The 9th chapter, “Transcendent Wisdom,” in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life that I referenced in my Sept. 8th post, begins with these words:

Wisdom is the only true final antidote to all suffering (the whole path aims at this).”

The Sanskrit word for wisdom is prajna, which is syllabified as praj, meaning “higher,” and na or “consciousness.” But higher consciousness should not be taken to mean that wisdom some sort of mystical state. It is more like the difference between viewing a landscape from the ground or atop a mountain. The higher one’s vantage point then the more one is able to see.

Dharmic wisdom has many shades and hues. Wisdom obtained by study is what the sutras call “literary prajna.” Prajna-paramita, or Transcendent Wisdom, is the coupling of compassion with emptiness-knowledge. Prajna-Dhyana is the non-duality of wisdom and meditation. But none of these constitute the highest form of wisdom.

“The Way is your everyday mind,” is a saying attributed to Huang Po, a Ch’an master during the Tang Dynasty. He means there is no wisdom that is detached from daily life.

You can go off in search of higher states of consciousness, but the state of mind that is most important is the one rooted in the everyday world. Through understanding daily life, we can understand the whole of life.

I don’t know how many of readers consider yourself Buddhists. It’s not important. Being a Buddhist is nothing special in the long run. It’s just being an ordinary person. Doing ordinary things. However, because most Buddhist engage in some sort of meditative practice, ordinary things are done with a bit more awareness, and one hopes, tranquility.

The ancient Ch’an/Zen tradition seemed to understand this very well. There’s old story from the school that illustrates the point, with the usual dash of paradox, of course:

Someone asked the Zen master three questions, What is Buddha? What is Dharma? What is Sangha? And the master answered each question with the same words, “Go and drink tea.”

In other words, you practice, and you do your daily life. That’s wisdom. That’s true Buddhism.


Human Nature

T’ai Hsu (1889-1947), who played a major role in the revival of the Fa-hsiang school, said,

We achieve Buddhahood through our human natures. This is the deepest truth of Buddhism.”

Human nature refers to the characteristics of being a sentient being, a human being. For me, the key word in the quote from T’ai Hsu is through. While there are various opinions as to whether human nature is fundamentally good or bad, hardly anyone would disagree that it is imperfect. Buddhism teaches that our human nature is also prone to experience the pangs of suffering, and that by going through our human nature, or transcending it, we can also transcend suffering and arrive at a state of being that we could called ‘perfected’ in the sense that it means completed or whole. We may even find that the nature we uncover by transcending human nature is more natural.

‘Transcendent’ is a word that is problematic for some because they associate it with the classical definition of transcendence, which refers to the power of God, higher or totally removed from our human world, or referring to a state that is divine, and again, independent or far above our lives in the world.

MC900As I use ‘transcendent’, it is in the sense of prajna-paramita or transcendent wisdom. Prajna means wisdom, and paramita means perfection or accomplished. The Six (or Ten) paramitas or perfections are qualities the bodhisattva must “complete” as he or she fares on the Bodhisattva Way. Also called ‘crossings’, they include generosity, virtue, patience, energy, contemplation, and wisdom.

Prajna-paramita is likened to the ship that ferries all beings across the sea of suffering,  wisdom that transcends suffering. All human experience is an insight into transcendent wisdom. In order to transcend suffering, we have to suffer. There is no escape from this truth. No easy way out. The experience of suffering can bring us nearer to insight into wisdom.

Our fundamental nature – what we term ‘the buddha nature’, the very nature of our mind, is inherently present within us as a natural attribute. This mind of ours, the subject at hand, has been going on throughout beginningless time, and so has the more subtle nature of that mind. On the basis of the continuity of that subtle nature of our mind rests the capacity we have to attain enlightenment. This potential is what we call ‘the seed of buddhahood’, ‘buddha nature’, ‘the fundamental nature’, or ‘tathagatagarbha’.”

Dalai Lama, Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection (2001)

One who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end.”

Orson Welles, The Lady from Shanghai (1947)


How To Course In Prajna Paramita

Recently someone asked what I thought of scholar Jan Nattier’s proposal that the Heart Sutra is a Chinese apocryphal sutra, and my response was that it’s not an issue for me. Since we know that none of the Mahayana sutras has a direct connection to the historical Buddha, I don’t really care if they are Indian or Chinese in origin. To my mind, what is far more critical is the content. Does the text impart something significant for wayfaring on the path? Is it relevant for today? Whatever its origins, the Heart Sutra certainly qualifies as a important Buddhist teaching.

