06 August 2010

Six Paramitas: Prajna or Wisdom (7 of 7)

The perfection of wisdom or prajna paramita is traditionally summed up as follows in The Heart Sutra (this is the version we use in our sangha):

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita, clearly saw emptiness of all five conditions, thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.

O Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form; form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. Sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness are likewise like this.

O Shariputra, all dharmas are forms of emptiness: not born, not destroyed, not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain. So in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena; no realm of sight, no realm of consciousness, no ignorance and no end of ignorance, no old age and death, no end to old age and death, no suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path, no wisdom and no gain.

No gain and thus the bodhisattva lives prajna paramita with no hindrance in the mind, no hindrance therefore no fear. Far beyond deluded thoughts, this is nirvana. All past, present, and future Buddhas live prajna paramita and therefore attain anuttara samyak sambodhi.

Therefore know: prajna paramita is the great mantra, the vivid mantra, the best mantra, the unsurpassed mantra. It completely clears all pain. This is the truth, not a lie. So, set forth the prajna paramita mantra. Set forth this mantra and say:


You can put this into practice by reciting it in a steady and purposeful rhythm, by committing it to memory, by studying commentaries and other teachings on it, by repeating the mantra aloud or with "the tongue of the mind," by copying the sutra carefully and mindfully into a notebook, by taking it as an object of contemplation, and by returning to it again and again.

You will likely notice that this sutra is written in a very compressed and paradoxical style. If form is emptiness and emptiness is form, what might these terms mean? If this is indeed "the truth," then what kind of truth is this?

This mode of expression reflects the difficulty of the subject matter. In Mayahana Buddhism, we understand truth in two ways (the doctrine of the "two truths"). The first kind of truth is called provisional or contingent truth. It includes statements that apply to our world of unenlightened beings: when you stub your toe you feel pain, and that pain is real to you, as is the toe, your person, and the table you beat it against. But this kind of truth is never taken for granted here. If you really drill down into the toe, for instance, you see it is not at all a simple and unchanging or eternal item: it is a composite of other things, reducible to elements and space and energy, and changing all the time. The pain, too, comes and goes in waves: is the pain you feel at first the same as the pain you feel twenty seconds later? Is it the same information passing through the nervous system? Not really.

Your toe is a form, a "dharma," a thing. That is one kind of truth: you see it right there in front of you, and when you smack it into a table, the pain is very convincing. But your toe is also emptiness: it is not what it seems to be. Absolute truth sees provisional truth for what it is, provisional.

Any discussion of absolute truth can become very complicated very quickly. As the diffuse language of the Heart Sutra suggests, absolute truth is very resistant to conceptualization. You just can't describe it adequately in words, but you can gesture to it and you can set up different kinds of tricks (upaya, skillful means) to help people experience it. For now I want to suggest that prajna paramita or perfection of wisdom means coming to terms with the provisional, penetrating into it or cutting through it, in order to gain some insight into the absolute. From this, one's training in the other paramitas is radically transformed, recontextualized.

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