“Words do not express thoughts very well; everything immediately becomes
a little different, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also
pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom of one man seems
nonsense to another.” - Gautam Buddha. Brought to you Sri Satguru Publications,
this book by EDWARD CONZE is a dual presentation in verse and
prose - stating the art of mindful remembrance which leads to the realization
of ultimate wisdom as drawn from the Buddhist-Sanskrit Philosophy of India.
After the Torah, the Koran and the Gospels, the Indian literature of the Perfection of Wisdom has had the greatest impact on the religious consciousness of mankind. Its composition extended for over seven hundred years, and here we offer the reader the first two works which were composed in South India between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100. These documents are not only indispensable to those who wish to understand the mentality of the East, they still carry a potent spiritual message, and those who desire to diminish their personal worries y the disciplined contemplation of spiritual; thought could make no better choice.
The Two Versions
In this book the reader finds the same text presented in two versions, once in verse and once in prose. For early Mahayana’ Sutras that was quite a normal procedure. Generally speaking the versified versions are earlier, and in all cases they have been revised less than those in prose. The reason lies in that the verses are in dialect, and the prose in generally correct Sanskrit. The dialect is nowadays known as “Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit,” a term adopted by Professor F. Edgerton who first compiled its grammar and dictionary. The verses are often difficult to construe, and require close comparison with the Tibetan translations which reflect the knowhow of the Indian pandits of the ninth century. Nevertheless most of my translation should be regarded as fairly reliable, and there are serious doubts only about the rendering of I 7, II 13 and XX 13, which so far no amount of discussions with fellow scholars has dispersed.
The verse form of this Sutra is handed down to us under the name of Prajnaparamita-Ratnaguanasamcayagatha (abbreviated as Rgs), which consists of 302 “Verses on the Perfection of Wisdom Which Is the Storehouse of Precious Virtues,” the virtuous qualities being, as the Chinese translation adds, those of the “Mother of the Buddhas.” The text has acquired this title only fairly late in its history, for references to it occur only at XXIX 3 (idam gunasamcayanam) and XXVII 6 (ayu vihara gune ratanam), i.e. in the latest portions of the text. But Haribhadra, its editor, has not made it up from these hints because two verses from it are quoted by Candrakirti (ca 600) under the title of Arya-Samcayagatha.
Unfortunately our present text is not the original one. It has been tampered with in the eighth century when, under the Buddhist Pala dy. nasty, which then ruled Bihar, the great expert on Prajnaparamita, Haribhadra, either rearranged5 the verses or, perhaps, only divided them into chapters. Regrettably the Chinese translators also missed the original text and produced only a tardy and none too reliable translation of Haribhadra’s revision in A.D. 1001. But the verses themselves, as distinct from their arrangement, cannot have been altered very much because their archaic language and metre would resist fundamental changes. Although some of the poem’s charm evaporates in translation, it nevertheless comes through as a human and vital statement of early Mahayana Buddhism, simple and straightforward, pithy and direct Not unnaturally the Ratnaguna is still very popular in Tibet where it is usually found in conjunction with two other works of an edifying character, the “Vows of Samantabhadra” and ‘The Recitation of Manjusri’s Attributes.”
In my view the 41 verses of the first two’ chapters constitute the original Prajnaparamita which may well go back to 100 B.C. and of which all the others are elaborations. Elsewhere I have given an analytical survey of their contents; these chapters form one single text held together by the constant recurrence of the refrain “and that is the practice of wisdom, the highest perfection” (esha so prajna-vara-paramitaya carya) and terminated by a fitting conclusion in II 13. In fact the title of the original document was probably “the practice (carya) of Perfect Wisdom,” just as in China the first P.P. text had been the Too-hsing, “the practice of the Way,” in one fascicle8 and as in the three earliest Chinese translations the first chapter was called “practice (of the Way),” and not, as now, “the practice of the knowledge of all modes.”
At the other end there are 52 verses which have no counterpart in the Ashta at all. In the main they are a separate treatise which deals, in reverse order, with the five perfections which lead up to the perfection of wisdom, ‘and which was appended to the existing Rgs so as to bring the number of chapters from 28 to a total of 32. For the rest, 33 more Rgs verses are absent from the Ashta. “They concern mostly similes.
