The Buddha said, ‘It is as with a mother who has many children five, or ten, or twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred, a thousand. If she fell ill, they would all exert themselves to prevent their mother from dying, to keep her alive as long as possible, and to keep pain and unpleasantness away from her body. Because they’re aware that to her they owe their existence, that in great pain she has brought them into this world, that she has instructed them in the ways of the world. They would therefore look well after her, give her everything they could to make her happy, protect her well, make much of her, and they would hope that she be free from pain—derived from contact with eye, ear, nose, tongue body or mind or coming from wind, bile, phlegm, or a disorder of the humors, of stinging insects, mosquitos, or crawling animals, from men or from ghosts, from anything falling upon her, or tearing her asunder, or from a disastrous crash. In this way those children honor their mother by giving her all that can make her happy, make much of her, cherish and protect her, because they’re aware that she is their mother and begetter and that in great pain she brought them into this world. In just the same way the Tathagatas bring this Perfection of Wisdom to mind, and it is through their might, sustaining power and grace that people write, learn, study, spread, and repeat it.
And also the Tatagathas who dwell in other world systems just now—for the weal and happiness of the many, out of pity for the many, for the weal and happiness of the great body of people, from pity for Gods, humans and all beings—they also all bring this Perfection of Wisdom to mind, and they put forth zeal so that this Perfection of Wisdom can last long, so that it may not be destroyed, so that Mara and his host may not prevent this Perfection of Wisdom from being taught, written, and practiced. So fond are the Tathagatas of this Perfection of Wisdom, so much do they cherish and protect it. For she is their mother and begetter, she showed them this all-knowledge, she’s instructed them in the ways of the world. From her have the Tathagatas come forth. For she has begotten and shown that cognition of the all-knowing, she has shown them the world for what it really is. The all-knowledge of the Tatagathas has come forth from her. All the Tatagathas, past, future, and present win full enlightenment thanks to this very Perfection of Wisdom. It is in this sense that the Perfection of Wisdom generates the Buddhas and instructs them in this world.
The Perfection of Wisdom is the mother of all Buddhas. This passage from the sutra speaks about this directly, the unity of wisdom and compassion. How do we begin to reflect on and understand what is, by its very nature, boundless in space and time? How do we turn towards what is both form and formlessness, what is ordinary and mystical, functional and completely beyond any application? From within our ordinary, grasping mind, this is very difficult for us to appreciate. We’re limited by our perceptions, beliefs and ideas, as well as our pervasive anxiety. We can be drawn to such a vision and possibility, but the very thought of such generosity, such selflessness, such ease can also frighten us. And so throughout the ages teachers have used metaphors to try and convey this perfect wisdom, just as the Buddha does in this sutra.
Dogen says: “When we view the four directions from a boat on the ocean where no land is in sight, we see only a circle and nothing else. No other aspects are apparent. However this ocean is neither round nor square, and its qualities are infinite in variety. It’s like a palace, it’s like a jewel. It seems circular as far as our eyes can reach at that time. And like- wise the ten thousand dharmas are like this. Though there are many aspects of the secular and the religious life, we can only recognize and understand what the power of our penetrating vision can reach. In order to appreciate these ten thousand dharmas we should know that although they may look round, they may look square, the other qualities of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety and furthermore other universes lie in every quarter.”
Dogen is offering us a way to imagine Prajnaparamita, this mother of all Buddhas; we can imagine such universes, such selflessness, such magnanimity, such wisdom, such patience. We can imagine seeing all beings as equal; having a great love, a great compassion for all beings; having a deep desire to be free of all suffering. We can imagine an enlightened society. But those imaginings will still, to some degree, be tethered to the same clinging mind that creates our sense of spiritual impoverishment.
