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  • Is “Illusion” a Prajñāpāramitā Creation?The Birth and Death of a Buddhist Cognitive Metaphor
  • Shi Huifeng

Cognitive Metaphorical Shock and Awe: “Even nirvāṇ a is like an illusion, like a dream?”

The Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, often translated into English as the “Perfection of Wisdom,” have often been raised as representatives of the literature of the Mahāyāna movement as a whole within modern Buddhist studies. While not the first Western scholar to study the Prajñāpāramitā, Edward Conze spent many decades in the second half of the twentieth century devoted to translation and research on the genre, rightly earning himself the reputation of being the foremost Western spokesperson for this body of literature. His translations from Sanskrit, with reference to the Tibetan, include the core texts of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, its verse summary the Ratnaguṇasamcaya Gāthā (hereafter “Rgs”), an eclectic version of the Aṣṭādaśasāhasrikā cum Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā based on a hodgepodge of various texts combined together, the Vajracchedikā “Diamond” and Hṛdaya “Heart,” as well as a number of lesser known smaller texts.1

In an article on “Mahāyāna Buddhism,” Conze gave much weight to the Prajñāpāramitā material in introducing the Mahāyāna as a whole.2 In explaining the notion of “Skill in Means” (upāya), and “the goal of [End Page 214] the Beyond,” after paraphrasing the “metaphor of the raft” from the Vajracchedikā, Conze cites a passage from the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, as follows:

In the Perfection of Wisdom the anxious gods ask the Venerable Subhūti: “Even Nirvāṇa, Holy Subhūti, you say is like an illusion, is like a dream?” and they receive this reply: “Even if perchance there could be anything more distinguished, of that also I would say that it is like an illusion, like a dream. For not two different things are illusions and Nirvāṇa, are dreams and Nirvāṇa.” (Buddhist Texts, no. 165). Nirvāṇa, as the true Reality, is one single, and it has no second. All multiplicity, all separation, all duality is a sign of falseness. Everything apart from the One, also called “Emptiness” or “Suchness,” is devoid of real existence, and whatever may be said about it is ultimately untrue, false and nugatory, though perhaps permissible if the salvation of beings requires it.3

Most readers will find the stress on “emptiness” as a core teaching of the Prajñāpāramitā all too familiar, for we have constantly been told by the modern academic discourse on emptiness that this particular Mahāyāna doctrine hails from the Prajñāpāramitā, only to find full expression in the Madhyamaka of Nāgārjuna and others such as Candrakīrti.4 Here, we draw the reader’s attention to the equivalence drawn between the ultimate goal, that is, nirvāṇa, and “illusions” (māyā) and “dreams” (svapna). This exact passage would later be picked up on by a number of other scholars as they, too, introduced what they considered to be core elements of the Mahāyāna tradition.

Before we discuss these theories, an important text-historical issue must also be raised at this point. Modern Western Buddhist studies specialists, particularly the Europeans up to the mid to late twentieth century, took text-historical methods such as philology as the basic groundwork for any study. Conze was no exception, though he did warn that “when carried too far they threaten to shatter and pulverize the very text which they set out to examine.”5 This can be seen in his nine phase system of the historical development of the core Prajñāpāramitā texts, in “The Development of Prajñāpāramitā Thought,” where the two phases are: (1) the initial formulation represented by the first two chapters (of the Ratnaguṇasamcaya Gāthā verse summary); and (2) chapters 3–28 of the verse summary and equivalent material in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā text.6 The basic content of the first two chapters, the “initial formulation,” constitute Conze’s “ur-sūtra.”7 A number of other scholars from similar philological backgrounds, such...


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