Of special interest are the similes in chapter XX which deal with the following particularly abstruse subject: It is one of the most distinguishing features of a “Bodhisattva” that he can postpone his entrance into Nirvana so as to help living beings. Technically this is expressed by saying that “he does not realize the Reality-limit (bhuta-koti).” “Reality-limit” had for a while been one of the more obscure synonyms of “Nirvana,” but now by a shift in meaning it becomes identified with the inferior hinayanistic Nirvana of the Arhat as distinct from the full and final Nirvana of a Buddha.’ Tradition also knew three “doors to deliverance”—emptiness, the signless and the wishless—which are three kinds of meditation which lead straight to Nirvana. Chapter XX now tries to explain (bracketed pages 370-81) how these can be practised without the undesirable side-effect of the person quitting the world by disappearing into the basically selfish hinayanistic Nirvana. Most readers will find the similes of Rgs more convincing than the apparent rationality of the Ashta.
On the other hand, large chunks of the Ashta are unrepresented in the Ratnaguna. They are roughly 240 pages out of 529’s. It is not always quite clear why they should be missing. Some obviously are absent because they were added to the Sutra after the completion of Rgs. They are, as I have suggested elsewhere,’ chapters XXIX to XXXII, as well as large portions of chapters XIII, XIX to XX VIII, and so on. Others could prob ably by no stretch of the imagination be subjected to poetical treatment, such as the -attempts to probe the mind of the All-knowing in chapter XII, the rather monotonous rhapsodies on Suchness in chapter XVI, or the sometimes prosy enumerations of Mara’s misdeeds in chapters Xl, XVII 328-32, and XXIV 416-2L It is also quite possible that some parts of Rgs are later than the prose text of the Ashta and that their authors did not aim at reproducing all the points of the argument, step by step, but were content to pick out a sentence here or there.
Now as to the Sutra itself. First its title. Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita (abbreviated as Ashta or A) means “The Perfection of Wisdom in-tight Thousand Lines,” or slokas. A sloka is used to indicate a unit of 32 syllables. The Cambridge manuscript Add 866 of A.D. 1008 gives the actual number of slokas after each chapter, and added together they are exactly 8,411. Religious people are inclined to attribute their holy scriptures to divine inspiration, and they do not like to think of them as a historical sequence of utterances made by fallible men, The faithful in India and the Buddhist world in general assumed that all the PP. Sutras are equally the word of the Buddha, more or less abbreviated according to the faculty of understanding of the people and their zeal and spiritual maturity.’6 The first was that in 8,000 lines, or rather its precursor. This was then expanded into 10,000, 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 flakes; and after that it was contracted to 2,500,700,500,300 (The Diamond Sutra), 150, 25 (The Heart sutra), and finally into one syllable (“A”). They are all anonymous and date between A.D. 50 and 700.
In its language our Sutra is almost pure Sanskrit. The date of its composition can be inferred to some extent from the Chinese translations. The first was Lokakshema’s “P.P. Sutra of the Practice of the Way” in A.D. 179. At that time “the sutra had already assumed the basic format preserved in the Sanskrit, and no chapters are left out completely.”” But even that must have grown over one or two centuries because it contains many sections omitted in the Ratnaguna (see above at note 14) which reflects an earlier state of the text from which even Lokakshema’s version was derived. After Lokakshema we can follow the further growth and modifications of the text in China over eight centuries.’8 The current Sanskrit text which we have translated here is that of the Pat a manuscripts which are dated between A.D. 1000 and 1150. They are confirmed by the Tibetan translation (ca A.D. 850) and closely agree with Danapala’s Chinese translation of A.D. 985 and to some extent already with one of
Hsuan-tsang’s translations (Taisho 220, ca A.D. 650). In fact so much effort has been devoted to this greatly revered scripture that its text is unusually well established. From India we have more old manuscripts of it than of any other Mahayana scripture. In China “it was the first philosophical text to be translated from the Mahayana literature into Chinese”19 and it was translated no fewer than seven times. The colophon of the Tibetan translation in the Kanjur shows the exceptional care taken of it over the centuries by some of the greatest names of Tibetan scholarship:
—it was first translated ca 850; then again in 1020; then compared with many Indian Mss and commentaries and revised in 1030, in 1075 and again in 1500.
The Sutras of the Mahayana are dialogues. One must know the conventions behind their presentation, because what matters is not only what is said but who says it. First there are three of the best known of the “disciples” of the historical Buddha, technically known as “auditors” (sravaka, from Sru, to hear), because they have heard the doctrine directly from the Buddha’s lips. They are Subhuti, Sariputra and Ananda.