The Heart Sutra (Maha Prajna Paramita Hrdaya Sutra) is based on the voluminous Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra, which consists of approximately 600 scrolls. As far as I know there is no information suggesting the latter is not an Indian text, although its exact origins are unknown. Wikipedia says the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra is “usually attributed to Nagarjuna.” I’ve seen this elsewhere and I think they must be confused with Nagarjuna’s Maha Prajna Paramita Sastra, (“sastra” means treatise) a commentary on the sutra, also rather voluminous, that may or may not be an authentic work by that great Buddhist philosopher. I’m under the impression that most scholars feel that the earliest Mahayana sutras, including the Prajna Paramita, were composed around the 1st century BCE.

In any case, I thought it might be interesting to present the passage from the “Great Transcendent Wisdom Sutra” that the Heart Sutra is based on, where the basis for the famous phrase “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” is found. It also includes the term sunyata-svabhava or “empty of own-being,” which occurs in the Heart Sutra at the beginning as “While practicing Prajna Paramita, Avalokitesvara clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty [of own-being].” And there are a few other things that found their way into the Heart Sutra here as well.

Obviously, the composers of the Heart Sutra introduced a number of elements not found in the “large” Prajna Paramita: the appearance of Avalokitesvara, borrowed from the Lotus Sutra; the inclusion of the mantra; and the Buddha’s relegation to a supporting role. If you have read the longer version of the shorter Heart Sutra (with the prologue and epilogue), then you know that instead of posing his question to the Buddha, Shariputra instead asks Avalokitesvara what is the best way to practice, or course in Prajna Paramita. The reason the compilers of the Heart Sutra did this was so they could take a little dig at the so-called “Hinayana” by having the Buddhist foremost Hinayana disciple seek guidance from a Mahayana Bodhisattva.

Edward Conze (1904-1979)

Those readers familiar with the Diamond Sutra (also based on the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra) may also notice some seeds of that text in this passage.

This comes from Edward Conze’s translation, “The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom,” published in 1975 by the University of California Press. It’s the first section in Chapter 3, “Observations.” Conze uses the word “review” for “sees repeatedly” (“truly a Bodhisattva, does not review a Bodhisattva”, etc.), and I find his reasoning for that a bit confusing, so I have changed it to simply “see.” I’ve never been crazy about using “the Lord” to reference the Buddha, but I’ve let that pass.

If you’d like to compare this passage with the Heart Sutra, you can click here and it will open a new window to my Heart Sutra page.


Sariputra : How then should the Bodhisattva, the great being, course in perfect wisdom?

The Lord: Here  the Bodhisattva, the great being, coursing in the perfection of wisdom, truly a Bodhisattva, does not see a Bodhisattva, nor the word “Bodhisattva”, nor the course of a Bodhisattva, (nor the perfection of wisdom, nor the word “perfection of wisdom”. He does not see that “he courses”, nor that “he does not course”). He does not see form, feeling, perception, formative forces, or consciousness. And why? Because the Bodhisattva, the great being, is actually empty of the own-being of a Bodhisattva, and because perfect wisdom is by its own-being empty. And why? That is its essential original nature. (For it is not through emptiness that form, etc. is empty.) Nor is emptiness other than form, etc.

And why? The very form, etc., is emptiness, the very emptiness is form, etc. And why? Because “Bodhisattva”, “perfect wisdom”, “form”, etc. are mere words. Because form, etc., are like an illusion. Illusions and mere words do not stand at any point or spot; they are not, do not come into being, are false to behold. For of what the own-being is seen to be an illusion, of that there is no production or stopping, no defilement or purification. Thus a Bodhisattva, a great being who courses in the perfection of wisdom, also does not review the production (of any dharma); nor its stopping (or abiding, its decrease or increase), defilement or purification. (He does not review form, etc., nor “enlightenment”, nor what is called an “enlightenment-being”.) And why? Because words are artificial. People have constructed a counter-dharma. They express it conventionally by means of an adventitious designation (which is imagined and unreal, and they settle down in that conventional expression). A Bodhisattva, a great being who courses in perfect wisdom, does not review (that which is said to correspond to) all those words, (does not get at them). Not reviewing them, (not getting at them, he does not mind them), does not settle down in them.

