The Dynamic of Wisdom and Compassion in Prajñāpāramitā Literature, As Expressed in its ‘Verse Summaries’ (sacayagāthā, sdud pa tshigs su bcad pa)

by Erick Tsiknopoulos (2015) 


What follows is a cursory study of the relationship between the two concepts of ‘wisdom’ and ‘compassion’ in the group of Mahāyāna Buddhist scriptures known as Prajñāpāramitā (Tibetan: shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa) in general, and in the category of Prajñāpāramitā literature known as ‘verse summaries’ (Sanskrit: sacayagāthā, Tibetan: sdud pa tshigs su bcad pa) in particular.

In Sanskrit, wisdom and compassion are respectively prajñā and karuā, and correspondingly in Tibetan they are shes rab and snying rje. I have rendered prajñāpāramitā/shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa here as ‘far-reaching practice of deep insight’, which has hitherto not been found elsewhere. It has been translated by others in numerous ways, and perhaps the most standard usage is ‘perfection of wisdom’, normalized in part by the works of Edward Conze.

Here there will be an examination of some of the relevant stanzas from the Tibetan version of the verse summary of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra-s, in particular the ‘Eight Thousand Line‘ version (Skt: aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitāsūtra, Tib: shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i  mdo brgyad stong pa), entitled ‘Verse Summary of the Far-Reaching Practice of Deep Insight’ (Skt: [ārya-] prajñāpāramitāsacayagāthā, Tib: [‘phags pa-] shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa sdud pa tshigs su bcad pa), which is often referred to in Tibetan literature (including tables of contents) by the abbreviated ‘nickname’ of mdo sdud pa, ‘the condensed (or summarized) Sūtra’, that is, the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, and sometimes simply as sdud pa, ‘the Summary’. My translations from the Tibetan will be compared to Conze’s translation from the Sanskrit of the corresponding stanzas. The text I have used, the Prajñāpāramitāsacayagāthā, differs in a few ways from the one called Prajñāpāramitāratnaguasacayagāthā (Tib: shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa yon tan rin chen sdud pa tshigs su bcad pa), the one translated from Sanskrit by Conze. Its name is different, not including the additional epithet of ratnagua, ‘precious (good) qualities’, and it has eight chapters rather than the thirty-two in the Prajñāpāramitāratnaguasacayagāthā. A full examination of all the differences between these two texts would require a great deal of research. However, there are many similarities also, and they are without doubt two different versions of the same text. Both of them assert themselves to be summaries of the Eight Thousand Line Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. It also seems that the vast majority of the stanzas in the Prajñāpāramitāsacayagāthā are found nearly verbatim in the Prajñāpāramitāratnaguasacayagāthā, although perhaps not vice-versa en total. Generally their content is extremely similar. The order and arrangement of the stanzas, however, is in many cases quite different, and locating the equivalent stanzas has in some cases required considerable searching, several of them being placed in different chapters. These texts constitute two of the main ‘verse summaries’ of the Prajñāpāramitā teachings, though not the only ones. It should be noted that both texts exist in Tibetan.

A brief discussion of the name of the text may be helpful. Ju Mip’am Rinpoché (‘ju mi pham rnam rgyal mgya mtsho), in his commentary to the Prajñāpāramitāratnaguasacayagāthā entitled ‘A Fine Exposition for Flawlessly Absorbing the Intended Meaning of the Mother of the Victorious Ones: A Commentary on the Precious Qualities Summary‘ (Tib: yon tan rin chen sdud pa’i ‘grel pa rgyal ba’i yum gyi dgongs don la phyin ci ma log par ‘jug pa’i  legs bshad) explains its title as follows:

In the Indian language [Sanskrit], ārya is ‘exalted’ (or ‘noble’, ‘phags pa) in the Tibetan language. Likewise, prajñā is ‘deep insight’ (shes rab), pāramitā is ‘far-reaching practice’ (or ‘transcendental/perfective practice’, pha rol tu phyin pa), sacaya is ‘condensation’ (or ‘summary’, sdud pa), and gāthā is ‘stanzas’ (or ‘verses’, tshigs su bcad pa). Yet the extensive meaning of the title must be understood from the context of the scripture [itself], and in brief it is as follows. Because it is a Dharma which transcends the world, it is called ‘Exalted’. Because the deep insight which realizes Suchness (Skt: tathātā, Tib: de bzhin nyid) [to be] the [ultimate] existential mode (gnas lugs) of all phenomena is the supreme and preeminent deep insight, it is called the ‘Perfection of Deep Insight’. And because it serves to express and thereby teach such a non-conceptual deep wisdom (rnam par mi rtog pa’i ye shes) itself, this scripture has gained the name of ‘the Far-Reaching Practice of Deep Insight’. As anyone who relies upon this scripture will gather and retain all the jewel-like qualities (ratnagua, yon tan rin chen [lta bu]) of the mundane and supermundane paths and fruitions, it is called a ‘Condensation’.

