Prajñaparamita (Skt. prajñāpāramitā; Tib. ཤེར་ཕྱིན་, ཤེས་རབ་ཀྱི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་, sherchin; Wyl. sher phyin, shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa) means 'Perfection of Wisdom', or more literally, ‘transcendent wisdom’.
It refers to:
- the sixth of the paramitas: perfect non-conceptual wisdom.
- the class of Buddhist literature that was mainly discovered by Nagarjuna in the second century. Its central topic is emptiness.
- the female deity who is the embodiment of transcendent wisdom.
According to the teachings of the Abhisamayalankara, there are four subdivisions:
- Heart Sutra
- Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in One Hundred Thousand Lines
- Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Twenty-five Thousand Lines
- Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Lines
- Seventeen mothers and sons
- Verse Summary of the Prajnaparamita
- Prajnaparamita Series on Lotsawa House
- Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā)
- Prajnaparamita (deity) outline page at Himalayan Art
Western scholars have traditionally considered the earliest Sūtra in the Prajñāpāramitā class to be the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra or "Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines", which was probably put in Writing in the 1st century BCE.
In contrast to western scholarship, Japanese scholars have traditionally considered the Diamond Sūtra (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) to be from a very early date in the development of Prajñāpāramitā literature.
Overview of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras
For example, the inferior was taught to the merchants Trapuṣa and Ballika because they were ordinary men; the middle was taught to the group of five because they were at the stage of saints; the eightfold Prajñāpāramitās were taught to Bodhisattvas, and [the Prajñāpāramitās] are superior in eliminating conceptually imagined forms.
The eightfold [Prajñāpāramitās] are the teachings of the Prajñāpāramitā as follows: the Triśatikā, Pañcaśatikā, Saptaśatikā, Sārdhadvisāhasrikā, Aṣṭasāhasrikā, Aṣṭadaśasāhasrikā, Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā, and Śatasāhasrikā.
The titles of these eight Prajñāpāramitā texts are given according to their length.
The texts may have other Sanskrit titles as well, or different variations which may be more descriptive.
The lengths specified by the titles are given below.
- Triśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 300 lines, the Diamond Sūtra, or Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra
- Pañcaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 500 lines
- Saptaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 700 lines, the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī's exposition of Prajñāpāramitā
- Sārdhadvisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 2500 lines, from the questions of Suvikrāntavikrāmin Bodhisattva
- Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 8000 lines
- Aṣṭadaśasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 18,000 lines
- Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 25,000 lines
- Śatasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 100,000 lines, also called the Mahaprajñapāramitā Sūtra
According to Joseph Walser, there is evidence that the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (25,000 lines) and the Śatasāhasrikā Prajñā pāramitā Sūtra (100,000 lines) have a connection with the Dharmaguptaka sect, while the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (8000 lines) does not.
Both have been translated into many languages and have often been commented upon."
Xuanzang and the Mahaprajñapāramitā
In 13th century, the Tantric Buddhism gained royal patronage of king Kertanegara of Singhasari, and thereafter some of Prajnaparamita statues were produced in the region, such as the Prajnaparamita of Singhasari in East Java and Prajnaparamita of Jambi, Sumatra.
Both of East Java and Jambi Prajnaparamitas bear resemblance in style as they were produced in same period, however unfortunately Prajnaparamita of Jambi is headless and was discovered in poor condition.
Selected English translations
|Edward Conze||Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom ISBN 978-0877737094||Buddhist Society, London||Portions of various Perfection of Wisdom sutras||1978|
|Rabten, Geshe||Echoes of Voidness ISBN 0-86171-010-X||Wisdom||Includes the Heart Sutra with Tibetan commentary||1983|
|Edward Conze||The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom ISBN 0-520-05321-4||University of California||Mostly the version in 25,000 lines, with some parts from the versions in 100,000 and 18,000 lines||1985|
|Lopez, Donald S.||The Heart Sutra Explained ISBN 0-88706-590-2||SUNY||The Heart Sutra with a summary of Indian commentaries||1987|
|Thich Nhat Hanh||The Heart of Understanding ISBN 0-938077-11-2||Parallax Press||The Heart Sutra with a Vietnamese Thiền commentary||1988|
|Edward Conze||Buddhist Wisdom Books ISBN 0-04-440259-7||Unwin||The Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra with commentaries||1988|
|Thich Nhat Hanh||The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion ISBN 0-938077-51-1||Parallax Press||The Diamond Sutra with a Vietnamese Thiền commentary||1992|
|Lex Hixon||Mother of the Buddhas: Meditation on the Prajnaparamita Sutra ISBN 0-8356-0689-9||Quest||Selected verses from the Prajnaparamita in 8000 lines||1993|
|Edward Conze||The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary ISBN 81-7030-405-9||Four Seasons Foundation||The earliest text in a combination of strict translation and summary||1994|
|Lopez, Donald S.||Elaborations on Emptiness ISBN 0-691-00188-X||Princeton||The Heart Sutra with eight complete Indian and Tibetan commentaries||1998|
|Geshe Kelsang Gyatso||Heart of Wisdom ISBN 0-948006-77-3||Tharpa||The Heart Sutra with a Tibetan commentary||2001|
|Red Pine||The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom; Text and Commentaries Translated from Sanskrit and Chinese ISBN 1-58243-256-2||Counterpoint||The Diamond Sutra with Chán/Zen commentary||2001|
|Edward Conze||Perfect Wisdom; The Short Prajnaparamita Texts ISBN 0-946672-28-8||Buddhist Publishing Group, Totnes. (Luzac reprint)||Most of the short sutras: Perfection of Wisdom in 500 Lines, 700 lines, The Heart Sutra and The Diamond Sutra, one word, plus some Tantric sutras, all without commentaries.||2003|
