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The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom: With the Divisions of the Abhisamayalankara

by Edward Conze

Buy the book: Edward Conze. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom: With the Divisions of the Abhisamayalankara

Release Date: February, 1985

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: Edward Conze. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom: With the Divisions of the Abhisamayalankara


A wonderful but flawed translation.

My review is based on an old out-of-print hardbound copy published 1975. I trust that the softbound edition offered here is essentially the same.

About 2000 years ago, 500 years after the Buddha lived, there began to appear in India a series of writings which transformed Buddhism. The oldest of these is The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Lines. It is so revered that it is often depicted sitting on a flower by the left ears of some of the major Buddhist holy beings such as Manjushri, Prajnaparamita, and Je Tsongkhapa. Over the next few hundred years a number of similar but longer Perfection of Wisdom Sutras appeared, in 10K, 18K, 25K and 100K lines. After that a series of condensations then appeared, among them The Diamond Sutra (300 lines) and The Heart Sutra (25 lines). From these writings comes the Mahayana tradition that spread throughout much of northern Asia, evolving into the various forms of Tibetan, Zen and Pure Land Buddhism. The major contributions of this new body of literature were twofold: first, the introduction of a new spiritual ideal, the "Bodhisattva", who sacrifices his own personal Nirvana in order to stay around and help others; and second, a more profound and radical philosophy of "emptiness", or ultimate reality.

Edward Conze's book is a compilation of the longer Perfection of Wisdom writings. The result of thirty five years of effort, this book is a grand and scholarly work. Mr. Conze translated and compared many renditions of these longer sutras found in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan, and then sought to blend them into a coherent, unified text. It is the only such English translation of these magnificent and seminal works, and Mr. Conze has certainly done English-speaking Mahayanists a great service through his considerable efforts and knowledge. Having said that, however, I need to point out some serious caveats.

First, Mr. Conze, as he was often quick to point out himself, did not understand the meaning or import of many points in the text. These texts are intrinsically difficult to understand, but the main problem is that he was merely an academic, not someone familiar with the practice of Buddhism. and so Mr. Conze often resorted to literal translations of terms and phrases. The result is often a very difficult read, with incredibly awkward grammar and bizarre, frustrating word choices that make even some of the simpler concepts seem quite cryptic. This made worse by all the culturally unfamiliar embellishments, and by the endless repetitions found in old Buddhist literature, which was originally an oral tradition where such repetitions were helpful. It can often be rather slow going, and if you don't already know what's being talked about, you might easily become quite lost, and/or bored.

Second, this certainly is not an introductory text. It requires a firm grasp of basic Buddhist tenets and world views. In particular, if one does not clearly understand the basics of the older Thervadin teachings one cannot clearly know what these Mahayana teachings are attempting to refute, reinterpret and transcend. I cannot imagine getting much out of this text without a firm grounding in the Visuddhimagga and the more important books of the Abhidhamma. A solid familiarity with the Mahayana, especially with the seeming paradoxes and intricate arguments of the "wisdom teachings" on emptiness, and an ongoing daily practice under the guidance of a qualified teacher would also help.

If, indeed, one needs to know most of the material in the book before one reads the book, then why bother? As a practitioner of Buddhism, it has been important for me to go back and study the source texts of my tradition in order to validate and deepen my understanding of the more modern commentaries and oral teachings on which my practice is based. This fosters not only a better intellectual understanding, but, by removing certain subtle layers of doubt, it allows a stable certainty to develop that quiets the mind, allowing it to penetrate more deeply and clearly into Buddha's most profound teachings. Mr. Conze's Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom has been a great aid in this way, and, despite its shortcomings, I recommend it highly.

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