The stanzas selected from the texts here are those which are especially related to the interplay between compassion and wisdom in the framework of the Prajñāpāramitā literature. These stanzas are by no means exhaustive of all those in the ‘verse summaries’ related to theories of compassion and its connection with wisdom, but rather a sampling meant to convey something of the general principles underlying this key aspect of the Prajñāpāramitā scriptures, and by extension Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy as a whole. Listed first will be Conze’s translation from the Sanskrit stanzas of the Prajñāpāramitāratnaguasacayagāthā, followed below that by my own translation from Tibetan of the parallel stanza in the Prajñāpāramitāsacayagāthā. For clarity, Conze’s translation will be in normal typeface and my own in boldface. Below that will be my own commentary on the respective stanza.

One term worthy of particular note is sajñā (Tib: ‘du shes), which I have rendered here as ‘conception’. One definition popular in the Tibetan tradition is as follows: yul gyi thun mong ma yin pa’i mtshan ma rang stobs kyis ‘byed pa’i shes pa’o, which in English roughly means “the consciousness which distinguishes (or discriminates) by inherent (its own) power the uncommon characteristics of an object”. Sajñā is one of the five psycho-physical aggregates or skandha-s (Tib: phung po) which make up the (perceived) individual or person, and which is often rendered in English as ‘perception’. In the Prajñāpāramitā literature however, although closely related to and an extension of this skandha, its meaning is more about forming the notion of any given phenomenon as being distinct and self-contained, as being an absolute ‘thing unto itself’. Thus here it would not refer to having merely the fleeting ‘impressions’ or ‘perceptions’ of things, but rather the grasping onto such perceptions as being inherently real and indicative of a built-in ‘selfness‘, thus ‘conceiving’ them as having discrete and inherent existence.

The Stanzas


[Edward Conze:]

No wisdom can we get hold of, no highest perfection,

No Bodhisattva, no thought of enlightenment either.

When told of this, if not bewildered and in no way anxious,

A Bodhisattva courses in the Well-Gone’s wisdom.


[Erick Tsiknopoulos:]

Any who hear the words, “The supreme Prajñāpāramitā is not reifiable, 

Bodhisattvas are not reifiable, Bodhicitta is not reifiable”,

And are thereupon unconfused and unafraid:

Those Bodhisattvas are engaged in the Deep Insight of the Sugatas.

Sugata (Tib: bde bar gshegs pa), meaning ‘Bliss-Gone’ or ‘One Gone to Bliss’, is a common alternative name used for buddha-s which emphasizes their happiness as well as their accomplishment of such a blissful state. This stanza suggests that in order to truly engage in the practice of prajñāpāramitā, one must also view the key principles of Buddhism, and even the prajñāpāramitā itself, to be empty of inherent existence. This is implicit in the statement of their ‘unreifiability‘ (Skt: anupalabdha, anupalabdhi, anupalambha or anopalabdhi, Tib: mi dmigs pa), that is, their ultimate inability to be grasped or apprehended as discrete entities which possess independent or ‘concrete’ existence from their own side. Rather such terms are ultimately conceptual designations used for either practical purposes in general or ‘skillful means’ utilized as teaching devices in particular. The Buddhist principles listed here are ones related primarily to the Mahāyāna path: prajñāpāramitā, bodhisattva and bodhicitta. Perhaps of particular note here is bodhicitta, one of the main practices of the bodhisattva path: even this practice, which entails generating an altruistic resolve to attain Buddhahood in order to benefit all sentient beings, must be seen as empty, and not apprehended as inherently existent, reified as ‘being’ in any particular conceptually imputed way, or ‘invested’ with any type of imagined intrinsic substantiality. Thus even the practices of the bodhisattva and of bodhicitta, related by definition to compassion, should be balanced with the wisdom of the ultimate prajñāpāramitā. As Conze’s translation indicates, one cannot “get hold of” them, in the sense that it is impossible to ‘find’ them via conceptual reification or mental imputation. Acceptance of this teaching, without giving rise to anxiety or unease, is an indication that one is a bodhisattva, or more broadly ‘someone’ who is thereby “engaged in the Deep Insight of the Sugatas”, that is, the real or ultimate prajñāpāramitā, as opposed to a provisional or conventional form of prajñāpāramitā: the wisdom of the buddha-s rather than that of ‘lower-level’ bodhisattva-s engaged in an inferior form of prajñāpāramitā.

