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date: 08 December 2023

Visualization/Contemplation Sutras (Guan Jing)locked

Visualization/Contemplation Sutras (Guan Jing)locked

  • David QuinterDavid QuinterDepartments of East Asian Studies and Religious Studies, University of Alberta


The “visualization/contemplation sutras” (Ch. guan jing觀經) refers to six scriptures in the modern Sino-Japanese Buddhist canon Taishō shinshū daizōkyō大正新脩大藏經 (“T”). The six scriptures are each devoted to particular buddhas and bodhisattvas, and in some cases, the pure lands or heavens linked to them. They include: (a) Sutra on the Sea of Samādhi Attained through Contemplation of the Buddha (Guan fo sanmei hai jing觀佛三昧海經; T 643); (b) Sutra on the Contemplation of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (Guan Wuliangshoufo jing觀無量壽佛經; T 365); (c) Sutra on the Contemplation of the Two Bodhisattvas Bhaiṣajyarāja and Bhaiṣajyasamudgata (Guan Yaowang Yaoshang erpusa jing觀藥王藥上二菩薩經; T 1161); (d) Sutra on the Contemplation of Maitreya Bodhisattva’s Ascent to Rebirth in Tuṣita Heaven (Guan Mile Pusa shangsheng doushuaitian jing觀彌勒菩薩上生兜率天經; T 452); (e) Sutra on the Contemplation of the Cultivation Methods of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Guan Puxian Pusa xingfa jing觀普賢菩薩行法經; T 277); and (f) Sutra on the Contemplation of the Bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha (Guan Xukongzang Pusa jing觀虛空藏菩薩經; T 409).

All six scriptures use the Chinese term guan觀 (or kuan) in their titles. All also feature instructions on contemplative techniques, which include fantastic visual imagery and other visionary phenomena. Due largely to these visual qualities, in English-language scholarship since the late 1950s, the most common translation for guan in their titles has been “visualization.” There is, however, no scholarly consensus for an Indic-language equivalent to guan in these scriptures, and the “visualization” designation has been increasingly questioned since the 2000s. Thus many scholars prefer the translation “contemplation,” while some opt for “discernment.”

Further complicating study of the visualization/contemplation sutras are persistent questions of their provenance. The traditional translator attributions preserved in the Taishō canon all credit Indian or Central Asian monks for the “translations.” However, all six scriptures are extant only in Chinese or in translations based on the Chinese, and those translator attributions have been widely contested. Scholars thus variously posit Indian, Central Asian, or Chinese origins for the individual scriptures. The consensus as of 2020 is that, as Chinese texts, they all date to around the first half of the 5th century ce, and many scholars do accept the influence of Indian or Central Asian meditation masters active in China then. Such influence receives support in the near-contemporary emergence in China of meditation manuals that share distinctive terminology with the visualization/contemplation sutras and are often grouped with them in modern studies. Further research into the sutras should thus enrich the understanding of scriptural translation processes, the emergence of specific deity cults in East Asian Buddhism, and interlinked developments in the devotional, visionary, and contemplative practices associated with those cults.


  • Buddhism

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