PRAJNA-PARAMITA THOUGHT AND CHINESE CH'AN

-by Venerable Shih Hiu Wan

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     Perfect wisdom and benevolence compassion, the two wheels of the prajna paramita pertaining to the absolute and the relative level of truth respectively, and the three aspects of reality, to wit substance, characteristic, and function, unstained themselves and interpenetrating by their empty nature, constitute the purifying prajna paramita. There is no conceptualizing knowledge to be found in the perfection of wisdom where irradiating regard for phenomena is possible from the viewpoint of emptiness. Prajna Piramita means experience and activity in their purest form. It is truth itself, the essence of self awareness.

1. THE1.THE DEVELOPMENT OF PRAJNA-PARAMITA THOUGHT IN CHINA

     Prajna-paramita is the mother of the Buddhas and the spiritual source whence all Buddhadharmas spring from. Therefore it is said to constitute the fundamentals of the entire canon (tripitaka). Whosoever studies Buddhism has to understand it, and unless one can grasp its meaning, one is unable to comprehend the other Mahayana scriptures. Though all important texts developed from Prajna-paramita thought, according to the doctrinal system of the T'ien-t'ai School(), an especially close relationship exists between the Lotus Sutra () and the Prajna paramita texts. As to the development of Prajna paramita thought in China, we have to pay attention to this pivotal correlation.

Besides his translations, of Prajna paramita texts, Kumarajiva ( 344-413) rendered the Lotus Sutra into Chinese. The former removes bewilderment, while the latter, even more important to the theoretical development of Chinese Buddhism, shows the absolute. Mere pursuit of the Prajna paramita entails one sided bias towards true emptiness()  . If one aims at evolving its great and wonderful function, one cannot do so without recourse to the profound Lotus sutra. It comprises all four modes of perfecting beings and therefore enhances the essence of the Prajna paramita, so that we may say the interrelation between these texts is a complementing and mutually illuminating one. The T'ien-t'ai School moreover holds in high esteem the instructions of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra () thus serving as a bright illustration of the main characteristic of Chinese Buddhist thought the balance of compassion, wisdom, and rules.

Buddhism may be divided into the Southern Tradition of Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma, and the Northern Tradition. The Southern Tradition emphasized that Prajna paramita which is common to the three vehicles of the sravaka, the pratyekabuddha, and the Bodhisattva. On the other hand, the Northern Tradition stresses the Prajna paramita peculiar to a Bodhisattva, that is the spirit of both compassion and wisdom. Three of the numerous Prajna paramita texts have been always highly revered in China: the Heart Sutra
(), the Vajra Sutra (), and the sutra of the Benevolent King Protecting the Country (), because they deal with mundane and supermundane dharmas in a most essential way.

The Chinese translations of the Prajna paramita literature began at a very early period supplying the foundation for the development of the Chinese Ch'an School (). Thus the flourishing of Mahayana meditation systems is closely related to Kumarajiva's translation work as well as the writings of his disciples, for example the "Treatise" by Seng-chao,(, 374-414). Yet the branches of the Ch'an School which prevailed from the late T'ang () dynasty up to the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1911) had nothing to do any longer with "original prajna paramita" and "fundamental prajna paramita." Original prajna paramita, to which the Buddha awoke" under the Bodhi tree, refers to the Buddha's mind; fundamental prajna paramita means the Buddha's word, that is the teachings he spread during the 49 years of his preaching life. To use the terminology of the T'ien-t'ai School, both correspond to the essential aspect and the aspect of compassionate expression respectively.

      Unbalanced emphasis on the Buddha's mind began only with the five branches of the Ch'an School after the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng ( 638-713). As a matter of fact, however, Prajna paramita is inseparably connected with study, reflection, and cultivation as well as sila, samadhi, and prajna.

2. PRAJNA-PARAMITA CH'AN AND SAMATHAVIPASYANA

The characteristic of the Buddhist teaching lies in its concept of Emptiness (sunyata) which is, developed from Prajna paramita. When Master Tai-hsu (, 1889-1948) remarks "Ch'an constitutes the special feature of Chinese Buddhism," we may point out that emptiness is the very source of ch'an. One is unable to practice dhyana and samadhi save one comprehends the truth of emptiness. For this reason, the Greater and Lesser Vehicles alike cultivate the learning' of prajna and emptiness. Hinayana, however, represents "one sided emptiness" (). Only Mahayana which advocates both personality and dharmas as being empty knows of "true emptiness and wonderful existence" ().

Buddhas are born from the Prajna paramita alone. Prajna itself is ch'an, is the Buddha nature. Provisionally rendered as "wonderful wisdom," it is related to ch'an tike the palm and back of one and the same hand are. Thus, no matter which Buddhist school one is researching in, due attention to the Prajna paramita proves indispensable; no matter the teachings of which school one follows in one's cultivation, the practice of ch'an remains the core. This fact rests in the practice oriented character of the Buddhist teaching that is rooted in practice itself and never devoted to mere theorizing.

Samatha and vipasyana, under which ch'an can be subsumed, were subjects the Buddha frequently lectured upon. Constituting methods to calm the mind and to contemplate in accordance with reality, they are designed to counteract and heal the very root of human suffering a confused and bewildered mind. In original Buddhism, the main contents of teaching comprised the actual practice of meditation (ch'an, that is, samatha-vipasyana) and the truth of emptiness which leads to the comprehension of prajna. Even the Abhidharma declares samatha-vipasyana to represent the fundamental spirit of Buddhism.

-to be continued next issue