From The Perfection of Wisdom

· Articles & Essays · ,

translated by Edward Conze

The Venerable Subhuti, by the Buddha’s might, said to the Lord: The Lord has said, ‘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!’ 

When one speaks of a ‘Bodhisattva,’ what dharma does that word ‘Bodhisattva’ denote? I do not Lord, see that dharma ‘Bodhisattva’ nor a dharma called ‘perfect wisdom.’ Since I neither find, nor apprehend, nor see a dharma ‘Bodhisattva,’ nor a ‘perfect wisdom,’ what Bodhisattva shall I instruct and admonish in what perfect wisdom? And yet, O Lord, if, when this is pointed out, a Bodhisattva’s heart does not become cowed, nor stolid, does not despair nor 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.

Sariputra: That thought which is no thought, is that something is?

Subhuti: Does there exist, or can one apprehend in this state of absence of thought either a ‘there is’ or a ‘there is not’?

Sariputra: No, not that.

Subhuti: Was it then a suitable question when the Venerable Sariputra asked whether that thought which is no thought is something which is?

Sariputra: What then is this absence of thought?

Subhuti: It is without modification or discrimination.

Sariputra: Well do you expound this, Subhuti, you whom the Lord has declared to be the foremost of those who dwell in Peace. And for that has declared to be the foremost of those who dwell in Peace. And for that reason [i.e. because he does not pride himself on that thought of enlightenment] should a Bodhisattva be considered as incapable of turning away from full enlightenment, and as one who will never cease from taking perfect wisdom to heart. Whether one wants to train on the level of Disciple, or Pratyekabuddha, or Bodhisattva—one should listen to this perfection of wisdom, take it up, bear it in mind, recite it, study it, spread it among others and in this very perfection of wisdom should one be trained and exert oneself. In this very perfection of wisdom should one endowed with skill in means exert himself, with the aim of procuring all the dharmas which constitute a Bodhisattva. In just this perfection of wisdom all the dharmas which constitute a Bodhisattva, and in which he should be trained and exert himself, are indicated in full detail. He who wants to train for full enlightenment should also listen, etc., to this perfection of wisdom. One who is endowed with skill in means should exert himself in just this perfection of wisdom, with the aim of procuring all the dharmas which constitute a Buddha.

A Bodhisattva who courses in perfect wisdom and develops it should consider and meditate on what that perfect wisdom is, on him who has it…as a dharma which does not exist, which cannot be apprehended. When these considerations do not make him afraid, then he is to be taken as a Bodhisattva who possesses perfect wisdom.

Subhuti: I who do not find anything to correspond to the word ‘Bodhisattva,’ or the words ‘perfect wisdom,’—which Bodhisattva should I then instruct and admonish in which perfect wisdom? It would surely be regrettable if I, unable to find the thing itself, should merely in words cause a Bodhisattva to arise and to pass away. Moreover, what is thus designated is not continuous nor not continuous, not discontinuous or not-discontinuous. And why? Because it does not exist. That is why it is not continuous nor not-continuous, not discontinuous, not-discontinuous. 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, as standing at the irreversible stage of Bodhisattva, standing firmly, in consequence of not taking his stand anywhere. Moreover, a Bodhisattva who courses in perfect wisdom and develops it, should not stand in form, etc. Because, when he stands in form, etc., he courses in its formative influence, he cannot gain perfect wisdom, nor exert himself upon it, nor fulfill it. When he does not fulfill perfect wisdom, he cannot go forth to all-knowledge, so long as he remains one who tries to appropriate the essentially elusive. For in perfect wisdom form is not appropriated. But the non-appropriation of form, etc., is not form, etc. And perfect wisdom also cannot be appropriated. It is thus that a Bodhisattva should course in this perfect wisdom. This concentrated insight of a Bodhisattva is called ‘the non-appropriation of all dharmas.’ It is vast, noble, unlimited and steady, not shared by any of the Disciples or Pratyekabuddhas. The state of all-knowledge itself cannot be taken hold of, because it cannot be seized through a sign. Further, a Bodhisattva who courses in perfect wisdom and develops it, should consider and meditate on what that perfect wisdom is, on him who has it, and on this prefect wisdom as a dharma which does not exist, which cannot be apprehended. When these considerations do not make him afraid, then he is to be taken as a Bodhisattva who possesses perfect wisdom.

Sariputra: How can a Bodhisattva known as possessing perfect wisdom, when the very form does not possess the own-being of form, etc.; when perfect wisdom does not possess the own-being of perfect wisdom; when the very all knowledge does not possess the own-being of all-knowledge.

Subhuti: It is so, Sariputra. Form itself does not possess the own-being of form, etc. Perfect wisdom does not possess the mark (of being) ‘perfect wisdom.’ A mark does not possess the own-being of a mark. The marked does not possess the own-being of being marked, and own-being does not possess the mark of [being] own-being.

Sariputra: Nevertheless, the Bodhisattva who trains in this will go forth to all-knowledge?

Subhuti: He will. Because all dharmas are unborn, and do not go forth. When he courses thus, a Bodhisattva comes near to all-knowledge. To the extend that he comes near to all-knowledge, his body, thought and marks shall become perfectly pure, for the sake of maturing beings, and he shall meet with the Buddhas. It is thus that a Bodhisattva who courses in perfect wisdom comes near to all- knowledge.

