not." By continuing to think
correctly about emptiness, we will pass through balanced doubt and

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doubt tending towards the truth, and gradually our doubt will
transform into a correct belief in emptiness.
At this point we do not yet understand emptiness precisely, but we
nevertheless have conviction about the truth of emptiness. We should
not be satisfied with this correct belief but should continue to study,
contemplate, and meditate on emptiness until we gain a valid cognizer
realizing emptiness. The first valid cognizer of emptiness we will gain
will be an inferential valid cognizer.
At this stage, even though we now have a valid understanding of
emptiness, we still need to meditate on emptiness for a long time
using re-cognizers to deepen our experience. This is because an
inferential cognizer realizing emptiness is only an intellectual
understanding, which does not have the power to eliminate selfgrasping. Now we must strive to attain a direct realization of
emptiness that actually has the power to eradicate self-grasping. To do
this we must first attain the union of tranquil abiding and. superior
seeing observing emptiness, and then meditate on this until it
transforms into a yogic direct perceiver realizing emptiness. When we
attain this mind we will have attained the path of seeing and passed
beyond the level of ordinary beings. We will have become a Superior
being who can no longer fall to lower rebirths; and we will definitely
attain liberation from samsara or great enlightenment.
Until we attain an inferential cognizer realizing emptiness, there is
always a danger that we will develop doubts or wrong awarenesses
with respect to emptiness, and so we must always be on guard against
them; but once we have attained an inferential cognizer realizing
emptiness, our understanding of emptiness can no longer be shaken
by doubts. However, there is still a danger that our meditation on
emptiness can be impeded by distractions. To overcome these we
must cultivate non-ascertaining perceivers towards the objects of
distraction. If we restrain our sense doors in this way, we will easily
attain strong concentration that will enable us to transform our
inferential cognizer of emptiness into a direct perceiver realizing
emptiness directly. (Pages 91-92)

What is all this inconceivable stuff anyway?


In our readings on Buddhism, we encounter the word inconceivable a good deal. It could
mean that we are just not smart enough to understand dependent arising. If only it was
not as complicated, we could get it.
Actually, I dont think that it has anything to do with how complicated dependent arising
is (I am sure it is complicated) or that we are not smart enough (it wouldnt hurt to be
smarter) but that it is the very nature of reality.
Madhyamika Koan:
Why is dependent arising incomprehensible?

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The answer lies in the fact that the self is also an arising. It arises with everything else.
We are literally not around for dependent arising, the self is the product of dependent
arising and not its witness. We have no idea how it took place. By the time that we
have arisen, everything else has as well. The entire universe is complete in that moment.
This itself is a meditation. We can imagine the self arising with everything else.
Pondering this idea also can lead to a profound insight.
The answer and the question of the koan both can be used to understand the heart of
chapter 7 of the Samdhinirmocana Sutra .
Why was the Bhagavan thinking, All phenomena lack own-being; all
phenomena are unproduced, unceasing, quiescent from the start, and
naturally in a state of nirvana? I ask the Bhagavan the meaning of
this. (Page 97)
The Madhyamika Koan leads to the answer to this question. It is also the meaning of
Dogens line from Self-Receiving and Self-Employing Awareness, All this, however
does not appear within perception, because it is unconstructedness in stillness. (Moon in
a Dewdrop Page,146)
You can also take this idea and adopt it without believing it. It can also be imagined that ,
All phenomena lack own-being; all phenomena are unproduced, unceasing, quiescent
from the start, and naturally in a state of nirvana?. This imagination can lead to one
getting an insight into this idea.
Ultimate Truth
Madhyamika literature is filled with references to truths and ultimate realities. We are
promised to know our true self. It makes one feel that there is some truth that we can
point to. We feel that we can finally understand the nature of our being and life.
What is ultimately true is that our ideas of all things that we perceive do not reach
those things. What is ultimately true is that there is no ultimate truth in a positive
sense. Delusion is what is thoroughly established. Everywhere the self turns, it
encounters the imputational and mistakes it for the other-dependent. Everywhere the self
turns, it finds the self.
We are left to fully integrate this ultimate truth into our daily lives.
This is the meaning of:
The fundamental affliction of ignorance itself is the immutable knowledge of all
Buddhas; this principle is most profound and mysterious in the extreme, difficult
to comprehend.
(From Case 37: Book of Serenity Page 163)

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Works sited in the paper


Cleary, Thomas. Book of Serenity. Lindisfarne Press: San Francisco, 1990
Dogen. Moon in a Dewdrop. Edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi North Point Press: San
Francisco, 1985
Ferguson, Andy. Zens Chinese Heritage. Wisdom Publications: Boston, 2000
Garma C. C. Chang. The Buddhist Teaching of Totality. The Pennsylvania State
University Press: University Park, 1977
Goddard, Dwight. Self-Realization of Noble Wisdom (Lankavatara Sutra). The Dawn
Horse Press: Clearlake, 1932
Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang. Understanding the Mind. London: Tharpa Publications, 1993
Hopkins, Jeffery. Emptiness Yoga: The Tibetan Middle Way. Snow Lion Publications:
Ithaca, 1987
Klein, Anne. Knowledge & Liberation. . Snow Lion Publications: Ithaca, 1986
Komito, David. Nagarjunas Seventy Stanzas. Snow Lion Publications: Ithaca, 1987
Nanamoli, Bhikkhu & Bodhi, Bhikkhu The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha.
Wisdom Publications: Boston, 1995
Powers, John. Wisdom of Buddha: Samdhinirmocana Sutra . Berkeley: Dharma
Publishing, 1994
_______. Hermeneutics and Tradition in the Samdhinirmocana-Sutra. Motilal
Banarsidass Publishers: Delhi, 2004
Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva. Shambhala: Boston, 1997

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