A Brief Introduction of The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras

Over two thousand and six hundred years ago, the Lord Buddha, out of great compassion for all sentient beings, turned the wheel of dharma three times at different places. His first first turning was at Sarnath and was about Sravakayana teachings. The second turning which took place at the Vulture peak in Rajgriha chiefly concerned the Mahayana teachings on the Perfection of Wisdom aka. Prajnaparamita in Sanskrit and Sherab kyi pha rol tu chyin pa (Sherchyin) or simply Yum in Tibetan.

It is said that the Lord Buddha taught eighty four aggregates of Dharma teachings just for the sake of the perfection of wisdom. Only this teaching can lead one to become perfectly enlightened Buddha by realizing emptiness (Skt: Sunyata; Tib: tong pa nyi) of both self (Skt: pudgala nairatmya; Tib: gang zag dag me) and all phenomena (Skt: dharma nairatmya; Tib: chökyi dag me). That’s why Prajnaparamita is also called ‘the mother of all Buddhas (Skt: Sarvabuddhajanani). The Tibetans simply call it Yum or mother.

After parinirvana of Lord Buddha, Prajnaparamita sutras and other teachings of skilfull means were hidden very carefully by Bodhisattvas like Manjusri, Maitreya, Vajrapani, Samantabhadra, and also in the naga realms by Nagas because it was not timely and appropriate for them to be disclosed publicly at that time in that people were still not fit or qualified enough for receiving them. But these teachings spread very confidentially from masters to disciples in the then Indian Subcontinent until Bodhisattva Manjusri concealed a text of the perfection of wisdom in eight thousand lines or verses (Skt: Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita; Tib: Gya tong pa) in a palace in India.

Later in the early second century, Acarya Nagarjuna procured the perfection of wisdom in one hundred thousand lines (Skt: Satasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra; Tib: Bum), from the Naga realm. But the text he got was an incomplete one. So he added two chapters from the already existing Astasasrika to make it all perfect. Later, gradually all the short and longer versions of Prajnaparamita sutras began to appear. The language used in the Prajnaparamita litarature is Hybrid Sanskrit which is principally a type of Sanskrit with a mixture of Pali, Prakrit, Magadhi and other languages.

The Sanskrit Prajnaparamita Sutras were taken to Tibet and translated into Tibetan by Various Acaryas from Nalanda, Vikramasila and other monasteries in India between the period of the dharma kings like Thisong deutsan and Ralpacan in the first transmission of Buddhism and the early phases of Second transmission of Buddhism in Tibet. It was only in the fourteenth century that the Sakyapa Acarya Butön Rinpoche compiled them all into Kangyur and Tengyur in Zhalu monastery. In the aftermath of total destruction of Nalanda, Vikramasila and other monasteries by Muslims in the 12th-13th centuries, almost a majority of Mahayana Vajrayana Sanskrit texts were either set in fire or destroyed. But the surviving Panditas excaped Nepal with the quite a few of what remained which were later either purchased by Nepalese Vajracharyas or copied them in their vernaculars and have been preserved intact till today.

So fortunately the Prajnaparamita Sutra in almost all its versions are still extant in Sanskrit today due to the peerless efforts of Nepalese Buddhists. So in Newar Buddhist tradition, the Prajnaparamita is personified as a female mother deity and regarded as Dharma of the Triple Gem. In the Dharma mandala also, the Prajnaparamita sutra or Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra to be specific has its central place surrounded by eight other volumnious Mahayana Sutras, all in Sanskrit.

There is a cultic tradition among Newar Buddhists to simply worship the Prajnaparamita Sutras and have it recited on the regular basis by the Vajracharya priests to earn tremendous amount of merit inspite of their unability to understand their contents themselves.

The Tibetan translations of a majority of Mahayana Vajrayana Sanskrit texts are blessing in disguise at the time when a majority of Sanskrit Sarvastivadin and Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhist texts are no longer available in this world. The Tibetan translations of Prajnaparamita Literatures are the exact copy meaningwise and termwise of its Sanskrit counterpart due to the matchless and tremendous efforts of Tibetan trailblazers like Thunmi Sambhota who introduced Tibetan scripts in Tibet, Ralpacan, Kawa Paltseg, Yeshe De who left no stones unturned in revising, standardizing the Tibetan technical terms to perfectly match the Sanskrit ones by producing the masterpieces like Mahavyutpatti and others. So even if today, we no longer have access to most of the Buddhist Sanskrit texts, but there are Tibetan translations in Kangyur and Tengyur categories to perfectly compensate for them.