Subhuti said further concerning the Bodhisattva: He courses in a sign when he courses in form, etc., or in the sign of form, etc., or in the idea that ‘form is a sign,’ or in the production of form, or in the stopping or destruction of form, or in the idea that ‘form is empty,’ or ‘I course,’ or ‘I am a Bodhisattva.’ For he actually courses in the idea ‘I am a Bodhisattva’ as a basis. Or, when it occurs to him ‘he who course thus, courses in perfect wisdom and develops it,’ –he courses only in a sign. Such a Bodhisattva should be known as unskilled in means.

Sariputra: How then must a Bodhisattva course if he is to course in perfect wisdom?

Subhuti: He should not course in the skandhas, nor in their sign, nor in the idea that ‘the skandhas are signs,’ nor in the production of the skandhas, in their stopping or destruction, nor in the idea that ‘the skandhas are empty,’ or ‘I course,’ or ‘I am a Bodhisattva.’ And it should not occur to him, ‘he who courses thus, courses in perfect wisdom and develops it.’ He courses but he does not entertain such ideas as ‘I course,’ ‘I do not course,’ ‘I course and I do not course,’ ‘I neither course nor do I not course,’ and the same [four] with ‘I will course.’ He does not go near any dharma at all, because all dharma are 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 of the Disciples or Pratyekabuddhas. When he dwells in this concentrated insight, a Bodhisattva will quickly win the full enlightenment which the Tathagatas of the past have predicted for him. But when he dwells in that concentration, he does not review it, nor think ‘I am collected,’ ‘I will enter into concentration,’ ‘I am entering into concentration,’ ‘I have entered into concentration.’ All that in each and every way does not exist for him.

Photo by Tinou Bao

Photo by Tinou Bao

Sariputra: Can one show forth that concentration?

Subhuti: No, Sariputra. Because that son of good family neither knows or perceives it.

Sariputra: You say that he neither knows nor perceives it?

Subhuti: I do, for that concentration does not exist.

The Lord: Well said, Subhuti. And thus should a Bodhisattva train therein, because then he trains in perfect wisdom.

Sariputra: When he thus trains, he trains in perfect wisdom?

The Lord: When he thus trains, he trains in perfect wisdom.

Sariputra: When he thus trains, which dharmas does he train in?

The Lord: He does not train in any dharma at all. Because the dharmas do not exist in such a way as foolish untaught, common people are accustomed to suppose.

Sariputra: How then do they exist?

The Lord: As they do not exist, so they exist. And so, since they do not exist [avidya-mana], they are called [the result of] ignorance [avidya]. Foolish, untaught, common people have settled down in them. Although they do not exist, they have constructed all the dharmas. Having constructed them, attached to the two extremes, they do not know or see those dharmas [in their true reality]. So they construct all dharmas which yet do not exist. Having constructed them, they settle down in the two extremes. They then depend on that link as a basic fact, and construct past, future and present dharmas. After they have constructed, they settle down in name and form. They have constructed all dharmas which yet do not exist, they neither know nor see the path which is that which truly is. In consequence they do not go forth from the triple world, and do not wake up to the reality limit. For that reason they come to be styled ‘fools.’ They have no faith in the true dharma. But a Bodhisattva does not settle down in any dharma.

Sariputra: When he trains thus, is a Bodhisattva trained in all-knowledge?

The Lord: When he thus trains himself, a Bodhisattva is not even trained in all-knowledge, and yet he is trained in all dharmas. When he thus trains himself, a Bodhisattva is trained in all-knowledge, comes near to it, goes forth to it.

Subhuti: If, O Lord, someone should ask, ‘Will this illusory man be trained in all-knowledge, will he come near it, will he go forth to it?’—How should one explain it?

The Lord: I will ask you a counter-question which you may answer as best you can.

Subhuti: Well said, O Lord.

And the Venerable Subhuti listened to the Lord.

The Lord: What do you think, Subhuti, is form, etc., one thing, and illusion another?

Subhuti: No Lord. Because it is not so that illusion is one thing, and form, etc., another; the very form is illusion, the very illusion is form.

The Lord: What do you think, Subhuti, is that notion ‘Bodhisattva,’ that denomination, that concept, that conventional expression, in the five grasping skandhas?

Subhuti: Yes, it is. Because a Bodhisattva who trains himself in perfect wisdom should train himself like an illusory man for full enlightenment. For one should bear in mind that the five grasping aggregates are like an illusory man. Because the Lord has said that form is like an illusion. And that is true of form, is true also of the six sense organs, and of the five [grasping] aggregates.

Subhuti: Will not Bodhisattvas who have newly set out in the vehicle tremble when they hear this exposition?

The Lord: They will tremble if they get into the hands of bad friends, but not if they get into the hands of good friends.

Subhuti: Who then are a Bodhisattva’s good friends?

The Lord: Those who instruct and admonish him in the perfections. Those who point out to him the deeds of Mara, saying ‘this is how the faults and deeds of Mara should be recognized. These are the faults and deeds of Mara. You should get rid of them after you have recognized them.’ These should be known as the good friends of a Bodhisattva, a great being, who is armed with the great armor, who has set out in the great vehicle, who has mounted on the great vehicle.


From The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines & Its Verse Summary. Copyright 1973 by Edward Conze. Published by Four Seasons Foundation.

Edward Conze (1904-1979), translator, was a Buddhist scholar and a leading authority on the Prajnaparamita Sutra.

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