Prabhāsvara in the Canonical Texts and in Cosmogony

By David Reigle on February 25, 2014 at 2:42 pm

updated June 5, 2015

“The Cosmogony Account from the Buddhist Tantras,” the previous “Creation Stories” posting, shows the world arising from prabhāsvara, “luminosity” or the “clear light.” We do not read about prabhāsvara in standard sourcebooks on Buddhism. We must try to get a clearer picture of what it is by finding the passages on it in the Buddhist canonical texts, the sūtras and tantras, and the treatises explaining them. Although it is found in the early Buddhist sūtras, it is not a teaching that is featured in them. In the Buddhist tantras, however, prabhāsvara is a prominent teaching. The Buddhist tantras are regarded by modern scholars as a late development in Buddhism, because they do not appear in historical sources until the latter portion of the first millennium C.E. Tibetan Buddhist tradition explains this fact by saying that the tantras were kept secret for many centuries after the time of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni. Even after their existence became publicly known, they have been regarded as teachings to be kept secret from those who have not received initiation into them. It is only in the last decades of the twentieth century C.E. that this traditional restriction has started to be lifted. This fact helps to explain why prabhāsvara, especially in its role in cosmogony, has remained largely unknown.

The Sanskrit word prabhāsvara was translated into Tibetan as ’od gsal, meaning literally “clear (gsal) light (’od).” Thus, thanks to the many translations of Buddhist texts from Tibetan into English in recent decades, prabhāsvara has come to be known in English as “clear light” via its Tibetan translation ’od gsal. Translators working directly from the Sanskrit texts have usually preferred to translate prabhāsvara with words such as “luminosity” or “luminous,” for a couple of reasons. In standard Sanskrit, prabhāsvara was only known as an adjective, defined by Monier-Williams as “shining forth, shining brightly, brilliant,” and by V. S. Apte as “brilliant, bright, shining.” As we can see, the Tibetan translation ’od gsal, “clear light,” is a noun. It is hard to make “clear light” into an adjective if needed (although not impossible), while “luminosity” can easily be made into the adjective, “luminous.” Another reason would be that prabhāsvara is not a compound term in Sanskrit, like “clear (gsal) light (’od)” is in Tibetan. It consists of the main part, bhāsvara, which by itself means the same as prabhāsvara, plus the prefix pra. While prefixes such as pra obviously add something to the meaning of a word, what they add, more often than not, is not enough to require an additional word in the translation.

How, then, did prabhāsvara come to be translated into Tibetan as ’od gsal, “clear light”? One of the many meanings of the prefix pra when added to nouns, according to the Gaṇa-ratna-mahodadhi by Vardhamāna as cited by Vaman Shivaram Apte in The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, is “purity,” giving the example, prasannaṃ jalam, which means “pure water” or “clear water.” This shows us why ’od gsal, “clear light,” was chosen long ago as the standardized Tibetan translation of prabhāsvara, rather than just ’od, “light.” Yet the related Sanskrit word prabhā was translated into Tibetan as just ’od, “light,” even though it has the prefix pra. In prabhā, as is more usual, the prefix pra does not change the meaning from “light” to “clear light.” An example of an actual compound term in Sanskrit is the title Vimala-prabhā, meaning “stainless (vimala) light (prabhā).” It seems, then, that the addition of gsal, “clear,” to ’od, “light,” serves to distinguish ’od gsal, “clear light,” as a technical term. So there is good reason to translate prabhāsvara either as “clear light” or as “luminosity” when used as a noun. A translator must choose one or the other, and the choice may come down to nothing more than indicating whether the translation was made from the Sanskrit directly or from a Tibetan translation.

In the following translations of the selected Sanskrit passages, I will translate prabhāsvara with the adjective “luminous” or with the noun “luminosity,” for which one can substitute the “clear light.” 

What is perhaps the most frequently quoted passage on prabhāsvara from the sūtras is from the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra in Eight Thousand Lines. It begins with a statement that is characteristic of the Perfection of Wisdom or Prajñā-pāramitā writings, “That mind is no mind.” Then it explains why:1

tac cittam acittam | prakṛtiś cittasya prabhāsvarā

“That mind is no mind. The nature of mind is luminous.”

