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Trisvabhāva (T. mtshan nyid gsum/rang bzhin gsum; C. sanxing 三性), or the three natures, is a key doctrine of the Yogacara school that presents a model of our experiences and phenomena in terms of three natures.

The three natures are:

  1. Parikalpita-svabhāva (T. kun brtags mtshan nyid): "imaginary nature"
  2. Paratantra-svabhāva ( T. gzhan dbang mtshan nyid): "dependent nature"
  3. Pariniṣpanna-svabhāva (T. yongs grub mtshan nyid): "truly existent nature"

Contemporary writer Andy Karr states:

One way to summarize [the three natures] would be to say that what is imagined by names, thoughts, and so on is the imaginary nature. What is not imagined by names and thoughts but appears due to causes and conditions is the dependent nature. The dependent nature’s emptiness of the imaginary nature is the perfectly existent nature.[1]


Samdhinirmochana Sutra

The three natures are presented in the sixth chapter of the Samdhinirmochana Sutra as follows:

  • The imaginary nature “refers to the establishing of names and symbols for all things and the distinguishing of their essences, whereby they come to be expressed in language.”[2]
  • The dependent nature refers to “the pattern whereby all things arise co-dependently: for if this exists, then that exists, and if this arises, then that arises. This refers to [the twelvefold conditions…] …”[2]
  • The thoroughly established nature refers to “the universally equal suchness of all things. Bodhisattvas penetrate to this suchness because of their resolute zeal, intelligent focusing, and true reflection. By gradually cultivating this penetration, they reach unsurpassed true awakening and actually realize perfection.”[2]

The text also describes the three natures by means of two metaphors:

  • Using the metaphor of a cataract, the text describes the imaginary nature as like the defective vision of someone with cataracts, the dependent nature is like the false images that appear to someone with cataracts, and the thoroughly established nature as like the unconfused objects seen through the pure vision of someone without cataracts.[2]
  • Using the metaphor of a clear crystal, the texts describes the three natures as follows: when various colors are reflected through the crystal, the imaginary nature is the misapprehension of the clear crystal as being “blue sapphires, rubies, emeralds, or gold”; the dependent nature is the clear crystal itself; and the thoroughly established nature is the lack of inherent reality of the misapprehended images (of sapphires, etc.) that are superimposed on the crystal.[2]


In Madhyāntavibhāga (Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes), the three natures are presented in the first chapter within the framework of the false imagination (abhūtaparikalpa). The false imagination refers to the superimposition of an apprehender and apprehended onto appearances. This superimposition can be compared to appearances in a dream: in a dream, appearances arise is if they exist, yet all the appearances are imputed by the mind. In the same way, the dualistic perceptions of an apprehender and apprehended are also imputations of the mind.

After explaining the false imagination, the text presents the principle of the three natures in relation to this false imagination as follows:

  • the imaginary nature refers to the dualistic appearances of the false imagination;
  • the basis for these appearances is the dependent nature; and
  • the nature of this false imagination, which is empty, is the thoroughly established nature.[3]

Following this introduction to the three natures in the first chapter, the text presents a detailed investigation into the characteristics of the three natures in the third chapter. This chapter includes an examination of the three natures in relation to impermanence, suffering, emptiness, the four noble truths, and so on. For example, the characteristic of impermanence is applied to the three natures as follows: the imaginary nature is said to impermanent in that it is non-existent. The dependent nature is characterized by arising and ceasing; hence it is by its essence impermanent. The thoroughly established nature is not impermanent on the ultimate level; however, from the perspective of how it appears to ordinary beings, it can be called impermanent.[4]

Alternative translations

  • Imaginary, Other-dependent & Perfect (Karl Brunnhölzl)
  • Imagined, Other-dependent & Consummate (Jay L. Garfield)
  • Imputation, Dependence & the Absolute (Richard Barron)
  • Imaginary, Dependent & Thoroughly Established (Dharmachakra Translation Group)

Canonical literature

See also


  1. Karr, page 99-110.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Keenan, pp. 31-32
  3. Dharmachakra Translation Group, Chapter 1
  4. Dharmachakra Translation Group, Chapter 3


  • Dharmachakra Translation Group. Middle Beyond Extremes: Maitreya’s Madhyāntavibhāga, with Commentaries by Khenpo Shenga and Ju Mipham. Boston: Snow Lion, 2006.
  • Karr, Andy. Contemplating Reality (Boston: Shambala Publications, 2007), Chapter 9
  • Keenan, John. Scripture on the Explication of the Underlying Meaning. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2000

Further reading

  • Connelly, Ben. Inside Vasubandhu's Yogacara, Wisdom, 2016
  • D'Amato, M. "Three Stages: An Interpretation of the Yogacara Trisvabhava-Theory." Journal of Indian Philosophy. (2005) 33:185-207
  • Garfield, Jay L. "Vasubandhu's Treatise on the Three Natures" in Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation, Oxford University Press, 2002
  • Karr, Andy. Contemplating Reality (Boston: Shambala Publications, 2007), Chapter 9
  • Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction (Hacket: 2012), "Chapter 8: Yogacara"
  • Westerhoff, Jan. The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 182-183

External links

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