First in a series of four talks on “The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines” translated by Edward Conze.
Prajna Paramita in 8,000 Lines (Part 1 of 4)
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | September 5, 2007
Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum
As we study the text, I want to make sure that we remember what the point of it is, and what it is really about. It’s not a text about philosophical thoughts, although that’s part of it. It is really a text that is an argument for a particular way to live in the world, a way of living that recognizes the empty nature of everything, including oneself and one’s own thoughts, impulses, and physical body. To say these things are empty is not to say they are unimportant or that they are null and void. It’s to say they exist in a mode that our conventional way of thinking and being does not understand. So to live with respect for each and every thing is to acknowledge the empty nature of those things – that they exist in a mode more luminous and more present than we imagine them.
If you were really able to appreciate the meaning of this sutra, it would mean that you would live and walk and talk and appreciate things differently. I am mentioning this at the outset, because I don’t think you would necessarily understand this or get this on the first reading of the sutra.
So how do we read this text? Probably you have heard me harp on this point before, because reading is changing in our lifetime. What it means to read something now doesn’t mean what it meant when I was a boy in school. We are losing a lot of dimensions of reading. The kind that we do nowadays is reading for information, because there is lots of stuff that we need to know. But there is reading for inspiration; there is reading for wisdom; there is reading for knowledge; there is reading for the pleasure of the sound and the shape of words; there is reading for companionship; there is a reading for love. There is reading from the head, reading from the heart, reading from the guts, reading with the entire body.
Catholics have a beautiful word for holy reading: lectio divina. It is a lovely term and a beautiful practice. Divine reading. Scriptural reading, contemplative reading, where reading itself is a contemplative practice. Reading with the same mind that you bring to zazen – that mind of non-directed, non-choice, non-accomplishment. Just being there as the text flows by. You surrender yourself completely to the text. You give yourself to the text, and you let the text speak to you. When you do lectio divina, you are not trying necessarily to understand the text. If you don’t understand the text, it does not make any difference. You keep reading as a devotional act, as a contemplative act, with a full willingness not to understand if you don’t understand, or to give yourself up to understanding if you do understand, and if you don’t or do understand, to appreciate the music and sincerity of the text. In lectio divina you might find a passage and read it again, because it is important. You don’t know why, but it is, so you stop and read it again. You might not read anything else for a whole hour, just stopping for one passage or one phrase or one word. Anyway, find a way to read the sutra and experiment with different ways that suit you, but try not to let yourself fall into the pattern of reading the sutra for information.
I copied out the first four lines in the verse summary, which are very beautiful. We should start all our classes with these lines:
Call forth as much as you can of love, of respect and of faith. Remove the obstructing defilements, and clear away your taints. Listen to the perfect wisdom of the gentle buddhas taught for the weal of the world, for heroic spirits intended. [Weal meaning well-being, prosperity, goodness, gladness of the world.]
We’ll start our first reading on page 83, chapter one of the prose sutra.
Thus have I heard at one time. The Lord dwelt at Rajagriha, on the Vulture Peak, together with a great gathering of monks, with 1250 monks, all of them Arhats.
The Lord [the Buddha] said to the Venerable Subhuti, the Elder: Make it clear now, Subhuti, to the Bodhisattvas, the great beings, starting from perfect wisdom, how the Bodhisattvas, the great beings, go forth into perfect wisdom!
Thereupon the Venerable Sariputra thought to himself: Will that Venerable Subhuti, the Elder, expound perfect wisdom of himself, through the operation and force of his own power of revealing wisdom, or through the Buddha’s might?
This introduces the first two important characters of the sutra. Both of them are mentioned in the early sutras as historical disciples of the Buddha. Subhuti was known for his great friendliness, which is why, I think, he was chosen to be one of main speakers of the sutra. He was also famous for being the one who mastered peacefulness. Shariputra was the wisest in the sense of being the most adept at understanding mind, understanding the doctrine, and understanding the early teachings; but he is the fall guy. The attitude of the early texts is that painstaking, psychological work is necessary to overcome defilements and to achieve purity. These sutras are something else. They are talking about seeing into the nature of things all of a sudden – not going from one state to another, but completely letting go. So there isn’t much interest in the many details of the psychological teachings of Buddhism, or at least they are seen in a totally different light. So that is why Shariputra is usually the fall guy.