This idea, and this term in its Pali form, pabhassara, is not absent from the sūtras or suttas of the Pali Buddhist canon. A passage from the Aṅguttara-nikāya collection tells us the same thing, that “This mind is luminous.” Then it adds a necessary qualification that we will see again and again:2

pabhassaram idaṃ bhikkhave cittaṃ tañ ca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhaṃ

“This mind is luminous, O monks, but it is defiled by adventitious defilements.”

Almost the same wording is found in Sanskrit in the Jñānālokālakāra-sūtra, usually classified as one of the ten tathāgata-garbha or buddha-nature sūtras. The original Sanskrit text of this sūtra was only recently discovered in Tibet, and was published for the first time in 2004. Its passage is:3

prakṛti-prabhāsvaraṃ cittaṃ tac cāgantukair upakleśair upakliśyate

“This mind is luminous by nature, but it is defiled by adventitious defilements.”

This same statement that we see in prose in the sūtras was put into verse form for easier memorization in the treatises explaining them. Dharmakīrti, one of the most famous Indian writers on reasoning, in his Pramāṇa-vārttika has the following verse line of sixteen syllables:4

prabhāsvaram idaṃ cittaṃ prakṛtyāgantavo malāḥ

“This mind is luminous by nature; the impurities are adventitious.”

This same line is the first line of a verse quoted as summarizing the Buddhist Vijñāna-vāda view, the view that everything is consciousness only. The second line of this verse is not found in Dharmakīrti’s treatise. This verse is quoted in a Hindu text, the commentary by Jayaratha on the Tantrāloka by Abhinavagupta, to represent the Buddhist view:5

prabhāsvaram idaṃ cittaṃ prakṛtyāgantavo malāḥ |

teṣām apāye sarvārthaṃ taj jyotir avinaśvaram ||

“This mind is luminous by nature; the impurities are adventitious. Upon their disappearance, everything is that imperishable light.”

Here we have the stated equivalence of luminous, prabhāsvara, and light, jyotis, in agreement with the Tibetan translation of prabhāsvara as the noun, ’od gsal, “clear light.” The Buddhist Vijñāna-vāda school holds that everything is consciousness only, vijñāna-mātra, or mind only, citta-mātra. Since the nature of mind is luminous, prabhāsvara, it follows that everything is this nature of mind, and this nature of mind is luminosity or light. Thus, when the adventitious impurities disappear, there is nothing left but luminosity, and “everything is that imperishable light.”

In Buddhism, the cosmos is described as consisting of the dharmas, the “elements of existence,” or “phenomena,” as this term is often translated. So to say that everything is mind only, and the mind is luminous by nature, is to say that all dharmas are mind only, and the dharmas are luminous by nature. This is just what is said in the Guhyasamāja-tantra, one of the most important of the so-called highest yoga tantras:6

prakṛti-prabhāsvarā dharmāḥ suviśuddhā nabhaḥ-samāḥ

“The dharmas are luminous by nature, pure, and equal to space.”

That everything is prabhāsvara or luminous by nature is understood to be ultimate truth. In the tantric writings, prabhāsvara comes to be used as a noun, luminosity or clear light. The Indian writer Candrakīrti in his Pradīpoddyotana commentary on the Guhyasamāja-tantra says:7

prabhāsvaram paramārtha-satyam

“Luminosity is ultimate truth.”

This is why Nāgārjuna can say in his Pañcakrama that the cause of the world is prabhāsvara, luminosity, as posted earlier in “The Cosmogony Account from the Buddhist Tantras”:

asvatantraṃ jagat sarvaṃ svatantraṃ naiva jāyate |

hetuḥ prabhāsvaraṃ tasya sarva-śūnyaṃ prabhāsvaram || 3.15 ||

“The entire world is dependent [on a cause], for something independent can never arise. Its [the world’s] cause is luminosity (prabhāsvara); luminosity is the universal void (sarva-śūnya).”