Though there are many aspects, many worlds within the secular life and the religious life, we can only recognize and understand—we can only experience and know to be true—what the power of our liberating vision can show to us. This means there are always aspects of this present reality that we do not yet know. Yet having faith, hearing such teachings, and raising such an aspiration, we practice to realize it as true. And in order to do this we have to both be inspired by that vision and at the same time not grasp at it. Because when we grasp at it, it becomes something tangible and that tangibleness is our grasping, object-making mind, not the liberating reality. What we conceive in our mind will be limited by the reach of our vision until we realize the limitlessness of mind itself. So we have to both be inspired by and aspire towards that vision at the same time that we cannot hold it in front of us or hold on to it, and that’s a very dynamic kind of thing.
So here the Buddha brings it down to a very basic level: mother. It is as with a mother who has many children. To her you owe your own existence and you know that it is through her own sacrifices that she brought you into this world, taught you, nurtured you, took care of you, gave what was needed. Being aware of this, we want to protect her, keep her healthy and strong, keep her alive and vital. Recognizing all she has given to us and that she has many more children to take care of, we naturally want to keep her healthy and strong so she can continue to do the same for all of her children. The Buddha says, “In just the same way the Tathagatas, the Buddhas, the enlightened beings and those on the Buddha way bring this very Prajnaparamita to mind, so much do they cherish and protect it.” This mother of all wisdoms which has encouraged us, given us life, given us confidence, instructed us in how to be in the world, is freeing us from samsara. Of course this mother has given us life not just once but every day; in every moment that we have life we have been given life. So knowing this there’s a deep sense of gratitude, and we begin to understand our deep web of interdependence; that just as the mother of all Buddhas gives us life, we give life back to the mother of all Buddhas, and indeed, to all her many children. That’s what a living tradition is—it lives! It lives not just in this moment; there’s the next moment and successive moments in which other children, other Buddhas seeking Buddha will enter looking for life, looking for instruction. In this way, by receiving life from Prajnaparamita—giving life to Prajnaparamita—we’re also giving life to our future ancestors.
Although the teachings in time and place can be infused with various degrees of samsara in terms of their cultural context, the Dharma—this Mother of all Buddhas—is selfless all the way through. It is utterly about and for the liberation of you and me.
Now, we may not always appreciate our birth mother for all that she gave to us, all that she has sacrificed for us, and so we may have resisted, fought back, argued, and disagreed with her, and certainly taken her for granted. We don’t always want to receive the form of love that she may be offering. I was thinking of my experience in high school where I was coming into my first inklings of independence and strength and having my own mind, and how I struggled against some of my teachers. I didn’t always recognize or appreciate what they were trying to do for me. I didn’t recognize how they were caring for me by challenging me, by wanting more for me than sometimes I wanted for myself, by wanting me to work harder than sometimes I wanted to work. But hopefully, as we grow up and become more mature people, with a deeper and broader perspective on our lives, we will also have a natural and profound sense of gratitude towards those who gave us life and nurtured us into this world.
And so it is with the mother of all Buddhas. In the same way we can argue with the Perfection of Wisdom, against the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We can push against it, think it’s wrong, or think we’ve got it and don’t need it anymore. We can feel we are above it or beyond it. We can feel we’re oppressed by it, that it constrains us, that it is too tough on us, that it’s asking too much.
The ideal of a mother’s love is selfless love, but mom lives in samsara too, and so that love is not always free of self. But the great compassion of Prajnaparamita is selfless all the way through. Although the teachings appeared in time and place and can be infused with various degrees of samsara in terms of their cultural context, the Dharma—this Mother of all Buddhas—is selfless all the way through. It is utterly about and for the liberation of you and me. How is it when we encounter this? The Buddha said in the same sutra: “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 herself/himself and as standing at the irreversible stage of a bodhisattva standing firmly in consequence of not taking her stand anywhere.” In meeting Prajnaparamita and not pulling away in fear, we are manifesting Prajnaparamita by virtue of our standing firmly, which means not standing anywhere. To not stand in form, sensation, concepts, discrimination, awareness; to not abide in our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind. Do not stand in existing or non-existing, thinking or not thinking, in phenomena or emptiness, in self or selflessness. Make no place your abode; this is non-abiding within abiding. This requires us to see more deeply into the profound subtleties of attachment, that is, of standing, seeking solidity, and turning away from what is real. So this is how we practice the vastness, magnanimity, and courage of the bodhisattva practicing Prajnaparamita. And I think it’s marvelous and important to really take into our heart what the Buddha is saying here about a Bodhisattva who does not become afraid. Why is he offering this teaching? Because we will be afraid, because we are afraid.
