Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Mother of the Buddhas: Meditation on the Prajnaparamita Sutra
Book Review: Mother of the Buddhas: Meditation on the Prajnaparamita Sutra
selected and translated by Lex Hixon (Quest Books 1993)
This is a most excellent book on the radical teachings of Prajnaparamita, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. The appearance of these sutras around 100 BC, nearly 400 years after the life of Buddha is considered to be the origination of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition on earth. Western scholars attribute the teachings to Indian Buddhists of the time but traditional Mahayana scholars attribute the teachings to Buddha and the Bodhisattvas and other beings in the texts who hid them out to delay their appearance so that after the 400 years the people might be ready to comprehend them. The nature of the teachings is abstract, mystical, poetic, highly philosophical, yet logical and consistent. They are not so easy to understand for these reasons and for the notion that all being is “groundless.” The teachings almost seem nihilistic at times but this is not so. Prajnaparamita is also depicted as a goddess, the Mother of Wisdom, the source of the Wisdom and Enlightenment of all Buddhas. The teachings are often called “radical” in that they depart from the early Pali canon Buddhist teachings in some significant ways, although the contradiction is said to be based on one’s level of understanding. In the lore it is the sage Nagarjuna around 100 BC who brought back these “texts.” Nagarjuna was teaching at Nalanda University in India and was approached by nagas (serpent dragon spirits in human form). It is said that they brought him to their kingdom under the sea and he brought back these Mahayana sutras such as the Prajnaparamitas, the Lotus sutra, the Pure Land sutra, Jewel Heap, Inconceivable Liberation, and others. Out of these sutras, Nagarjuna developed his teaching of the Middle Way, the Madhyamaka. Nagarjuna is said to stem from the lineage of the Bodhisattva Manjushri who has the knowledge of all Buddhas. It is also said that in a later trip to other naga realms that Nagarjuna brought back the yoga tantras. He is also counted quite early, along with his student Aryadeva, in the direct mind transmission lineage of Chan, or Zen Buddhism. Indeed this being Nagarjuna is linked to all post-Pali canon Buddhism as his works are extensively studied in Chan, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism.
The full text is called the Prajnaparamita of 100,000 lines. Several abridgements are the Prajnaparamita of 25,000 lines, 18,000 or 20,000 lines, and of 8,000 lines. The Heart Sutra, the Diamond Cutter Sutra, and the simple letter A are further abridgements. Lex Hixon’s selections and translations are from the Prajnaparamita Sutra of 8,000 lines. Having read part of Edward Conze’s “The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom,” with its academic styling, copious notes, and unrefined translation – I can say that Lex Hixon’s text is much easier to follow and I found his translation to be informing and distinguished. Such texts as these beg to be presented in elegant forms that lend themselves to contemplation. Indeed, in the forward, Robert Thurman does mention that early scholars translating them into English gave them a strong nihilistic bent and that Conze, though a great scholar and linguist still had much difficulty conveying the message of the sutras. Wisdom is one of the six perfections cultivated by those training on the path to becoming a Bodhsattva. It is perhaps the most difficult, being concerned with non-conceptuality, but also the most necessary as the others are not effective without it. He gives about forty selections which I assume he titles himself. Also a few selection from the sutra of 25,000 lines are given as introductory material. In the last section he does give some later mystical Buddhist texts related to Prajnaparamita such as the Heart Sutra, 27 Verses on Mind Training, and Tilopa’s Song to Naropa from the Mahasiddha tradition. Finally he gives some typical Mahayana prayers and contemplations. The rest of this review will be mostly selected quotations with limited commentary. There is some great mystical poetry here, vast and profound. Most of the sections are in dialogue format with wisdom spoken not only by Buddha, but also by various Bodhisattvas, Arhats, and beings in deva and god-realms. Subhuti, Ananda, Avalokieshvara, Shariputra, deva king Shakra and his devas, and Sadaprarudita are other enlightened speakers in the dialogues. Some are question and answer style and others are long mystical statements. Sometimes there are many beings in the assembly. Indeed the sutra was studied in the Buddhist universities in India where monk-scholars assembled. Later the tradition made it to Tibet where there and in exile the dialectical and debate traditions around the sutra and its commentaries are still followed today.
The Prajnaparamita Sutra describes what Hixon calls the mature practitioner of Mahayana as follows:
“The bodhisattva will always maintain a motherly mind, consecrated to the constant protection, education, and maturing of conscious beings, and inviting and guiding them along the path of all-embracing love. This Mahayana mind never succumbs to fear, anxiety or depression and is never overwhelmed by the strange adventures of awareness in the three realms of relativity – mundane form, sublime form and formlessness.”
Regarding the transcendent wisdom, or omniscience, of the enlightened bodhisattva there is this explanation:
“The unthinkably deep realization of the bodhisattva is to abide without abode, to dwell where no objective or subjective structures can dwell – without any underlying physical or metaphysical foundation. This spontaneous and foundationless dwelling in isolation from every abstract world view is of infinitely greater value than any religious teaching or contemplative experience”
There are many statements like the above that are rather deep, detailed, and full of conviction. Hixon describes the Prajnaparamita Sutra as “spiritually alive,” as “a living spiritual energy,” and as a “reliable report on the ineffable nature of What Is.” Its subject is Ungraspable Reality. Indeed the sutra itself speaks of “transferable meritorious energy that can be dedicated and consecrated to the conscious enlightenment of all living beings.” So Hixon sees this “transferability” as the “living spiritual energy.”