Where Subhuti talks it is the Buddha himself who speaks through him. Subhuti was one of the “eighty great disciples” of the tradition of the Elders who was outstanding for his practice of friendliness, or loving kindness. In the older Buddhism, charity (maitri) had been a minor and subordinate virtue. It is characteristic of the Mahayana that its representative should now be placed above all the other disciples. In addition, Subhuti was celebrated for his being “the foremost of those who dwell in Peace,” (a formula which implies that he avoided all strife by not contending at all,) and also for practising the contemplation of dharmas as empty.2’ lie is the principal channel through whom the Buddha’s inspiration travels downwards. The theory is stated quite clearly at Rgs I 2-4 (=A I 4), and also at A I 25, II 44. It is the Buddha’s might (anubhava), his “sustaining power” (adhisthana), or as we might say, his “grace” which leads to his revelation of the true doctrine, either through his own words or through inspired men as his mouthpiece. These men in their turn gain access to the revelation by their holy lives and their spiritual and meditational practices. And in this Sutra Subhuti is the most important of them.
On the other hand, Sariputra had been for the Elders the first of those who excelled in wisdom. “Wisdom” is here a term for the “Abhidharma” which had grown up in the community about three centuries after the death of the Buddha. The Abhi-dharma, or “higher doctrine,” was a system of meditation which analysed and classified all those processes and events in the conditioned world which could be held to affect salvation. Obsessed with this task Sariputra is low depicted as being blind to the One Ultimate Truth, of being incapable of getting away from his preoccupation with multiplicity and dualities, and of facing the undifferentiated oneness of emptiness. It is his very insight into the absence of self in all conditioned things which now prevents him from comprehending the relation of the self to the Absolute (as e.g. at A VIII 187-88). It is as an advocate of a lesser vision that he asks his often puzzled questions, and he is no longer “the second Buddha” of the older tradition which also knew him as the “field marshall of the doctrine,” and of whom it had been said that “just as the eldest son of a king turns his wheel (i.e. rules) as his father did, so you, Sariputra, turn the wheel of the supreme Dharma (i.e. teach) as perfectly as I have done.”
Ananda speaks eight times?4 He had been the Buddha’s personal attendant for thirty years, and his devotion to the Buddha’s person was proverbial. He had heard all the Buddha’s discourses. In consequence he was known as “the treasurer of the Dharma,” and there was something quite miraculous about his retentive memory and it was “said of him that he could take in without missing a single syllable 60,000 lines uttered by the Buddha and that he could speak eight words when an ordinary person speaks one.”25 In the list of the “great disciples he is the one who is foremost for his great learning (literally: having heard much, bahu-Sruta). He is also reputed to have recited in front of 499 Arhats at the first “council” of Rajagriha, which took place one year after the Buddha’s demise, all the Sutras, or texts dealing with Dharma (‘doctrine’ or ‘truth’), whereas Upali recited the texts on Vinaya, i.e. monastic discipline. In the Ashta on two occasions Ananda authenticates the Sutra on PP. which is specially entrusted to him by the Buddha?
In addition to these three disciples there is Purna at A I 20, 24, II 40 and XVI 319. The other dramatis personae are Maitreya, the coining Buddha, and Sakra, the chief of gods. Maitreya speaks twice — at VI 135-54 and XIX 359-60. The first time he explains an exceedingly obscure metaphysical problem concerning the transfer of merit, and the second time his testimony is solicited because he has had firsthand experience of the matter in hand.
The Buddhist treatment of the brahminical gods (deva) is governed by two considerations: —the one is to stress in every way their inferiority to the Lord Buddha, and the other is the conviction that intellectually they are not particularly bright, as a result of their being altogether too happy and long-lived. They are the Indian counterpart of the Greek “immortals,” and there are 27 classes of them, distributed among the “triple world’:
—six on the plane of sense-desire, seventeen on the plane of form and four an the formless plane. The gods who figure in the Sutras are those on the plane of sense-desire, whose sensuous and even libidinous interests make them feel a certain kinship with mankind. The lowest are the four “Great Kings” or “World-Guardians,” and the second from below are the “gods of the Thirty-three,” whose chief is Indra, the old warrior god of the Aryan invaders, who in Buddhist texts is usually called Sakra, chief of the gods (devanam indra), and is often addressed as Kausika because he is the tutelary divinity of the brahminic clan of the Kusika. He and his retinue live on the summit of Mount Sumeru, in a palace called Vaijayanta (Xl 236-37) from which they can repel the incursions of their hereditary enemies, the Asuras (III 72), and which has a huge meeting hail, called Sudharma (A IV 94-95) and is surrounded by parks with miraculous trees and wonderful elephants. In this heavenly realm the Buddha’s mother had been reborn for a while, and the Buddha went up there to preach her the Abhidharma. Sakra is a very frequent interlocutor in Buddhist Sutras of all kinds, but he is acutely aware of his intellectual shortcomings. At A XXIII 415 he admits that “I myself am quite incapable of uttering anything relevant on the subject of Bodhisattvas.” When he talks sense he does so because and when inspired by the Buddha (A XXIII 414, XXVI 438), but very often he reflects the bewilderment of those who are not Vet very far advanced.
