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Prajnaparamita - the Book that Became a Goddess

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One October night in 1816, Charles Cowden Clarke sat up late in his rooms in London, reading and talking with a young friend. Clarke and his friend loved literature, and they had managed to lay hands on a copy of Homer, translated by Chapman. It was dawn by the time they stopped reading and discussing. After his friend had gone, Clarke took a few hours sleep. On coming down to breakfast he found a note waiting for him. It was a perfectly turned sonnet from his fellow reader:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific - and all his men

Looked at each other with a wild surmise Silent, upon a peak in Darien. Clarke's friend can only have had two or three hours in which to produce his poem. It would be an achievement for any poet to fashion something so fine so quickly, and after a sleepless night. For a twenty-year-old it was extraordinary. That breakfast-time note to Clarke was one of the first declarations of the poetic genius of his friend John Keats. The 'realms of gold' in which Keats has travelled are of course the worlds of literature, of the imagination. (Among other things, Apollo is the god of poetry.) Through his poem we can remind ourselves of the tremendous value and power not just of literature, but of the written word. Nowadays we are glutted with print. So surfeited are we that it is easy to take books for granted. We can buy the thoughts of the world's greatest minds, and read them on the bus. However, the mass production of literature is still quite a new development. Six or seven centuries ago every book was precious, for they all had to be painstakingly hand-copied. A prince with a hundred volumes would have possessed a large library.

If you were a scholar at that time you would have had to wander from place to place - from one library to the next. You might have heard of a book and had to travel hundreds of miles to consult one of the few copies in existence. If you had wanted to study it intensively you would have had to stay where the book was kept, or copied it yourself, which might have taken months - even if you did not embellish the book, as was often done in the scriptoria of the monasteries. Or you might have travelled with your library on your back - like Marpa returning home to Tibet with the teachings he had gathered in India. And, like Marpa, you might easily have lost those hard-gained volumes.

How would we feel if we had copied by hand all the books in our possession? How much more would we value them? Even for Keats, much closer to our own time, a new book was a treasure.

We need somehow to regain this feeling of appreciation, even of reverence, for books, if we are to begin to enter into a proper relationship with the Perfection of Wisdom literature. If even ordinary books can be so precious, then books containing the highest insights of humanity must be extraordinary treasures indeed.

Ordinary books are valuable because they crystallize and preserve knowledge, memories, ideas, and experience. The Perfection of Wisdom literature encapsulates - as far as it is possible in words - the experience of Enlightenment. I am stressing this point because in almost any city in the Western world it is quite easy to buy a book of the Perfection of Wisdom and read that on the bus. How you read the Perfection of Wisdom (Sanskrit Prajnaparamita) literature is supremely important. One of the earliest Wisdom texts admonishes us in its opening line:

Call forth as much as you can of love, of respect and of faith!

Gaining wisdom is at least as much a matter of becoming receptive emotionally as of intellectual acuity. This, as we shall see later, was one of the main reasons why the Perfection of Wisdom literature transformed itself into a goddess - to teach more effectively by appearing in a form that people would love to dwell upon.

For Keats, Chapman's Homer is a catalyst. While reading, his imagination starts to fly. He feels as though he has seen a new planet, or discovered a new ocean. Hernan Cortez was the 'conquistador' who subdued the Aztecs. In the sonnet, though, he is a positive figure. Cortez has landed on the Caribbean coast of modern-day Panama. He has walked inland with his men and climbed a peak, to discover an ocean vaster than the one he has just crossed, stretching away below him. Gazing at this new realm of possibility, he and his men are struck silent.

Keats feels he has found a new vantage point in himself, seen possibilities he never knew existed. This should be the case when we first encounter the Perfection of Wisdom literature. The books themselves are just catalysts for a new vision of the universe. An undreamed of realm begins to unfold itself. If you enter fully into this golden realm, then, like Cortez's men, words will fail you. You will be unable to describe what you have apprehended. Someone who has used the Prajnaparamita literature to enter the transcendental realm is said to be like a mute who has had a dream.

The development of the Perfection of Wisdom literature

According to tradition, the Perfection of Wisdom literature springs from Sakyamuni Buddha, but he found that the teachings were not approprate for the men and women of his time, and shortly before his parinirvana, or passing away, he entrusted the teachings to the nagas. Nagas in Buddhist tradition have something of the same characteristics as dragons. They are long-lived, wise, and can function as guardians of treasures. Nagas live at the bottom of the ocean, and it was in their watery kingdom that the Wisdom teachings were preserved. Several centuries later one of the greatest figures in Buddhist history, Nagarjuna, came to the edge of a certain lake and received the Perfect Wisdom teachings from a naga princess. The first Perfection of Wisdom teachings appeared about 100 BCE. During a two hundred year phase of development the basic texts of the literature appeared. The oldest are probably the Astasahasrika, or Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, and its verse counterpart, the Ratnagunasamcayagatha (verses on the storehouse of precious virtues). In the following 200 years the Perfection of Wisdom literature achieved great popularity. So much devotion was lavished upon it that it expanded. One text even reached 100,000 lines in length.

