Enlightenment – Chapter 51: The Perfection of Wisdom

The rise of the movement referred to as the Mahayana, some four hundred years after the Buddha’s death, is sometimes marked by the appearance of new sutras that were called the ‘perfection of wisdom’ (prajnaparamita). Like many other Mahayana sutras, the perfection of wisdom texts were not systematic treatises that set forth philosophical points and doctrinal categories in a straightforward manner. Instead, they strike the modern reader as having something of the nature of revelations, bold pronouncements proclaimed with certainty, rather than speculative arguments developed in a linear fashion. The perfection of wisdom that the sutras repeatedly praised was often identified as the knowledge of emptiness (sunyata), and it was this knowledge that was required for all who sought to become buddhas. This emptiness was often presented in a series of negations, with statements like ‘that which is a world system, that is said by the Tathagata not to be a system. In that sense [the term] “world system” is used. ’ The precise meaning of such statements would be explored by generations of commentators in India, East Asia and Tibet.

Many of the perfection of wisdom sutras came to be known by their length, hence the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Stanzas, the Perfection of Wisdom in Twenty-five Thousand Stanzas, the Perfection of Wisdom in One Hundred Thousand Stanzas, the Perfection of Wisdom in One Letter. Others had titles, the most famous of these being what has come to be known in the West as the Heart Sutra and the text known as the Diamond Sutra. Probably composed in Sanskrit sometime between the second and fourth centuries of the Common Era, the latter was to become one of the most famous, and most commented upon, of the Mahayana sutras. Yet much of its meaning remains elusive, beginning with the title. In Sanskrit, it is Vajrac-chedika Prajnnparamita. The Sanskrit term vajra refers to a kind of magical weapon, sometimes described as a thunderbolt or discus, and which is said to be hard and unbreakable, like a diamond. Thus, the title might be rendered into English as *The Perfection of Wisdom that Cuts like a Thunderbolt’.

The present selection is from the manuscript of the sutra unearthed at Gilgit, in modern Pakistan. It represents roughly the last half of the sutra, often considered the more difficult half. The sutra opens with the Buddha residing in the Jeta Grove with 1,250 monks and a large number of bodhisattvas. After returning from his begging round and eating his meal, the Buddha is approached by the great arhat Subhuti, who asks him about the practice of the bodhisattva. The Buddha says that a bodhisattva must vow to lead all beings in the universe into nirvana, with the knowledge that there are no beings to be led into nirvana. *If Subhuti, a conception of a living being were to occur to a bodhisattva, a conception of a personal soul, or a conception of a person, he is not to be called “a bodhisattva”.’ This is one of many famous statements in the sutra, regarded by commentators as setting forth the doctrine of emptiness (although the term sunyata or emptiness does not appear in the sutra), that all phenomena are falsely imagined to have a self, a soul, an *own-being’, a reality which they, in fact, lack. Any meritorious deed, from the giving of a gift to the vow to free all beings, is not a deed of a bodhisattva if it is tainted with the misconception of self. The Buddha asks Subhuti whether the Buddha is to be seen by the possession of the thirty-two physical marks of a superman that adorn his body. Subhuti says that he is not, because what the Buddha has described as the possession of marks is in fact the possession of no marks. This formula of question and response, with the correct answer being A is in fact not A, therefore it is called A’ is repeated throughout the text.