The Tibetan mi dmigs used in this stanza which I have here rendered as ‘not reifiable’ can also mean ‘inconceivable’,  ‘unobservable’, ‘indefinable’, ‘non-referential’ and so on. What this points to is a natural or innate freedom from conceptual limitations, mental constructs or fixed ‘reference points’ with respect to the existential status of the particular phenomenon under discussion. Here it may be useful to examine the meaning of the English word ‘reify’. The Oxford Dictionary states the definition of ‘reify’ as “[to] make (something abstract) more concrete or real”. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists it as “to regard (something abstract) as a material or concrete thing”. Being related to the word ‘real’, we can thus think of ‘reify’ as “to make something (abstract) real”. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives its definition as “[to] make into a thing; make real or material; consider as a thing”, and provides its etymological origins as coming from the Latin res- (or re-), which means ‘thing’, ‘phenomenon’, ‘object’, ‘matter’, ‘affair’, ‘event’, ‘circumstance’ or ‘condition’. This in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European re-, which means “to bestow, endow”. In this sense ‘reify’ is etymologically similar to the term ‘(super-)impose’ and its noun form, ‘(super-)imposition’.


[Edward Conze:]

This gnosis shows him all beings as like an illusion,

Resembling a great crowd of people, conjured up at the crossroads,

By a magician, who then cuts off many thousands of heads;

He knows this whole living world as a mock show, and yet remains without fear.

[Erick Tsiknopoulos:]

It is like, for example, illusions conjured by a magician at a crossroads,

Wherein many millions of heads are severed from a giant throng of people,

Thus slaying them; in a similar fashion, the Bodhisattva,

Knowing all beings to resemble such illusions, is without fear.

The object of compassion is either other people or oneself, both of whom fall under the category of ‘sentient/living beings’. This stanza is mostly focused on the proper way to view other beings in relation to wisdom. The suggestion here is that while one must have compassion for other living beings, one must moreover view them as being like illusions, that is, lacking real existence. Like illusions, they are empty of intrinsic substance, yet nonetheless appear to the senses. The illustrative metaphor of the illusion consisting of people being killed (by decapitation no less) is worthy of consideration. It could be that their status as ‘living’, in the sense that is normally thought, is being questioned here. They are thus ‘alive’ but ‘not alive’, ‘animate’ yet ‘inanimate’. It would also seem that this gruesome image is being used as a vivid symbol of the insubstantiality of so-called “living” beings. That their heads are cut off in such a hypothetical magician’s trick could also be a further symbol of their lack of inherent identity, since the head, the container of the brains and face, is the ‘primary mover’ and identifying basis of human beings. This allegorical image also directly addresses fearlessness in relating to others. By seeing beings as illusory, one is not deterred or daunted, regardless of how they may appear. Though not explicit in the text, this also works to increase compassion when interacting with others, because when not discouraged by fear or anxiety with relation to others, one is more empowered to deal with them in a compassionate way.


[Edward Conze:]

What then again is ‘the vessel that leads to the Bodhi’?

Mounted upon it one guides to Nirvāṇa all beings.

Great is that vessel, immense, vast like the vastness of space.

Those who travel upon it are carried to safety, delight and ease.


[Erick Tsiknopoulos:]

Why is this called ‘the Great Vehicle of Awakening’?

Whoever rides it steers all sentient beings to Nirvāa;

This vehicle is like the sky, a great room without measure:

Thus it is the prime vehicle leading straight to the winning of joy, happiness and bliss.

The key phrase here in relation to the dynamic of compassion and wisdom in the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra-s is “steers all sentient beings to Nirvāṇa”. “The Great Vehicle of Awakening” refers generally to the Mahāyāna but in particular to the Prajñāpāramitā teachings. One who “rides” or practices this “vehicle” or spiritual approach will, as a matter of course, “steer” or bring all living beings to the state of Nirvāṇa: liberation or enlightenment. Compassion is thus part and parcel of the practice of wisdom. One implication here could be that the Prajñāpāramitā teachings epitomize the Mahāyāna approach, especially since they combine wisdom and compassion as an integrated practice.


[Edward Conze:]

Wise Bodhisattvas, coursing thus, reflect on non-production,

And yet, while doing so, engender in themselves the great compassion,

Which is, however, free from any notion of a being.

Thereby they practise wisdom, the highest perfection.

[Erick Tsiknopoulos:]

Clever and skillful Bodhisattvas, at any and all times,

Contemplate the Unborn in depth, thereby striving in training,  

And engender great compassion, yet have no conception of sentient beings:

They are ones engaged in the supreme Far-Reaching Practice of Deep Insight.

