Insights from the Perfection of Wisdom Tradition

Walking through some teachings in some of the Prajnaparamita, or ‘perfection of wisdom’, literature. You may be aware of the Diamond Sutra, you’ve probably also heard of the Heart Sutra— these are condensed versions of the teaching. Here, we’re exploring Conze’s translation of The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom and Perfect Wisdom in 8,000 Lines. Also, we’re going to sprinkle bits and pieces of other related teachings here and there along the way.

The Two Truths

Before we begin, let’s be sure we are on the same page with regard to what has been called the “Doctrine of the Two Truths”. Wikipedia actually has a pretty good article on it. Check it here.

Wikipedia authors summarize the two truths like this:

The Buddhist doctrine of the two truths differentiates between two levels of satya (Sanskrit), meaning truth or “really existing” in the discourse of the Buddha: the “conventional” or “provisional” (saṁvṛti) truth, and the “ultimate” (paramārtha) truth.

The two truths reveal a way to interact with deep wisdom teachings without falling into the errors of aversion, denial, and repression.

Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines

According to Conze, the text we call the ‘Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines’ is the original of that type of Buddhist literature. I’ve recorded the first chapter from Conze’s translation for you. I’ll write about this particular text in the future, but for now, just listen to it. Oh, and btw, I accidentally recorded this with some pitch shifting and harmonizing effects… buuut, we’ll just go with it. 🙂

Nguyen Giac’s Rambling

Upon having heard the Buddha’s teaching about ‘anatman’, it is easy to jump to the incorrect conclusion that our usual experience of reality is to be denied.

People with this style of wrong view encourage us to believe that ‘this’ is totally unreal.
They will teach that ‘you’ do not exist.
When you present your problem, they will tell you to forget about it.
Do not listen to them,
‘for they know not what they do’.

In the act of the rejection of conventional reality,
whether they admit it or not,
they are lost in cherishing notions,
they are lost in their own discrimination of a thing to be rejected.

In truth,
Bodhisattvas who course in Perfect Wisdom are not lost in addiction, aversion, or apathy.

Like Avalokitesvara,
we are open!

We are ready and willing to listen deeply to the cries of beings lost in their own discriminations.
Not clinging to the ultimate reality (svabhava– what is sometimes translated as ‘Own-Being’) of any dharma,
our compassion is conditionless–
this is what is meant by teachings about the Bodhisattva’s perfection of compassion!

Our love is unconditional.

In short, the two truths are a way to approach and remain close to the unknowable without acting / feeling like a complete sociopathic cult-leading lunatic. Sounds great, right?!

Having understood that there are *at least* two ways to approach what is often called ’emptiness’ (the Sutras lists many types of emptiness), we’re able to say:

Sure, we exist.. but it’s not like you think it is. We’re not what we think we are! ‘Reality’ is not what we think it is.

Ways to approach emptiness.

The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom lists some of the types of emptiness. These various types represent the many ways that emptiness can be understood.

Let me show you:

  1. Emptiness of Subject
  2. Emptiness of Object
  3. Emptiness of Both Subject and Object
  4. Emptiness of Emptiness
  5. Great Emptiness
  6. Emptiness of Ultimate Reality
  7. Conditioned Emptiness
  8. Unconditioned Emptiness
  9. Infinite Emptiness
  10. Emptiness Without Beginning or End
  11. Emptiness of Nonrepudiation
  12. Emptiness of Essential Nature
  13. Emptiness of all Dharmas
  14. Emptiness of Own-Marks
  15. Unascertainable Emptiness
  16. Emptiness of the Nonexistence of Svabhava
  17. Emptiness of Existence
  18. Emptiness of Nonexistence
  19. Emptiness of Svabhava
  20. Emptiness of Other-Being


Parinamin and I (Nguyen Giac) have prepared a couple of practices for you to try. I have shared a mantra that may be helpful, and Parinamin has provided us with the outline of a wonderful guided meditation.

Parinamin’s Exercise

Say the word  “hand” in your head.
Visualize the hand.
With that hand in mind,
say “hand” one more time.

Your visualization is not a hand.
What you are visualizing is not actually a hand,
it is your idea of a hand.
When we speak to our friends about it,
we call it a hand for understanding and communication purposes.

The hand only has contextual existence as part of a body, it has no inherent ‘hand nature’. “Hand” is a name. An idea. An artifact of the mind-system. It only exists in relation to the rest of the body, which only exists in relation to nonbody elements, and those nonbody elements only exist in relation to non-nonbody elements, and so on.. forever.

But, we can say that the term “hand” points to some [non]thing that many people believe to have inherent existence (from ‘its own side’).

The finger points to the moon indeed, but it is not the Moon itself.

The finger is a tool that points to the Moon. The issue is that we often get caught up on the finger and the belief that it is in fact, the Moon.