But the sutra is not simply a radical challenge to the ordinary conception of the world, of language and of thought. It is also a Mahayana sutra, seeking, like others (see chapter 5 and 38), to declare its supremacy and to promise rewards to those who exalt it. It is noteworthy that here, as in many other perfection of wisdom sutras, the Buddha’s interlocutor is not a bodhisattva, but an arhat, the wise Subhuti, suggesting that even those who have completed the path to nirvana still have more to learn. The Buddha predicts that this sutra will be understood far into the future, into the period of the last five hundred years that his teaching remains in the world. At that time, anyone who has even a moment of faith in this sutra will be honoured by millions of buddhas. Indeed, even now, long before this point in the distant future, anyone who would teach just four lines of this sutra to others would win incalculable merit. In a statement that appears in other perfection of wisdom sutras, the Buddha declares, *on whatever piece of ground one will proclaim this sutra, that piece of ground will become an object of worship. That piece of ground will become for the world together with its devas, men and asuras a true shrine to be revered and circumambulated.’ Scholars have seen in this statement the possibility that the perfection of wisdom sutras were something of a *cult of the book’, in which the sutra itself was worshipped, serving as a substitute for more traditional sites of worship, such as stupas. And the sutra suggests that such practices were not always condoned by others; the Buddha goes on to say that those who worship the sutra will be ridiculed for doing so, but by suffering ridicule they will destroy the great stores of negative karma accumulated over many lifetimes. The Buddha’s exhortations seem to have been taken to heart. The recitation and copying of the sutra was widely practised and miracle tales of the benefits of so doing were told across Asia.

The sutra is, above all, a discourse on the wisdom that shatters our ordinary conceptions, returning again and again to the negation of the fundamental elements of the dharma, suggesting that it is the very absence of self that is their true nature.

[Folio 5a] The Blessed One said: ‘The number, Subhuti, of particles of dust in a world-system of three thousand great-thousand worlds – is that great?’

He said: ‘It is great, Blessed One. That particle of dust is said to be not a particle by the Tathagata. In that sense “a particle of dust” is used. Also, that which is a world-system, that is said by the Tathagata not to be a system. In that sense “world-system” is used.’

The Blessed One said: ‘What do you think, Subhuti? Is a tathagata to be seen through the thirty-two characteristic marks of a great man?’

He said: ‘No, Blessed One. Why is that? Each of the thirty-two characteristic marks of a great man is said to be not a characteristic mark by the Tathagata. In that sense “the thirty-two characteristic marks of a great man” is used.’

The Blessed One said: ‘But again, Subhuti, if a woman or a man were to give away their person as many times as there are sands in the River Ganges, and if someone else, after taking from this discourse on doctrine a verse of even four lines, were to teach it to others, the latter alone would on that account produce great merit, immeasurable and incalculable.’

Then, indeed, the venerable Subhuti, through the shock of the doctrine, burst into tears. Wiping away his tears, he said this to the Blessed One: ‘It is astonishing, O Blessed One, it is truly astonishing, O Sugata, how this discourse on doctrine was spoken by the Tathagata, as a consequence of which knowledge has arisen for me! I have never heard this discourse on doctrine before. They, Blessed One, who will produce a true conception when this sutra is being taught here will be possessed by the greatest astonishment. And that, Blessed One, which is a true conception, that indeed is not a conception. On that account the Tathagata says [5b] “A true conception, a true conception”.

‘Blessed One, it is not astonishing to me that I am prepared for the teaching of this discourse on doctrine, since I have been intent upon it. Blessed One, those living beings who will take up this discourse on doctrine… and master it will be possessed by the greatest astonishment. But again, Blessed One, a conception of a self will not occur to them, nor a conception of a living being, nor a conception of a personal soul, nor a conception of a person. And why is that? Because the buddhas, the blessed ones, have walked away from all conceptions.’

The Blessed One said: ‘That is so, Subhuti. Those who, after hearing this discourse on doctrine, will not be terrified, will not tremble, will not be overcome by dread, they will be possessed by the greatest astonishment. And why is that? This, Subhuti, has been declared by the Tathagata to be the greatest perfection. And that which the Tathagata declares the greatest perfection is declared as well by immeasurable buddhas and blessed ones. In that sense “greatest perfection” is used.

‘But again, Subhuti, that which is the perfection of patience of the Thatagata, just that is not a perfection. And why is that? When, Subhuti, an evil king hacked the flesh from all my limbs, there was for me on that occasion no conception of a self, no conception of a living being, no conception of a personal soul, no conception of a person. Nor, moreover, could there have been a conception of injury for me at that time. Subhuti, I remember five hundred births in the past when I was a seer who taught patience. Then too there was for me no conception of a self, no conception of a living being, no conception of a personal soul, no conception of a person. Therefore, Subhuti, a bodhisattva, a mahasattva, having abandoned all conception…’ [folio 6 is missing].

