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.”

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3 thoughts on “The Mother of All Buddhas

  1. Hi David,

    Thanks for your recent posts about positive expressions of the feminine in Buddhism. I’ve always thought of Guan Yin as female and Prajna Paramita as sort of a greater feminine principle — this is just how it intuitively made sense to me when I started learning about them. This probably has something to do with the fact that my learning came initially through a combination of a Chinese cultural lens, and of course my American cultural lens. Every culture seems to have different needs or roles for gender, and American culture is no different. It seems to me that Buddhism in American culture also has a high regard for feminine ideals.

    This morning I am starting to edit another article on the Divine Feminine, written by a Catholic nun. I don’t want to derail your post, so I won’t get into it too much, but I do think it’s interesting how different cultures represent feminine ideals, and Mary is another rich example.

    One last note, with my editor’s mind: in the second paragraph, “worshiped” is British English. American English would be “worshipped.” Also I think you mean “goddess” instead of “goodness.”

    1. Thanks for your interesting comment, James. Thanks, too, for pointing out the typos, which I’ve now corrected.

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