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Probably originally composed sometime around the fourth century b.c.e. in India, the Saṃdhinirmocana-Sūtra (Discourse Explaining the Thought or Sūtra onUnfurling the Real Meaning) is today extant only in Chinese and Tibetan versions (Chinese, Jie shenmi jing; Tibetan, Dgongs pa nges par 'grel pa'i mdo). As its title indicates, the text claims to provide definitive explanations for contradictory statements in earlier sūtras. It is divided into ten chapters, each of which has a main interlocutor who asks the Buddha to explain the intentions behind earlier statements attributed to him. All of the interlocutors are identified as bodhisattvas on the tenth stage (bhūmi), and the discourse is set in a heavenly realm. These tropes are apparently intended to establish the text as the definitive statement on contentious doctrinal issues.

The first four chapters focus on a discussion of the ultimate truth (paramārtha). The fifth contains a seminal description of the storehouse consciousness (ĀlayavijÑĀna), and the sixth explains the notion of the three characteristics (trilakṣaṇa) of phenomena (imputational, other-dependent, and thoroughly real). The seventh chapter is mainly concerned with outlining principles of Buddhist hermeneutics, and the eighth focuses on meditation theory and practice. The ninth chapter describes the bodhisattva path, and the final chapter is concerned with the characteristics of buddhahood, the culmination of the practices the text describes.

The Saṃdhinirmocana-Sūtra became the main scriptural source for the YogĀcara school, one of the two main philosophical traditions of Indian MahĀyĀna Buddhism (the other being Madhyamaka). It figures prominently in the thought of AsaṄga (ca. 320–390), Vasubandhu (fourth century c.e.), and their commentators, and inspired a voluminous literature in Tibet that is based on Tsong kha pa's Legs bshad snying po (Essence of Good Explanations).


Powers, John. Hermeneutics and Tradition in the Saṃdhinirmocana-Sūtra. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1993.

Powers, John, trans. Wisdom of Buddha: The Saṃdhinirmocana-Sūtra. Berkeley, CA: Dharma, 1995.

John Powers