Prajñaparamita Literature

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One of the earliest records of the MhĀyĀna school's discourse in Indian Buddhism is to be found in the family of texts known as the Prajñāpāramitā, often translated as "Perfection of Wisdom." These texts appear in several forms. Some were similar in content but were characterized by expansion. Titles were later added to these expansions, based on the length of each. The oldest of this group was designated as 8,000 lines and the largest as 100,000. There were those numbering 18,000 and 25,000 lines. Another group of texts was formed in the opposite fashion, by contraction. The great length of the earlier texts created problems of how to preserve and use documents that covered hundreds of palm leaves or strips of birch bark. One solution was to look for ways to present the core of the teaching in shortened formats. Out of this grew the texts that are most often recited in monasteries and Buddhist ceremonies in East Asia, the so-called Diamond SŪtra and Heart SŪtra. One further development was added by the tantric movement. In this form, mantras and dhĀraṆĪ dominated, and the smallest of the contractions appeared in which the doctrine of the Prajñāpāramitā was contained in the single letter A.

There is very little known about the community of monastics who produced these texts that were to become a primary source for Mahāyāna development. The lack of inscriptions, archeological finds, and mixed reports from early Chinese pilgrims suggest that the documents were not the result of a large institutional structure. From internal evidence within the texts that gave high praise to the practice of making written copies, it may be that this discourse was transmitted mainly through the emerging technology of writing. The early years of Buddhism, after the time of the Buddha, was based on an oral tradition and a large organization of monasteries. The use of written manuscripts may have allowed a small group to disseminate these particular ideas without reliance on more traditional oral methods.

Within the texts, the teaching is mainly done through the use of dialogue between well-known figures, including the Buddha and his major followers. The subject matter revolves around long established debates over the nature of perception and cognition. The list of terms seldom varies from the Mātṛkā (seed) categories set up in the abhidharma groups. The innovation found in the Prajñāpāramitā is the emphasis given to the momentary and unique nature of each moment of cognition and the insights regarding this process achieved by a special group of adepts known as bodhisattvas.

See also:Sanskrit, Buddhist Literature in


Conze, Edward. The Prajñāpāramitā Literature. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1960.

Conze, Edward, trans. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and Its Verse Summary. Bolinas, CA: Four Seasons Foundation, 1973.

Lancaster, Lewis, ed., and Gómez, Luis, assoc. ed. Prajñāpāramitā and Related Systems: Studies in Honor of Edward Conze. Berkeley: University of California Regents, 1977.

Lopez, Donald S. Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sūtra. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Lewis Lancaster