The origination of the world from prabhāsvara is found not only in Buddhist tantric texts, but also in the Ratnagotra-vibhāga, attributed by Tibetan tradition to Maitreya. The central topic of that book is the dhātu, the element, the one element distinguished from all other elements by calling it the buddha-element (tathāgata-dhātu). This pure element (vaimalya-dhātu) is equated with the nature of mind (citta-prakṛti) in chapter 1, verse 49, saying that it is found everywhere, like space. There follows a description of the buddha-element in verses 52-63 using comparisons, where it is said that phenomenal life arises from and returns to the nature of mind (cittasya prakti). This nature of mind is then said to be prabhāsvara in the concluding verses of this group:8

na hetuḥ pratyayo nāpi na sāmagrī na codayaḥ |
na vyayo na sthitiś citta-prakṛter vyoma-dhātuvat || 1.62 ||

cittasya yāsau prakṛtiḥ prabhāsvarā na jātu sā dyaur iva yāti vikriyām |

“The nature of mind, like the space element, has no cause, nor condition, nor coming together [of causes and conditions], no arising, no perishing, no remaining. This nature of mind is luminous; like space, it never undergoes change.”

Here in the Ratnagotra-vibhāga, like elsewhere, the canonical texts consistently say that prabhāsvara is the nature (prakṛti) of mind (citta), not mind per se. This refers to the true nature (dharmatā) mind, not any other mind. As stated in the Mahāyāna-sutrālakāra, a fundamental Yogācāra or Vijñāna-vāda text attributed to either Maitreya or Asaṅga:9

mataṃ ca cittaṃ prakṛti-prabhāsvaraṃ sadā tad āgantuka-doṣa-dūṣitaṃ |
na dharmatā-cittam ṛte ‘nya-cetasaḥ prabhāsvaratvaṃ prakṛtau vidhīyate || 13.19 ||

“Mind is held to always be luminous by nature; it is polluted by adventitious faults. Apart from the true nature mind, it is taught, no other mind is luminous in [its] nature.

Indeed, the Jñānavajra-samuccaya-tantra, an explanatory tantra associated with the Guhyasamāja-tantra, tells us that mind arises from prabhāsvara. This is mind as consciousness (vijñāna), the consciousness we are familiar with. The Sanskrit original of this tantra is lost, but the relevant passage is quoted in the Caryāmelāpaka-pradīpa by Āryadeva, as follows:10

yat prabhāsvarodbhavaṃ vijñānaṃ tad eva cittaṃ mana iti | tan-mūlāḥ sarva-dharmāḥ saṃkleśa-vyavadānātmakāḥ | tataḥ kalpanā-dvayaṃ bhavaty ātmā paraś ceti | tad vijñānaṃ vāyu-vāhanam |

“The very consciousness that is arisen from luminosity is mind (citta), thought (manas). All dharmas, having the nature of defilement and purification, have that [luminosity] as their root. From that [luminosity] come the two [false] conceptions, self and other. That consciousness has wind as its vehicle.”

As the last sentence indicates, the mind that arises from prabhāsvara always has a subtle wind (vāyu) as its vehicle or mount. This is a fact in tantric cosmogony, a fact used in tantric practice. The Tibetan teacher Tsongkhapa, quoting an earlier Tibetan scholar in his major treatise on advanced Guhyasamāja practice titled A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages, writes (as translated by Gavin Kilty, 2013):11

“Until you gain control over the horse-like winds, the mount of the mind, you will not gain control over the rider-like mind.”

This, as noted in the posting, “The Cosmogony Account from the Buddhist Tantras,” is apparently the same teaching given in Book of Dzyan, stanza 5, verse 2: “Fohat is the steed and the thought is the rider.” Here we have even the same terms used in the analogy. These two work together to produce the phenomenal world. The present Dalai Lama has put this hitherto secret tantric teaching on cosmogony in contemporary language in his 1997 book, The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra, translated by Alexander Berzin:12

“. . . Tsongkapa has mentioned that the inanimate environment and the animate beings within it are all the play or emanation of subtlest consciousness and subtlest energy-wind—in other words, simultaneously arising primordial clear light mind and the subtlest level of energy-wind upon which it rides.”

“. . . In other words, when the subtlest energy-wind causes movement from the sphere of clear light, the coarser levels of mind that emerge, from the three most subtle, conceptual appearance-making minds onwards, produce the appearances of all phenomena of the environment . . .

