Hate, Love, and Perfect Wisdom

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by Edward Conze

Though the teachings of the Prajnaparamita have on the whole been set out quite clearly, this has been done in a terminology which one has slowly to get used to. Psychological considerations may, however, give some assistance in leading on to a better understanding of these texts. This is no mere concession to the interests of the present day. Centuries ago already has the metaphysics of the Prajnaparamita been rounded off by a profound psychological system, known as the Tantra. In this article I offer two brief psychological observations.


The Tantric System of the Five Jinas associates the Prajnaparamita with the Buddha Akshobhya. She belongs to Akshobhya’s “family”, and in two Sadhanas of the Sadhanamala it is stated that Akshobhya should be represented on the head-dress or crown of the images representing her. The basic Prajnaparamita Sutras themselves ante-date by four or six centuries the emergence of the Tantra into the light of history. In them also Akshobyha is the one figure of a Mahayana Buddha to play any substantial role. It is therefore permissible to ask why just this Buddha should be brought into such close contact with the Prajnaparamita.

Buddhist Scriptures do not aim at expounding the nature of the universe for the satisfaction of disinterested curiosity. They are medicines, antidotes to specific ills and ailments, meant to counteract faults to which we are prone, and which keep us away from true reality and from a fruitful and abundant life. Some faults are more marked in some people than in others. In the third chapter of his Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa describes six distinct personality types (puggala). They differ according to whether their conduct is dominated by greed, hate or delusion, or by the corresponding virtues of faith, intelligence or thoughtfulness (vitakka). Buddhaghosa gives many good observations which allow us to recognize the different types, and he adds some advice about the mode of life and the kind of meditation which would suit each one of them. Similarly, the Tantra has classified aspirants into five families (kula), of which the first three are identical with those of Buddhaghosa. In this essay I am concerned only with the first two of these, i.e. with those who “walk in greed”, and those who “walk in hate.”

A simple Abhidharma exercise can help to determine whether one belongs to the hate or the greed class. The mindful recollection of feelings (vedana) is an elementary and valuable practice. Three kinds of feelings are distinguished—pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. They are associated with greed, hatred, and delusion, respectively. A pleasant feeling will obviously strengthen our greed, our desire to make ourselves at home in this world, and to taste more and more of sensuous enjoyment. Just so an unpleasant feeling will strengthen our hatred, providing or registering the frustration which leads to future aggressiveness. If one now observes the feelings which occur at a given time, one can mindfully recall them by saying, “There is a pleasant feeling, beware of greed! There is an unpleasant feeling, beware of hate!”, and so on, just as they come up. If this is done repeatedly, and over a number of years, some people (like the late Prof. Flugel) will find that pleasant feelings preponderate, others that unpleasant feelings greatly outnumber the pleasant ones.

The [Prajnaparamita] Sutras win over by fascination, and not by compulsion. Timeless, they are not obsessed with time, but ignore it. They urge on to a contemplation of the world, and not its conquest by manipulation.

The Vajrayana associates Akshobhya with the hate family, whereas Amitabha is said to “preside” over the greed family. The bhaktic trends within Buddhism centred largely on Amitabha. As friendliness, or “love”, is said to have greed for its “near-enemy” (asanna-paccatthiko), so the faith of Bhakti is a sublimation of greed, as witness the description of the sensuous bliss and beauty of Amida’s Paradise, etc. As distinct from Bhakti, the Gnosis of the Prajnaparamita is an antidote to hate. Buddhaghosa says about the kinship between hate and wisdom (panna):

“As on the unwholesome plane hatred does not cling, does not stick to its object, so wisdom on the wholesome plane. As hate seeks for faults, even though they do not exist, so wisdom seeks for the faults that do exist. As hate leads to the rejection of beings, so wisdom to that of all conditioned things.”

The Prajnaparamita to some extent destroys hate by refining it into universal compassion, which is the reverse of cruelty. Nietzsche stressed the essential unity of the two when he stated that” one must be both pitiful and cruel in order to be really either”. The Gnosis of perfect wisdom further helps to sublimate hatred. It is the aim and purpose of hatred to smash that which offends. While” nihilism” is by no means the last word of the Prajnaparamita, the thorough annihilation of the world, emotional and intellectual, is an important step on the way towards winning her. In the ontology of the Prajnaparamita texts the entire world, all entities, whatever they are, are completely smashed and done away with, not only ground to powder, but reduced to nothingness. This is a great triumph of universal hate. If one’s own self is included in the universal annihilation, it is at the same time also a triumph of the spirit.