Here is another “description” of the transcendent perfection of wisdom:
“Perfection of Wisdom cannot be expounded and learned, nor isolated and described, nor stated in words, nor reflected upon by means of or in terms of any limited pattern of awareness. This perfect indescribability and unapproachability is a consequence of the fact that all structures of relativity on all levels of experience are inherently indescribable and unapproachable, inconceivably calm and blissful. The same inconceivable peacefulness and innate bliss is manifest in every detail of existence.”
In the next quote it is suggested that even in the absence of substance of the substancelessness of all structures there is still function:
“To reason about uncreated Reality is just to play with words. Yet from this coherent play, lightning bolts flash forth as gnostic intuition – totally insubstantial, not coming into being even for an instant, yet diamond sharp and clear.”
Prajnaparamita is described in many ways: as “truth force,” as “the womb of truth energy,” “unconstructed presence,” “ever perfect simplicity,” “immeasurability,” “unthinkable,” “unfindable,” “indescribable,” “undefinable,” and many other descriptive terms pointing to its elusiveness and ungraspableness.
A core notion is that:
“All phenomena are Buddha phenomena, or sheer awakeness, essentially like open space.”
In order to experience in such a way one needs to dissolve the illusion of separateness, of existing as a separate personality to all other phenomena. Recognition of the purity, openness, and transparency of all phenomena makes up the vast greatness of the Perfection of Wisdom.
Regarding the mindfulness and its continuity being required to truly contemplate the Prajnaparamita teachings Buddha says that they are even mindfully contemplated while blinking the eyes, indeed in every moment and sub-moment, waking and sleeping. The transcendent insight can be absorbed and transmitted as a meritorious energy. One is encouraged to recite, copy, share, and make offerings to the teachings – in order to release their “sanctifying and liberating energy.” The godess in icon form is usually depicted holding a text. She is the “source, protectress, and guide of all Buddhas.”
The mantra is given also – as a supreme protection against ego-forces:–
(Tayatha) Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Swaha
In a selection called – Mystic Hymn to the Wisdom Mother - Shariputra describes her as follows:
“Mother Prajnaparamita is total awakeness. She never substantially creates any limited structure because she experiences none of the tendencies of living beings to grasp, project or conceptualize. Neither does she substantially dismantle or destroy any limited structure, for she encounters no solid limits. She is the Perfect Wisdom which never comes into being and therefore never goes out of being. She is known as the Great Mother by those spiritually mature beings who dedicate their mind streams to the liberation and full enlightenment of all that lives.”
“She is not marked by fundamental characteristics. This absence of characteristics is her transcendent, mystic motherhood, the radiant blackness of her womb. She is the universal benefactress who presents, as a sublime offering to truth, the limitless jewel of all Buddha qualities, the miraculous gem which generates the ten inconceivable powers of a Buddha to elevate living beings into consciousness of their innate Buddha nature. She can never be defeated in any way, on any level. She lovingly protects vulnerable conscious beings who cannot protect themselves, gradually generating in them unshakable fearlessness and diamond confidence. She is the perfect antidote to the poisonous view which affirms the cycle of birth and death to be a substantial reality. She is the clear knowledge of the open and transparent mode of being shared by all relative structures and events. Her transcendent knowing never wavers. She is the Perfect Wisdom who gives birthless birth to all Buddhas. And through these sublimely Awakened Ones, it is Mother Prajnaparamita alone who turns the wheel of true teaching.”
In a chapter called – The Dangers of Negativity – Buddha talks about some beings who did not develop respect and veneration for the Prajnaparmita teachings and so walked out of assemblies where these teachings were happening. He says they cultivated a habit of avoiding such teachings which caused them to down-spiral into negativity and lack of awareness. He says that sensitivity and harmony of awareness is required to have confidence in and absorb these teachings.
Regarding the powerful and kind Bodhisattvas, Shariputra states:
“These invincible diamond beings, through great love for Mother Prajnaparamita, have developed irreversible commitment to universal conscious enlightenment. They are bothe adamantine and tender. By constantly drinking in and assimilating the beautiful teachings of Perfect Wisdom, these practitioners are filled with spiritual delight, boundless energy, and confident serenity. Many persons will be attracted by these bodhisattvas to plant the selfless seeds of kindness and clarity which eventually blossom into full enlightenment.”
Ever-renewing vow and continuous conscious concern are said to always occupy the minds of bodhisattvas. Here are some examples of these aspirational thoughts:
“This diamond awareness consists of a single concentrated current of prayer: May living beings never be diverted from the path of universal conscious enlightenment, which is their own true nature, empty of any separate or self-existence.”