[‘Those who will take up this discourse on doctrine, will preserve it, will declare it, will recite it, will master it.], [7a] all those living beings will carry my awakening on their shoulder. And why is that? It is not possible for this discourse on doctrine to be heard by living beings who have but little resolve. Nor is it possible for it to be heard, taken up. or mastered, by those who have a view of a self, nor by those who have a view of a living being or a personal soul or a person. That situation simply does not occur.

‘But again, Subhuti, on whatever piece of ground one will proclaim this sutra, that piece of ground will become an object of worship. That piece of ground will become for the world together with its devas, men and asuras a true shrine to be revered and circumambulated. Subhuti, those sons and daughters of good family who will take up sutras such as these. and master them, they will be ridiculed, severely ridiculed. But, through that ridicule, their demeritorious actions in former lives which should lead to rebirth in an unfortunate destiny will here and now come to be exhausted, and they will obtain the awakening of a buddha.

‘Subhuti, I remember that in the past, during incalculable and more than incalculable aeons – before the time of the tathagata, arhat, fully and completely awakened one DIpamkara – there were eighty-four hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of buddhas who were attended to by me and, having been attended to, were not neglected. [7b] If, Subhuti, after having attended to them, all those buddhas were not neglected by me; and if in the final period, when the last five hundred years have begun, someone will take up these sutras… and master them, then, Subhuti, the quantity of merit resulting from the former does not approach even a hundredth part of the quantity of merit of the latter, nor a thousandth part, nor a hundred-thousandth. That quantity of merit is not open to enumeration, nor measure, nor calculation, nor comparison, nor likening. Subhuti, those living beings, those sons and daughters of good family will acquire then such a quantity of merit that if I were to declare the quantity of merit of those sons and daughters of good family, living beings [who heard that declaration] would go mad, they would be totally disoriented. But again, Subhuti, this discourse on doctrine is unthinkable – unthinkable indeed is its effect.’

He said: ‘How, Blessed One, should one who has set out on the way of a bodhisattva stand? How should he actually practise? How should he direct his thought?’

The Blessed One said: ‘Here, Subhuti, one who has set out on the way of a bodhisattva should produce a thought in this manner: “All living beings should be led by me to final nirvana in the realm of nirvana which leaves nothing behind. But after having led living beings thus to final nirvana, there is no living being whatsoever who has been led to final nirvana.” And why is that? If, [8a] Subhuti, a conception of a living being were to occur to a bodhisattva, a conception of a personal soul, or a conception of a person, he is not to be called “a bodhisattva”. And why is that? Subhuti, that which is called “one who has set out on the way of a bodhisattva”, that is not a thing.

‘What do you think, Subhuti? Is that some thing which was awakened to by the Tathagata, in the presence of the tathagata Dipamkara, as the utmost, full and perfect awakening?’

He said: ‘Blessed One, that which was awakened to by the Tathagata, in the presence of the tathagata Dipamkara, as the utmost, full and perfect awakening is not some thing.’

He said: ‘Because of that was I assured by the tathagata Dipamkara: “You, young man, will be at a future time a tathagata, arhat, fully and perfectly awakened one named Sakyamuni.” And why is that? “Tathagata”, Subhuti, that is a designation for thusness. Subhuti, someone might speak thus, “The utmost, full and perfect awakening is fully and perfectly awakened to by the Tathagata.” But that which is the utmost, full and perfect awakening fully and perfectly awakened to by the Tathagata is not some thing. Subhuti, the thing which is fully and perfectly awakened to by the Tathagata – in that there is neither truth nor falsehood. On that account the Tathagata says “all characteristics are the characteristics of a buddha”. “All characteristics”, Subhuti, all those are not characteristics. In that sense “all characteristics” is used. Suppose, for example, Subhuti, there would be a man endowed with a body, a great body.’