The succeeding 200 years (roughly 300-500 CE) saw the Perfection of Wisdom spread throughout India and into China. In this phase the new texts became increasingly concise. Among them are two of the most famous and important of all Buddhist works: the Diamond Sutra (Sanskrit Vajracchedika) and the Heart Sutra (Sanskrit Hrdaya)."

By the year 700, the process of contraction had gone as far as possible.

There is a 'Perfection of Wisdom in a Few Words' which says it is for the 'dull and stupid'. There is even the 'Perfection of Wisdom in a Single Letter'! This is the letter A, which in Sanskrit is a negative prefix. It is as though the text says that whatever you think, however you try to describe the world, you should put the word 'not' before it. However you explain the universe, Reality is not that. The Perfection of Wisdom denies that you will ever catch Reality in the clumsy net of words and concepts, and breaks up your preconceptions about everything. You say you are of a certain age, sex, nationality, occupation, and so on. The 'Perfection of Wisdom in One Letter' denies that in Reality you are any of these things. They are just the fool's gold of conventional descriptions, not the true gold of Reality.

Also during this period, something very remarkable happened. The Perfection of Wisdom, under the influence of the Tantra, began to change. This literature of uncompromising paradox and intellectual subtlety transformed itself. From being an intellectual thunderbolt, destroying conceptualizations, it was reborn as a wisdom goddess and a mantra. Examining this extraordinary 'sea change' can give us insights into the Tantric approach to self-transformation. Tantra, we have seen, is always concerned with direct experience. Rather than denying words and concepts in the hope that you will reach beyond them, it employs a different approach. It tries to help you leave behind conceptualization by entering an imaginative realm. You enter a realm of light, travel in a realm of gold. In this archetypal realm you are brought face to face with Wisdom, in the most appealing form imaginable. At about the time of Charlemagne, the figure of Prajnaparamita (Tibetan Sherapkyi Pharoltuchinma) as a Wisdom goddess began to appear in the East. She had different forms: sometimes golden, sometimes white. She appeared with two, four, or six arms, or even (in a form popular in Cambodia) with eleven heads and eleven pairs of arms.

She appeared, over time, in Japan, Java, Cambodia, China, and Tibet. However, the Tibetans had already fallen in love with Tara, so her cult never gained great popularity there. It was in India, above all, that the goddess Prajnaparamita manifested. There was even a great statue of her on the Vulture's Peak at Rajgir, where the Buddha gave so many discourses. India being the centre of devotion to Prajnaparamita, when the Muslims trampled Buddhism underfoot in that country, her cult largely disappeared. As the Muslims systematically destroyed the monasteries, smashed statues, and burned books, the Wisdom goddess went into hiding. It is really only in the twentieth century, and due largely to the work of one man, that the goddess is once again displaying her face in so many different lands. The life's work of the German scholar Edward Conze was to translate virtually all the Perfection of Wisdom texts into English. Thanks to his efforts the goddess moves freely among us once more. Though the cult of Prajhaparamita survived and continued outside India, so weakened had it become that after extensive research Edward Conze could catalogue fewer than fifty icons of her in existence. Since then, at least one more has come to light. A few years ago a film crew went to Tholing in western Tibet to record the extraordinary temple paintings there. They had been neglected, and some were so covered in dust as to be unrecognizable. The crew filmed the dust being carefully removed from an anonymous mural. As the picture was cleaned in front of it, the camera recorded the apparition of an exquisite golden goddess.

Emblems of the Wisdom goddess

In her different manifestations, Prajnaparamita is shown with various symbols or emblems. There are six main ones, and we shall perhaps come to understand our Wisdom goddess better if we look briefly at each of them in turn.

(I) The lotus. The lotus is a symbol for that which transcends the mundane. So, although we have been speaking of her as a goddess and of meeting her in the archetypal realm, it is clear that Prajnaparamita is essentially a manifestation of the dharmakaya. The lotus is also a symbol of spiritual receptivity. To 'understand' the Perfection of Wisdom we have to be prepared to stand under it, and learn from it. In doing so we may even have to accept that we do not know anything about anything, spiritual or mundane! This is, in a sense, the message of the Heart Sutra - that our experience is ungraspable, and even the concepts of Buddhism do not capture the truth of things. At best they are only 'fingers pointing to the moon'.