Experience shows that the Sutras on Perfect Wisdom mean very little to some people, while they strike others with the force of an overwhelming and self-evident revelation. It would be sheer vanity to invariably blame lack of response on low spiritual endowment. Even where the required degree of spiritual awareness has been reached, these Sutras will be helpful chiefly to one type of person, i.e. to the “hate-type”. Without some “discernment of spirits” one cannot determine in a given case which one of the many approaches to salvation is salutary, which one might be ineffective, or even pernicious. The above considerations may provide at least one rule which might help to guide our intuitions on the subject.


My Second Observation concerns the femininity of the Prajnaparamita. Feminine by the grammatical form of her name, she is explicitly called a “mother” in the Sutras themselves, and, on statues and images, the femininity of her form is rarely in doubt. To be psychologically sound, a religion should take heed of the feminine principle in our psyche, which has at least three functions to fulfill: First of all, as a representation of the mother, it helps to dissolve hindering residues of infantile conflict. J. Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) has dealt superbly with this aspect of the problem, and I must refer my readers to his book. Secondly, incorporation of the feminine force deals with sexual incompleteness in that it completes the male by bringing his own femininity to the fore. Finally, this approach deals with sexual insufficiency in that, on a spiritual level, it satisfies the perpetual hankering after union with the sexual opposite.

Individuals, while generally male or female, are composed of a mixture of masculine and feminine elements, dispositions and attitudes. Both men and women can be more or less “masculine” or “feminine”. Persons are incomplete if they try to exclude either. They must aim at a balance between the two. In the words of a psychologist

Either principle pursued exclusively leads to death. Whoever unites them in himself has the best chance of life. This is the ultimate meaning of ‘the spiritual marriage’. In this sense God is both Father and Mother, and is therefore androgynous. Love-without-Law and Law-without- Love are both false positions. The true position is Love-creating-Law and Law-revealing-Love. The monistic principle is primary, but insufficient to itself.

Where meditation is carried on by men, they must complete themselves by fostering the feminine element in their personality. They must practise passivity and a loose softness. They must learn to open freely the gates of nature, and to let the mysterious and hidden forces of this world penetrate into them, stream in and through them. When they identify themselves with the Perfection of Wisdom, they merge with the principle of Femininity (Jung’s anima), without which they would be mutilated men. Like a woman the Perfection of Wisdom deserves to be courted and wooed. Meditation on her as a Goddess has the purpose of getting inside her, identifying oneself with her, becoming her, as a man wishes to merge his body with that of a woman.

Photo by Susana Fernandez

Photo by Susana Fernandez

Nor should the fact be overlooked that the union of the Disciple with the Perfection of Wisdom, as described in the Sutras bears Susana Fernandez a close resemblance to the sexual union between man and woman. This applies as well to the stages which precede enlightenment, as to the act of enlightenment itself. And this loving union in its turn, paradoxically, brings about an annihilation of the world, just as hate did. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad expresses this idea by saying that:

As one in the embrace of a beloved wife is unconscious of internal or external occurrences, so also the spirit who is in the embrace of the primal Self.

Buddhist tradition, of course, avoids the use of the word “Self” for the Perfection of Wisdom, or for the Absolute. In Buddhist terminology, Tillopada says the same thing in his Dohas: “Where the mind and emptiness enter into the bliss arising out of this communion, the objects of the senses are not perceived at all” , and he adds that “The mind is the Lord and emptiness is the Lady; they should always be kept united in the Innate (Sahaja)”.

In the Yab-yum images of the later Tantra a sexual attitude to Prajnaparamita is quite explicit. Disguised by the use of ambiguous terms it was already present in the older Prajnaparamita Sutras themselves.

The physical signs of masculinity and femininity are, of course, much easier to define than the mental ones. Nevertheless, even here students of the subject have reached wide agreement. Among recent writers I must mention Robert Graves as showing great insight into these problems. It is interesting to notice that the writings on Prajnaparamita show many feminine features, features in which we learn to participate by their recitation, and by meditation on them: The Sutras almost entirely rely on intuition, and attempts at reasoning are scanty, and far from conclusive. The reasoning is, indeed, apt to be decidedly inconsequential. They show some of the amoralism which later on developed into the antinomianism of the Tantra, and which did not fail to provoke protests from the more tight laced monks. The Sutras win over by fascination, and not by compulsion. Timeless, they are not obsessed with time, but ignore it. They urge on to a contemplation of the world, and not its conquest by manipulation. They are indifferent to ‘sense data’ and in vain do we search through thousands of pages for one single “hard fact”. And in her ultimate core the Prajnaparamita is described as for ever elusive, not possessed by anyone, but absorbing all.

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

From Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies by Edward Conze. Reprinted with permission from Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, Copyright © 2000.

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