This stanza is emblematic of some the core ideas about the connection between compassion and wisdom in the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra-s. Specifically, compassion is practiced concurrently with wisdom, namely the wisdom which perceives that there are no inherently existing objects of compassion, and by extension, no inherently existing act of engendering compassion, no inherently existing person who is engendering compassion, and no inherently existing compassion itself. The particular focus here though is on the objects of compassion, sentient beings. Thus, while “engendering great compassion”, those who practice the prajñāpāramitā simultaneously practice wisdom by not getting involved in the “conception of sentient beings”, that is, actively refraining from the tendency to view sentient beings as inherently existent. Those who do so are “engaged in the supreme Far-Reaching Practice of Deep Insight”, that is, the ultimate and not the provisional prajñāpāramitā. Compassion without such wisdom is merely a conventional compassion, not the ultimate or transcendent compassion of the prajñāpāramitā.


[Edward Conze:]

But when the notion of suffering and beings leads him to think:

‘Suffering I shall remove, the weal of the world I shall work!’

Beings are then imagined, a self is imagined,

The practice of wisdom, the highest perfection, is lacking.

[Erick Tsiknopoulos:]

If they give rise to conceptions of sentient beings or conceptions of suffering,

Thinking, “I must accomplish benefit for beings and eradicate their suffering”,

Then those Bodhisattvas, having strong imputations of ‘self’ and ‘sentient beings’,

Are not engaged in the supreme Far-Reaching Practice of Deep Insight.

Many statements similar to this stanza can be found in other Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra-s, such as famously in the ‘Diamond Sūtra’ (Skt: vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, Tib: shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa rdo rje gcod pa’i mdo). One well-known example from its opening section is as follows:

The Buddha told Subhūti, “Bodhisattva-mahāsattvas should pacify their minds thusly: ‘All different types of sentient beings, whether born from eggs, born from wombs, born from moisture, or born from transformation; having form or no form; having thought, no thought, or neither thought nor no thought—I will cause them all to become liberated and enter Remainderless Nirvāṇa.’ Yet when sentient beings have been liberated without measure, without number, and to no end, truly no sentient beings have been liberated. Why? Subhūti, if a bodhisattva has a notion of a self, a notion of a person, a notion of a being, or a notion of a life, then he is not a bodhisattva.

(Translated from the Chinese by Lapis Lazuli texts)

These sort of statements express one of the fundamental concepts of compassion in the Prajñāpāramitā literature, namely that of the emptiness (Skt: śūnyatā, Tib: stong pa nyid), of all things including the so-called “sentient beings” who are conventionally thought to be ‘liberated’ by the bodhisattva. They are often concluded with assertions that maintain the utter impossibility of a bodhisattva being a genuine “bodhisattva“, or at least a deep-minded one who is a bodhisattva in more than name only, if he or she were to really think that ‘sentient beings’ truly exist. Likewise they also frequently declare, as in the present ‘verse summary’ texts including the above stanza, that such bodhisattva-s are most certainly not engaged in the authentic, legitimate prajñāpāramitā. The reason again is because they have, as the above stanza says, “strong imputations of ‘self’ and ‘sentient beings'”.  


[Edward Conze:]

He wisely knows that all that lives is unproduced as he himself is;

He knows that all that is no more exists than he or any beings.

The unproduced and the produced are not distinguished,

That is the practice of wisdom, the highest perfection.


[Erick Tsiknopoulos:]

Knowing how the self is to be how all sentient beings are,

Knowing how all sentient beings are to be how all things are,

Being non-conceptual toward both the Born and Unborn:

This is engaging in the supreme Far-Reaching Practice of Deep Insight.

While not exclusively aimed at the practice of compassion directly, this stanza indirectly refers to the integration of wisdom and compassion via the focus on sentient beings, who are the object of compassion. The first line deals with the equality of oneself and sentient beings, that is, their equal nature with respect to their identical emptiness of inherent existence. One implication of this would be that, as above, when contemplating compassion for sentient beings, one must simultaneously be mindful of their true nature as emptiness. The second line considers emptiness, the non-self empty nature of sentient beings, as commensurate with the actual ontological mode of all phenomena or “things” (Skt: sarvadharma, Tib: chos kun). This is reminiscent of the ‘two-fold emptiness’ teaching in Mahāyāna philosophical exegesis, which emphasizes that one must not only realize the emptiness or lack of inherent ‘selfness‘ in one’s own individual identity (Skt: pudgalanairātmya, Tib: gang zag gi bdag med) but also the ‘selflessness’ of phenomena (Skt: dharmanairātmya, Tib: chos kyi bdag med) in their entirety. Étienne Lamotte summarized this, as he put it, “difference between the Hinayāna and Mahāyāna conceptions on this subject” as follows:

…the bodhisattvas [of the Mahāyāna] never lose sight of the twofold emptiness of persons and [phenomenal] factors that forms the very basis of their philosophical perspective [as opposed to the practitioners of the Hinayāna who concentrate primarily on the ‘one-sided’ emptiness of persons]. They focus their feelings (i) on persons, (ii) on [phenomenal] factors and even, by a supreme paradox, (iii) on nothing whatsoever [in the sense of non-conceptuality or the freedom from all conceptual elaborations rather than ‘nothingness’]. If they have persons in mind, they do not forget that these do not exist [inherently]; if they have [phenomenal] factors in mind, they remember that they arise from a collocation [or assemblage] of causes and conditions and are empty of intrinsic nature and of [inherent] characteristics; if they have nothing whatsoever in mind, they guard against hypostatizing this true characteristic of [phenomenal] factors which resolves into a pure and simple non-existence [of inherent selfhood].