(2) The book. Her association with the book emphasizes that Prajnaparamita embodies the wisdom of all the books in the Perfect Wisdom corpus. The book also represents the fact that, although we aspire to go beyond words and concepts, most of us cannot just ignore culture and learning. We need to train and develop our rational faculty, not try to dispense with it. Once we have fully trained our intellect, then we can turn it to the Perfection of Wisdom, and let it discover for itself its inadequacy in apprehending Reality. The rational mind has to be developed to a point where it can see through itself- acknowledge its own limitations.

(3) The vajra. It may seem strange for a gentle goddess to wield such a weapon - though Athena, another wisdom goddess, is also a warrior. Transcendental wisdom is both soft and hard. It is soft in the sense that it is subtle and elusive. If you try to grasp it directly you will always fail. It comes to you gently, from the side, as it were - from a 'direction' you cannot cover. Because of that it is hard in the sense that it cannot be parried. It smashes to pieces all our mundane ideas about reality. Thus Perfect Wisdom has a destructive aspect, which the diamond thunderbolt well symbolizes.

(4) The sword. The flaming sword is an attribute of Manjusri - the Prince of Wisdom. Manjusri and Prajnaparamita represent two methods of approach to the goal of wisdom, so it is not surprising that they should share certain symbols.

(5) The mala. A mala (Tibetan trhengwa - literally 'garland') is what in the West would be called a rosary. In Buddhism it is used for counting mantras and other practices. Its association with Prajnaparamita suggests the importance of repetition for arriving at wisdom. In the West especially, where novelty is the great goddess, we tend to flit from one experience to another. All too often having done, or read, something once, or at most a few times, we feel we have drunk the experience to the dregs. Novelty lives on the surface of life, but Perfect Wisdom is preserved in the depths. To achieve wisdom through the Perfection of Wisdom texts we have to read them repeatedly (some of the sutras reiterate themselves - eightyper-cent of the Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Lines consists of repetitions.) We need to meditate repeatedly on the same themes of emptiness and impermanence. It is only with this devoted, loving return to the same sources of inspiration that we shall gradually deepen our insight, shall come to understand the same sutras and subjects in ever-deepening ways. Prajnaparamita does not reveal all her secrets at a first meeting. To woo her successfully we have to be faithful to her.

(6) The begging-bowl. This is the utensil of the wanderering Buddhist monk or nun. It symbolizes the movement away from worldly ties. It implies the need for renunciation if we are to find Perfect Wisdom. We may not physically leave our home and our country, but in the search for Wisdom we shall have to be prepared to give up our old cramped self and our conventional ideas about the world.

The visualization of Prajnaparamita

We have seen that Prajnaparamita appears in a number of forms, and can have various symbolic attributes. Naturally, then, there are various traditional ways of visualizing her. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso describes a practice in which she is visualized in connection with recitation of the Heart Sutra. ~ This practice was used in Tibet for warding off hindrances especially the four Maras. These are personifications of all the negative forces - internal and external - that hinder our quest for Enlightenment. The Sadhanamala, a very important Indian collection of visualization practices, gives nine different sadhanas of Prajnaparamita. Rather than examining a sadhana in detail, we shall look at part of one of these visualizations. It begins with a series of magical transformations that take place within the blue sky of Emptiness. First, on a lotus and moon in front of us, appears the syllable dhih. This is the seed syllable particularly associated with transcendental wisdom. We have already met it in the mantra of Manjusri. The seed syllable shines in the blueness, made of golden-yellow light. Next we see a book of the Perfection of Wisdom. It is usually visualized not as a bound volume but in the form that one finds in Tibetan monasteries. The leaves of the manuscript are sandwiched loose between covers - like a thick book with no spine. They are then wrapped in silk. Perhaps in the future, Western meditators will see it as an ancient, leather-bound volume. Then on a full-blown lotus appears Prajnaparamita herself. So the sequence of the visualization is first the seed syllable, then the book, and finally the goddess. It is as though the practice recapitulates the whole development of Perfect Wisdom in human consciousness. First there is just the blue sky, the experience of Emptiness itself. Then the seed appears - a communication of Wisdom on the most subtle of levels. Next the teaching is put into words, into the Perfection of Wisdom literature. Finally it appears again, transfigured into a golden goddess. This goddess is seated on a blue lotus and a white moon mat. She is not sixteen years old like the Bodhisattvas; she is much more mature than that, though still very beautiful. Wisdom is something that takes time to ripen. Prajnaparamita is often described as 'the mother of all the Buddhas'. She is mature in having given birth to countless Buddhas. Prajnaparamita represents the realization of Sunyata, and there is no other way to gain Enlightenment. As the Heart Sutra has it, A Bodhisattva, through having relied on the perfection of wisdom, dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble, he has overcome what can upset, and in the end he attains to nirvana.