The Venerable Subhuti, who knew, through the Buddha’s might [in other words, he read his mind; he could see into his mind], that the Venerable Shariputra was in such wise discoursing in his heart, said to the Venerable Shariputra: Whatever, Venerable Shariputra, the Lord’s disciples teach, all that is known to be the Tathagatha’s work. For in the dharma demonstrated by the Tathagatha they train themselves, they realize its true nature, they hold it in mind. Thereafter nothing that they teach contradicts the true nature of dharma. It is just an outpouring of the Tathagatha’s demonstration of dharma, that they do not bring into contradiction with the actual nature of the dharma.
So he is saying that these teachings coming from such people are just as if they came from the Buddha. It is just an outpouring of the Tathagatha’s demonstration of dharma.
Thereupon the Venerable Subhuti, by the Buddha’s might, said to the Lord: When one speaks of a “Bodhisattva,” what dharma does that Bodhisattva denote? [Dharma is an essential unit of reality. In other words, when you say “Bodhisattva,” what is really meant by that word?] I do not, oh Lord, see that dharma “Bodhisattva,” [I see no reality behind that word] nor a dharma called “perfect wisdom.” [You ask me to say how Bodhisattvas enter perfect wisdom, but I don’t see anything real called a Bodhisattva, or anything either called perfect wisdom.] Since I neither find, nor apprehend, nor see a dharma “Bodhisattva,” nor a “perfect wisdom,” what Bodhisattva should I instruct and admonish in what perfect wisdom?”
So, we could stop right here! No need to go on, right?
And yet, oh Lord, if when this is pointed out [that there is no reality in the word Bodhisattva or the phrase perfect wisdom], a Bodhisattva’s heart does not become cowed, nor stolid, does not despair or despond, if he does not turn away or become dejected, does not tremble, is not frightened or terrified, it is just this Bodhisattva, this great being who should be instructed in perfect wisdom. It is precisely this that should be recognized as the perfect wisdom of that Bodhisattva, as his instruction in perfect wisdom. When he thus stands firm, that is his instruction and admonition. Moreover, when a Bodhisattva courses in perfect wisdom and develops it, he should so train himself that he does not pride himself on that thought of enlightenment, with which he has begun his career. That thought is no thought, since in its essential original nature, thought is transparently luminous.
Pretty much that is what the whole sutra teaches. There is no actual, real thing called a bodhisattva, called perfection of wisdom, or anything else. Any word that anybody ever uses should always have quotation marks around it, because it doesn’t really refer to anything real. If you can hear that and understand it, and not freak out when you hear it or become despairing or dejected or lose all your energy for life; if, instead, you stand on ground that is no-ground, then you are a bodhisattva, and that very fact is the perfection of wisdom. That is what the perfection of wisdom is. It is the recognition that nothing is real in the way that we think it is.
This is repeated over and over and over again, because it is clear that when people first heard this teaching, they were angry, they were frightened. If they believed it, they fell into despair and confusion. But that would be a misunderstanding. That would be the expectation of something being real and the disappointment that nothing was, which is different from the liberation and the joy of recognizing that everything is equally unreal and could not be any other way.
Subhuti: A Bodhisattva who does not become afraid when this deep and perfect wisdom is being taught, should be recognized as not lacking in perfect wisdom, standing at the irreversible stage of a Bodhisattva, standing firmly in consequence of his not taking his stand anywhere.
The basis on which we stand in a religion depends on a certain faith or belief or principle or practice. Here the Bodhisattva firmly stands on nothing. If this Bodhisattva can stand on this nothing, without becoming terrified or falling into despair, but be joyful in the doing of it, this is the Bodhisattva who is really manifesting the perfection of wisdom.
Skipping to page 86. This is the question that I would have about now.
Sariputra: How then is a Bodhisattva to course if he is to course in perfect wisdom? [Course meaning to live it, practice it. Entertain it.]
