Recently, during my visit to Portland, Oregon with the family, I found a great book on the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras by Professor Edward Conze called The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines And Its Verse Summary. The title is pretty bland, but this book is a complete English translation of a highly-influential Buddhist sutra called Eight-Thousand Line Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, or Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in Sanskrit. The Sino-Japanese name is the hassenju-hannyakyō (八千頌般若経) or more formally as the hassenju-hannyaharamitakyō (八千頌般若波羅蜜多経).
But let’s talk about the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. Yes, I said “sutras” as in multiple sutras. The concept of Prajñāpāramitā or the “Perfection of Wisdom” is a very important topic in Mahayana Buddhism, so much so that multiple sutras have explicated the same topic. The sutras differ primarily by length. As Edward Conze explains in the book above:1
The faithful in India and the Buddhist world in general assumed that all the P.P. Sutras are equally the word of the Buddha, more or less abbreviated according to the faculty of understanding of the people and their zeal and spiritual maturity. The first was that in 8,000 lines, or rather its precursor. This was then expanded into 10,000, 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 ślokas; and after that it was contracted to 2,500, 700, 500, 300 (the Diamond Sutra), 150, 25 (the Heart Sutra), and finally into one syllable (“A”). They are all anonymous and date between A.D. 50 and 700. (page XI, preface)
Thus, multiple, multiple “perfection of wisdom” sutras exist, but they are all cover the same basic teachings:
- That all phenomena (people, animals, feelings, trends, etc) in existence are both empty and unborn. By “empty” they have no intrinsic existence and come into being due to external causes and conditions, which also entails they are impermanent. By “unborn” there is no clear point in time when they are “born” and when they “die” or fade. Instead, it’s just one endless, fluid transition after another like waves in the ocean.
- A bodhisattva who masters and thrives in this understanding will soon reach full awakening (i.e. Buddhahood). Thus, a thorough understanding of the perfection of wisdom is required for any bodhisattva to make substantial progress.
The Heart Sutra is by far the best known and most popular because of its brevity, ease of chanting, and also its profound depth. It is the one sutra I have memorized from start to finish.2 The origins of the sutra are still debated, but its value in conveying the entire Perfection of Wisdom teachings can’t be overlooked.
Lately, though, I’ve also been reading the Diamond Sutra which covers many of the same subjects, but provides some excellent verses that you can carry with you for life. More on that in a future post.
Anyhow, long story short, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras are a fascinating and essential part of Mahayana Buddhism, and thus whether you start with the longer 8000-line sutra, or the Heart Sutra, you can not go wrong.
1 Some Japanese researxhers think that the Diamond Sutra not the 8000-line sutra is oldest one. There are probably other competing theories as well.
2 I have memorized parts of the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (e.g. the “Larger Sutra” in Pure Land Buddhism) as part of training and also