Furthermore, a Bodhisattva, a great being who courses in the perfection of wisdom, does not consider the fact that these are mere words, i.e. this “Bodhisattva”, this “enlightenment”, this “Buddha”, this “perfection of wisdom”, this “coursing in the perfection of wisdom”, this “form”, etc. Just as one speaks of a “self, and yet no self is got at, and no being, soul, personality, person, individual, or man, etc., on account of unascertainable emptiness.  And why? Because there a Bodhisattva does also not see that by means of which he would settle down. Coursing thus, a Bodhisattva, a great being courses in perfect wisdom.


The Mother of All Buddhas

Sunday is Mother’s Day, so it seems only fitting to talk about Prajna-Paramita, the mother of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In Prajna-paramita literature, Buddhas are not born from Nirvana but from the practice of Prajna-paramita, Transcendent Wisdom.

In some forms of Buddhism, particularly Tantric ones, Prajna-paramita was worshipped as a goddess, sometimes regarded as a manifestation of Tara. Here is a ritualistic description of her in the later form, from the Ekallavira-Canda-Maharosana-Tantra:

I shall reveal the nature of Prajnaparamita who sits in the sattva-paryanka-sana . . . She is blue in color, full  of good fortune, and stamped with the figure of Aksobhya. Her right and left hands hold respectively a red and blue lotus on each of which rests a book on Kamasastra (a treatise on love and erotics). She has youthful and elevated breasts, large eyes, and pleasant speech.

“Sattva-paryanka-sana,” by the way, is a mode of sitting in which the legs are not locked, but placed one above the other with only one of the soles being visible.

In Prajna-paramita literature, her importance as a symbol is more philosophical than ritualistic, more nurturing and less erotic. I’ve shared this before, but it’s worth sharing once again – a wonderfully poetic description of the Mother of All Buddhas from the Prajna-Paramita Sutra:

The Compassionate Mother of Buddhas

Transcendent wisdom gives light, O Thus Gone One, She is worthy of homage; I pay homage to transcendent wisdom! She is unstained. She removes the darkness from everyone in the triple world. She does her utmost to bring about the forsaking of the blinding darkness caused by the defilements and by false views. She makes us seek the safety of all the dharmas which act as wings to enlightenment. She brings light, so that all fear, terror, and distress may be forsaken. She shows the path to beings, so that they may acquire the five organs of vision. To beings who have strayed on to the wrong road she brings about the knowledge of all modes through the avoidance of the two extremes, on account of the forsaking of all the defilements together with their residues.

Transcendent wisdom is the mother of the Bodhisattvas, the great beings, on account of her generations of the Buddhadharmas. She is neither produced nor stopped, on account of the emptiness of own-marks. She liberates from birth-and-death because she is not unmoved nor destroyed, she protects the unprotected, on account of her being the donor all dharmas. She brings about the ten powers (of a Buddha), because she cannot be crushed, she sets in motion the wheel of Dharma with its three revolutions and its twelve aspects on account of it being neither turned forward nor backward. The perfection of wisdom shows forth the own-being of all dharmas, on account of the emptiness of the nonexistence of own-being.”


Critiquing the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is a Buddhist text that explains how prajna-paramita (transcendent wisdom) goes beyond fundamental ignorance to penetrate ultimate truth or things as they really are. This wisdom is not intellectual knowledge, rather it is an intuitive wisdom that when uncovered leads to the transcendence of suffering and the flowering of compassion. The Heart Sutra is also a practice in that it teaches a method for training the mind.

The other day while browsing some Buddhist blogs, I ran across a blogger who had analyzed the Heart Sutra in terms of which parts are formulaic, advertising, meaningless filler, repetition, stuff that is wrong, stuff that is weird, and actual content. Even the term prajna-paramita was classified as just unimportant religious formula and therefore, unnecessary. In the end, everything judged to be of no value was removed and there was not much left. Well, this is nothing new. Indeed, the sutra was crafted from a process of reductionism.

It’s likely that the precise history of the Heart Sutra will never be known. There is some disagreement among scholars as to whether it originated in India or China. Some maintain the sutra was composed in 1st century CE by a monk of one of the early Buddhist schools. Other scholars date it several centuries later. I think it was probably “composed” by a number of people, one or more of whom added elements that are not found in the Prajna-paramita sutras (Avalokitesvara/Kwan Yin from the Lotus Sutra) and there is a strong influence from esoteric or tantric Buddhism whose practitioners had a keen interest in distilling Buddhist teachings into short phrases (dharani and mantra) and eventually into single letters (bija or seed syllables).

