What is Prajnaparamita?

What is the practice of perfection of wisdom?

Quick Introduction

Edward Conze says that chapters 1 and 2 of a text called, ‘Perfect Wisdom in 8,000 Lines’, constitute the original core of the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) tradition.

He says that it was expanded into many more lines, but then became condensed again into what we’re calling the Diamond and Hearts Sutras, nowadays.

Engage the Text

Download the whole text, here: Astasahasrika.

Listen to the first two chapters, here:

Chapters 1 and 2

Chapter 1

Homage to all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas!

Thereupon the Lord,
in order to gladden the four assemblies,
and to further lighten up this perfection of wisdom,
preached at that time the following verses:

“Call forth as much as you can of love,
of respect and faith!
Remove the obstructing defilements,
and clear away all your taints!

Listen to the Perfect Wisdom of the gentle Buddhas,
Taught for the weal of the world,
for heroic spirits intended!

The rivers all in this Roseapple Island,
Which cause the flowers to grow, the fruits, the herbs and trees,
They all derive from the might of the king of Nagas,
From the Dragon residing in Lake Anopatapta,
his magical power.

Just so,
whatever Dharmas the Jina’s disciples establish,
Whatever they teach,
whatever adroitly explain-
Concerning the work of the holy which leads to the fullness of bliss,
And also the fruit of his work –
it is the Tathagata’s doing.

For whatever the Jina has taught,
the Guide to the Dharma,
His pupils,
if genuine,
have well been trained in it.
From direct experience,
derived from their training,
they teach it,
Their teaching stems but from the might of the Buddhas,
and not their own power.

No wisdom can we get hold of,
no highest perfection,
No Bodhisattva,
no thought of enlightenment either.

When told of this,
if not bewildered and in no way anxious,
A Bodhisattva courses in the Well-Gone’s wisdom.
In form, in feeling, will, perception and awareness
Nowhere in them they find a place to rest on.

Without a home they wander,
dharmas never hold them,
Nor do they grasp at them-the Jina’s Bodhi they are bound to gain.

The wanderer Srenika in his gnosis of truth
Could find no basis,
though the skandhas had not been undone.

Just so the Bodhisattva,
when he comprehends the dharmas as he should
Does not retire into Blessed Rest.

In wisdom then he dwells.
What is this wisdom,
whose and whence,
he queries,
And then he finds that all these dharmas are entirely empty.

Uncowed and fearless in the face of that discovery
Not far from Bodhi is that Bodhi-being then
To course in the skandhas,
in form,
in feeling,
in perception,
Will and so on,
and fail to consider them wisely;
Or to imagine these skandhas as being empty;
Means to course in the sign,
the track of non-production ignored.

But when he does not course in form,
in feeling,
or perception,
In will or consciousness,
but wanders without home,
Remaining unaware of coursing firm in wisdom,
His thoughts of non-production –
then the best of all the calming trances cleaves to him.
Through that the Bodhisattva now dwells tranquil in himself,
His future Buddhahood assured by antecedent Buddhas.

Whether absorbed in trance,
or whether outside it,
he minds not.
For of things as they are he knows the essential original nature.
Coursing thus he courses in the wisdom of the Sugatas,
And yet he does not apprehend the dharmas in which he courses.

This coursing he wisely knows as a no-coursing,
That is his practice of wisdom,
the highest perfection.

What exists not,
that non-existent the foolish imagine;
Non-existence as well as existence they fashion
As dharmic facts existence and non-existence are both not real.

A Bodhisattva goes forth when wisely he knows this.
If he knows the five skandhas as like an illusion,
But makes not illusion one thing,
and the skandhas another;
If, freed from the notion of multiple things,
he courses in peace –
Then that is his practice of wisdom, the highest perfection.

Those with good teachers
as well as deep insight,
Cannot be frightened on hearing the Mother’s deep tenets.
But those with bad teachers,
who can be misled by others,
Are ruined thereby,
as an unbaked pot when in contact with moisture.

What is the reason why we speak of ‘Bodhisattvas’?

Desirous to extinguish all attachment,
and to cut it off,
True non-attachment,
or the Bodhi of the Jinas is their future lot.
‘Beings who strive for Bodhi’
are they therefore called.

What is the reason why ‘Great Beings’ are so called?

They rise to the highest place above a great number of people;
And of a great number of people they cut off mistaken views.
That is why we come to speak of them as ‘Great Beings.’
Great as a giver, as a thinker, as a power,
He mounts upon the vessel of the Supreme Jinas.
Armed with the great armor he’ll subdue Mara the artful.
These are the reasons why ‘Great Beings’ are so called.

This gnosis shows him all beings as like an illusion,
Resembling a great crowd of people,
conjured up at the crossroads,
By a magician,
who then cuts off many thousands of heads;
He knows this whole living world as a mock show,
and yet remains without fear.

Form, perception,
feeling,
will,
and awareness
Are ununited,
never bound,
cannot be freed.

