Samdhinirmochana Sutra

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The Samdhinirmochana Sutra (Skt. Saṃdhinirmocana sūtra; Tib. དགོངས་པ་ངེས་འགྲེལ་, Wyl. dgongs pa nges 'grel; Eng. Sutra of Unraveling the Intent[1]) is a famous mahayana sutra in 10 chapters that is particularly associated with the Yogachara school. It is one of the ten sutras that teach the sugatagarbha and classified as being part of the third turning of the wheel of dharma.

The Samdhinirmochana Sutra has played a major role in Tibetan hermeneutical debates. For centuries, it has been considered a central scripture referred to extensively in the writings of Tibet’s great luminaries, such as Jé Tsongkhapa or Jamgön Mipham Gyatso.[2]


  • In the first chapter, the bodhisattva Vidhi­vatpari­prcchaka questions the bodhisattva Gam­bhirarthasamdhi­nirmo­cana on the inexpressible and nondual ultimate.
  • In the second chapter, the bodhisattva Dharmodgata questions the Buddha on the ultimate beyond speculation.
  • In the third chapter, the bodhisattva Su­vishuddha­mati questions the Buddha on the ultimate that is beyond being distinct or indistinct from conditioned phenomena.
  • In the fourth chapter, Subhuti questions the Buddha on the ultimate that is of a single nature within all phenomena.
  • In the fifth chapter, the bodhisattva Vishalamati questions the Buddha on the secrets of mind (citta), thought (manas), and cognition or consciousness (vijñāna).
  • In the sixth chapter, the bodhisattva Gunakara questions the Buddha on the three defining characteristics or three natures (lakṣaṇa) of phenomena.
  • In the seventh chapter, the bodhisattva Para­martha­samud­gata questions the Buddha on the three kinds of essencelessness as well as on the Buddha’s three turnings of the Dharma wheel.
  • In the eighth chapter, the bodhisattva Maitreya questions the Buddha on the practice of shamatha and vipashyana.
  • In the ninth chapter, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara questions the Buddha on the stages of the bodhisattva path and the Single Vehicle (ekayāna).
  • In the tenth chapter, the bodhisattva Mañjushri questions the Buddha on the kayas and activity of the buddhas.[3]

From a broader perspective, it is possible to consider that the teaching imparted in this sutra is structured in terms of ground, path, and fruition.

  • The first four chapters on the five characteristics of the ultimate as defined in the Prajñaparamita sutras represent a teaching on the ground, namely, true reality (tathatā) as it is;
  • chapters 5–9, a teaching on the path in terms of practices and stages to attain awakening; and
  • chapter 10, a teaching on the result through the doctrine of the tathagatas’ bodies and activity to awaken beings.

All major Tibetan traditions consider chapter 3, focusing on the relation between the two truths, and chapter 8, focusing on meditative practice, to be authoritative. These are among the scriptures most quoted on their respective topics by Tibetan authors regardless of lineage.[4]


Only fragments of the original Sanskrit text are extant; the only complete extant versions of the Samdhi­nirmochana­ Sutra are Chinese and Tibetan translations produced from Sanskrit manuscripts.

Early Translations

This sutra was first translated into Chinese by:

  • Guṇabhadra around 440,
  • Bodhiruci in 514,
  • Paramartha in 557, and
  • Xuanzang in 647.

It was translated into Tibetan towards the end of the eighth century by Chokro Lüi Gyaltsen and can be found in the Tibetan Kangyur, General Sutra Section, Toh 106.[5]

The fact that Xuanzang's Chinese version and Chokro Lüi Gyaltsen's Tibetan version are so similar might allow us to believe that they are both the translation of the same Sanskrit version.[6]

Modern Translations

In English

  • John Powers, Wisdom of Buddha (Dharma Publishing, 1995), translation from Tibetan
  • Thomas Cleary, Buddhist Yoga, A Comprehensive Course (Boston: Shambhala, 1995), translation from Chinese
  • John P Keenan, The Scripture on the Explication of Underlying Meaning (Bdk English Tripitaka, 2000), translation from Chinese
  • Buddhavacana Translation Group, Unraveling the Intent (2020), translation from Tibetan

In French

  • Étienne Lamotte, Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra, L'Explication des mystères (Louvain, 1935), translation from Tibetan
  • Soûtra du Dévoilement du sens profond, translated from Tibetan by Philippe Cornu (Fayard, 2005), translation from Tibetan


There are 5 commentaries of this sutra in the Tengyur:

  • Āryasaṃdhi­nirmocanabhāṣya (Wyl. dgongs pa nges par ’grel pa’i rnam par bshad pa) by Asanga (more of a synopsis)
  • Ārya-gambhīra-samdhinirmocana-sūtra-tīkā (Wyl. dgongs pa zab mo nges par ’grel pa’i mdo rgya cher ’grel pa) by Wonch'uk, a Korean student of the great Chinese scholar Hsūan tsang. Major sections of Wonch'uk's original Chinese text have been lost, the only complete version of the text available today is the Tibetan translation found in the Tibetan Tengyur.[7]
  • Āryasaṃdhi­nirmocanasūtre āryamaitreyakevalaparivartabhāṣya (Wyl. dgongs pa nges par ’grel pa’i mdo las ’phags pa byams pa’i le’u nyi tshe bshad pa) by Jñanagarbha
  • Āryasaṃdhi­nirmocana­sūtravyākhyāna (Wyl. bstan bcos sna tshogs) by Changchup Dzutrül. Although there is some mystery surrounding the author's identity, most Tibetan scholars attribute this text to Chokro Lüi Gyaltsen.[8]
  • Samyagvāk­pramāṇoddhṛta­sūtra (Wyl. bka’ yang dag pa’i tshad ma las mdo btus pa) by Trisong Detsen


  1. 84000. Alternative translations: Sutra which Decisively Reveals the Intention; Scripture Unlocking the Mysteries (Clearly).
  2. Source: 84000, i.36
  3. Source: 84000, i.4
  4. Source: 84000, i.5
  5. In addition to the various Kangyur editions, the sutra is also quoted in full in the Vinishcaya­sam­grahani of the Yogacarabhumi.
  6. Source: Philippe Cornu, Soûtra du Dévoilement du sens profond, pages 20-21.
  7. Source: John Powers, Wisdom of Buddha, page xxi.
  8. Source: John Powers, Wisdom of Buddha, page xxi.

Further Reading

  • John Powers, Brill's Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Volume I: Literature and Languages (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2015), pages 240-248.
  • John Powers, Hermeneutics and Tradition in the Samdhinirmocana-sūtra (Leiden 1993). This was part of the author's 1991 doctoral dissertation at University of Virginia.
  • John Powers, Lost in China, Found in Tibet: How Wonch'uk Became the Author of the Great Chinese Commentary, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol. 15, no. 1 (1992), pp. 95-103.
  • John Powers, The Concept of the Ultimate (don dam pa, paramartha) in the Sandhinirmocana-sūtra: Analysis, Translation and Notes (vols. 1-2), doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia (1991).
  • John Powers, The Term "Samdhinirmocana" in the Title of the Samdhinirmocana-sūtra, Studies in Central and East Asian Religions, vol. 4 (Autumn 1991), pp. 52-62.
  • John Powers, The Tibetan Translations of the Samdhinirmocana-sūtra and Bka' 'gyur Research, Central Asiatic Journal, vol. 37, no. 3/4 (1993), pp. 198-224
  • Lambert Schmithausen, The Genesis of Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda: Responses and Reflections. Kasuga Lectures Series 1. Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 2014.

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