Nguyen Giac’s Mantra

A few days ago I was spontaneously overcome by the urge to recite a mantra. Thinking about it now, I can see that all this “Emptiness” stuff has been a central theme in my life recently.

I am not what I think I am.
You are not what I think you are.
We are not what I think we are.
They are not what I think they are.
This is not what I think it is.
These are not what I think it is.

No thing has inherent thingishness, but is a thing in relation to other things from the get-go. Having no ‘self-nature’, there is no ‘thing’ to know and therefore I, You, We, They, This, These, etc., are not what I think they are.

Rewriting a piece of the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom

This is taken from Conze’s translation of the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. I’ve modified it a bit, but only because parts sounded really awkward and I don’t think people would understand without proper context.

The Passage:

Except in so far as they are conventionally understood by mere words,
there is no birth or death for any of the conceptual dharmas.
How could there be birth or death for a thing which never has existence?

The same is true for such terms as

  • ‘self’
  • ‘soul’
  • ‘personality’
  • ‘one who sees’, etc..

They are only notions. While there are indeed the notions, the things they point to do not have ultimate existence.

In the same way, that which is said to correspond to such words as ‘perfect wisdom’ or ‘Bodhisattva’, is just another notion. Those things are not born and will not die.

On the subject-side this body is conventionally called a ‘body’ and also the head, neck, belly, muscles, shoulders, arms, hands, ribs, hips, thighs, legs, and feet are conventionally expressed in those terms; but again, they are only notions. They are not born and do not die insofar as they are conventionally expressed by deluded beings.

On the object-side, such things as a bunch of grass, a branch, a leaf, a petal, etc.. are conventionally expressed by manifold designations; but of those words there is nothing born and nothing that dies, except in so far as they are understood by deluded beings.

The reality corresponding to words about Ultimate Things cannot be apprehended inwardly, outwardly, or between the two.

Just so ‘perfect wisdom’ and ‘Bodhistattva’ are mere notions. They are not born and do not die except insofar as they are understood to have conventional existence.

This is how a Bodhisattva trains in Perfect Wisdom.

Just as a dream, an echo, a mirage, a reflected image, a mock show, a magical creation of the Tathagata, are all just the result of the working conceptual mind– they are not born and do not die except insofar as they are taken to have conventional existence– just so “Perfect wisdom” and “Bodhisattva” are also the result of the working conceptual mind. They also are not born and do not die except insofar as they are taken to have conceptual existence.

It is thus that a Bodhisattva, who floats down the river of Perfect Wisdom, should train in the insight that words and conventional terms are but concepts, and these Bodhisattva must also recognize that teachings are also, simply, concepts.

Parinamin and Nguyen Giac Explain Further

The terms ‘Bodhisattva’ and ‘Perfect Wisdom’ are pointers. They are fingers pointing to the Moon. These terms can be thought of as ways to guide our behavior. They are like ‘goals’. By seeking to embody what these terms ‘Bodhisattva’ and ‘Perfect Wisdom’ actually point to, we ‘course in Perfect Wisdom’. All designations point to objects / processes that do not have “inherent existence” — all names point to Śūnyatā, or ’emptiness’. This is the Perfection of Wisdom.

From Chapter 15 of the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom:

..Perfection of wisdom consists in that the Bodhisattva does not settle down in any dharma, she contemplates the essential original nature of all dharmas [emptiness], but never bases herself on any*thing*.

Svabhāva is a good sanskrit term to know.

Svabhava (Sanskrit: svabhāva; Pali: sabhāva; Chinese: 自性; pinyin: zìxìng; Tibetan: རང་བཞིན, Wylie: rang-bzhin) literally means “own-being” or “own-becoming”. It is the intrinsic nature, essential nature or essence of living beings / objects / processes.

You will notice the use of this term above, in the 20 types of emptiness. The Emptiness of the Nonexistence of Svabhava and the Emptiness of Svabhava. Bodhisattvas who course in Perfect Wisdom are deluded neither by the belief in the “own-being” of beings / things / processes, nor are they deluded by the belief in the non-existence of these things. This is why I chose to include the quick exploration of the doctrine of the two truths.

‘Hand’ is nothing other than a name to denote one ‘part’ from another ‘part’ – even the term ‘part’ is an artificial distinction because, if you look at the body, it is interconnected – it is WHOLE – there are no divisions other than those we impose.

Do you see how the term ‘body’ is a finger pointing to the Moon? It is not the Moon itself! The Moon is not even the moon itself 😉

In conclusion, all these terms are just tools that mind (which is, according to the Interpersonal Neurobiologist Dan Siegel, “an embodied and relational process that regulates energy and information flow”) uses to focus on areas of interest. They are fingers that point to the Moon.

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