Once again I'm faced with the daunting prospect of reviewing one of the world's greatest pieces of literature. This time it is the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita (PP), translated by Edward Conze as The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. The PP is among three important works in the Prajnaparamita literature. The three are distinguished mainly by how much repetition has been redacted from the longest version. The three versions are the Astadasasahasrika, the PP, and the Satasahasrika in 18,000, 25,000, and 100,000 lines respectively. While Conze's translation is largely from the PP, some parts are drawn from the other two versions. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom is a sprawling work of over 600 pages, so readers without a firm grounding in Buddhism may want to choose a different sutra to begin their exploration of Buddhism's primary sources, but anyone with a decent background in Buddhism and a modicum of dedication certainly should make time to read the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom carefully.
The Prajnaparamita literature is without question one of the most important bodies of work in world religion, expounding the central ideas of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. In particular, it details the concepts of the bodhisattva and sunyata or "emptiness." The bodhisattva is particularly significant in distinguishing the Mahayana tradition from the previous (Hinayana) tradition, while sunyata stands as the critical concept of the Mahayana abhidharma or higher learning. Both of these concepts appear in a less developed form in the Hinayana literature, but it is not until the Prajnaparamita that they are brought to center stage and fully developed.
To provide a context for these ideas, one should begin with the what Buddhists call "The Four Noble Truths." These are that (1) the world is a place of suffering, (2) this suffering is caused by one's desires, (3) this suffering can be eliminated by eliminating one's desires, and (4) the way to eliminate one's desires is to follow the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is a prescription for living that is composed of maintaining right views, right intention, right action, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration, and right meditation.
Early Buddhist monks followed the Eightfold Path in two ways: the path of the disciple or the arhat and the path of the pratyekabuddha. The former strictly followed the prescriptions of the Buddha in attaining enlightenment in the context of a Buddhist community (samgha). The latter found enlightenment on his (generally not her) own. In both instances, the final destination of the path was to achieve individual enlightenment and escape the cycle of birth and death and find extinction in nirvana.
There were, however, certain tendencies within Buddhism that suggested a different more compassionate and all-inclusive path. Early Buddhism maintained the doctrine of anatma or no self. In essence, it denied the existence of the individual soul. In light of this doctrine, the notion that an individual might seek to achieve enlightenment separate from all other sentient beings seemed, well, selfish. (More on this later.) Instead, the only true path to enlightenment comes when all beings are enlightened. This is the task of the bodhisattva: to work for the enlightenment of all beings.
Working for the enlightenment or salvation of all beings required the bodhisattva to develop six virtues: giving, morality, patience, vigour, concentration, and wisdom. Of these, the Prajnaparamita literature stresses perfecting wisdom. Wisdom is compared to the right hand (of a right-handed person) while all the other virtues are the left hand. Perfecting wisdom involves at first understanding that the true nature of being is sunyata or "emptiness." The Hinayana tradition already recognized something like this with regard to persons. Persons are composed of the five skandas (form, feelings, perception, impulses, and consciousness). The skandas do not, however, "attach" to any core substance that is a self. They are ephemeral collections of attributes that combine without being grounded in a substance. In the Hinayana tradition (particularly the Sarvastivadan school) the skandas had a genuine existence. The Mahayana tradition rejected this and maintained that without a substantive basis, the skandas were empty. This is not to say they do not exist nor to say that they exist, but that existence and non-existence simply are not predicates that can be applied to the skandas. The Mahayana Buddhists applied this same treatment to worldly objects as they too are composed of the skandas. Consequently on this account, all things (dharmas) are empty.
One way to begin to understand emptiness is to compare what one sees in front of one's face with what one sees when one closes one's eyes. These are like existence and non-existence. Emptiness is like what one "sees" behind one's head. It is neither the colorful variation of what one sees with open eyes nor the blackness of what one sees with closed eyes. Instead, visual predicates do not apply.
While the PP is most certainly a work that encompasses ontology, epistemology, and ethics, it is most of all a practical guide to enlightenment. Understanding the emptiness of all things is an initial step toward adopting a point of view on experience which promotes non-attachment and ultimately a way of acting in the world that promotes the cultivation of the other five perfections. The final perfection of the perfections comes with the development of "skill in means." By this the PP means living one's life without consciously understanding that one is exercising the perfections. For example, one gives without noting that one is giving. One distinguishes neither the giver, the recipient of the gift, nor the gift. As an analogy, consider the pianist who has so perfected a piece of music that her hands play it without conscious command from her mind. Exercising the perfections, as with expertly playing the music, has become unconscious, second nature.
Most important within the PP is the concept of the bodhisattva or the enlightened being that forgoes complete enlightenment until the task of enlightening all beings is accomplished. As previously mentioned, the bodhisattva is an outgrowth of the concept of anatma, but furthermore it is also the natural outgrowth of the non-duality of all things. The non-duality of all things is a function of their emptiness. No predicate (e.g. existent/non-existent, caused/uncaused, enlightened/unenlightened) and no opposition (e.g., subject/object, self/other, phenomenal world/noumenal world) correctly characterizes what truly is. Hence, without the distinction of self and other, the salvation of what appears to be the individual self cannot be accomplished without also saving the apparent other. The perfection of wisdom then entails perfect, universal compassion.
A epistemological objection might be posed at this point regarding how we can understand any of this, if the distinctions and predicates of language strictly speaking are false. While it is true that all that is said in the PP is strictly speaking false, it is not so in the context of conventional knowledge. Attaining perfect wisdom involves treading the Mahayana "path." In the early stages of the path, conventional knowledge is used to point the monk in the direction of enlightenment, but in the final stages of the path conventional knowledge becomes unnecessary, skill in means is acquired, and an intuitive knowledge of the Dharma achieved.
Reading The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom is a profoundly exhilarating experience. At the beginning, there is much that is puzzling and repetitive (as is true throughout the work); however, as concepts are explained again and again in slightly different ways, one gets the feeling of clouds drifting into a cloudless sky. In time one hears quiet rolling thunder in the distance which become louder, closer and more abrupt. Toward the end of the work, one experiences sudden flashes of understanding like bolts of lightening descending from the clouds. It is no wonder that the PP spawned one of the greatest spiritual movements in history.