Subhuti: He should not course in the skandas [form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness], nor in their sign [meaning the essential shape or essence of each skanda], nor in the idea that “the skandas are signs,” nor in the production of the skandas, in their stopping or destruction, nor in the idea that “the skandas are empty,” [you shouldn’t course in the idea that something is empty, because that is just another philosophical proposition, another belief], or “I course,” or “I am a Bodhisattva.” And it should not occur to him. [The pronouns are always masculine; I will switch them]. She who courses thus courses in perfect wisdom and develops it. [She courses, but she does not entertain such ideas as “I course,” “I do not course,” or “I course and I do not course,” or “I neither course nor do I not course,” [and other permutations, and believe me, in the original text, the whole thing is repeated.] She does not go near any dharma at all, because all dharmas are unapproachable and unappropriable. [The person in your life that you know very well and have got figured out, she is unapproachable and unappropriable.] The Bodhisattva then has the concentrated insight, “Not grasping at any dharma,” by name, vast, noble, unlimited and steady, not shared by any Disciples or Pratyekabuddhas. [So not grasping at any dharma is the concentrated insight.]
Sariputra: When she thus trains, she trains in perfect wisdom?
The Lord [the Buddha]: When she thus trains, she trains in perfect wisdom.
Sariputra: When she thus trains, which dharmas does she train in?
The Buddha: She does not train in any dharmas at all, because the dharmas do not exist in such a way as foolish, untaught people are accustomed to suppose.
Sariputra: How then do they exist?
The Buddha: As they do not exist, so they exist. And so, since they do not exist, they are called ignorance. [So ignorance means naively thinking that something that fundamentally doesn’t exist does exist as a solid thing.]
Sariputra: When she trains thus, is a Bodhisattva trained in all knowledge? The Buddha: When she trains herself, a Bodhisattva is not even trained in all-knowledge, and yet is trained in all dharmas. When she thus trains herself, a Bodhisattva is trained in all knowledge, comes near to it, goes forth to it. [So that is all-knowledge. Knowing the emptiness of dharmas and that nothing truly exists in the way we think it does. That is what is called in the sutra all-knowledge.]
Skipping again to page 94,
Subhuti: This is the Lord’s absolute, the essence of the disciples who are without any support. So whatever way they are questioned, they find a way out. [They]Do not contradict the true nature of dharmas, nor depart from it, and that because they do not rely on any dharmas.
Why are they without any support? Because there is no support. There could not be any support, and knowing there is not support is the support. And that is the ultimate support. Every other support could be taken away. Right? That’s why I always love this teaching. You can’t get around this. There is no way to get around this. Everything else, there is always a way around, but how could you get around no support?
There is an acknowledgment here that there is a deep-rooted fear and anger in the human heart that comes from our stubborn inability to recognize this teaching, because it causes us to completely revolutionize the whole way we think we are and what our life is. From the standpoint of dharmas being supported and dharmas being real, it is the ultimate loss. But it is also the ultimate liberation, so it is ultimately for our happiness, and we are going to have to go through a very scary passage to get there. In other words, this is an acknowledgment that fear is there, but this is not about crashing through our fear. It is about understanding that there is no actual cause for the fear. The fear is not actually real. If a Bodhisattva hears these same things and is not afraid, that means that the Bodhisattva has not crashed through her fears. It is just that she understands that there is nothing to be afraid of. No support also means nothing to fear. And remember the Heart Sutra has the line, “Without any hindrance no fears exist.”
One small section in chapter two, and then we will stop. On page 98,
The gods came to listen to the teaching, and thereupon the thought came to them, “What the fairies talk and murmur, that we understand, though mumbled. [I love that line.] What Subhuti has just told us, that we do not understand.” Subhuti read their thoughts and said, “There is nothing to understand.”
So if at this point in the evening you are feeling frustrated because you feel like you haven’t understood anything, this is good; because it would be problematic if you thought you understood something, because you would have thought and understood that you had apprehended a dharma that doesn’t actually exist. There are people who dounderstand the emptiness teachings. But what does that mean? It means that they really don’t understand the emptiness teachings. It means they understand some version of something they can call the emptiness teaching. Because there is literally nothing to understand. I will repeat that, because I think that it is beautiful and wonderful and it’s hard to believe, but I think it is true. “There is nothing to understand.” And this is a big problem, because one remains forever convinced that there is something to understand.
There is nothing to understand. Nothing at all to understand, for nothing in particular has been said. Nothing in particular has been explained. Then the gods said, “May the holy Subhuti enlarge on this a bit. [Laughter] What the holy Subhuti here explores, demonstrates, and teaches, that is remoter than the remote, subtler than the subtle, deeper than the deep.”
Subhuti read their thoughts, and said, “No one can attain any of the fruits of the holy life or keep it, unless she patiently accepts this elusiveness of the dharma.”