It is Perfect Wisdom which gives birth to Buddhahood. Prajnaparamita is said to regard the Buddhas like a mother fondly watching her children at play. She wears a tiara with jewels of the five colours. These embody the wisdoms of the five Buddhas. Her hands are placed in the mudra of teaching the Dharma. She holds the stems of two lotuses, which open out into pale-blue blossoms, one at each shoulder.'4 As always, upon each of them is a white moon mat. On each moon mat lies a book of the Perfection of Wisdom. There is just one more very striking feature of the goddess. We have said that she is golden yellow in colour. However, if we look closely we shall see that the golden-yellow light from her body is given off by millions of Buddhas. Her whole body is made up of golden Buddhas. It is as though the goddess of the Perfection of Wisdom is a great galaxy. Seen from afar, the galaxy is in the most pleasing shape imaginable. Coming closer, we see that it comprises endless Enlightened Beings: constellations of Buddhas, starry multitudes of Awakened Ones.

Then light emanates from the centre of the galaxy, from the heart of Prajnaparamita. Down the light ray comes the mantra of the Wisdom goddess: om ah dhih hum svaha. It enters your heart and begins to echo there, bestowing wisdom on you through another of its transformations. The mantra om ah dhih hum svaha which is used in this sadhana conveys the message of the Prajnaparamita literature, but through the medium of symbolic sound. It is one of three mantras commonly associated with the Perfection of Wisdom. It is not readily translatable, appealing only to a level of the psyche that does not trade in words.15 The other two common mantras can be given some rational explanation.

First there is the mantra gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha." This comes at the end of the Heart Sutra, and is more generally associated with the Perfection of Wisdom literature than with the Wisdom goddess, though it does appear in some of her sadhanas. It has been translated by Edward Conze as 'Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!' The mantra symbolizes a deepening apprehension of Reality. According to one tradition, its first four words correspond to the four levels of Sunyata. The first gate (pronounced gutt-ay) symbolizes going beyond samsara. The second represents the emptiness of the concept of nirvana, especially the view of Enlightenment as something distinct or separate from the phenomenal world. With paragate one realizes the emptiness of all distinctions, and in particular that between samsara and nirvana. With parasamgate one goes beyond all concepts whatsoever, even letting drop the idea of Sunyata. Gelukpa lamas relate these four words to the first four of the Mahayana paths, and bodhi or bodhi svaha to the fifth. Secondly there is the homage found at the beginning of the Heart Sutra, which can be repeated as a mantra: om namo bhagavatyai aryaprajha-paramitayai. Edward Conze translates this as 'Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the Lovely, the Holy'. The gate gate mantra, with its association with the four levels of Sunyata, might appeal to those more intellectually inclined, whereas this invocation is an outpouring of faith and devotion to the goddess. It is characteristic of Buddhism that it should provide such differing paths to the goal. Regularly performing a sadhana of Prajnaparamita produces an everdeepening involvement with the Wisdom goddess. To start with, the goddess becomes a focus for devotion. For men, her practice can often absorb the romantic and other feelings that might be evoked by meeting a beautiful, mature woman. For women, she is often a figure with which to identify, the most positive of all role models. Thus for both sexes energy can easily be engaged by the meditation, and hence poured into the contemplation of Wisdom.

If this process continues, the practice enters the realm of the archetypal.

In Jungian terms, a man may project the highest aspect of his anima, while a woman may encounter the Magna Mater. She becomes for the meditator the archetypal Wisdom goddess found in many traditions. For the Gnostics she was Sophia, for the Greeks Athena. She is found in the Tarot as the High Priestess, who holds a scroll - corresponding to the book of Prajnaparamita. She is seated between two pillars - one light, one dark. Imbibing her knowledge will enable you to pass between the pillars and transcend all dichotomies. Prajnaparamita is the Wisdom goddess of India - once described as staggeringly beautiful to the point of being scorching. Her meditation can become a way of experiencing the archetypal beauty of the refined levels of one's mind. Finally, with faithful practice, she can become far more than that. She can become the experience of transcendental wisdom itself- the transcendence of the world of subject and object. Anyone who reaches this level will truly begin travelling in realms of gold. They will be carried up to a fresh vantage point, a new peak of their being. From that pinnacle they will see not a new ocean or a new planet, but a new reality. They will be reborn out of the infinite creativity of the Wisdom goddess, and will add their brilliance to the galaxy of golden Buddhas.