[Source: Le Traité de la Grande Vertu de Sagesse de Nāgārjuna (Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra), notes in brackets my own]

The third line addresses the need for the being ‘non-conceptual’ (Tib: mi rtog pa) with respect to both the ‘Born’ or produced (Tib: skye ba) and the ‘Unborn’ or unproduced (Tib: mi skye ba). This could also be referred to as phenomena which are ‘conditioned’ (Tib: ‘du byas kyi chos) and those which are ‘unconditioned’ (Tib: ‘du ma byas kyi chos), an alternative opposing pair which is used elsewhere in the text. This duo namely refers to the conditioned phenomena of suffering cyclic existence (Skt: sasāra, Tib: ‘khor ba) and the unconditioned phenomena of peaceful cessation (Skt: nirvāa, Tib: mya ngan las ‘das pa) respectively. This also relates to the non-duality and ‘one taste’ (Skt: ekarāsa, Tib: ro gcig) of sasāra and nirvāa, and thus their essential sameness, interpenetration and mutually inclusive identity, a key concept in Mahāyāna Buddhism, sometimes referred to in Tibetan exegesis as the ‘inseparability of sasāra and nirvāa‘ (Tib: ‘khor ‘das dbyer med). Being ‘non-conceptual’ means here to not reify and engage in discursive concepts which apprehend either the born or the unborn to have inherent and independent existence. The authentic practice of the prajñāpāramitā necessitates such ‘non-conceptualization’. As the fourth line concludes, when the self, all sentient beings, all phenomena, and the produced and unproduced are actively perceived to empty of inherent existence, this is the appropriate engagement in the prajñāpāramitā.


[Edward Conze:]

If for aeons countless as the sands of the Ganges,

The Leader would himself continue to pronounce the word ‘being’:

Still, pure from the very start, no being could ever result from his speaking.

That is the practice of wisdom, the highest perfection.”

[Erick Tsiknopoulos:]

Even if the Teacher himself, for eons as numerous as sands in the Ganges,

Were to sit proclaiming the word ‘sentient being’, 

Being pure from the start, how could sentient beings be born?

This is engaging in the foremost Far-Reaching Practice of Deep Insight.    

The main point here is once again that sentient beings are empty of inherent existence, and that the genuine practice of the prajñāpāramitā entails engaging in this view of the intrinsic insubstantiality of sentient beings, both oneself and others. The word ‘sentient beings’ itself is simply a designation of convention, regardless of who uses it, even ‘the Teacher’ (the Buddha). The usage of the word as a label for utilitarian purposes adds no weight to the issue of their ultimate ontological status.

With reference to “pure from the start” (Tib: gzod nas dag pa), Conze notes that “‘pure’ here means ’empty'”. This is highly reminiscent of the teaching of ‘primordial purity’ or ‘original purity’ (Tib: ka dag) which came to have great prominence in later Mahāyāna discourse especially in Tantric Buddhism, in particular in the specifically Tibetan forms known as Atiyoga or Dzokch’en (rdzog chen, ‘Great Perfection’) and Mahāmudrā or Ch’akgyach’enpo (phyag rgya chen po, ‘Great Seal’). This is interesting to note since the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra-s are generally determined by scholars to be historically some of the earliest Mahāyāna scriptures. This would indicate that the equivalence of emptiness or selflessness (Pāli: anattā, Skt: anātman, Tib: bdag med) with a kind of ‘purity’ which is ‘primordial’  or ‘timeless’ (or ‘atemporal’) is very early, and perhaps one which predates even the Mahāyāna. The question here is of what exactly phenomena and sentient beings are ‘pure of’ (and thus ‘free from’). The answer is that that they are ‘pure’ of inherent existence. To put it another way, all things are ‘pure’ of the extremes of existence and non-existence and the conceptual imputations which apprehend them as having a ‘self’ which is either eternal or nothing, permanent or annihilated. All phenomena thus embody this ‘primordial purity’ of the Middle Way, and the prajñāpāramitā is the practice of realizing this to be so. Sentient beings, being thus ‘pure from the start’, that is, timelessly free from and empty of the ‘stains’ of inherent existence, cannot be truly ‘born’ or ‘come into existence’. They are timelessly lacking the three extremes of birth or production (Tib: skye ba), abiding or remaining (Tib: gnas pa), and destruction or death (Tib: ‘gag pa).


