Prajnaparamita – Luminous Mother of Perfect Wisdom

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She is the perfect wisdom that never comes into being
And therefore never goes out of being.
She is known as the Great Mother…
She is the Perfect Wisdom who gives birthless birth to all Buddhas.
And through these sublimely Awakened Ones,
It is Mother Prajnaparamita alone
Who runs the wheel of true teaching.

In the foundational body of Mahayana Literature known as the Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom texts, the highest metaphysical principle – the energy, glory, and radiance of enlightened wisdom – is envisioned as a cosmic female, the mother of knowledge, the source of all Buddhas. This goddess, known as Prajnaparamita is regarded  as the mother of all all beings who attain enlightenment, for it is her wisdom that engenders liberation. She is the supreme teacher and eternal font of revelation. All who seek illumination must sit at her feet and drink from the stream of teachings that flow from her presence. Thus, Prajnaparamita is the ultimate source of refuge and object of reverence, for only those who prize wisdom above all else may attain it. Even Buddhas and bodhisattvas pay homage to her, because to her they owe their omniscience. To worship a Buddha, the relics of a Buddha, or a stupa is to honor what she has brought into being, to revere her is to directly worship the source.

“Just as philosophy is the queen of sciences, Prajnaparamita is the philosophiae regina, the Buddhist Sophia, a dazzling figure who represents the transcendent wisdom that crowns the intellectual and spiritual quest.”

In the wake of the contending schools of Abhidharma philosophy, mother Prajnaparamita arose to cast her serene, clear-sighted gaze of nondual wisdom over all disputants. Her luminous golden persona draws her devotees away from worldly attachments and into the encompassing splendor of her mystical mother light.

Origins

Prajnaparamita shares her name with the literature in which she appears, the philosophy which she is associated, and the knowledge she personifies. The text that introduces both the philosophy and the goddess “Prajnaparamita Sutra” took shape during the first two centuries of the common era. It is worth noting here the whispers circulating in and around China, word of ascetics with supernatural faculties roaming Tibet at this time:

Year 110 ce“Having become more aware of the world beyond China, the Chinese are hearing rumors about places of godliness and paradise where the climate is mild, where people are without sickness or disease and where people govern themselves. One such paradise is thought to be in the mountains of Tibet. There, it is said, waters give one immortality, one can climb a mountain peak and become a spirit with the power to control the wind and rain, or one can climb another nearby peak and ascend to heaven.”

The central importance and cosmic status of the wisdom mother at her earliest appearance are surprising given the apparent swiftness with which she rose on the Mahayana horizon. Nothing in the female figures who preceded her would foreshadow such a development. Her female forebears were divinities associated with nature and its fecundating powers, such as tree spirits (yaksini), Bhudevi, and the worldly deity Laksmi. There is little in these goddesses of earthly provenance, however benevolent and auspicious they might be, to foretell the radiant entity of pure spirit and wisdom that is Prajnaparamita. The goddess, like the philosophy with which she is associated appears to represent a revolutionary shift in Buddhist consciousness.

Although Prajnaparamita, like her namesake wisdom, is said to transcend all categories, she has the trait of gender, a femaleness is central to her character. There are deep metaphorical resonances between motherhood and the matrix of wisdom and reality she represents. If gender is to be assigned to a generative principle, the feminine gender is a logical choice, for the womb is the most tangible source of generation in human experience. Just as male bodies derive biologically from female ones, it stands to follow in the religious sphere that male Buddhas would have a female source. Thus, the femaleness of Prajnaparamita carries the force of logic and observation.

Mother of All Buddhas

One of the main titles and roles of Prajnaparamita is that of “Mother of All Buddhas”. This theme, one of the guiding principles of the sutra’s text, is introduced in an opening verse:

The Buddhas in the world-systems in the ten directions
Bring to mind this Perfection of Wisdom as their mother.
The saviors of the world who were in the past,
And also those that are now in the ten directions,
Have issued from her, and so will the future ones be.
She is the one who reveals reality,
She is the genetrix, the mother of the victorious ones.

The work restates in numerous ways that Prajnaparamita is the begetter of all Buddhas because she is the source of the omniscience that qualifies them as Buddhas, or Tathagatas, “those who have gone to reality”: The All-knowledge of the Tathagatas has come forth from her… it is in this sense that The Perfection of Wisdom generates Tathagatas.

As the wisdom that makes possible the attainment of Buddhahood, Prajnaparamita is an enduring reality, whereas her children, are ephemeral and illusory. Prajnaparamita, Mother of the Buddhas, is the… sole reality. The emanation bodies of Buddhas and bodhisattvas appear and disappear, whereas the wisdom light of Mother Prajnaparamita is always shining. Buddhas cannot bring themselves into being but “owe their existence” to her. Thus, this philosophy accords primacy to the source – the metaphorical birthgiver – rather than to its fruits, extending the reassurance that even if a given Buddha and his teachings pass away, the mother abides and will birth more illumined children.

The text develops the metaphor of motherhood at length. Just as mothers extend comfort and safety to their children, Prajnaparamita is the shelter, defense, and protection of the seeker of wisdom. Just as parents guide their children in morality; she is the source of all virtues, or perfections of character. She nurtures her progeny by providing the knowledge they require to fulfill their highest destiny, namely to understand the nature of reality and dedicate themselves to the welfare and liberation of all beings. Children naturally adore such a mother, seek to protect her from harm, and strive to bring her happiness:

“They would therefore look after her, give her everything that could make her happy, protect her well, make much of her… in just this same way… fond are the Tathagatas of this Perfection of Wisdom, so much do they cherish and protect it. For she is their mother and begetter, she showed them this all-knowledge, she instructed them in the ways of the world.”

It is incumbent on the offspring of such a mother not only to honor and cherish her but to remember and transmit what she has taught them.

Prajnaparamita’s motherhood devolves upon her role as the source of the wisdom that generates Buddhas. Therefore, she is celebrated as the ultimate teacher – the beacon, torch, and instructor of those who seek  liberating insight. She reveals the world as it is, the end goal of all religious instruction. Thus she is the teacher of teachers, the guide of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas as they lead others. She is the ‘inexhaustible storehouse’ of truth that is given voice by all Buddhas of the past, present, and future. When Buddhas teach, Prajnaparamita is the source and content of their teachings. As the fount of all truth, it is she who sets in motion the wheel of Dharma.

Thus a Buddha may teach for the duration of a single lifetime, or even in myriad worlds and aeons, but the teachings of mother Prajnaparamita flow for all eternity. Because she is eternal, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas will always have guidance and assistance. This is why, even in the absence of a human teacher, or in a world or era not graced by the presence of Buddhism, a questing spirit may discover the truth and reveal the path to freedom anew.

References: Buddhist Goddesses of India – Miranda Shaw