The Great Mother Prajnaparamita

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by Judith Simmer-Brown

The Tibetan understanding of the feminine principle as mother was drawn from a variety of sources within the Buddhist tradition. The most important source was the Prajnaparamita-sutras of Indian Mahayana, which date from the second century B.C.E. and continued their influence in Tibet until the present day. Prajnaparamita refers to wisdom or “penetrating insight” (prajna) that is perfected or has “gone beyond” (paramita), which means that it has transcended concept, expectation, or conventionality of any kind. The earliest of these sutras, the Astasahasrika, proclaimed Prajnaparamita to be the “mother of all the buddhas” in the following verses:

The Buddhas in the world-systems in the ten directions
Bring to mind this perfection of wisdom as their mother.
The Saviours of the world who were in the past, and also those that are in the ten directions,
Have issued from her, and so will the future ones be.
She is the one who shows the world (for what it is), she is the genetrix, the mother of the [conquerors],
And she reveals the thoughts and actions of other beings.

The theme of the motherhood of Prajnaparamita was carried throughout the Mahayana sutras, though it was not until a late date that she was personified as a deity. She was lauded as the “mother of the tathagatas,” “their nurse to all-encompassing wisdom,” and their “transmitter of the realization of all the buddhadharmas, and the creator of the world.” However, at this early date she was not particularly personalized and had no identifiable anthropomorphic form. These epithets were primarily metaphorical until roughly 400 C.E., when she began to appear as a female bodhisattva in the Buddhist pantheon. Although in the early Prajnaparamita texts she was not per- sonalized, from the Sanskrit conventions she was always referred to by feminine pronouns.

The epithet “Mother of All the Buddhas” became a theme in renaissance Indian Buddhism and in Tibet. How is Prajnaparamita the mother of all the buddhas? The answer can be found in her association with emptiness, or sunyata, and with penetrating insight, or prajna. First, she is called emptiness, under- stood through the realization that all phenomena are unborn, unproduced and without end. There has never been an abiding essence in any phenomenon, hence no phenomena have even a fleeting existence. All phenomena (which have arisen from emptiness, the mother) are empty of any designations attributed to them or any nature or characteristics. Put differently, phenomena are completely free of concepts, and hence they are said to be completely pure. Because of this, experience is said to be dreamlike, radiantly clear and transparent; and nowhere in the dream is there any true existence.

The effect of such a realization is a transformation of the practitioner’s naive beliefs about the nature of reality. Experience is not negated; Buddhism carefully refrains from the nihilistic position that the nature of experience is delusory. Instead, assumptions concerning the ontological status of one’s experience are questioned, which affects the entire framework of mental constructs. According to the Buddhist path, taking phenomena to be existent in any independent, abiding way conceals from the practitioner the true nature of things as they are (yatha-bhutam). When this obscuration is removed, there is tremendous freedom, joy, and fearlessness.

When emptiness is realized in this way, all phenomena are found to be pure, just as their source, their mother, is pure. Since phenomena have arisen from emptiness, they have never actually arisen: they are considered unborn. This is akin to the analogy of the dream: although we know that dreams are merely dreams, their vividness and clarity remain. When the concept that dreams are true is abandoned, dreams are seen as they really are. Dreamlike phenomena have never been produced, and they also have no end. They are similar to all beings in that their nature is indestructible emptiness. Emptiness is the ultimate essence of all phenomena, all beings, and all buddhas.

Interpreting emptiness as the unborn nature of all phenomena seems to contradict Prajnaparamita as the mother. But it is precisely because all phenomena are unborn that she is the mother. As Sariputra praised her, “she does nothing about all phenomena …. She never produces any phenomena, because she has forsaken the residues relating to both kinds of obscurations…She does not stop any phenomena. Herself unstopped and unproduced is the perfection of wisdom.” Because the nature of all phenomena is ultimately found to be emptiness, the Prajnaparamita, which is emptiness itself, is the mother.

Prajnaparamita is also explicitly stated to be the mother of buddhas and bodhisattvas. As the passage above continues, “she is the mother of the Bodhisattvas, because of the emptiness of her own characteristics.” This is related to her second aspect, that of penetrating insight, prajna. Since emptiness is not an object of knowledge—since it is not a thing— Prajnaparamita is associated with the dynamic way in which one directly realizes the unborn nature of phenomena. One sees or realizes emptiness through the penetrating power of insight, which carefully examines phenomena and finds no inherent essence. This prajna is supremely excellent because it has gone beyond (sherap) any concept or reference point or an inherent existence of any kind. Because of this, penetrating insight is not different from that which it sees: emptiness.

Since emptiness is not an object of knowledge—since it is not a thing—Prajnaparamita is associated with the dynamic way in which on directly realizes the unborn nature of phenomena.