“. . . This is the Buddhist explanation for what is called the creator in other traditions.”

The Book of Dzyan account of cosmogony says poetically, stanza 3, verse 12: “Then svabhāva sends fohat to harden the atoms.” We have already seen that fohat must correspond to the winds on which mind rides. We now note that svabhāva, “inherent nature,” is a synonym of prakṛti, “nature,” here presumably the nature of mind, which is prabhāsvara, luminosity or the clear light.



1. Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, chapter 1, P. L. Vaidya edition, 1960, p. 3, line 18. This is quoted in the Vimalaprabhā, vol. 1, 1986, p. 23, lines 12-13.

2. Aṅguttara-nikāya, 1.5.9-10 and 1.6.1-2, Pali Text Society edition, vol. 1, pp. 8-9.

3. Jñānālokālakāra-sūtra, edited by Takayasu Kimura, Nobuo Otsuka, Hideaki Kimura, and Hisao Takahashi, in Kukai no shisoto bunka: Onozuka kichohakushi koki kinen ronbunshu (Kobodaishi Kukai’s Thought and Culture: Felicitation Volumes on the Occasion of Dr. Kicho Onozuka’s 70th Birthday), 2004, p. 49. See also pp. 55, 66 (all used in defining bodhi).

4. Pramāṇa-vārttika, Pramāṇa-siddhi chapter, verse 208ab, or 210cd in the Ram Chandra Pandeya edition, 1989. This line is quoted in the Abhayapaddhati of Abhayākaragupta, 2009, p. 29. The same idea can also be seen in “The Dharmadhātu-stava by Nāgārjuna” (posting dated April 6, 2012), where verses 19 and 21 speak of the prabhāsvaraṃ cittam.

5. Jayaratha’s commentary on Abhinavagupta’s Tantrāloka, chapter 4, verse 30, Kashmir Series of Texts and Studies edition, vol. 3, 1921, p. 33. This reference was given in Vidhushekhara Bhattacharya’s edition and translation of The Āgamaśāstra of Gauḍapāda, 1943, pp. cxli, 70.

6. Guhyasamāja-tantra, chapter 2, verse 7ab, quoted from the Yukei Matsunaga edition, 1978. See also chapter 7, verses 34, 35.

7. Pradīpoddyotana, by Candrakīrti, edited by Chintaharan Chakravarti, 1984, p. 33, repeated on p. 71. This reference was given in Bauddha Tantra Kośa, vol. 1, 1990, p. 77.

8. Ratnagotra-vibhāga, chapter 1, verses 62-63ab. Within the block of verses 52-63, the nature of mind is referred to in verses 57, 59, and 60, and the specific statement saying that phenomenal life arises from and returns to it is in verse 61. This is glossed as the origination of the world in the commentary following verse 64.

9. Mahāyāna-sutrālakāra, by Maitreya (Tibetan tradition) or Asaṅga (Chinese tradition), chapter 13, verse 19. For prabhāsvara in another Yogācāra text, see Madhyānta-vibhāga, chapter 1, verse 23 (22 in Gadjin Nagao edition), explaining śūnyatā, emptiness.

10. Jñānavajra-samuccaya-tantra, quoted in Āryadeva’s Caryāmelāpakapradīpam, Janardan Shastri Pandey edition, 2000, p. 41; Christian K. Wedemeyer edition, in Āryadeva’s Lamp that Integrates the Practices (Caryāmelāpakapradīpa), 2007, p. 401.

11. A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages, by Tsongkhapa, translated by Gavin Kilty, 2013, p. 155. This passage is found in Robert Thurman’s translation of this text, Brilliant Illumination of the Lamp of the Five Stages, 2010, p. 169.

12. The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra, by the Dalai Lama, translated by Alexander Berzin, 1997, pp. 123, 252-253. The first part of the quote is: “The latter [the clear light mind] is similar to Tsongkapa’s explanation in Precious Sprout, Deciding the Difficult Points of [Chandrakirti’s] ‘An illuminating Lamp [for ‘The Guhyasamaja Root Tantra’].’ In the prologue section, commenting on a quotation from Nagarjuna’s The Five Stages [of the Guhyasamaja Complete Stage], . . .”

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