The Heart Sutra is based on the collection of 40 Prajna-paramita Sutras. These were first redacted into the Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra with 100,000 lines. Following this was a 25,000 line sutra, an 18,000 line version, a 10,000 line sutra, a 8,000 line version, and eventually a 40 line version which is the essence of the Heart Sutra as we know it today. Around 250 CE, we have the first mention of a Prajna-paramita dharani (Chih-ch’ien), and later, a mantra: Tadyatha Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasam Gate Bodhi Svaha, which was further trimmed down by hacking off Tadyatha and Om. Finally, they condensed the Heart Sutra into a single bija or seed syllable, dhihmma, and then shorted it to simply dhih.

This centuries long process was undertaken for specific reasons, and while one aim was to negate the most fundamental concepts of early Buddhism, it was not a complete negation. After the negations, the concepts are then reaffirmed, only now in a new light, in the transcendent light of going beyond. On one hand the authors offered up a critique and on the other they presented an valid alternative view.

As many of you know, there are two versions of the Heart Sutra, a long version and a short one. The longer one has a prologue where the Buddha enters into a samadhi called “perception of the profound” (observation of emptiness) and an epilogue where he praises Avalokitesvara. The short version is normally used for recitation. In my opinion, every word is important and necessary, especially in the shorter version. This is a cryptic text. Each word has meaning, is a symbol, represents a thought, a concept. The Heart Sutra, in one way or another, discusses every major concept in Buddhism, and I would go even a step further to say that it touches upon nearly every philosophical idea known to the world. How is that possible in such a short work? Well, that’s the genius behind the text. It’s like a form of shorthand.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Heart Sutra is so sacred that it can’t be altered or subjected to different interpretations. I’m just saying that this carefully crafted work shouldn’t be filtered through one’s personal preferences or gutted for the sake of post-modernism or secularism.

In the context of Prajna-paramita literature, the term prajna-paramita means transcendent wisdom. This concept is perhaps even more central to the sutra than the concept of emptiness. Paramita means “crossing over” or “going beyond.” When Avalokitesvara sees that the five aggregates are empty of self-being, the sutra says that he was able to “cross over all suffering.” [The sea of suffering, the raft, the other shore, nirvana.] This implies real transcendence: the wisdom that goes beyond not only the extremes of conceptual thinking but suffering as well.

The relevance of the mantra at the end (“gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond . . .”) to the rest of the sutra is that it serves as a coda, summing up the sutra. And yet it has further significance. The mantra is a call to action, it implores us to go beyond, go beyond our preferences, our preconceived notions, our attachments, the limitations we place on ourselves, the limits of our mind – go beyond everything, entering into a new realm of insight and wisdom, which in the end means seeing things differently than we did before, seeing things with a pragmatic and intuitive kind of wisdom.

By the way, the phrase “crossing over all suffering” is not found in either the Sanskrit or Chinese versions. It’s usually added to English translations for clarification, to further emphasize the point of transcendent wisdom. The text is altered in this way for the purpose of clarifying  and supporting the sutra’s message.

So then, before we start to critique of this little gem, I suggest we try to practice it, study it, develop a basic understanding of the meaning and how it uses words and meanings to describe prajna-paramita which goes beyond words and meanings.

There are some very good books on the Heart Sutra. One of the best is Heart of the Universe by Mu Soeng Sunim. It’s very short and offers an excellent explanation of emptiness. Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding is also short and captures the positive spirit of the sutra. Elaborations on Emptiness by Donald S. Lopez Jr. is excellent as well, although I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book as it’s a rather scholarly presentation from the viewpoint of Tibetan Buddhism. Red Pine’s The Heart Sutra and There Is No Suffering: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra by Master Sheng Yen and Chan Master Sheng-yen are also fine. I found Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings to be somewhat light, but it’s not a waste of time.

Here I am reciting the Heart Sutra in English. The text of the sutra is below.

Great Heart of Transcendent Wisdom Sutra

Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and crossed over all suffering. Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also like this.

Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness: Not beginning, not ending, not stained and not pure, not increasing and not decreasing. Within emptiness there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, and no thinking; no realms from sight to mind; no ignorance and no ending of ignorance, no old age and death and no ending of old age and death; no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering, no path; no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.

Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, the most excellent wisdom, and with no hindrance of mind, no fears and no illusions, they enter into Nirvana. All Buddhas from the past present and future practice in this way and awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.

Therefore, know that the Prajna-Paramita is the great bright mantra, the great transcendent mantra that relieves all suffering. Know this as truth and declare:

Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Far Beyond, Be Set Upon Awakening!