Prajnaparamita is the symbolic mother of all those who realize this nature; that is, this insight is the beginning of the practitioner’s uncovering of awakened nature. Finding no inherent essence in phenomena awakens non-dual wisdom in the practitioner, and this is the seed of buddhahood. For this reason, “prajna which has gone beyond,” or Prajnaparamita, is an experiential discovery that becomes at that moment the Mother of All Buddhas. So, she who manifests as Prajnaparamita is the Great Mother of the buddhas of the past, present, and future.

In the sutras, the Mother is called the “genetrix” or progenitor of the Tathagatas, the one who actually gives birth to buddhas. But she is also called the “instructress in cognition” of all qualities of the Buddha. Only through penetrating insight is buddhahood achieved, and only through penetrating insight can it be perceived. For this reason, it is said that the Tathagatas hold the Mother in their minds and work on her behalf. They feel great gratitude toward her and are said to “look well after their mother, protect her well, and hope that she will meet with no obstacle to her life, … make much of her and cherish her, because they are aware that she has instructed them in the ways of the world.”

Late in the Prajnaparamita tradition, in what is considered the transitional “tantric phase” of its teaching, the presentation of these sutras was condensed into mantra (ngak), which expressed the central truth of the genre directly, without referential language. This reflected the movement in Vajrayana Buddhism toward language that did not rely on inference, conventional meaning, or logic. Instead, potent reverberating sounds were used to elicit understanding directly, through a kind of transmission that bypassed the conceptual mind.

The most condensed of these suttras, dated sometime between 600 and 1200 C.E., is the Perfect Wisdom in One Letter, a classical Prajnaparamita sutra whose entire teaching was contained in the seed syllable A (pronounced Ah). The Buddha said, “Ananda, do receive, for the sake of the welfare and happiness of all beings, this perfection of wisdom in one letter: A.” This seed syllable continued to be of importance in Mahayana literature, especially in the early A-RA-PA-CHA-NA syllabary, said to express the essence of the Prajnaparamita. The letter A was said to be an abbreviation of the entire syllabary and symbolized emptiness; in fact, it was called the “empty letter door that displays emptiness.” This is important for the later Tibetan tradition, in which the seed syllable a is one of the identifying marks appearing on the tongue, hands, or other parts of the body and one of the resonant sounds heard by the parents of an incarnate dakini.

Photo by Kevin Schoenmakers

Photo by Kevin Schoenmakers

In any case, the tantric Prajnaparamita-sutras foretell the symbolic expressions of emptiness that appear in ritual practice in Vajrayana Buddhism. The best examples of this can be found on three levels: on a body level, this realization is expressed in gestures and body postures, called mudras. On a speech level, essential syllables are used that bypass intellectual interpretation and directly express the realization. On a mind level, one visualizes a fully enlightened deity in prescribed form, the vividness and details of which express realization. When these three are used simultaneously, a fully developed symbolic world is manifested that expresses nonconceptually the experience of emptiness from a luminous, enlightened perspective. All of these expressions probably developed in the late Indian tradition of the Prajnaparamita, pointing to the possibilities for meaningful ritual life in the Vajrayana.

One remarkable example of the tantric expression of the Prajnaparamita can be seen in the development of the Chö meditation tradition of India. Chö or “cutting through grasping,” is an important lineage of practice that was transmitted by Tampa Sanggye to Machik Lapdrön (1055-1154), the great Tibetan yogini. While it is unclear how the Chö tradition developed in India, its basis in the Prajnaparamita-sutras is clearly indicated by the “Grand Poem on the Perfection of Wisdom,” composed by Aryadeva the Brahmin (ninth century c.e.). He professed to teach “the actual meaning of the profound Prajnaparamita,” a tantric expression in nonceptual and direct method of the great Mahayana sutras. His poem suggests that there was probably a meditation tradition associated with the Prajnaparamita-sutras that was carried into the later period of Indian Buddhist tantra.

The meaning of the Prajnaparamita
Is not to be looked for elsewhere: it exists within yourself.
Neither real nor endowed with characteristics,
The nature [of the mind] is the great clear light.

The great clear light (ösel chenpo) refers to the essence of the mind as emptiness, its nature as clarity or luminosity, and its manifestation as limitlessness. These are not existent qualities attributed to an existent thing, however, but attributes designed to evoke the experience of the practitioner. This tradition of describing the nature of the mind as Prajnaparamita became important in Tibetan tantra.

The Prajnaparamita-sutras became a powerful foundation for understanding the feminine principle in late Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, and their influence is evident in a wide variety of ways. In her various forms in tantric traditions, the dakini is closely associated with Prajnaparamita. She is often given that epithet or associated with it directly or indirectly.

Judith Simmer-Brown is Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University.

From Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism by Judith Simmer-Brown. Copyright © 2001 by Judith Simmer-Brown. Reprinted by arrangement with The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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