Friday, December 28, 2012

A Buddhist Goddess: Prajna ("Wisdom")

Dhr. Seven, Amber Dorrian, CC Liu, Wisdom Quarterly; Sabrina,
Prajna Paramita, the feminine embodiment of the Dharma, the Perfection of Wisdom (a gift to Ayya Anandabodhi's Hermitage/
There is a "Buddhist Goddess," a Sophia of the East, the embodiment and personification of perfect wisdom: Prajna-Paramita.

There are ten "perfections" (paramis or paramitas) a bodhisattva (being-striving-for-enlightenment) cultivates if s/he wishes to forgo a disciple's enlightenment for the supreme enlightenment of a non-teaching (pacceka) buddha or enlightenment with the ability to effectively teach and establish the true wheel of the Dharma to a world that has lost its way, a samma-sam-buddha.

The culmination of transcendental knowledge -- liberating insight that has transcended ego, suffering, and flux -- Prajna Paramita is the feminine “Perfection of Wisdom,” who gives birth to all buddhas. Interestingly, the Goddess of Compassion, Kwan Yin, is much more famous. But both are essential elements of a supremely enlightened teacher's attainment.

Her face is serene, having attained the freedom of enlightenment. Like Kwan Yin, she is sometimes depicted as having the many arms of a Hindu goddess (devi), which is likely the largest influence on the rise of "goddesses" as prominent subjects of reverence. For the Vedas and later Hinduism promote mono- and polytheism as ways of talking about ineffable subjects directly. There is just one GOD, Brahman, which finds expression in many gods and goddesses. And so the root of all buddhas, in this way of thinking, is no ordinary deva but a superlative one: impersonal wisdom.
The strange back story of the tantric Taras suggests that "goddess" is more honorific -- a divine-human hybrid suitable for ruling -- than specific to any distinction in knowledge-and-vision worthy of the Noble Ones.

These goddess-figures are usually shown holding symbols illustrating their role. Prajna Paramita is a teacher, so she is often depicted holding meditation beads (emblematic of the eternal cycles of time), a rope or Magic Lasso (like Wonder Woman's, to retrieve those who have strayed from the Path), fruit (for prosperity or path-and-fruition), a lotus (purity), a vase (abundance) and, most importantly, a book (knowledge or wisdom). 
Uppalavanna (
Free hands are held in a hand-yoga gesture (mudra) signifying "teaching."

The Perfection of Wisdom sutras (prajnaparamita) are a collection of sacred texts that declare the path to liberating-insight or transcendent-wisdom (bodhi, vipassana, nyana/ñana). In the Heart Sutra, the possessor of such wisdom is Avalokiteshvara, "the one looks down upon [and hears the cries of] the world." He is taken to be or later become merciful Kwan Yin (Earth Goddess, Mother Mary, a new Saraswati or Lakshmi), but the wisdom itself is Prajna.

What came first, the sacred texts or the goddess embodying them?

Khema, foremost in wisdom (iwilliam/flickr)
Sadly, for all this talk of Prajna Paramita and Avalokita (Kwan Yin), we are deprived of knowledge of the Buddha's real-life "wisdom goddesses," as embodied in his rarely discussed chief female disciples -- KHEMA and UPPALAVANNA. And little is said about the Buddha's two mothers, Maha Pajapati (Prajābatī, who became the first Buddhist nun in history) and Maha Maya Devi.

Why are they rarely discussed? Likely due to sexism and neglect, the ancient Nun's Order (Bhikkhuni Sangha) the Buddha began as an essential element of his mission became defunct. And with that loss so went knowledge of discourses delivered to nuns -- one never reads, "O, bhikkhunis!" as the opening of any sutra when it is certain the Buddha started many discourses this way -- and delivered by these two nuns, who were as important as the wonderful chief male disciples, Sariputra and Maha Moggallana, we read about all the time.
Nuns: an afterthought forced on the Buddha? 
That is what we have all been taught as the history (his story) of the Sangha. But what did the Buddha have to say about it? In the "Great Final-Nirvana Sutra" (DN 16), Mara Namuci quotes the Buddha to the Buddha, who agrees:
"For the Blessed One, O venerable sir, spoke these words to me: 'I shall not come to my final passing away, Namuci, until my bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (monks and nuns or male and female ascetics), as well as laymen and laywomen, have come to be true disciples -- wise, well disciplined, apt and learned, preservers of the Dharma, living according to the Dharma, abiding by the appropriate conduct, and having learned the Master's word, are able to expound it, preach it, proclaim it, establish it, reveal it, explain it in detail, and make it clear; until, when adverse opinions arise, they shall be able to refute them thoroughly and well, and to preach this convincing and liberating Dharma'" (Verse 7).
  • ñána: "knowledge, comprehension, intelligence, insight," a synonym for paññá (Sanskrit, prajna); see also vipassaná.
  • ñána-dassana-visuddhi: "purification of knowledge and vision" [knowing and seeing], the last of the seven purifications and a name for path-knowledge (magga-ñána), i.e., the penetrating realization of the path of Stream-winning, Once-returning, Non-returning, or Arhatship [full enlightenment]. The Path of Purification (XXII) furnishes a detailed explanation of it; (see visuddhi, VII).

No comments: