Tuesday, July 17, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: "Perfect Wisdom" by Edward Conze

"Perfect Wisdom" by Edward Conze is a collection of the "short" Prajnaparamita (Perfect Wisdom) texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Conze was the foremost translator of the Prajnaparamita literature into English. I had already read "The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom,"  his extraordinary translation of the large recensions (versions) of the Prajnaparamita. Despite it being an 800 plus page, incredibly dense and deep text, having read it first, made "Perfect Wisdom" - the collection of the short texts - much more accessible. I wonder whether people reading it in the opposite order would get as much out of the short texts not having the fully expounded large text already floating around in their heads? (note: Amazon has the title wrong which makes it hard to search for, the link is above)

Let's do a quick overview of what the Prajnaparamita literature is before talking more about its presentation in "Perfect Wisdom." Prajnaparamita literature is a large part of the canonical Mahayana Buddhist literature and is chiefly concerned with two things: 1) the importance of the bodhisattva path and 2) that nothing as an own-being. I'll talk more later about these two things after reviewing "Perfect Wisdom." The Prajnaparamita literature exists as many different length texts all making those two points. In "The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom," Conze works through the recensions in 100,000, 25,000, 18,000 and 10,000 lines as they are known and integrates them into a consistent singular text. The book I'm reviewing today, "Perfect Wisdom," covers the well known and loved Diamond and Heart Sutras as well as the Perfection of Wisdom in 700 lines, 500 lines, A Few Words, 50 lines, 150 lines, One Letter, and many other short texts. His introduction places the combination of these two books as covering the vast majority of recognized Prajnaparamita literature.

Where this book excelled was in presenting 19 (by my count) shorter sutras on the Perfection of Wisdom themes in one place. Conze's translations are always very readable and I love how when he runs into truly corrupted text (text that cannot be accurately translated from any reliable source) he just says so and may even just leave a ...?... to let you know, rather than faking it and adding in his own subjective view. He was an active practitioner of Buddhism and a consummate scholar first and foremost and in these writings, he presents text that is rendered as neutrally as possible for scholarly purposes but as readable as possible for those embracing the thought growing potential of the Prajnaparamita.

Where this book, and "The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom" struggle are for exactly the same things that are their assets: the plain and neutral presentation. There is no commentary, there is no discussion, there is no attempt to make meaning from potentially ambiguous, contradictory, or just plain difficult passages. What few notes Conze provides are there as translation notes, how he made the translations he made and the text he used to make it, but nothing about what that translation might mean. This is not a criticism of the book, just a limitation.

Having read "The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom" nearly a year earlier, and spending a great deal of time reflecting on it, I was able to take that growing understanding into "Perfect Wisdom." All the themes in the large sutra were present in various sutras within "Prefect Wisdom" but I feel as though someone just starting with "Perfect Wisdom" would be unlikely to get the same depth of understanding, and also simplicity of understanding, without the intensity of the large sutra first. I also went into this knowing the reputation of the Diamond and Heart sutras but didn't feel they were particularly extraordinary in context. However, I would love to read commentary editions that may elucidate this more. It's also possible that since the large sutra is an expounding in depth on those other two, that it served as the commentary itself.

So that being said, should you read this? Well, it probably shouldn't be the first book of Buddhist scripture you read.  I read many many before hand and was grateful for it. Where should you start? You can't go wrong with the first and second discourses. I love the Tathagatagharba sutra myself, and I also enjoyed the Threefold Lotus Sutra and Lankavatara sutras. I read several compilations of sutra pieces and a handful of commentaries. All of these I think gave me a better background from which to read "The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom" which then gave me a good foundation to read "Perfect Wisdom." However, your mileage and needs may vary and that's okay. There is no right order, and all these texts should be returned to again and again over a lifetime. Also, as the Buddha frequently said, the words (spoken or on the page) are not the truth, are not the Dharma (with the capital D), they are merely expressions of possible pathways to lead one closer to the lived experience that is the true Dharma. Therefore, as long as you're reading it and thinking about it and trying to put it into the practice of life, it will have immeasurable value. So, in our conventional reality, I'd give this a 7/10 "Recommended" but with some reservations in that it provides no commentary and so is not an accessible entry point. It is also limited in scope compared to the large sutra. It is however very readable and covers a very important body of Mahayana literature.

So, now that we've reviewed the book, here's a quick overview of what the heck the Prajnaparamita
literature is all about (for those I haven't scared away yet). Prajnaparamita literature is part of the Mahayana traditions of northern and eastern Buddhism such as Tibetan and Zen Buddhism.

