Third 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 3 of 4)
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | September 12, 2007
Abridged and edited by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum
I think we have to admit that the prajna paramita is an intellectual/spiritual yoga. It’s the practice of examining the limitations of the intellect, the limitations of the conceptual mind. It really is a sutra that is talking about the extent to which the mind is constantly grasping after something that can be understood and mastered and controlled. But the sutra resists that. It is always taking us to the point of understanding and control, and then shifting the ground, and showing us that emptiness means that there is nothing to grasp; nothing to understand; nothing to control; nothing to depend on; nothing to lean on; nothing to have; nothing to see; nothing to be. It is an exercise in constantly noticing how much we want something to hold on to.
Of course, the trouble with holding on to something is that everything that we would hold on to is, in the end, unreliable, and therefore ultimately disappointing. The only thing that we can depend on, and absolutely rely on, is nothing-to-depend-on. That is the only thing that is really going to be reliable in the end. There is nothing that we can absolutely rely on, because there is nothing to rely on. We don’t have to be disappointed in that which is fundamentally not there.
This teaching of prajna paramita is one of the underlying, assumed teachings of Zen, although only in a few instances does Zen directly refer to them. There are some koans that contain quotations from the Diamond Sutra and other sutras. Mostly it is implicit rather than explicit. But when you think about it, most of the Zen stories have to do with the reality that there is nothing to hold on to; nothing to depend on; nothing fixed that you could even point to as the teaching. A lot of the stories – in a very different literary format – make the same point exactly, without mentioning the word emptiness. They make the same point that this sutra is making.
Zen teachings are always saying that we accept and embrace the relative with awareness and love, but without ever getting caught in it. Without ever taking it as actually there. Without ever taking it as real. That is why the examination of language and concept is such a huge theme in Zen. It is in the sutra, and it is for Dogen too. Because without our knowing it, through the process of our language and our concept-making, we have a million assumptions about the nature of reality that are unexamined, and that are literally causing us suffering on a daily basis. Both these teachings and Zen teachings are challenging that – the unthinking assumptions we make about language and concept.
So the sutra is saying, over and over again, that nothing is real in the sense of actually being there in any substantial way. And that even includes the perfection of wisdom. So there is really no practice that we can say is something. There is really no enlightenment that we can say is something. There is no perfection of wisdom as a really existing entity, or a really existing understanding. Understanding this is the perfection of wisdom. Understanding this without being distressed, terrified, or depressed – but rather being buoyed up – is freedom. Nothing to rely on is freedom. Basically what it comes down to is just being ready on all occasions to find out something new. To be totally surprised, totally willing to start all over again.
When you really think about it, doesn’t it come down to just something as simple and clear as Suzuki Roshi’s “beginner’s mind”? That is what beginner’s mind is, right? Nothing is fixed. Nothing is known. No foundation to rely on. We are beginning every minute in freedom.
The other thing, before I go through some quotations from the text, is that I wanted to do an historical overview, in order to put these things into context. A lot of us don’t spend a lot of time on the history of texts and chronologies. This year we were studying In The Words of the Buddha. These are the earliest written teachings that people think are closest to the Buddha’s original teachings, written down a few hundred years after his death, around 300 BC. These are the Pali Canon teachings, the earliest teachings, on which what we call now Theravada Buddhism is based.
The earliest prajna paramita texts were written a couple of hundred years later. When western scholars first started studying Buddhism, they understood the history of western religions, so they assumed that Buddhism would have a similar development. So they invented this thing called “Mahayana Buddhism.” The idea was that there was Catholicism, and then there was a schism, and then there was Protestantism – a new religion based on the original religion. So [they assumed] the same thing happened in Buddhism. There was Theravada Buddhism, and then there was Mahayana Buddhism. But actually that seems not to be true. It seems to be an imposition on what really happened.
In Christianity there was a very strong, central authority early on, which could decide, “This is what we believe. This is what we don’t believe.” Buddhism was very pluralistic and disorganized, so that different people in different places were studying different things; but they all thought they were Buddhists. They didn’t think, “We’re Mahayanists.” They didn’t say, “We don’t agree with those other people.” They said, “This is how we do it. These are the things we understand and emphasize.” So it was disorganized in the sense of not being a coherent movement. The tendencies that we call Mahayana Buddhism probably existed from the very beginning of Buddhism. It was probably not a later development.
Basically the two main teachings of Mahayana Buddhism are emptiness and compassion. Mahayana Buddhism is like a bird: one wing is compassion and the other wing is emptiness. The bird soars on these two wings. But it is not as if the original teachings in Pali did not also have those same teachings. They were there from the beginning.
The Buddha had a formula: the wish-less, the sign-less, the empty. These were the characteristics of someone who really saw reality. That person would see reality as wish-less: there is nothing to wish for, nothing to want, and nothing to have. The sign-less: there is no essential reality to anything. The empty has just the same sense as the prajna sutras.
These sutras focused on the question of emptiness at length. The Buddha mentioned these ideas in a few paragraphs, but there were those that really focused on them. There were people who were really impressed: “Oh, this is the essential point.”