|Red Pine||The Heart Sutra: the Womb of Buddhas ISBN 978-1593760090||Counterpoint||Heart Sutra with commentary||2004|
|14th Dalai Lama||Essence of the Heart Sutra, ISBN 978-0-86171-284-7||Wisdom Publications||Heart Sutra with commentary by the 14th Dalai Lama||2005|
|R.C. Jamieson||The perfection of wisdom, ISBN 978-0-67088-934-1||Penguin Viking||Foreward by H.H. the Dalai Lama; illustrated with Cambridge University Library Manuscript Add.1464 & Manuscript Add.1643||2000|
|Geshe Tashi Tsering||Emptiness: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, ISBN 978-0-86171-511-4||Wisdom Publications||A guide to the topic of emptiness from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, with English translation of the Heart Sutra||2009|
|Richard H. Jones||The Heart of Buddhist Wisdom, ISBN 978-1478389576||Jackson Square Books||Clear English translations of the Heart Sutra, the Diamond-Cutter Sutra, the Collection of Highest Qualities, and other texts with notes and essays||2012|
|Doosun Yoo||Thunderous Silence: A Formula For Ending Suffering: A Practical Guide to the Heart Sutra, ISBN 978-1614290537||Wisdom Publications||English translation of the Heart Sutra with Korean Seon commentary.||2013|
Prajnaparamita - the Book that Became a Goddess One October night in 1816, Charles Cowden Clarke sat up late in his rooms in London, reading and talking with a young friend. Clarke and his friend loved literature, and they had managed to lay hands on a copy of Homer, translated by Chapman. It was dawn by the time they stopped reading and discussing. After his friend had gone, Clarke took a few hours sleep. On coming down to breakfast he found a note waiting for him. It was a perfectly turned sonnet from his fellow reader:
Much have I travelled in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. Oft of one wide expanse had I been told That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne: Yet did I never breathe its pure serene Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He stared at the Pacific - and all his men Looked at each other with a wild surmise - Silent, upon a peak in Darien. Clarke's friend can only have had two or three hours in which to produce his poem. It would be an achievement for any poet to fashion something so fine so quickly, and after a sleepless night. For a twenty-year-old it was extraordinary.
That breakfast-time note to Clarke was one of the first declarations of the poetic genius of his friend John Keats. The 'realms of gold' in which Keats has travelled are of course the worlds of literature, of the imagination. (Among other things, Apollo is the god of poetry.) Through his poem we can remind ourselves of the tremendous value and power not just of literature, but of the written word. Nowadays we are glutted with print. So surfeited are we that it is easy to take books for granted. We can buy the thoughts of the world's greatest minds, and read them on the bus. However, the mass production of literature is still quite a new development.
Six or seven centuries ago every book was precious, for they all had to be painstakingly hand-copied. A prince with a hundred volumes would have possessed a large library. If you were a scholar at that time you would have had to wander from place to place - from one library to the next. You might have heard of a book and had to travel hundreds of miles to consult one of the few copies in existence. If you had wanted to study it intensively you would have had to stay where the book was kept, or copied it yourself, which might have taken months - even if you did not embellish the book, as was often done in the scriptoria of the monasteries. Or you might have travelled with your library on your back - like Marpa returning home to Tibet with the teachings he had gathered in India. And, like Marpa, you might easily have lost those hard-gained volumes. How would we feel if we had copied by hand all the books in our possession? How much more would we value them? Even for Keats, much closer to our own time, a new book was a treasure.
We need somehow to regain this feeling of appreciation, even of reverence, for books, if we are to begin to enter into a proper relationship with the Perfection of Wisdom literature. If even ordinary books can be so precious, then books containing the highest insights of humanity must be extraordinary treasures indeed. Ordinary books are valuable because they crystallize and preserve knowledge, memories, ideas, and experience. The Perfection of Wisdom literature encapsulates - as far as it is possible in words - the experience of Enlightenment. I am stressing this point because in almost any city in the Western world it is quite easy to buy a book of the Perfection of Wisdom and read that on the bus. How you read the Perfection of Wisdom (Sanskrit Prajnaparamita) literature is supremely important. One of the earliest Wisdom texts admonishes us in its opening line: Call forth as much as you can of love, of respect and of faith! Gaining wisdom is at least as much a matter of becoming receptive emotionally as of intellectual acuity.
This, as we shall see later, was one of the main reasons why the Perfection of Wisdom literature transformed itself into a goddess - to teach more effectively by appearing in a form that people would love to dwell upon. For Keats, Chapman's Homer is a catalyst. While reading, his imagination starts to fly. He feels as though he has seen a new planet, or discovered a new ocean. Hernan Cortez was the 'conquistador' who subdued the Aztecs. In the sonnet, though, he is a positive figure. Cortez has landed on the Caribbean coast of modern-day Panama. He has walked inland with his men and climbed a peak, to discover an ocean vaster than the one he has just crossed, stretching away below him. Gazing at this new realm of possibility, he and his men are struck silent.
Keats feels he has found a new vantage point in himself, seen possibilities he never knew existed. This should be the case when we first encounter the Perfection of Wisdom literature. The books themselves are just catalysts for a new vision of the universe. An undreamed of realm begins to unfold itself. If you enter fully into this golden realm, then, like Cortez's men, words will fail you. You will be unable to describe what you have apprehended. Someone who has used the Prajnaparamita literature to enter the transcendental realm is said to be like a mute who has had a dream.