Maha-Prajna-Paramita: the Mother of Buddhas

(Evidently, this post is part of a series-in-the-making regarding Chinese Buddhist liturgy.)

As I am becoming more familiar, and thereby more comfortable, with the daily chanting and liturgy here at Dharma Drum Mountain, some very interesting aspects of the ceremonial words and movements are becoming a bit more clear. Although I say this, I still very much appreciate how tad-pole like I can feel in these ceremonies, when swimming all around this vast body of water are great creatures of the deep.

One of these interesting aspects that has captured my attention and is inspiring my practice in recent weeks is an unassuming element of Morning Service that, for many non-Chinese, may seem tedious and even painful-to-endure in some ways. Well, at least it has been for me.

At a certain point during Morning Service, after the community finishes chanting the Heart Sutra, we take a few minutes to chant what in Sanskrit is “Maha-prajna-paramita” three times. In the Chinese transliteration, this sounds more like “Mohe-boureh-bouloumi-tuo.” And although is follows the Heart Sutra, this really is a stand-alone chant; something that is important enough to stop, slow down, and chant very slowly. So slowly, it is sometimes agonizingly slow for some of us (i.e. me), and a person (i.e. I) can easily get lost in which phonetic sound you are chanting because it is so slow. But, that’s another matter.

Here is the audio part in Morning Service, if you’d like to listen to it: Maha-prajna-paramita.

It is just over three and a half minutes, and it is a bit quicker than how we chant it each morning these days. It is also quite different from the Great Compassion Mantra I posted a couple of weeks ago. 

As far as I can tell, this chanting of Maha-prajna-paramita is part of East Asian Buddhist liturgical traditions (China, Japan, Korea; I do not know about Vietnam or Tibetan traditions).

Although I have struggled with this part of Morning Service here at DDM because of its pace (or lack of it), I am beginning to wake up to the spiritual significance of these words and their placement in Morning Service. What I am finding for myself, in short, is that this aspect of the morning chanting is something that is pregnant with meaning and energy. I will not be able to communicate the full magnitude of what these words mean, or even offer much of a summary, as they express something very profound in Buddhist teaching and practice. Hopefully, however, I might be able to hint a bit at it.

The words “Maha-prajna-paramita” can basically be translated into English as “Great Perfection of Wisdom“: Maha = great; Prajna = wisdom; and Paramita = perfection (as in perfecting a virtue.)

Prajnaparamita, the Perfection of Wisdom, is a very important teaching in Asian Buddhism (Mahayana Buddhism), and it is also the name given to a vast collection of spiritual writings that were composed in India around the time of Jesus Christ. The core of these teachings is the teaching of Prajna, or wisdom: the wisdom that transcends all notions, concepts, and dualistic perceptions and pierces directly to the true character of all things, all experience, and all thoughts. In other, fairly simplified words, Prajna is the content of profound spiritual awakening.

What this Prajna actually is, and what a person “sees” who awakens to it, is usually glossed as “emptiness” in English. This is very unfortunate and difficult word in English, but it does seem to be the best word available to point toward this spiritual wisdom. The Sanskrit word for emptiness is “sunyata,” which, quite literally, means emptiness, or the state of being empty. In Chinese, this is 空 (kōng), which is also the first character in my monastic name: 空目 or Kōng-Mù, with mù meaning “eye.” 空 is also the character used for “sky” as well as in the phrase, 你有空嗎?Do you have free time?

Though it sure sounds like it, emptiness is not nothingness; it is not a vacuum of hopelessness or complete negation of anything, including virtue. It is not that. It also does not mean the world is an illusion; a mere appearance with “reality” just behind the veil. Rather, emptiness is the profound capacity/ground/ability for all things to emerge (in perfected-ness), all things to function, all things to come to fruition, and all things to pass away. Indeed it is the actual function of things, thoughts, etc. Emptiness is the basis of impermanence, the basis of enlightenment, the basis of suffering, the basis of “I/me/mine”.

Things are “empty” of something lasting and independent, because things exist completely of other things that are impermanent and interdependent. And emptiness is “empty” of anything because to define it is to necessarily limit it; and emptiness, in the spiritual life, is unlimited and un-limitable. I’ll try to explain this a bit more later in the post, if you can wait that long.