Every teaching about virtue, about the great qualities of an enlightened being, is being taught because we will need those virtues in the moment when they seem to be absent. These teachings are directly addressing our own fear, our own impatience, our own stinginess. And so how do we practice such vastness? The Paramitas, or the Great Perfections: giving, morality, the Sila, vigor, zazen, wisdom, patience.
In the sutra it says: “It is because Prajnaparamita, the Mother of all Buddhas has dedicated wholesome roots to deep wisdom that the Perfection of Wisdom controls, guides and leads the five perfections.” So Prajnaparamita is what enables the other five perfections to be Paramitas, the wisdom practices of the bodhisattva. Otherwise it’s just giving, it’s just morality, it’s just patience, it’s just vigor, it’s just meditation. But it’s not Prajna giving, Prajna morality, Prajna patience. And so he’s saying that the Perfection of Wisdom is what guides and leads the five perfections to Prajnaparamita itself. The five perfections are thus contained in Prajnaparamita. And Perfection of Wisdom is just a synonym, just a way of talking or describing the fulfillment of these six perfections. It is the Perfection of Wisdom that guides the student when they give a gift, when we practice morality, when we guard our patience, when we exert ourselves with vigor, when we enter into Samadhi, when we gain insight. It’s the functioning of Prajna that is functioning right in that moment, that is allowing that to happen. So we practice living Prajnaparamita, and gain life from the Mother of all Buddhas. And through our efforts, we give life so that this profound wisdom tradition may last long and not be destroyed, so that Mara and his host may not prevent this Perfection of Wisdom from being taught, from being written and practiced. So it is not cut off.
In the same way that we can learn about love by being loved by our mother, the mother of all Buddhas teaches us how to have compassion by being given compassion, by being regarded with compassion, by the Perfection of Wisdom itself, by the teachings. We’re given practices and teachings that encourage us to practice giving in a new way, selflessly, without attachment, without suffering. But since Prajnaparamita is not perfectly realized, self arises as our attachments persist. This is okay, it’s not a problem. Be vast, contain the multitude, and practice giving when greedy, patience when impatient, and vigor when lazy. There is no hindrance in the mind when we don’t hold one thing against another. And so each and every moment of sincere practice is a moment of letting go, of awareness, of moving closer to selflessness, of living Prajnaparamita. Training together is just this: giving to self and other.
We practice morality, affirming life, being generous, loving words, mutual respect, a clear mind—which is both a very compassionate way to be towards oneself and towards each other. When it’s based in non-duality—the unity of all things—it is Prajnaparamita. And then we realize we don’t have to defend and protect. We can fall down and we can stand up. We practice morality. We practice patience, allowing things to unfold in their own time. Without trying to control, without trying to force and yet being very diligent. Do your own work. Don’t be passive. Don’t sit and wait. Do your own work. Be patient, let time be your ally, not an enemy.
We practice vigor, which has a great spirit, a lightness and bright enthusiasm. It’s moving towards a natural love for the Dharma, an interest in and for life, for people, for work, even for encountering barriers. Even when it’s difficult there’s an enthusiasm for encounter- ing that barrier. There is a spiritedness, a sense of confidence that is building. We practice zazen, manifesting Buddha mind, the “essential art,” as Dogen says. We practice no suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path, no wisdom and no gain. No gain and so it is the bodhisattva lives Prajnaparamita, the Mother of all Buddhas, this great equality, this great compassion, this great love which is not dependent upon emotion. It’s not dependent upon personality. It’s not dependent upon sentiments. But it’s not void of those either; it is complete with heart.
