A profound understanding of emptiness is the Mahayana way. Not just emptiness of self, but emptiness of all phenomena. One who understands this fundamental truth has mastered one of, and perhaps the moment important of, the Six Six Paramitas, which feature prominently in Prajnaparamita literature. The Prajnaparamita Sutras were among the first, if not the very first, sutras which explicitly link Anatman to Shunyata, thereby taking a refutation of a specific Vedic idea (the Atman; the self that is of the same essence as the transcendent Brahman) and transforming it into a metaphysical principle.
While Prajna is almost always translated as “Wisdom,” the term is also described as “a mental event […] a state of consciousness which results from analysis, investigation.”1 Prajna is not unique to the Mahayana or to Buddhism as a whole. Wisdom is a vague term with almost limitless applications. However, in the Mahayana traditions, Prajna refers to a profound understanding of the emptiness of all things. To a follower of the Abhidharma, practicing the teachings of the Abhidharmakosa Bhasya Prajna, Prajna would instead represent an ability to discern between the dharmas that constitute reality.2 Chandrakirti’s Introduction to the Middle Way (Madhyamakāvatāra) places Prajna as the key Paramita. 3 While the other Paramitas are to be practiced rigorously by Bodhisattvas, Prajna is primary. Another assertion by Chandrakirti is the distinction between mundane perfections and supramundane perfections, the difference being that transcending dualistic thinking entirely is considered supramundane. Hence, ultimate wisdom, or Prajnaparamita, is a complete rejection of the notion of dualistic, or even pluralistic, thinking. All things are empty. This is the teaching of Shunyata.
At the core of the Prajnaparamita Sutras are a series of sutra of varying lengths, all dealing with the same topic of Shunyata. There is often a great deal of overlap in the material of these various versions. A particular version of the Prajnaparamita Sutra is typically known as a Prajnaparamita Sutra in “so many” verses–ranging from 8,000 to 100,000 in the case of the Astasahasrika series (what we could casually call “the Prajanaparamita Sutras”). There are shorter texts in the same vein, such as the treasured 300-verse Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra (known in the English-speaking world as the Diamond Sutra). The Diamond Sutra is a condensed version of the Prajnaparamita literature. The Heart Sutra is even further condensed. The Astasahasrika Prajaparimita Sutra (in 8,000 verses), also a Prajnaparamita text, is probably the oldest.4
Armed with a sword and a lotus flower hovering around his head, Manjushri slashes through the fog of delusion to provide true understanding of the nature of reality. Madhyamaka texts often paid homage to Manjushri, dubbing him Manjughosha (“the Gentle-Voiced One”) at the opening of their texts. To Madhyamikas, Manjushri represented an indispensable ideal: a being who embodied the wisdom of the true understanding of emptiness. While Avalokiteshvara extends a hand out of pure compassion and Kshitigarbha (at least in East Asian Buddhism) plunges into darkness to bring helpless beings into a higher rebirth, Manjushri cleaves beings from the bonds of delusion. When he appears, he appears to offer the gift of penetrating wisdom. He features prominently in the Vimalakirti’s Discourse Sutra, where he expounds the virtues and nature of true knowledge. He is also key to The Holy Physical Attributes of the Enlightened Manjushri (Manjushribuddhakshetragunavyuha) and the Perfection of Wisdom in 700 lines (Shaptashatika Prajnaparamita) (a later Prajnaparamita text).5 Manjushri’s influence is not limited to future students of Buddhism. In The Holy Physical Attributes of the Enlightened Manjushri, he is said to have helped a past Buddha to enlightenment.6 In The Way of the Bodhisattva, an ode to the characteristics of the Bodhisattva who has fully developed Bodhichitta, Shantideva prefaces his enumeration of the Six Paramitas by paying homage to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of all time. He calls out Manjushri by one of his many names: “Manjughosha.”
Manjushri is not the only mystical being extolled in the wisdom literature. Maitreya, the Bodhisattva of the future, resides in Tusita heaven, awaiting the tone when he will descend to Earth to preach the Dharma. Not coincidentally, his name derives from the term Maitri, or Metta, which refers to loving-kindness.
Maitreya engages in an extended dialogue with the Buddha in the Prajnaparamita Sutra in which he asks the Buddha how a Bodhisattva, can achieve perfection of wisdom. Through a barrage of questions, Maitreya tests the Buddha’s assertions about the nature and value of Bodhisattva-hood and about the Bodhisattva’s transcendence of traditionally held concepts like the Five Aggregates, the Four Noble Truths, and Nirvana. The Buddha proves to Maitreya that a Bodhisattva who has achieved perfection of wisdom will no longer be bound by dualistic thinking.
Sanskrit: Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras (Large Sutra, Conze)
1Williams 1989, 42.
2Williams, 1989, 43.
3Williams, 1989, 44-45.
4Williams, 1989, 41.
5Williams, 1989, 238.
7Williams, 1989, 239.