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Perfection of Wisdom

1 The sixth of the Six Perfections[?].

2 The Perfection of Wisdom sutras or prajnaparamita sutras are a group of Mahayana Buddhist sutras dealing with the subject of the Perfection of Wisdom.


The earliest sutra is the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 lines[?], or astasahasrika prajnaparamita sutra[?], probably written about 100 BCE with more material added later up until about 100 CE. As well as the sutra itself there is a summary in verse, the ratnagunasamcayagatha[?], which may be slightly older as it is not written in standard literary Sanskrit. This sutra is one of the earliest Mahayana sutras.

Between 100 CE and 300 CE the original sutra was expanded into large versions in 10,000, 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 lines, collectively known at the Large Perfection of Wisdom[?]. These differ mainly in the extent to which the many lists are either abbreviated or written out in full, the rest of the text is mostly unchanged between the different versions. Since the large versions proved to be unwieldy they were later summarised into shorter versions, produced from 300 CE to 500 CE. The shorter versions include the two best known, the Heart sutra[?], or hrdaya prajnaparamita sutra[?] and the Diamond sutra[?], vajrachedika prajnaparamita sutra[?]. These two are very popular and have had a great influence on the development of Mahayana Buddhism. Tantric versions were produced from 500 CE on.


The following is a quotation used with permission.

"At first sight, The Perfection of Wisdom is bewildering, full of paradox and apparent irrationality. Yet once one accepts that trying to unravel these texts without experiencing the intuitions behind them is not satisfactory, it becomes clear that paradox and irrationality are the only means of conveying to the reader those underlying intuitions that would otherwise be impossible to express. Edward Conze[?] succinctly summarized what The Perfection of Wisdom is about, saying, 'The thousands of lines of the Prajnaparamita can be summed up in the following two sentences:

1) One should become a bodhisattva (or, Buddha-to-be), i.e. one who is content with nothing less than all-knowledge attained through the perfection of wisdom for the sake of all beings.

2) There is no such thing as a bodhisattva, or as all-knowledge, or as a 'being', or as the perfection of wisdom, or as an attainment. To accept both of these contradictory facts is to be perfect.'

The central idea of The Perfection of Wisdom is complete release from the world of existence. The Perfection of Wisdom goes beyond earlier Buddhist teaching that focused on the rise and fall of phenomena to state that there is no such rise and fall - because all phenomena are essentially void. The earlier perception had been that reality is composed of a multiplicity of things. The Perfection of Wisdom states that there is no multiplicity: all is one. Even existence (samsara) and nirvana are essentially the same, and both are ultimately void. The view of The Perfection of Wisdom is that words and analysis have a practical application in that they are necessary for us to function in this world but, ultimately, nothing can be predicated about anything.

Within this context of voidness, The Perfection of Wisdom offers a way to enlightenment. It represents the formal introduction to Buddhist thought of a practical ideal - the ideal of a bodhisattva. Unlike an arhat or pratyekabuddha, beings who achieve enlightenment but cannot pass on the means of enlightenment to others, a bodhisattva should and does teach. A bodhisattva must practise the six perfections: giving, morality, patience, vigour, contemplation and wisdom. Wisdom is the most important of these because it it dispels the darkness of sensory delusion and allows things to be seen as they really are."

R.C. Jamieson : The Perfection of Wisdom (New York : Penguin Viking, 2000. ISBN 0670889342 pp. 8-9)

For example Diamond sutra says:

"As stars, a fault of vision, a lamp,
A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,
A dream, a lightning flash, or a cloud,
So should one view what is conditioned."

Stars cannot be grasped. Things seen with faulty vision do not really exist. Lamps only burn as long as they have fuel. A mock show is a magical illusion; it is not as it seems. Dew drops evaporate quickly in the heat of the sun. Bubbles are short lived and have no real substance to them. Dreams are not real, even though they may seem so at the time. Lightning is short lived and quickly over. Clouds are always changing shape. By realising the transient nature of things it is easier to detach from them and to attain Nirvana.

The philosophy of Emptiness was worked out systematically by Nagarjuna based on the Perfection of Wisdom sutras.

English translations of Perfection of Wisdom sutras

Author Title Publisher Notes
Conze, E The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary Four Seasons Foundation The earliest text in a strict translation
Hixon, L Mother of the Buddhas Quest A less strict translation of most of the version in 8,000 lines
Conze, E The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom University of California Mostly the version in 25,000 lines, with some parts from the versions in 100,000 and 18,000 lines
Conze, E Buddhist Wisdom Books Unwin The Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra with commentaries
Lopez, Donald S. The Heart Sutra Explained SUNY The Heart Sutra with a summary of Indian commentaries
Lopez, Donald S. Elaborations on Emptiness Princeton The Heart Sutra with eight complete Indian and Tibetan commentaries
Rabten, Geshe Echoes of Voidness Wisdom Includes the Heart Sutra with a Tibetan commentary
Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang Heart of Wisdom Tharpa The Heart Sutra with a Tibetan commentary
Hanh, Thich Nhat The Heart of Understanding Parallax Press The Heart Sutra with a Ch'an commentary
Conze, E The Short Prajnaparamita Texts Luzac Most of the short sutras and some Tantric sutras, all without commentaries.
Conze, E Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom Buddhist Society, London Bleeding chunks of various Perfection of Wisdom sutras

This is not an exhaustive list, there are others. Many books of selections from Buddhist scriptures will include a translation of the Heart Sutra and excerpts from other Perfection of Wisdom sutras. Because it is so short and so important, the Heart Sutra is popular with anthologists.

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