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Buddhadharma : Summer 2011
buddhadharma| 83 |winter 2005 ifirst read The Perfection of Wisdom in tempestuous times. Comet Kahoutec had swung close but, somehow, against the predictions of certain people, missed destroying planet Earth. Patty Hearst had been kidnapped. The Symbionese Liberation Army was being incinerated in a Los Angeles hideout and shown on television. Richard Nixon had just resigned the presidency, or was about to. Watergate was in the air. Peyote but- tons were in town, giving Perfect Wisdom their own gentle North American stamp of authenticity. Perfect Wisdom was open- ing her vast mind-spaces to many of us in the meditation hall. And poetry seemed the most exciting, the most elegant, way to live. A professor, and later a dear friend, Bhuwan Joshi introduced me to the book when I was an undergraduate at University of California, Santa Cruz, in the mid-1970’s. Bhuwan had grown up in Kathmandu and took to both Buddhist the Book, the teachings, the lady and Hindu texts as to the mountains of his native valley. When he opened one of the old books for students, it felt as though he was walking you through a region of the North American landscape that you’d long heard of but never taken the time to explore. This was the first Buddhist book that resembled home ground or native terrain to me. Bhuwan and I would sit in his yard under the shade of the eucalyptus trees. Our conversations, and this book, set me toward a lifelong encounter with Buddhist ideas. As a poet, I felt an instant attraction to prajnaparamita, a Sanskrit phrase mean- ing “perfection of wisdom.” I should say that the Perfection of Wisdom is not easily defined. First, it is a constellation of texts that began to appear 2,000 years ago in India and along the Silk Road. These sutras represent the “second turning of the wheel” by Shakyamuni Buddha, as he introduced a great ecological vision: all creatures are interconnected through birth and death, and nobody has an indepen- dent existence. Second, the Perfection of Wisdom refers to the teachings recorded in these sutras – a way of life embedded in words but not dependent on them. Third, for at least a few hundred years in Buddhist India, Wisdom was an embod- ied figure, a direct manifestation of one’s own wisest heart. The texts refer to her as Mother of Buddhas and Womb of the Bodhisattva. Her image usually appears on the wooden covers of the old Asian banana leaf or paper manuscripts, and several large statues of her are exquisitely formed. A renowned one is housed in the British Museum in London. Of the texts or books known as Perfect Wisdom, which is the oldest? Many think this one, which in its original Sanskrit occurs in 8,000 lines. From here the teachings expand outward – there are ver- sions in 25,000 lines and 100,000 lines. Simultaneously, the book, the teachings, the lady, get condensed or concentrated. There is the Diamond Sutra (Perfect Wisdom in 300 lines), the Heart Sutra (in 25 lines), and many other Perfect Wisdom texts, mostly known by the number of lines or verses in Sanskrit. The most com- pact of all, the Perfection of Wisdom in one syllable, may be my favorite. It is simply this: Ah! How can I convey the teachings of this mind-crackling 8,000-line book, the ear- liest of the group? A qualified Buddhist teacher could provide an account. I want to get at something different though – something animistic, or a bit dharma classic anDRew schelling is a PoeT, essayisT, anD TRanslaToR of The PoeTRy of classical inDia. he is eDiToR of The wisDom anThology of noRTh ameRican buDDhisT PoeTRy anD a PRofessoR of wRiTing anD PoeTics aT naRoPa univeRsiTy in boulDeR, coloRaDo. the PerFection oF wisdom in eight thousand lines & its Verse summary translated by edward conze Four seasons Foundation, 1973 Reviewed by andRew schelling