Samdhinirmochana Sutra

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The Samdhinirmochana Sutra (Skt. Saṃdhinirmocana sūtra; T. dgongs pa nges 'grel, དགོངས་པ་ངེས་འགྲེལ༏; C. Jiě Shēnmì Jīng 解深密經), or "Unravelling the Intent," is a Mahayana sutra that is particularly associated with the Yogacara school.[1][2][3]

This sutra is known for its presentation of the Three Turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma (a Mahayana classification of the teachings of the Buddha).[1] It also contains explanations of key Yogacara concepts such as the eight consciousnesses, and the doctrine of cognition-only (vijñapti-mātra) and the three natures (trisvabhāva).

Étienne Lamotte considered this sutra "the link between the Prajñaparamita literature and the Yogacara Vijñanavada school".[4]


The Buddhavacana Translation Group states:

In Unraveling the Intent, the Buddha gives a systematic overview of his three great cycles of teachings, which he refers to in this text as the “three Dharma wheels” (tridharmacakra). In the process of delineating the meaning of these doctrines, the Buddha unravels several difficult points regarding the ultimate and relative truths, the nature of reality, and the contemplative methods conducive to the attainment of complete and perfect awakening, and he also explains what his intent was when he imparted teachings belonging to each of the three Dharma wheels. In unambiguous terms, the third wheel is proclaimed to be of definitive meaning. Through a series of dialogues with hearers and bodhisattvas, the Buddha thus offers a complete and systematic teaching on the Great Vehicle, which he refers to here as the Single Vehicle.[5]

English translations for the title

The title has been variously translated as:

  • Unfurling the real meaning (Princeton Dictionary)[1]
  • Explaining the thought (Princeton Dictionary)
  • Unraveling the bonds (Princeton Dictionary)
  • Unraveling the Intent (84000 Translation group)
  • Elucidation of the Intention Sutra or Unravelling the Thought (Powers)
  • Sutra which Decisively Reveals the Intention (Rigpa wiki)
  • The explication of mysteries, L'explication des mystères (Lamotte)
  • Scripture on the Explication of the Underlying Meaning (Keenan)
  • Scripture Unlocking the Mysteries (Cleary)

Translations of the text

Into Chinese

This sutra was also translated into Chinese by:

  • Guṇabhadra around 440,
  • Paramartha (499-569) and
  • Xuanzang (600-664).

Into Tibetan

This sutra was translated into Tibetan by Chokro Lüi Gyaltsen and can be found in the Tibetan Kangyur.

According to Philippe Cornu, the fact that Xuanzang's Chinese version and Chokro Lüi Gyaltsen's Tibetan version are so similar suggests that they are both translations of the same Sanskrit version.[6]

Into English

From Tibetan source texts:

  • Powers, John (1995), Wisdom of Buddha : The Samdhinirmochana Sutra, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, ISBN 089800246X 

From Chinese source texts:

  • Cleary, Thomas (1995), Buddhist Yoga : A Comprehensive Course, Boston: Shambhala

Into French

From Tibetan source texts:

  • Lamotte, Etienne (1935), Samdhinirmocana Sutra: L'explication des Mysteres, Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve 
  • Cornu, Philippe (2005), Soûtra du Dévoilement du sens profond, Fayard 

Into German

  • Frauwallner, Erich (1969), Die Philosophie des Buddhismus, pp.284-295 (partial translation, chapters VI and VII), Frankfurt: Akademie Verlag 


Classical commentaries

There are two commentaries on this sutra attributed to Asanga:

  • Compendium of Ascertainments (Viniscaya-samgrahani) and
  • Commentary on the Superior Sutra Samdhinirmocana (Arya-samdhinirmocana-bhasya).[7]

There is another extant commentary, attributed to Jñānagarbha which is only on the eighth chapter of the sutra, the Maitreya chapter, titled the "Arya-samdhinirmocana-sutre-arya-maitreya-kevala-parivarta-bhasya".[8]

There is also a large Chinese commentary by Woncheuk, a Korean student of Xuanzang which cites many sources with differing opinions and a Tibetan commentary attributed to Byang chub rdzu 'phrul.[8]

Modern commentaries


According to Jan Westerhoff, the text "probably appeared in the third century CE (its first Chinese translation was made around 440)."[9]

Étienne Lamotte believed that the text was assembled from earlier, independent fragments.[10] Other scholars believe that the apparently fragmentary nature of the early versions of the scripture may represent piecemeal attempts at translation, rather than a composite origin for the text itself.[11] According to Powers, the earliest forms of the text may date from as early as the 1st or 2nd Century CE.[11] The final form of the text was probably assembled no earlier than the 3rd Century CE, and by the 4th Century significant commentaries on the text began to be composed by Buddhist scholars, most notably Asanga.[11]


