“Perfection of Wisdom” is the English translation of the name of a large series of Mahayana Buddhist texts named in Sanskrit Prajnaparamita, sometimes referred to as Prajnaparamita literature. This collection includes around 40 texts and although they vary in length and form, they all explore similar key ideas in Mahayana Buddhism such as emptiness (Sunyata) and other psychological topics related to the nature of perception and cognition. The most popular of these texts are the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra.
It became a common practice to name the works of the Prajnaparamita literature according to the length of the texts. Hence, the oldest of this group of texts became known as Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, which is roughly about fourteen verses in its Sanskrit version. Later on, larger versions were written, some 18,000 lines, some 25,000 lines long, the longest of all being a text named Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Lines, which is about a million words in its English translation.
After growing larger and larger, an important issue arose: it was very difficult and time consuming to use and even preserve hundreds of documents written on palm leaves and strips of birch bark. As a result of this problem, the Prajnaparamita literature adopted the opposite approach regarding the length of the documents: now the interest was to contract them, to make them as brief as possible and offer only the essential Buddhist teachings. Out of this approach, the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra were written. These two texts are the most often recited in Buddhist ceremonies and monasteries all over East Asia.
Stretching this new format to its logical limit, the school of Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana Buddhism), developed the shortest version of all the Prajnaparamita literature, a work named Perfection of Wisdom in One Letter which, as its name suggests, contains a single letter: A.
Historical Context, Style & Cultural Influence
It is believed that the first texts of this sort were composed around the 1st century CE in Southern India, and the collection kept growing during the next thousand years or so. These works were produced within the monastic Buddhist community and were used as a source for the development of Mahayana Buddhism. Writing was an emerging technology within the Buddhist circle, so it seems that these texts are records of discourses that used to be transmitted orally. Prajnaparamita literature was used as a mean to spread the Mahayana teachings either without relying on oral transmission or complementing it.
The Diamond Sutra is one of the most famous pieces of the Prajnaparamita literature. Its style, like most of the texts that are part of this collection, it is somehow cryptic and unclear. It is interesting to note that there is a Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra in the British Library and it is the oldest printed book that bears a date, printed on 11th May 868 CE. As an example of its peculiar style, these are the final lines:
Like stars, like an optical illusion, like a lamp,
like a magical illusion, dewdrops, or a bubble,
like a dream, a flash of lightning or a cloud,
so all that is produced is to be seen.
The teachings of the texts are mainly presented in the form of dialogues between important figures, including the Buddha and his disciples. Despite the fact that most of these texts are not easy to understand and they tend to have an obscure style, they gained such a popularity that the Perfection of Wisdom became personified, depicted in female form as the Sanskrit noun Prajnaparamita, which is feminine. In the Tibetan tradition, Prajnaparamita is represented wit four arms, one of them is holding a book, the other holds an object (sometimes a rosary or a sceptre-like object named vajra, which represents a thunderbolt) and the two remaining arms are either folded on her lap (a gesture of meditation) or in front of her chest in the gesture of teaching.