The Prajnaparamita Sutras

The Wisdom Literature of Mahayana Buddhism

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Detail from 11th century Tibetan manuscript of Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Verses. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Prajnaparamita Sutras are among the oldest of the Mahayana Sutras and are the foundation of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. These venerable texts are found in both the Chinese Canon and Tibetan Canon of Buddhist scriptures.

Prajnaparamita means "perfection of wisdom," and the sutras counted as Prajnaparamita Sutras present the perfection of wisdom as the realization or direct experience of sunyata (emptiness).

 

Read More: Sunyata, or Emptiness: The Perfection of Wisdom

The several sutras of the Prajnaparamita Sutras vary from very long to very short and are often named according to the number of lines it takes to write them. So, one is the Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 Lines. Another is the Perfection of Wisdom in 20,000 Lines, and then 8,000 lines, and so on. The longest is the Satasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra, composed in 100,000 lines. The most well known of the wisdom sutras are the Diamond Sutra (also called "The Perfection of Wisdom in 300 Lines" and the Heart Sutra.

Origin of the Prajnaparamita Sutras

Mahayana Buddhist legend says that the Prajnaparamita Sutras were dictated by the historical Buddha to various disciples. But because the world was not ready for them, they were hidden until Nagarjuna (ca. 2nd century) discovered them in an underwater cave guarded by nagas. The "discovery" of the Prajnaparamita Sutras is considered the second of the Three Turnings of the Dharama Wheel.

 

However, scholars believe the oldest of the Prajnaparamita Sutras were written about 100 BCE, and some may date to as late as the 5th century CE. For the most part, the oldest surviving versions of these texts are Chinese translations that date from the early first millennium CE.

It is often taught within Buddhism that the longer Prajnaparamita sutras are the older ones, and the much briefer Diamond and Heart sutras were distilled from the longer texts.

 For some time historical scholars partly supported a "distillation" view, although recently this view has been challenged.

It has been thought the oldest of the wisdom sutras is the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra, also called The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines. A partial manuscript of the Astasahasrika was discovered that was radiocarbon dated to 75 CE, which speaks to its antiquity. And it was thought the Heart and Diamond sutras were composed between 300 and 500 CE, although more recent scholarship places the composition of the Heart and Diamond in the 2nd century CE. These dates are mostly based on the dates of translations and when citations of these sutras  appeared in Buddhist scholarship.

However, there is another school of thought that the Diamond Sutra is older than the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra. This is based on an analysis of contents of the two sutras. The Diamond seems to reflect an oral recitation tradition and describes the disciple Subhuti receiving teachings from the Buddha. Subhuti is the teacher in the Astasahasrika, however, and the text reflects a written, more literary tradition. Plus, some doctrines appear to be more developed in the Astasahasrika.

Bottom line, it's not settled exactly when these sutras were written, and the authors themselves are unknown. And while it was assumed for a long time they originally were written in India, more recent scholarship suggests that some of them may have originated in Gandhara. There is evidence an early school of Buddhism called Mahasanghika, a forerunner of Mahayana, possessed early versions of some of these sutras and may have developed them. But others may have originated with the Sthaviravadin school, a forerunner of today's Thervada Buddhism

Barring some invaluable archaeological discovery, the precise origins of the Prajnaparamita Sutras may never be known.

Significance of the Prajnaparamita Sutras

I have already mentioned Nagarjuna, who is the founder of a school of philosophy called Madhyamika.

Madhyamika clearly developed from the Prajnaparamita Sutras and might be understood as the Buddha's doctrine of anatta or anatman, "no self," taken to an unavoidable conclusion. 

Read More: Self? No Self? What's a Self?

In brief: all phenomena and beings are empty of self-nature and inter-exist, they are neither one nor many, neither individual nor indistinguishable. Because phenomena are empty of inherent characteristics, they are neither born nor destroyed; neither pure nor defiled; neither coming nor going. Because all beings inter-exist, we are not truly separate from each other. Truly realizing this is enlightenment and liberation from suffering.

Today the Prajnaparamita Sutras remain a visible part of Zen, much of Tibetan Buddhism, and other Mahayana schools.