The sūtra presents itself as a series of dialogues between Gautama Buddha and various hearers and bodhisattvas.[5][12] During these dialogues, the Buddha attempts to clarify disputed meanings present in scriptures of the early Mahāyāna and the early Buddhist schools. Hence, the title of the sūtra indicates the intention to present a teaching that is "completely explicit" and requires no interpretation in order to be understood.[13]

In the presention in ten chapters:

  • The first four chapters of the sūtra discuss the concept of ultimate truth (paramartha) and its "ineffable and of a non-dual character".
  • The fifth chapter discusses the eight consciousnesses, including the "Storehouse Consciousnesses".
  • The sixth chapter presents the three natures.
  • Chapter seven presents the concept of the three vehicles.
  • Chapter eight and nine discusses the path to enlightenment and meditation.
  • The final chapter is a discussion on the nature of a Buddha.[12]

Within the sūtra, the Buddha describes the teaching that he is presenting as part of the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.[13] As such, the Sūtra is intended to clarify confusing or contradictory elements of earlier teachings, presenting a new teaching that resolves earlier inconsistencies.[12] The Sūtra affirms that the earlier turnings of the wheel—the teachings of the Śrāvaka Vehicle (Śrāvakayāna) and the emptiness (Śūnyatā) doctrine of the Prajnaparamita Sutras—represented authentic teachings, but indicates that they were flawed because they required interpretation.[13] The teachings of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, on the other hand, require no interpretation and can be read literally according to the discourse delivered by the Buddha within the text.[13] This reflects an ancient division in Buddhist hermeneutics, a topic to which the sūtra devotes an entire chapter.[12][13]

The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra was adopted by the Yogācāra as one of its primary scriptures. In addition, it inspired a great deal of additional writing, including discussions by Asaṅga, Vasubandhu, Xuanzang, Woncheuk, and a large body of Tibetan literature founded on Je Tsongkhapa's writings concerning the scripture.[12]


In ten chapters

Translator John Powers identifies ten chapters based on the Tibetan version of the text. Buswell also identifies ten chapters.

The ten chapters (according to Powers are):[14]

  • The Setting and Chapter One: The Chapter of Gambhirarthasamdhinirmocana
  • Chapter Two: The Questions of Dharmodgata
  • Chapter Three: The Questions of Suvisuddhamati
  • Chapter Four: The Questions of Subhuti
  • Chapter Five: The Questions of Visalamati - presents the eight consciousnesses
  • Chapter Six: The Questions of Gunakara - presents the three natures
  • Chapter Seven: The Questions of Paramarthasamudgata - presents the concept of the three vehicles
  • Chapter Eight: The Questions of Maitreya
  • Chapter Nine: The Questions of Avalokiteshvara
  • Chapter Ten: The Questions of Manjushri

In eight chapters

Translators John Keenan and Thomas Cleary present the text in eight chapters. In this case, part of chapter 1 and chapters 2-4 of the previous outline are condensed into a single chapter.

The outline in eight chapters (from Keenan) is:[15]

  1. Introduction - the setting
  2. The Descriptive Marks of the Truth of Ultimate Meaning - discussion of ultimate reality
    • response of Gambhirarthasamdhinirmocana
    • questions of Dharmodgata
    • questions of Suvisuddhimati
    • questions of Subhuti
  3. The Descriptive Marks of Mind, Thought, and [Sense] Consciousness
  4. The Characteristic Patterns of All Things
  5. The Absence of Essence
    • questions of Paramarthasamudgata - presents the concept of the three vehicles
  6. The Analysis of Centering
    • questions of Maitreya
  7. The Stages and Perfections
    • questions of Avalokiteshvara
  8. The Duty Accomplishment of a Tathagata
    • questions of Manjushri


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra.
  2. Harvey 2013, p. 104.
  3. Williams 2004, p. 78
  4. Lamotte, Etienne (1935), Samdhinirmocana Sutra: L'explication des Mysteres, page 24.
  5. 5.0 5.1 84000.png Unravelling the Intent, "Summary"
  6. Philippe Cornu, Soûtra du Dévoilement du sens profond.
  7. Powers 1993, pp. 15.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Powers 1993, pp. 16.
  9. Westerhoff 2018, Chapter on "Yogacara".
  10. Warder 2000, pp. 407–11.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Powers 1993, pp. 4-11.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 Powers 2004, p. 738
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 Williams 2004, p. 79
  14. Powers 2004.
  15. Keenan 2000.


External links

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