“I will constantly reintensify my commitment until universal enlightenment consciously dawns, revealing ontological transparency and harmonious functioning as a miraculously pure field of Buddha manifestation, where beings do not attribute substantial self-existence to disease or to any other obstacle. I will live and act totally in and through Perfect Wisdom so that my body, speech and mind, here and now, will fully express the most radical teaching of the Buddhas.”
There is a section where a divine being, the Goddess of the Ganges, enters the assembly and Buddha makes a rare smile and the Goddess adorns his smile with floating golden flowers. Ananda asks him the reason for the smile. He explains and predicts that the Goddess of the Ganges will in a future time called called – Starlike Aeon – she will become enlightened as the Buddha Golden Flower. After her current manifestation as the Ganges Goddess she will dwell in the realm of Buddha Akshobya awaiting her descent into the world and attaining enlightenment as Buddha Golden Flower. There is another chapter also where the Buddha makes a world enhancing smile that also involves the enlightenment prediction of six thousand heavenly beings in attendance at the assembly.
In a few sections there is mention of the three mystic doors to liberation – “wishlessness, desirelessness, and signlessness which is the radiant emptiness of all apparent existence.” Of these three the bodhisattvas concentrate on radiant signlessness, or emptiness, as they can remain in concern for all beings. Their mastery of Wisdom and Compassion allows them to fly as if majestic birds with these two wings. They are able to be in the world among passions and delusion – yet not be affected.
There is a section called – Interpretation of Dreams – which notes that having a dream of being a Buddha teaching to large assemblies of bodhisattvas and others – is a sign of - irreversible commitment. The dreamer reflects upon awakening the following aspiration:
“Similar to a dream in possessing neither independent nor substantial self-existence is the entire range of manifestation. May I clearly and flawlessly demonstrate this healing truth to all suffering beings without exception when I have awakened into the boundless power of full enlightenment.”
Another archetypal dream may be of a hellish realm where beings exist in a situation of intense self-generated suffering. Here the following aspiration is apt:
“When I have awakened into the boundless power of full enlightenment, I will establish a Buddha field where beings evolve and are spiritually trained and matured without the need for experiencing hellish consciousness.”
There is a section – Mara the Tempter – which advises against listening to or being attached to praise or supernatural voices or revelations. This is especially concerning spiritual pride or arrogance – which detracts from one’s cultivation of concern for all conscious beings.
One chapter title is a teaching in itself and represents what the aspiring bodhisattva cultivates:
--------- Awareness Full of Friendliness ---------
Buddha describes Subhuti’s realization as follows:
“Subhuti pays no heed to the paranormal abilities developed by advanced meditators, much less to any supposedly separate person who possesses such abilities. He does not isolate or objectify the marvelous spiritual experiences which are called the grounds for confident certainty, much less any supposedly separate person who possesses such ceratainty. Subhuti does not thematically represent even Buddha nature, much less various Awakened Ones, who embody and demonstrate Buddha nature. The unthinkably deep realization of Subhuti is to abide without abode, to dwell where no objective or subjective structures can dwell, without any underlying physical or metaphysical foundation, totally isolated from conventional conceptions, perceptions and descriptions,”
Buddha describes the importance of keeping alive the Prajnaparamita teaching above all other dharma teaching and entrusts them to Ananda. Again he mentions how to practice the veneration and contemplation:
“The Prajnaparamita Sutra should be venerated ceremonially, contemplated profoundly, studied intensively, chanted melodiously, written beautifully by hand, and expanded liberally by commentary.”
There is told the story of an intense practitioner Sadaprarudita who hears the voice of Prajnaparamita and a Buddha appears to him. He travels in mind to a distant realm where he encounters the most sublime teacher of Prajnaparamita, the bodhisattava Dharmodgata in the exalted city of Gandhavati. The wondrous teachings of Dhamodgata given to Sadaprarudita are recounted in this – Sublime Saga of Sadaprarudita.
The highly revered Heart Sutra is propounded by the great compassion bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Here is some slightly different and more elaborated translation than I am used to but quite magnificent as well:
“O Shariputra, Reality is never veiled or crystallized by primordial ignorance, so there is no moment of illumination when veils or constructs are removed and ignorance ceases. There is no time at which total awakeness grows old or dies, and so there is no moment of liberation when the function of aging and dying is overcome. There is no substantial need for the drive to attain liberation, for there is no substantial bondage.”
“O Shariputra, in precisely this sense, there can be no independent self-existence of what conscious beings conceptually and perceptually project as pervasive suffering. Even the notions developed by contemplative science about the inevitable arising of universal suffering, its ultimate cessation and the spiritual conditions conducive to its cessation – even these venerable teachings are relative, or conventional. Since there is no separate moment of attaining wisdom, there is no time when Perfect Wisdom has not been attained. This uncompromising light of Prajnaparamita even reveals that there is never any independently existing Perfect Wisdom in the first place.”
Finally a quote from Tilopa’s Song to Naropa:
“The one who abandons
craving for authority and definition,
and never becomes one-sided
in argument or understanding,
alone perceives the authentic meaning
hidden in the ancient scriptures.”
Ah so much to ponder that is quite delightfully imponderable.