So western scholars came along and said, “Oh, the Mahayana movement is a schism, a different religion.” But it was just different expressions of Buddhism.
In Zen there were supposedly – Zen history is notoriously spurious – five generations of ancestors. The sixth ancestor, Huineng, was the one who crystallized a style, a kind of practice that came to be known as Zen. He was a tremendous advocate of the Diamond Sutra, so that is why the emptiness teachings from that time on have become foundational in Zen.
So now I will read from the text. This passage is on page 138 and is in the section “Causes of Belief in the Perfection of Wisdom.”
Subhuti: Is it at all possible to hear the perfection of wisdom, to distinguish and consider her, and to make statements and to reflect about her? [I don’t think he means the goddess Perfection of Wisdom; he means the teaching. In other words, can you think about this? Can you make statements about it?] Can one explain, or learn, that because of certain attributes, tokens, or signs, this is the perfection of wisdom, or that here is the perfection of wisdom, or that there is the perfection of wisdom? [What are we talking about? Can we actually talk about it and identify it, and say that it is this and not that? That is a good question, isn’t it? I was wondering the same thing myself.]
The Buddha: No, indeed, Subhuti. [How could you distinguish this is empty, and that’s not?] This perfection of wisdom cannot be expounded [even though this whole book is expounding it! And we are spending six weeks studying it, but it cannot be expounded!] or learned, or distinguished, or considered, or stated, or reflected upon by means of the skandas [which, of course, is the only way we could think of or reflect on anything – by means of the skandas: forms, feelings, perceptions, formations, consciousness], or by means of the elements [which is also the skandas], or by means of the sense fields. [In other words, our whole way – the only way – that we human beings have as a way of perceiving or understanding anything – that way won’t work in order to perceive or learn the perfection of wisdom. So it can’t be learned. It can’t be perceived.] This is a consequence of the fact that all dharmas are isolated, absolutely isolated.
Essentially what the word “isolated” means is that every dharma is absolutely all-inclusive. All practices are included in one practice. Every dharma includes the whole of space and time. Instead of saying “isolated,” I believe we could say “all-inclusive.” When we think of “isolated,” we think, “Oh, I am so isolated. There are a whole lot of people out there, but they are not in my house, and I wish that they could be. And I feel bad because I am over here by myself.” This does not mean isolated like that. This means that the entire universe is in my house. So I am isolated in that I am completely included in everything. There is nothing else.
The Buddha: Nor can the perfection of wisdom be understood otherwise than by the skandas, elements, or sense fields. [So it can’t be understood by the skandas, elements, or sense fields, or in any other way.] For just the very skandas, elements, and sense fields are empty themselves, isolated and calmly quiet. [So in other words, it’s not that the skandas are going to look at something and see that it is empty. The skandas are themselves emptiness.] It is thus that the perfection of wisdom and the skandas, elements, or sense fields are not two, not divided. As a result of their emptiness, isolatedness, and quietude, they cannot be apprehended.
We want to think about emptiness. We want to perceive emptiness. We want to have an experience of emptiness. But thinking, perceiving, experiencing are already emptiness. So we are looking for something, but we are not seeing something, and we are frustrated in the looking. But in the looking itself, emptiness is already present. There is a quietness in the middle of all our experience. Even though we might not see that, because we are distracted or confused, it is there!
The Buddha: The lack of a basis of apprehension in all dharmas [apprehension meaning to perceive or know], that is called perfect wisdom. Where there is no perception, appellation [meaning naming of], conception, or conventional expression, there one speaks of perfect wisdom.
So perfect wisdom is where there is no perception. The idea is that the quietness at the heart of perception is no perception. The quietness at the heart of conceptualization is non-conceptualization. The quietness at the heart of all our conventional expressions is that they don’t refer to the things that they seem to refer to. Expression is non-expression. That’s where you find the perfection of wisdom.
Okay, I am going to page 159, the first paragraph on the page. This is a lovely, surprising moment.
Sariputra: It is through the Buddha’s might, sustaining power, and grace that bodhisattvas study this deep perfection of wisdom and progressively train in thusness? [He is asking, “Is that how we do it?” Because when you think about it, how could we do it? There is no way that we could make this study.]
The Buddha: They are known by the tathagathas, they are sustained and seen by the tathagathas, and the tathagatha beholds him with his Buddha eye. [That is, those who study the perfection of wisdom.]
So Sariputra says that it must be through the power and grace of the buddhas that we are able to do this. He asks, “Is that right?” And the Buddha says, “Yes, yes, that is exactly it.”
The point is that this becomes a faith practice. There is a sense in which just to undergo this study is to have the faith that the buddhas are looking after you. There is a wonderful phrase that you often see in Mahayana sutras, “You will be seen by the buddhas.” There is this deep, human need to be seen. A lot of us suffer; we can be psychologically messed up if we feel unseen. There are people who feel, “My whole life, nobody has seen who I am.” It is a painful thing. If it is necessary to be seen, how much better to be seen by the buddhas? Not only by people, but by the buddhas?
So just to study the perfection of wisdom is to be seen by the buddhas, to be known by the buddhas, to be sustained by the buddhas. To me it is a very beautiful thing.