Subhuti said: ‘That which [8b] the Tathagata has called a man endowed with a body, a great body – he, Blessed One, is said to be without a body by the Tathagata. In that sense “endowed with a body, a great body” is used.’

The Blessed One said: ‘Just so, Subhuti, the bodhisattva who would speak thus: “I will lead beings to final nirvana” – he is not to be called a bodhisattva. And why is that? Is there, Subhuti, some thing which is named “bodhisattva”?’

He said: ‘No indeed, Blessed One.’

The Blessed One said: ‘On that account the Tathagata says “all things are without living being, without personal soul, without person”. Subhuti, a bodhisattva who would speak thus: “I will bring about wonderful arrangements in [my] sphere of activity” – he too is not to be called a bodhisattva. And why is that? “Wonderful arrangements in [one’s] sphere of activity, wonderful arrangements in [one’s] sphere of activity”, Subhuti, those have been said by the Tathagata not to be wonderful arrangements. In that sense “wonderful arrangements in [one’s] sphere of activity” is used. Subhuti, that bodhisattva who is intent on saying “without a self are things, without a self are things” – he is declared “a bodhisattva, a bodhisattva” by the Tathagata, arhat, fully and perfectly Awakened One.

‘What do you think, Subhuti? Does the physical eye of the Tathagata exist?’

He said: ‘So it is Blessed One. The physical eye of the Tathagata exists.’

The Blessed One said: ‘What do you think, Subhuti? Does the divine eye of the Tathagata exist, the eye of wisdom, the eye of dharma, the awakened eye?’

He said: ‘So it is Blessed One. [9a] The divine eye of the Tathagata, the eye of wisdom, the eye of dharma, the awakened eye exists.’

The Blessed One said: ‘What do you think, Subhuti? There could be as many Ganges rivers as there are sands in the River Ganges, and there could be as many world-systems as there are sands in that many rivers. Would those world-systems then be many?’

The Blessed One said: ‘Subhuti, I could know the various streams of thought of living beings as numerous as those in that many world-systems. And why is that? “Stream of thought, stream of thought”, Subhuti, that has been said by the Tathagata not to be a stream. In that sense “stream of thought” is used. And why is that?

Subhuti, a past thought is not apprehended. A future thought is not apprehended. A present [thought] is not apprehended.

‘What do you think, Subhuti? He who, after having filled this three thousand great-thousand world-system with the seven precious things, would give it as a gift – surely that son or daughter of good family would, as a result, produce much merit?’

He said: ‘Much, Blessed One, much, Sugata.’

The Blessed One said: ‘So it is, Subhuti, so it is much. That son or daughter of good family would, as a result, produce much merit. If, Subhuti, there would have been a quantity of merit, the Tathagata would not have said “quantity of merit, quantity of merit”.

‘What do you think, Subhuti? Should the Tathagata be seen through the perfect development of his physical body?’ [9b]

He said: ‘No Blessed One. It is not through the perfect development of his physical body that the Tathagata is to be seen. And why is that? “A perfect development of the physical body, a perfect development of the physical body”, that is said to be not a perfect development by the Tathagata. In that sense “perfect development of the physical body” is used.’

The Blessed One said: ‘What do you think, Subhuti? Should the Tathagata be seen through the possession of characteristic marks?’

He said: ‘No Blessed One. It is not through the possession of characteristic marks that the Tathāgata is to be seen. And why is
that? That which is the possession of characteristic marks is said to be not the possession of characteristic marks by the Tathagata. In that sense “possession of characteristic marks” is used.’

The Blessed One said: ‘What do you think, Subhuti? Surely it occurs to the Tathagata: “Not by me has a doctrine been taught.” He, Subhuti, who would speak thus: “By the Tathagata a doctrine has been taught”, he, Subhuti, would falsely accuse me by taking something up from what is not there. Why is that? “A teaching of doctrine, a teaching of doctrine”, Subhuti, that is not some thing which receives the name “a teaching of doctrine”.’

