Samādhirāja, The King of Samādhis

Contextual Introduction

This sūtra, renowned for its profound insights on emptiness, encapsulates a teaching by the Buddha, largely to the layman Candraprabha's queries, about the nature and practice of samādhi through conduct and understanding of emptiness, with illustrations from the Buddha's past lives, primarily delivered on Vulture Peak Mountain with a segment at Rājagṛha, concluding with Ānanda's vow to preserve the teaching.

The sūtra's first translation by An Shigao is apparently lost, but it hints at the time when the sūtra was first circulating in written form. It integrates at least two pre-existing works, including a text on the six perfections known as Mahāprajñāsamādhisūtra or Mañjuśrībodhisattvacāryā from the fifth century (chps. 27-29) and another independent chapter with Ānanda as the interlocutor (chp. 36), indicating the sūtra's composite nature through adaptation and inclusion of earlier teachings.

The sūtra's surviving translations are that into Chinese in 556 by Narendrayaśas (517–589) in ten fascicles (T. 639) and into Tibetan by Śīlendrabodhi and Chönyi Tsultrim (between 815–838) (Toh. 127). Sanskrit manuscripts that survive date from the 6th century to more recent Nepalese manuscripts. Chapter divisions that exist in Tibetan and Sanskrit differ from version to version. This summary is based on the chapter divisions in the Tibetan version translated by 84000.

The sūtra primarily goes by the titles Samādhirāja (King of Samādhis) and Candrapradīpa Samādhi (The Samādhi of the Moon Lamp). Here, it is very likely that Candrapradīpa is a variant of the name of the layman Candraprabha. It became popular in the Indian commentarial tradition but was never particularly prominent in either China or Tibet, except for in the early Kadampa and Kagyu traditions.

Doctrinal Introduction

The titular samādhi, or meditational state, refers to a range of things. In essence, it is an encapsulation of the bodhisattva path in a state of transcendent awareness of the nature of reality as empty, but also creative and compassionate, being imbued with the ability to adapt to and serve the needs of sentient beings in working to liberate them. The samādhi, as introduced in chapter 1, features a vast set of awakened qualities and also an array of benefits for those who practice it. In its core, the samādhi can be equated with the mind of the awakening bodhisattva as well as the buddha. Therefore, it is the path to buddhahood itself, while also being the effect of that path embodied in awakened qualities.

The sūtra also uses the term "samādhi" and "meditation" in another way that might be confusing at first sight, and that is to refer to the sūtra as a whole itself. This is because the sūtra, as a discourse of the Buddha, is the medium through which the Buddha communicates the samādhi and its qualities, and therefore, in upholding and honouring this sūtra, one upholds and honours this samādhi. Therefore, when the sūtra uses the term "this samādhi" throughout, it often refers to the entire sūtra in and of itself, and by extension, the samādhi as a meditative and liberative state of mind that is taught therein. While the sūtra does not use this vocabulary, it would be safe to say that the sūtra could be equated with buddha-nature itself.

In terms of practice, the sūtra encourages conventional Buddhist conduct, especially monastic renunciation. It also encourages tranquil meditation, śamatha and vipaśyanā, the attainment thereby of transcendent patience, and the respectful upholding and teaching of the samādhi, as encapsulated in this sūtra itself. The benefits of this range all of the advantages of Buddhist practice, up to buddhahood, as well as birth in the Pure Land of Amitābha.

Chapter Summaries

1. The Introduction

2. Śālendrarāja

3. Praise of the Buddha’s Qualities

4. Samādhi

5. Ghoṣadatta

6. Cultivating the Samādhi

7. The Attainment of Patience

8. Buddha Abhāvasamudgata

9. The Patience of the Profound Dharma