Understanding San Lun Sect (Part 1)


Understanding San Lun Sect (Part 1)


San-lun [三論] is a pronunciation of the Chinese words, which means Three Shastras, or Three Treatises, so this sect is also known as Three Shastra Sect, or Three Treatise Sect. Like many other sects, the three shastras are the principal texts of this sect, from which the sect is named. The three shastras are :

  1. Madhyamika-karikas Shastra [中論]
  2. Dvadasanikaya Shastra [十二門論]
  3. Shatashastra [百論]

There are many other names for this sect, such as Prajna Sect [般若宗], Mahayana Emptiness Sect [大乘空宗], Nature Sect [性宗], Dharma Nature Sect [法性宗], all of which represent the basic doctrines advocated by this sect.


San-lun Sect is called to be the classical school, as it is inherited from Madhyamika School in India. This sect may be traced back to Lokakshema, who was the great translator in Han Dynasty, and was generally regarded as the founder of Mahayana Buddhism in China. However, this sect was first introduced and founded by another great translator Kumarajiva (344-413 AD), who translated the Three Shastras, and spread its doctrines in China.

This sect was later organized by Master Tao-sheng (360-434 AD), and instituted by Master Chia-hsiang. During Sui Dynasty, Master Chih-tsang [吉藏] wrote commentaries on the shastras, this sect was more popular. The patriarchs also included The Commentary on Mahaprajna Paramita Sutra [大智度論] in addition to the Three Shastras, as the principal text. Sometimes, the four shastras are sometimes called the Four Shastras for San-lun Sect.

This sect declined after the rise of Fa-hsiang Sect [法相宗], but was later revived by Suryaprabhsa, an Indian monk who arrived in China in 679 AD. When Chan Sect spread widely in later Tang Dynasty, this sect faded out gradually.

Principal Text

By its name, the principal text of this sect are the Three Shastra:

  1. Madhyamika-karikas Shastra [中觀論]or simply Madhyamika Shastra [中論], or Middle Treatise, written by Nagarjuna.
  2. Dvadasanikaya Shastra [十二門論]or Twelve Gate Treatise, written by Nagarjuna.
  3. Shatashastra [百論]or One Hundred Verses Treatise, written by Aryadeva.

All three shastras were translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva.

The first two were written by Nagarjuna who elaborated the meaning of emptiness in the teaching of Middle Way, the essence of the Prajna teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha.

The third one was written by Aryadeva. He was the follower of Nagarjuna, who put forward all the arguments against Hinayana.

In Sui Dynasty, The Commentary on the Mahaprajna Paramita Sutra was also included in the study of this sect.

Its Classification of Buddhism

The masters of San-lun Sect classified the Buddha’s teaching into Two Baskets and Three Teachings.

Two Baskets are:

  1. Sound-hearer Basket, i.e. Hinayana, such as Agama.
  2. Bodhisattva Basket, i.e. Mahayana, such as Avatamsaka Sutra.

Three Teachings are:

  1. Fundamental Dharma Wheel — just after the Enlightenment of the Buddha, he preached for the Bodhisattva, i.e. Avatamasaka Sutra. It is the fundamental teaching of all Dharmas, thus the teaching of One Vehicle.
  2. Branch Dharma Wheel — as it is difficult to understand the profound teaching of One Vehicle, Shakyamuni preached Agama, Prajna, Vaipulya teachings to his disciples. They are called branches as they are derived from the fundamental one.
  3. Conclusive Dharma Wheel — it refers to the preaching of the Lotus Sutra, in which it declares that Three Vehicles converge to One Buddha Vehicle.

Basic Doctrine

The characteristic of the teaching in San-lun Sect is no-mark and no-attachment.

By the time of Nagarjuna, they criticized and rejected almost all other teachings:

  1. The false view of heterodox — There are 96 kinds of heterodox, such as views on false cause and false effect, views on no cause and no effect, views on no cause but having effect, view on having causes but no effect, etc.
  2. Attachment to All-existence as advocated by Adhidhrama — They criticized of the real existence of all Dharmas, thus the Four Noble Truths as advocated in Adhidhrama-kosa. They said the devotees of Ahdidharma did not understand the wonderful aim of the Buddha’s teaching, just like to see the finger, not the moon that the finger points at.
  3. Attachment to Emptiness as advocated by Satyasiddhi — They criticized of the attachment of emptiness as there exists non-emptiness with respect of emptiness.
  4. Attachment as advocated by Mahayana Buddhism — They disputed that there had no substantial attainment in Buddhahood, though the devotees in Mahayana could benefit themselves and also benefit others.

In order to rectify these false views, the practitioner should understand the doctrines of the Double Truths and the Eight Negations in Middle Way.


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