He said: ‘Blessed One, will there be any living beings at a future time who, after hearing such doctrines being taught, will believe?’

The Blessed One said: ‘They, Subhuti, are neither living beings nor non-living beings. Why is that? “All living beings”, Subhuti, they are said to be not living beings by the Tathagata. In that sense [10a] “all living beings” is used.

‘What do you think, Subhuti? Surely that which was awakened to by the Tathagata as the utmost, full and perfect awakening is some thing?’

He said: ‘Blessed One, that which was awakened to by the Tathagata as the utmost, full and perfect awakening is not some thing.’

The Blessed One said: ‘So it is, Subhuti, so it is. Not even the most minute thing exists or is found there. In that sense “utmost, full and perfect awakening” is used. But again, Subhuti, that thing is the same; there is no difference. In that sense “utmost, full and perfect awakening” is used. Through the fact of there being no personal soul, no living being, no person, that utmost, full and perfect awakening is fully and perfectly awakened to as identical with all meritorious things. “Meritorious things, meritorious things”, Subhuti – but just those are said by the Tathagata not to be things. In that sense “meritorious things” is used.

‘But once again, Subhuti, if someone, after collecting piles of the seven precious things as large as the kings of mountains, the Sumerus, here in this three thousand great-thousand world-system, were to give them as a gift; and someone else, after having taken from this Perfection of Wisdom a verse of even four lines, were to teach it to others – Subhuti, the quantity of merit from the former case does not approach a hundredth part of the quantity of merit of the latter… [10b] it is not open to comparison.

‘What do you think, Subhuti? Surely it occurs to the Thatugata: “living beings are released by me”. Not, again, Subhuti, is it to be seen thus. Why is that? That which is released by the Thatagata is not some living being. If again, Subhuti, there would have been some living being who was released by the Tathagata, that indeed would have been for him the holding on to a self, the holding on to a living being, the holding on to a personal soul, the holding on to a personal entity. “Holding on to a self”, Subhuti, this is said by the Tathagata to be not holding on, but it is held on to by simple ordinary people. “Simple ordinary people”, Subhuti, these are said by the Tathagata not to be people. In that sense “simple ordinary people” is used.

‘What do you think, Subhuti, should the Tathagata be seen through the possession of characteristic marks?’

He said: ‘That is so, Blessed One. The Thatugata is to be seen through the possession of characteristic marks.’

The Blessed One said: ‘But if, Subhuti, the Tathagata were to be seen through the possession of characteristic marks, a wheel­turning king [cakravartin] would also be a Tathagata.’

He said: ‘As I understand the meaning of what was said by the Blessed One, the Tathagata is not to be seen through the possession of characteristic marks.’

Then, again, on that occasion the Blessed One spoke these verses:

Those who saw me through form,

Those who associated me with sound – [11a]

They have engaged in a misguided effort.

Those people will not see me.

The Awakened One is to be seen from the doctrine;

The Tathagata is the body of doctrine;

But, indeed, the substance of the doctrine is not to be understood,

Nor is it possible for it to be understood.

‘What do you think, Subhuti? Is the utmost, full and perfect awakening fully and perfectly awakened to by the Tathagata through the possession of characteristic marks? Again, Subhuti, it is not to be seen thus. The utmost, full and perfect awakening, Subhuti, is not fully and perfectly awakened to by the Tathagata through the possession of characteristic marks.

‘If, again, Subhuti, it should occur thus: “by someone set out on the way of a bodhisattva the destruction of some thing is taught, or its annihilation”, again, Subhuti, it is not to be seen thus. The destruction of some thing, or its annihilation, is not taught by someone who has set out on the way of a bodhisattva.