[Edward Conze:]

This Perfection of Wisdom of the Jinas is a great lore,

Appeasing dharmas making for sorrow and ill in many a world of beings.

The Saviours of the World in the past, and in the future, and those [now] in the ten directions,

They have, by training in this lore, become the supreme physicians.

And [also] those who course in the practice of pity and concern for the welfare of others,

They, the wise, by having trained in this lore, will experience enlightenment.

Those who have conditioned happiness, and those who have unconditioned happiness,

All their happiness should be known as having issued from this.

[Erick Tsiknopoulos:]

The Victors’ Far-Reaching Practice of Deep Insight is a great Mantra of Knowledge.

It acts to pacify things of stress and suffering in many realms of sentient beings.

The World’s Protectors, those of the past and those in the ten directions,

Have, by training in this Knowledge-Mantra, become unsurpassed kings of healers.


Those who conduct themselves with deeds of altruism and heartfelt love,

By training in this Knowledge-Mantra, become skillful ones who reach Awakening.

Know that of whatever conditioned happiness and unconditioned happiness there is,

All that bliss emerges from this. 

Here the emphasis is that wisdom and its practice enables one to benefit living beings, the object of compassion. The prajñāpāramitā is likened to a powerful mantra which removes suffering. The context here may seem obscure to many readers: why a mantra, and what is a ‘mantra of knowledge’? The word is vidyāmantra in Sanskrit and rig sngags in Tibetan (short for rig pa’i sngags), a term which Conze’s translation as ‘lore’ alludes to being something like a magic spell which bestows esoteric or ‘arcane’ knowledge. A full discussion of this term is a complex matter, but suffice to say that it indicates a mantra or incantation, usually but not always used vocally, which when practiced engenders wisdom or insight, and which has extraordinary or supernatural powers. It tends to be used in Mahāyāna texts in such a way that indicates a superiority to the average mantra. Vidyā/rig pa has many connotations but generally refers to ‘knowledge’ or ‘awareness’, and is the opposite of āvidya/ma rig pa, ‘ignorance’ or ‘unawareness’, generally ascertained to the primary root of suffering in Buddhist discourse. In this particular context, it is knowledge of a type which is transcendent or sublime. Its use here would thus seem to have a few layers of meaning.


[Edward Conze:]

When he thinks, ‘I course in the wisdom of the Jinas,

I will set free niyutas of beings touched by many ills’:

This Bodhisattva is one who imagines the notion of beings,

And this is not the practice of wisdom, the foremost perfection.


[Erick Tsiknopoulos:]

Thinking, “I do engage in the Deep Insight of the Victorious Ones,

I liberate many thousands of sentient beings touched by suffering”,

That Bodhisattva, having strong conceptions of sentient beings,

Is not one engaged in the supreme Far-Reaching Practice of Deep Insight.

The ideas expressed here follow the same lines of reasoning as before. Although the bodhisattva must 1) engage in the wisdom-practice of the prajñāpāramitā and 2) cultivate compassion for sentient beings, a mental state which by definition seeks to free them from their suffering, if he or she forms strong conceptions (yongs rtog, ‘thorough-‘ or ‘absolute concepts’) about either one of those actions themselves, relating to wisdom and compassion respectively, in particular conceptions which take them to be inherently, self-sufficiently and independently existent rather than how they actually are, that is, illusory, empty, unreal and insubstantial, then he or she could not possibly be engaged in the mode of prajñāpāramitā which is supreme or foremost (mchog), and would at best be practicing some lower, non-transcendental form of prajñāpāramitā due to being attached to conventional designations. Such a bodhisattva‘s attachment to the actions of wisdom and compassion is thus the very thing which prevents authentic engagement with the prajñāpāramitā.


[Edward Conze:]

When a Bodhisattva, having meditated on the foremost wisdom,

Emerged therefrom [i.e. that meditation] preaches the stainless Dharma,

And turns over also [the merit from] that to the enlightenment linked to the weal of the world:

There is nothing that is lovely in the triple world that could become equal to him.

[Erick Tsiknopoulos:]

If any Bodhisattva meditates on the supreme Deep Insight,

After arising thereupon conveys the Dharma devoid of stain,

And then, for the benefit of beings, dedicates to the cause of Awakening:

In the three worlds, there is no virtue equal to that.  