In reflecting on our presidential campaign and the onslaught of misogyny, the sexism, the hateful words, actions, views, and intentions, we can see how, within a hateful mind state, walls and boundaries are created and believed in. We can see how discriminating conscious- ness and deluded views are a kind of insanity, a break from basic reality. Every man who is disrespectful or abusive towards women has a mother, has his life only because of a woman. How is it that a man can have a mother and love his mother deeply, can have sisters, a wife and daughters, and at the same time—in the same mind—be hateful, misogynistic, and disregarding of women. What kind of love for one woman—one’s mother—is it, when one hates or is disrespectful towards other women? What kind of compassion is possible towards all people when I’m hateful towards certain groups of people? Is this real love and compassion?
I was wondering how sexual attraction in a man could be mistaken as love for women when it may not be love at all. It may not even be liking women, much less respecting and valuing women as equals, as complete human beings, as powerful and wise beings. While all beings are equal in Buddha nature, we are not born equal into the world. We’re not seen equally by the world which means we’re not treated equally by the world. Being equal doesn’t mean that we all have the same relative capacity. Everyone does not have an equal capacity to be a concert pianist, or to be a football linebacker, or mother of children. But each and every person is equal in having one nature, Buddha nature. Thus the bodhisattva has a vow to meet each person equally, and not just in some cold, abstract sense of equality, but enthusiastically, joyfully, respectfully, and lovingly. This is the love or compassion of the Mother of All Buddhas; to want each person to be all and anything and everything they want to be so that they can realize Prajnaparamita. And so to have compassion for all beings, for men to have compassion for women means liking women, respecting women, enjoying their company as friends, as companions, as coworkers. Appreciating their minds, intellects, insights, and perspectives. Respecting women as examples, as enlightened teachers and great sources of inspiration, as presidents, as heroes. It’s so natural.
Then where does disrespect come from? If equality is our essential nature, and goodness our basic inclination, how does disregard, violence, and hatefulness arise? What are those walls and boundaries, those views, that create such madnesses that become a way of being, a culture, a legacy, a history. And, importantly, how does that get transformed into enlightened compassion within a society, within a whole world? Well, how does our own individual delusion get transformed? Through every form of practice possible. Through every path that has both wisdom and intelligence, every upaya, every possibility. And so, if we only have access to the surface, work on the surface. If we have access to the middle, work in the middle. If you have access to the depths, work in the depths. To turn all of our anxieties, our insecurities, our madnessess, our delusions into compassion and nondual wisdom.To understand that just as we are vast and contain the universe, so too does every being.
In basic terms, this means working on both the inner and outer levels. If we try to cultivate compassion, calm the mind and realize prajna in our zazen practice, while our daily lives are filled with anger, agitation and fixed opinions, we are constantly fighting against ourselves. We need to let both inner and outer reflect each other more equally. So too with larger social issues, such as sexism and racism. We must work on our individual attitudes, values, and beliefs, while also changing our laws, schools, businesses and governments.
What becomes so clear as we practice the Way is that we have to be courageous. We need to be brave so we can practice and manifest wisdom and compassion not just for ourselves but for every person and thing. The vow of the Mother of All Buddhas is a Great Vow. This means a deep, heartfelt desire for others’ well-being, which arises from the suffering we feel when others are suffering. Another way of saying this is that each and every person is just simply deserving of the entirety because they are the entirety. In our daily lives and in our society this means offering each and every being the essential dignity, respect, compas- sion, and vastness of possibility that is equal to their basic nature. For me, this means that I make a personal commitment to seeing deeply within myself where I may hold back, obstruct, and not encourage all that is good in and for you and everyone. The Mother of all Buddhas is Dharma, is Woman, is Man, is Universe, is Earth, is you.
The Great Mother–
the giver of life–
she calls you home,
so you might take your rightful place
in intimate communication beyond all-knowing.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei is the head of the Mountains and River Order and the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City.