Uncowed in his thought he marches on to his Bodhi,
That for the highest of men is the best of all armors.

What then again is ‘the vessel that leads to the Bodhi’?
Mounted upon it one guides to Nirvana all beings.
Great is that vessel,
immense,
vast like the vastness of space.
Those who travel upon it are carried to safety,
delight and ease.

Thus transcending the world,
he eludes our apprehensions.
‘He goes to Nirvana,’
but no one can say where he went.
A fire’s extinguished,
but where,
do we ask,
has it gone?

Likewise,
how can we find him who has found the Rest of the Blessed?
The Bodhisattva’s past,
his future and his present must elude us,
Time’s three dimensions nowhere touch him.

Quite pure he is,
free from conditions,
unimpeded.
That is his practical of wisdom,
the highest perfection.

Wise Bodhisattvas,
coursing thus, reflect on non-production,
And yet,
while doing so,engender in themselves the great compassion,
Which is,
however,
free from any notion of a being.
Thereby they practice wisdom,
the highest perfection.

But when the notion of suffering and beings leads him to think:
‘Suffering I shall remove,
the weal of the world I shall work!’
Beings are then imagined,
a self is imagined, –
The practice of wisdom,
the highest perfection,
is lacking.

He wisely knows that all that lives is unproduced as he himself is;
He knows that all that is no more exists than he or any beings.
The unproduced and the produced are not distinguished,
That is the practice of wisdom,
the highest perfection.

All words for things in use in this world must be left behind,
All things produced and made must be transcended –
The deathless,
the supreme,
incomparable gnosis is then won.

That is the sense in which we speak of perfect wisdom.
When free from doubts the Bodhisattva carries on his practice,
As skilled in wisdom he is known to dwell.
All dharmas are not really there,
their essential original nature is empty.
To comprehend that is the practice of wisdom, perfection supreme.

Chapter II

He does not stand in form,
perception or in feeling,
In will or consciousness,
in any skandhas whatsoever.

In Dharma’s true nature alone he is standing.
Then that is his practice of wisdom,
the highest perfection.

Change and no change,
suffering and ease,
the self and not-self,
The lovely and repulsive –
just one Suchness in this Emptiness they are.

And so he takes not his stand on the fruit which he won,
which is threefold—
That of an Arhat,
a Single Buddha,
a Buddha fully enlightened.

The Leader himself was not stationed in the realm which is free from conditions,
Nor in the things which are under conditions,
but freely he wandered without a home:
Just so,
without a support or basis a Bodhisattva is standing.

A position devoid of a basis has that position been called by the Jina
Wherein Bodhisattvas Train
Those who wish to become the Sugata’s Disciples,
Or Pratyekabuddhas,
or likewise,
Kings of the Dharma –
Without resort to this Patience they cannot reach their respective goals.

They move across,
but their eyes are not on the other shore.
Those who teach dharma,
and those who listen when it is being taught;
Those who have won the fruit of an Arhat,
a Single Buddha,
or a world- savior;
And the Nirvana obtained by the wise and the learned –
Mere illusions,
mere dreams –
so has the Tathagata taught us.

Four kinds of persons are not alarmed by this teaching:

  1. Sons of the Jina skilled in the truths;
  2. saints unable to turn back,
  3. Arhats free from defilements and taints, and rid of their doubts;
  4. Those whom good teachers mature are reckoned the fourth kind.

Coursing thus,
the wise and learned Bodhisattva,
Trains not for Arhatship,
nor on the level of Pratyekabuddhas.
In the Buddha-dharma alone he trains for the sake of all-knowledge.

No training is his training,
and no one is trained in this training.

Increase or decrease of forms is not the aim of this training,
Nor does he set out to acquire various dharmas.
All-knowledge alone he can hope to acquire by this training.
To that he goes forth when he trains in this training,
and delights in its virtues.

Forms are not wisdom,
nor is wisdom found in form,
In consciousness,
perceptions,
feeling,
or in will.
They are not wisdom,
and no wisdom is in them.
Like space it is,
without a break or crack.

Of all objective supports the essential original nature is boundless;
Of beings likewise the essential original nature is boundless.

As the essential original nature of space has no limits,
Just so the wisdom of the World-knowers is boundless.

‘Perceptions’ –
mere words,
so the Leaders have told us;
Perceptions forsaken and gone,
and the door is open to the Beyond.

Those who succeed in ridding themselves of perceptions,
They, having reached the Beyond,
fulfill the Teacher’s commandments.

If for aeons countless as the sands of the Ganges,
The Leader would himself continue to pronounce the word ‘being’:
Still,
pure from the very start,
no being could ever result from his speaking.

That is the practice of wisdom,
the highest perfection.”

And so the Jina concludes his preaching,
and finally tells us:
“When all I said and did at last agreed with perfect wisdom,
Then this prediction I received from Him who went before me:
‘Fully enlightened, at a future time thou shalt a Buddha be!’”

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