Here both wisdom and compassion are addressed in a combined fashion. First the bodhisattva ‘meditates’ (Tib: bsgoms), or contemplates, the prajñāpāramitā. Then, after arising from that meditation, he or she ‘conveys’ (Tib: brjod), or explains, the Dharma which is ‘devoid of stain’ (Tib: gos pa med pa), in the sense that one is imparting a genuine and definitive teaching. The ones being taught are sentient beings, and this is thus an act of compassion wherein one expresses wisdom from one’s personal experience of it via meditation and contemplation. Finally, all of the meritorious karma-s, or causal forces, generated by these activities of 1) meditating on wisdom and 2) teaching that wisdom to others out of compassion are then 3) dedicated (Tib: bngo) toward the attainment of ‘Awakening’ (Skt: bodhi, Tib: byang chub), or enlightenment, which is the ultimate wisdom, for the benefit of sentient beings (Skt: sattva, Tib: sems can) in their entirety, which entails the most comprehensive compassion. Throughout the three worlds (Skt: trailokya, Tib: khams gsum) of the desire realm (Skt: kāmaloka, Tib: ‘dod pa’i khams), form realm (Skt: rūpaloka, Tib: gzugs kyi khams) and formless realm (Skt: arūpaloka, Tib: gzugs med kyi khams), this stanza proclaims, there is no virtue (Skt: kusala, Tib: dge ba) which is equivalent to doing those three things. Wisdom and compassion are thus perfectly fused in this triad of activities: meditation, teaching and dedication. The ‘two collections’ (Skt: sambharadvaya, Tib: tshogs gnyis) of merit (Skt: puya, Tib: bsod nams) and wisdom (Skt: jñāna, Tib: ye shes), which in the general Mahāyāna teleological framework lead to the attainment of Buddhahood, are by implication also subsumed within these three practices, because the practice of meditating on the prajñāpāramitā acts as a causal factor for the fulfillment of the collection of wisdom (Skt: jñānasambhara, Tib: ye shes kyi tshogs), while the practice of teaching the Dharma and dedicating the merit accumulated to all sentient beings contributes to the collection of merit (Skt: puyasambhara, Tib: bsod nams kyi tshogs). The prajñāpāramitā when carried out thus becomes a practice of insight which is truly ‘far-reaching’ and extensive, for its beneficial effects influence not only oneself, but all living beings.


The above has shown that the relationship of compassion and wisdom is an important idea in the Prajñāpāramitā literature, of which the ‘verse summaries’ are representative, by definition of their stated intent as constituting ‘summaries’ or synopses of the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra-s.

The link between compassion and wisdom may seem subtle or even confusing to many at first, and indeed has been and remains a long-standing point of debate and dialogue in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Although the potential implications and points of discussion are diverse and manifold, the main thrust is as follows: Although one must cultivate compassion for sentient beings, one must moreover have the wisdom which sees sentient beings to be empty; and by extension, the very act of cultivating compassion and the one cultivating compassion (oneself) must likewise be seen to be empty. This is referred to in Tibetan Buddhist literature as the ‘deep wisdom (or discerning insight) which does not reify (or fixate upon) the three spheres’ (‘khor gsum mi dmigs pa’i ye shes/shes rab), or the ‘deep wisdom (or discerning insight) which is non-conceptual toward the three spheres’ (‘khor gsum mi rtog pa’i ye shes/shes rab). The three spheres are the sphere of the agent, or subject (byed pa po), the sphere of the recipient of action, or object (bya ba’i yul), and the sphere of the action or interaction between the those two (of subject and object, [las su] bya ba). ‘Not reifying’ (mi dmigs pa) means not taking them to be real; not taking them to be real means seeing them to be empty by nature (stong pa nyid). It is through this discerning insight realizing emptiness (stong pa nyid rtogs pa’i shes rab) that compassion becomes fully actualized and realized to its culmination. One is thereby able to fulfill the aims of the compassion which was initially generated when embarking upon the bodhisattva path of the Mahāyāna. For it is through wisdom that one attains enlightenment or awakening (Skt. bodhi, Tib. byang chub), and it is through the attainment of Awakening that one is able to most fully benefit sentient beings. This is the dynamic of wisdom and compassion in the supreme and transcendental Prajñāpāramitā: the Far-Reaching Practice of Discerning Insight.  