Relation to Preceding Literature
In its very first sentence the text proclaims itself as a Sutra of the traditional type. “Thus have I heard at one time”—the “I” here is Ananda, who is supposed to have recited also this Sutra soon after the Buddha’s Nirvana. That is, of course, a pious fiction which did not prevent others from taunting the authors of these Sutras with being mere “poets.”29 This is an allusion to a well-known saying in the scriptures of the older schools3° which had contrasted the new-fangled fabrications of “poets,” or “novelists” as we might say, with “the Sutras taught by the Tathagata himself, which are deep, deep in meaning, supramundane, with emptiness for their message.” The scene of the sermons is said to be near Rajagriha, on the Grdhrakuta-parvata, Mount Vulture Peak, a particularly desolate district, all stones and empty air. This location likewise is clearly unhistorical Modern scholars still disagree on the place of origin of the Prajnaparamita Some seek it in the Dravidian South, some in the Northwest and some in the Deccan. But none would look for it on the Vulture Peak in Magadha, the heartland of the old dispensation.
Direct quotations from previous Sutras are very rare. Of great importance is the one at A I 8-9 (= Rgs 17) about the wanderer Srenika. It provides us with the link which connects the new revelation with the old, and shows that the P.P. continues a tradition within the community which meant to leave room for an Absolute in man, and saw the religious guest as a hunt for his true self and as an attempt to realize, or to reveal, the Tathagata in his own heart Two further quotations are untraced, but most go back to the scriptures of the Elders. They occur at A XI 246 and Xli 256.32 A third, at IV 94, concerning the Dharma-body, is obviously a late addition to the text and must refer to some Mahayana scripture. In other cases we are not sure whether we have to deal with quotations 1mm the actual literature of the Elders or just with Buddhist commonplaces cherished in Mahayana circles.
Traditional phrases play a large part in all oral literature. In Homer’s poems, for instance, stereotyped phrases account for about one third of the total. E. Lamotte has collected a number of such phrases, and I use this opportunity to draw attention to some more. They are mostly synonyms which are often difficult to reproduce in English, but which at that time were highly valued for providing a traditional flavour to those familiar with the Nikayas and Agamas and which are elaborate ways of expressing such ideas as “encourage,” “fearlessness,” “worship,” or “learning,” or cumbersome formulas for gifts” or earthquakes, etc.
Likewise, the mythological characters are those of the old Sutras of 11w Elders; —e.g., the four World-Guardians (II 33, XXIII 414), Sakra and hi. entourage (see above), and the Tushita gods (XIV 285, XXVIII 459); M3Itreya (also at VIII 199, IX 200, XIV 285, XXXII 529) and Dipankara (II 48, XIX 368-69); Mara ‘ and his hosts (Ill 49), the yakshas (II 38) and a variety of deities from the Hindu pantheon. And the Vairapani of MVII 333 is the great yaksha “with the thunderbolt in his hand” who is a but of guardian angel of the Buddha and is familiar to us from sculptures and frescoes as one who follows the Buddha so as to discomfort his detractors with his vajra; but he is not the Mahayana Bodhisattva of the same (lame who belongs to the family of Akshobhya. The few references to Mahayana deities belonging to the cycle of the Buddha Akshobhya are later intrusions, and so are those belonging to the story of Sadaprarudita (e.g. XXX 481). Also the few historical and geographical allusions at” all to items familiar from the scriptures of the Elders: —the kings Bimbisara and Prasenajit and the tribes of the Licchavi and the Sakya (III 78) the great disciples at II 40; the town of Dipavati (II 48) as well as the Jambudvipa continent and (Su) meru, the mountain.
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