‘If, again, Subhuti, a son or daughter of good family, after filling world-systems similar in number to the sands of the Ganges with the seven precious things, were to give them as a gift to the Tathagata, arhat, fully and perfectly Awakened One; and if a bodhisattva were to achieve composure in the midst of things that have no self – the latter would indeed produce much greater merit than the former. However, Subhuti, a quantity of merit is not to be acquired by a bodhisattva.’

He said: ‘A quantity of merit, Blessed One, is to be acquired, surely?’

The Blessed One said: ‘ “Is to be acquired”, Subhuti, not “is to be held on to”. In that sense “is to be acquired” is used, [11b]

‘But once again, Subhuti, if someone were to speak thus: “The Tathagata goes, or he comes, or he stands, or he sits, or he lies down” – he does not understand the meaning of what I said. Why is that? A “ tathagata”, Subhuti, has not come from anywhere, has not gone anywhere. In that sense“ tathagata, arhat, fully and perfect awakened one” is used.

‘And if again, Subhuti, a son or daughter of good family were to grind into powder as many world-systems as there are particles of dust in this three thousand great-thousand world-system so that there would be just a pile of the finest atoms – what do you think, Subhuti? Would that pile of atoms be huge?’

He said: ‘That is so, Blessed One, that would be a huge pile of atoms. And why is that? If, Blessed One, there would have been a pile, the Blessed One would not have said “a pile of atoms”. Why is that? That which is said to be a pile of atoms, that is said by the Blessed One not to be a pile. In that sense “a pile of atoms” is used. That which the Tathagata calls “three thousand great-thousand world-system”, that is said by the Thatagata not to be a system. In that sense “three thousand great-thousand world-system” is used. Why is that? If, Blessed One, there would have been a system, just that, Blessed One, would have been the holding on to a solid mass. And that which is said by the Tathagata [12a] to be the holding on to a solid mass is said to be not holding on. In that sense “holding on to a solid mass” is used.’

The Blessed One said: ‘And holding on to a solid mass is itself, Subhuti, a thing not open to verbal expression; it cannot be put into words. It, however, has been held on to by simply ordinary people. Why is that? If, Subhuti, someone were to speak thus, “A view of a self was taught by the Tathagata, a view of a living being, a view of a personal soul, a view of a person” – would he indeed, Subhuti, speak correctly?’

He said: ‘No, Blessed One. And why is that? Blessed One, that which is said by the Tathagata to be a view of a self, that is said by the Tathagata to be not a view. In that sense “a view of a self” is used.’

The Blessed One said: ‘In this way, Subhuti, one who has set out on the way of a bodhisattva should know all things, should be intent on them. And he should be intent on them in such a way that even the conception of a thing would not be present. Why is that? “Conception of a thing, conception of a thing”, Subhuti, that is said by the Tathagata not to be a conception. In that sense “conception of a thing” is used.

‘And again, Subhuti, if a bodhisattva, mahasattva, having filled immeasurable, incalculable world-systems with the seven precious things, were to give them as a gift; and if a son or daughter of good family, having taken up from this perfection of wisdom a verse of even four lines, were to preserve it, were to teach it, were to master it [12b] – the latter certainly would produce immeasurable, incalculable merit, much greater than the first.

‘And how would he fully cause it to appear? In such a way that he would not cause it to appear. In that sense “fully cause it to appear” is used.’

A shooting star, a fault of vision, a lamp;

An illusion and dew and a bubble;

A dream, a flash of lightning, a thundercloud –

In this way is the conditioned to be seen.

The Blessed One said this.

Delighted, the elder Subhuti, and the monks and nuns, the laymen and women, and the world with its devas, men, asuras and gandharvas rejoiced in that spoken by the Blessed One.

The Vajmcchedikd Prajndpdramitd is concluded.

Translated by Gregory Schopen from the manuscript of the Vajracchedikd found at Gilgit. The translation was first published in Luis O. Gomez and Jonathan A. Silk (eds.), The Great Vehicle: Three Mahdydna Texts (Ann Arbor: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, 1989), pp. 123-31.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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