The first of the two main characteristics of Prajnaparamita literature is the focus on the bodhisattva path. A bodhisattva is an individual who has attained enlightenment but has delayed their final death in order to assist all sentient beings with release from suffering and reaching their own enlightenment. The Prajnaparamita literature is largely targeted at helping bodhisattvas understand their role, their vow, and the ultimate truth needed to release beings from suffering.

The second characteristic of the Prajnaparamita is defining that ultimate truth. As said above, the Buddha was very clear that no written or spoken statements are the ultimate truth. That truth is a lived experience in every moment of every day. However, to arrive at that ultimate truth, the Prajnaparamita literature focuses on helping individuals let go of the idea of an own-being (or the emptiness of own-being). Own-being is defined as an inherent, immutable aspect of any "thing" that gives it the ability to be distinguished ("discriminated") from anything else - also described as an eternal and permanent aspect of a thing. The Prajnaparamita works through many thought processes to help individuals let go of that concept and instead recognize that there is no own-being (or that everything's own-being is empty) .

So where does that lead? I like to bring everything back to the four truths, the first being: "This is suffering." Our goal then should be to work to release that suffering, and that is the heart of the bodhisattva's purpose. The second truth is "This is the cause of suffering." And that is where letting go of own-being becomes essential. We suffer (or are dissatisfied) because we have desire (or clinging or attachment). We suffer and are dissatisfied when something isn't as we want it to be, we don't get something, we do get it but it breaks or leaves us, it wasn't what we expected, it dies, it doesn't like us, etc...These are results of us trying to make distinctions (what in the Prajnaparamita literature are frequently referred to as discriminations) between things. "I want this not that" or "They died, I wanted them to live forever."

When we recognize that nothing has an own-being (or that own-being is empty) then we are able to stop discriminating. There is no difference between "this" and "that" there is no difference between dying today or dying tomorrow. But, we see and hear and smell and taste and feel differences all the time, so how can everything be the same? This is where the Prajnaparamita literature reflects back on what is known as the Two Truths Doctrine.

The Two Truths Doctrine says there is a conventional reality (that which our senses observe) and an ultimate reality. It is this ultimate reality where there is no distinction. To arrive at this, we move beyond seeing an object as a fixed entity (possessing an own-being) to being dependently originated and a result of causes and conditions. Everything is made of smaller things, but not just atoms (which themselves have proven divisible) but also time and effort, thought and planning, the impact of outside forces on their growth or change over time, etc...The classic example is the table. It could just be a table (conventional reality) or it could be the wood it is made of, the sunlight and nutrients that tree used to grow, the planning and effort of the person who cut the wood and built the table, the love and experiences that person had growing up, and forever backwards infinitely. At this point, the ultimate reality is that it isn't a table at all, that it is everything that has ever existed,  and that it isn't able to be distinguished from anything else in existence.

So let's say you buy into this emptiness of own-being. What to do with it? The Prajnaparamita literature, particularly more so in "The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom" spends a great deal of time on Suchness or Thusness. This concept is certainly related to mindfulness in that we are mindful so that we can exist in a state of recognizing suchness/thusness at all times. Suchness is the present present (that was not a typo). It was best described to me as that feeling you get when you say: "Ah, yes, this is just as it is supposed to be." For me, that happens in the spring and fall, when I walk out in the early morning as the sun is low in the sky, the air still a bit chill, dew on the grass, the leaves just budding or near falling off, everything is still, and the warm orange light of the sun hits my face. I got a shiver just writing about it. You may experience suchness when you feel the warm softness of a baby's skin and say "Ah, yes, this is just as it is supposed to be." If we can get to the point of spending every moment of our existence recognizing that we are always in suchness,  what a miraculous way to end our suffering.

When we cling to own-being within objects or time, we cannot recognize their suchness, we are not living in suchness because we are always thinking about what they are not, what they weren't before, what they won't be in the future, etc...by releasing our view of the world as conventional (based solely on senses and the discriminations that leads to) and instead looking at the ultimate reality, a reality empty of own-being, then we give ourselves the chance to live in suchness and without suffering. Nothing about suchness says to deny what your senses sense, but simply to take those sensations and stop discriminating "good" from "bad," "wanted" from "unwanted," etc... and say "yes, that sensation is exactly as it is supposed to be." (this gets us into some of Nagarjuna's work on since everything is empty of own-being, including ultimate reality, all we have is conventional reality, and thus our experience of suchness comes with non-discrimination within conventional reality...but that's for another day - I'm still working through it too!)

The Prajnaparamita takes volumes to explore these two simple points: 1) work for the release of suffering of all beings and 2) nothing has an own-being (own-being is empty), the realization of this can allow you to begin living in suchness and releasing yourself from suffering such that you may teach and guide others in their release from suffering.

For that, I'm giving the Prajnaparamita a 10/10!

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