 

Maha-prajna-paramita (the Great Perfection of Wisdom) has often been personified in Asian art as a richly adorned, fertile “goddess”-like being; though, many of the features exhibit both male and female characteristics. For example:

This fertile and quite voluptuous depiction is partly because Maha-prajna-paramita is considered the “Mother of all the Buddhas,” or that which gives birth to Buddhas. Buddhas arise from the Perfection of Wisdom; beings become Buddhas when Wisdom is Perfected. Therefore, Prajnaparamita is the womb and nurse-mother of Buddhas. This is one way devotees through the years have come to personify, and thereby worship, Prajna. In fact, emptiness is sometimes even described as a mother constantly giving birth; not only to Buddhas, but to everything we experience, including and especially “us”.

Voluptuousness aside, I find that chanting the words, Maha-prajna-paramita, or “Mohe-boureh-bouloumi-tuo“, during Morning Service also to be pregnant with spiritual significance. We are basically calling to mind, through liturgy, the refuge of emptiness: how emptiness is a true refuge in the spiritual life, as it allows for the transformation of the individual from ignorance to awakening. Because what prevents us from truly being happy is also “empty” of anything solid and permanent, we are able to move through suffering and into bliss. And, because emptiness functions through cause-and-effect, spiritual practice necessarily and inevitably leads to full awakening (at some point, maybe well off into the future; but awakening is assured.) In this way, I often think of emptiness as being akin to grace in Christianity: un-merited gifts that allow for and bring forth profound transformation; and how these things actually work, in spite of our best efforts.

Ok: for those intrepid readers who have made it this far through this post, and who may not have the slightest inking as to what I’m fumbling around about, I’d like to offer two ways to maybe get a sense of emptiness:

First, think of an apple in your kitchen. Now think of all the necessary elements, processes, nutrients, conditions, and factors that go into making that apple an apple in your kitchen: light, soil, tree, water, seed, pruning, harvest, trucks, money, work, labor, clothes (for the laborers, etc), gas (for the trucks, etc.), marketing, store clerks, kitchen, …etc. And also think about all those elements that go into making the soil, tree, water, trucks, etc., into soil, tree, water, trucks, etc. Is there, then, really anything that can be called an “apple” that is apart from these infinite and myriad elements and conditions? If we think clearly and honestly, the answer has to be “no”: an apple is made up completely of non-apple elements. So, it is “empty” of anything that can be called an apple. Yet, it is full of everything that creates what we call an apple, which are all also empty of anything other than everything else.

Pretty clear, right.

Uh, well, maybe not.

Ok, here’s the other way to contemplate emptiness. Consider time. Specifically, think about the moment that just passed: when you eyes first reached the words “just passed.” Where did it go? Where is the “past” stored? Is it anywhere, no where, everywhere? This is impermanence: the fact that nothing ever stays the same for any moment, because things never are the same for any moment. This, too, is emptiness: how everything is constantly giving birth into something else; discarding, transforming, evolving, moving…simultaneously.

So, emptiness can be contemplated both from time (impermanence) and space (infinite interdependent conditions), or both at the same time. Emptiness is not something separate from ourselves, our everyday experience. In fact, all of what we consider “us” and everyday experience is nothing other than emptiness itself: this is how emptiness appears, functions, and is seen in the world (the famous “form is emptiness and emptiness is form” from the Heart Sutra.) And, when awakened to emptiness, a person (evidently) sees the same world we do, but it is the eyes themselves and the mind that sees that have profoundly changed.

And, although I have thus far spent almost 1,500 words trying to, it is impossible to actually talk about Prajna, emptiness, or sunyata. These are all just words, just concepts; they all point to something profoundly other than what we take to be solid truths. In fact, one cannot actually talk about them because they far surpass the limits of language. One can, instead, only circle around them; like the proverbial moth around a flame, or like a writer struggling to find the right idea, or thought, or…um….or phrase, …or expression, or something….

To finally sum up, then: I find the chanting of the name of emptiness to be a very significant and inspiring aspect of Morning Service, where one is directly naming the source of refuge and the ground of awakening. It is something very interesting and difficult to explain. I originally thought of writing this post earlier in the week, and wondered what I was going to say. What I have said, I will say, wasn’t what I intended to say. But, there you go. Needless to say, there is much more written about emptiness that is much more helpful than what is here.

With apologize for confusion or worry this may cause. Please know, however, that all of this is profoundly good. Very, very good. No matter who or where we are.

I also apologize for the possible excessive references to the birthing process. Maybe it is because the analogy is fairly apt; or maybe because my sister-in-law is about to deliver a baby girl in July. Either way, please do not take me that seriously….or yourselves for that matter.

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