Two Concepts of Meditation and Three Kinds of Wisdom in Kamalasila’s Bhavanakramas

A Problem of Translation


  • Martin T. Adam University of Victoria, British Columbia



Tibetan Buddhsim, Meditation, Translation


A close reading of the three Bhavanakramah texts, written by Kamalasila (740–795 CE), reveals that their author was aware of two competing concepts of meditation prevalent in Tibet at the time of their composition. The two concepts of meditation,associated with the Sanskrit words bhavana and dhyana, can be related respectively to the Indian and Chinese sides of the well-known debates at bSam yas. The account of the Mahayana path outlined in these texts implies an acceptance of the precedence of bhavana over dhyana. In this paper I argue that Kamalasila advocated bhavana – a conception of meditation which encompasses non-conceptual dhyana, but which also includes a discernment of reality (bhuta-pratyaveksa) that is conceptual in nature. Such conceptual discernment should not be understood simply as a process of ordinary rational understanding (cintamayi prajña) but rather as constituting a special kind of meditative wisdom (bhavanamayi prajña). A failure to recognize the subtle differences between Kamalasila’s employment of the terms dhyana and bhavana, along with his advocacy of the latter, could easily lead to mistranslation and, with this, a basic misunderstanding of his position. In particular, it could lead to a conception of insight (vipasyana) that is overly intellectual in nature. Given the historically important role that these texts played in the formation of Tibetan Buddhism, the implications of such a misconception could be far-reaching. This paper attempts to clarify the key meditation terminology found in the Bhavanakramas as well as demonstrate the rationale for using ‘meditation’ as the default translation for bhavana.

Author Biography

Martin T. Adam, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Religious Studies Program, Department of Pacific and Asian Studies


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How to Cite

Adam, M. T. (2007). Two Concepts of Meditation and Three Kinds of Wisdom in Kamalasila’s Bhavanakramas: A Problem of Translation. Buddhist Studies Review, 23(1), 71–92.