References and Resources

  • phyogs bcu’i mun sel (‘Dispelling the Darkness of the Ten Directions’), a collection of popular Tibetan texts for recitation including the Prajñāpāramitāsacayagāthā (shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa sdud pa tshigs su bcad pa). Published by the Kansu Nationalities Publishing House (kan su’u mi rigs dpe skrun khang), 1997
  • shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa sdud pa tshigs su bcad pa, found in phyogs bcu’i mun sel
  • The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Line & Its Verse Summary, translated by Edward Conze. Published by the Four Seasons Foundation, 1973 (PDFs available at:,Conze,1973,1975.pdf and
  • The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (
  • Rigpa Wiki (, ‘Verse Summary of the Perfection of Wisdom’ entry (; note that the Prajñāpāramitāsacayagāthā and the Prajñāpāramitāratnaguasacayagāthā are not differentiated in this entry, and the Tibetan title of former is given for the Sanskrit title of the latter.
  • yon tan rin chen sdud pa’i ‘grel pa rgyal ba’i yum gyi dgongs don la phyin ci ma log par ‘jug pa’i legs bshad, by Mi-pham mGyatsho (Ju Mip’am [Mipham] Rinpoché], a commentary to the Prajñāpāramitāratnaguasacayagāthā. Found on the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (org). Originally published in Paro, Bhutan by ‘Lama Ngodrup’ (bla ma dngos grub) and’ Sherab Drimey’ (shes rab dri med) as reproductions of the block prints originally made by Dergé Publishing House (sde dge par khang)
  • Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, Taishō Tripiṭaka volume 8, number 235, translated from the Chinese by Lapis Lazuli Texts (
  • bcom ldan ‘das yon tan rin po che sdud pa’i tshigs su bcad pa’i dka’ ‘grel (bhagavādratnaguasacayagathānamapañjika) by Haribhadra (seng+ge bzang po), located in the Tengyur (bstan ‘gyur) and found on the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center website at
  • The Eight Classes of Factors Favorable to the Noble Path & Twofold Emptiness, Selected Sections from Chapters XXVIII, XXXII-XXXIV and XLVIII of ‘The Treatise of the Great Perfection of Wisdom by Nāgārjuna’, Translated from Étienne Lamotte’s Le Traité de la Grande Vertu de Sagesse de Nāgārjuna (Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra) by Gelongma Migme Chödrön; revised by Gelong Lodrö Sangpo (
  • The Oxford Dictionary (
  • The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (
  • The Online Etymology Dictionary (
  • Wikipedia entry for ‘Prajnaparamita’ (
Appendix: Tibetan Stanzas in Wiley Transliteration


gang la shes rab pha rol phyin mchog mi dmigs shing

byang chub sems dpa’ mi dmigs byang chub sems mi dmigs

de skad thos nas rmongs pa med cing mi skrag pa

byang chub sems dpa de ni bde gshegs shes rab spyod   



dper na sgyu ma mkhan gyis bzhi mdor sprul byas te

skye bo phal cher mgo mang bye ba gcod byed pa’i

gsad bya de dag ci ‘dra de ltar byang chub sems

‘gro kun sprul ‘drar rab shes de la ‘jigs pa med


ci phyir ‘di ni byang chub theg chen bya zhe na

de gang zhon nas sems can thams cad mya ngan zlo

theg pa ‘di ni mkha’ ‘dra gzhal med khang chen te

dga’ skyid bde ba mngon par thob byed theg pa’i mchog  



byang chub sems mkhas rig pa gang gi dus kyi tshe

skye med rnam par bsams te ‘di ltar spyod byed cing

snying rje chen po bskyed kyang sems can ‘du shes med

‘di ni shes rab pha rol phyin mchog spyod pa yin


gal te sems can ‘du shes sdug bngal ‘du shes skyed

‘gro ba rnams kyi don bya sdug bngal spang snyam ste

bdag dang sems can yongs rtogs byang chub sems dpa de

‘di ni shes rab pha rol phyin mchog spyod ma yin


bdag ci ‘dra ba de ‘drar sems can thams cad shes

sems can thams cad ci ‘dra de ‘drar chos kun shes

skye ba med dang skye ba gnyi gar mi rtog pa

‘di ni shes rab pha rol phyin mchog spyod pa yin



gal te ston pas kyang ni ganga+a’i bye snyed kyi

bksal par bzhugs te sems can zhes sgra yongs bgrags kyang

gzod nas dag pas sems can skye bar ga la ‘gyur

‘di ni shes rab pha rol phyin mchog spyod pa yin


rgyal ba’i shes rab pha rol phyin ‘di rig sngags che

sems can khams mang mya ngan sdug bngal chos zhi byed

gang dag ‘das dang gang dag phyogs bcu’i ‘jig rten mgon

rig sngags ‘di bslabs sman pa’i rgyal po bla med ‘gyur


gang dag phan dang snying brtser bcas par spyad spyod pa

rig ngags ‘di la bslabs nas mkhas pa byang chub reg

‘dus byas bde dang ‘dus ma byas bde gang yin pa

bde ba de kun ‘di las byung bar rig par bya


gal te bdag ni rgyal ba’i shes rab spyad bya shing

sems can sdug bngal reg pa khrag khrig mang dgrol sems

sems can ‘du shes yongs rtog byang chub sems dpa’ de

‘di ni shes rab pha rol phyin mchog spyod ma yin


byang chub sems dpa gang shig shes rab mchog bsgoms te

de las langs nas gos pa med pa’i chos brjod cing

de yang ‘gro ba’i don du byang chub rgyur bngo na

dge ba de dang mnyam pa ‘jig rten gsum na med





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