The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

The Madhyamakopadésa: Atiśa's Special Instructions on the Middle Way

by Alexandra Makkonen
February 6, 2019
Wed, 02/06/2019 - 13:05 -- Alexandra Makkonen

The following text is a translation of Atiśa's instructions on the practice of Madhyamaka in meditation. Special Instructions on the Middle Way, along with Entry to the Two Realities, are considered by traditional Gelukpa historians to be the two foremost textual teachings (gzhung) on the view (lta ba) within Atiśa's works. An early Kadampa commentary on Entry to the Two Realities, attributed to Naljorpa Sherap Dorjé (ca. 1125), who was a direct disciple of Sharawa Yönten Drak, understands Special Instructions on the Middle Way to be a text on meditation (sgom pa). Be that as it may, most all traditional sources mention that this teaching was given by Atiśa in Lhasa at the request of Ngok Lekpai Sherap.


In the Indian language: Madhyamakopadeśa.

In the Tibetan language: Dbu ma’i man ngag ces bya ba

[Special Instructions on the Middle Way].

I bow down to the Protector of the World.


I bow down to that supreme holy person,

whose light rays of speech

opens the lotuses of the hearts

of all the deluded like me without exception.


The special instructions of the Mahāyāna’s Middle Way are as follows: Conventionally, all things, from the perspective of the deluded whose vision is narrow, including all presentations of cause and effect and so forth, are real according to how they appear. Ultimately or actually, when the conventional as it appears is closely examined and clarified by the great reasonings, one should thoroughly understand with certainty that even something the size of the tip of a hair that is split a hundred times cannot be grasped.


While sitting in a cross-legged position on a comfortable seat, [contemplate] for a while as follows: there are two kinds of entities, material and nonmaterial. In this regard, material entities are collections of minute particles. When these are closely examined and broken up according to their directional parts, not even the most subtle [part] remains and they are completely without appearance. Nonmaterial is the mind. In regard to this, the past mind has ceased and perished. The mind of the future has not yet arisen or occurred. Even the mind of the present is extremely difficult to examine: it has no color and is devoid of shape, since it is similar to space, it is not established, and since it is free of unity and multiplicity, unproduced, and having a luminous nature and so forth, when it is analyzed and examined with the weapon of reasoning, one realizes that it is not established.

In this way, when those two are not established as having any nature at all  and do not exist, the very wisdom that individually discriminates is not established either. For example, through the condition of fire occurring by rubbing two sticks together, the two sticks are burned up and become nonexistent. Just as the very fire that has burned subsides by itself, likewise when all specific and generally characterized things are established as nonexistent, wisdom itself, without appearance and luminous, is not established with any nature at all. All faults such as laxity and excitement and so forth are eliminated. In this interval of meditation, consciousness does not conceptualize, does not apprehend anything at all. All recollection and mental engagement is eliminated. Consciousness should reside in this way for as long as the enemies or thieves of phenomenal marks and conceptual thought do not arise. When you wish to arise, slowly release from the cross-legged position and stand up. Then, with a mind that sees all things like illusions, do as many virtuous deeds as you are able with body, speech, and mind.

Accordingly, when one practices with devotion, for a long time and uninterruptedly, then those with good fortune will see reality in this very life and all things will be directly realized, effortlessly and spontaneously, like the center of space. Through the attainment [of wisdom] after [meditation], all things are understood to be like illusions and so forth. From the point of time onward when the vajra-like concentration has been realized, [buddhas] will not have any subsequent attainment, as they are settled in meditative equipoise at all times.

I will not speak here regarding the reasonings and scriptures that make statements such as, “If it is not like that, what is the difference from bodhisattvas?” Through the power of gathering the accumulations and making aspiration prayers for countless aeons for the welfare of others, [buddhas] will become just as those who are to be taught wish [them to be]. There are many scriptures and reasonings [on this topic], but I will not elaborate on them here.

The [text] called Special Instructions on the Middle Way, composed by the paṇḍita Dīpaṃkaraśrījñāna, is completed. The Indian master himself and the great editor translator and monk, Tsultrim Gyalwa, translated, edited, and set the final version at the Trulnang temple in Lhasa.

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