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Prajñāpāramitā personified. From the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.

Prajñāpāramitā (P. paññāpāramī; T. shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa ཤེས་རབ་ཀྱི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་; C. bore boluomiduo/zhidu; J. hannya-haramitta 般若波羅蜜多), translated as "the Perfection of Wisdom," is a central concept in Mahāyāna Buddhism. The term can refer to:

  • the highest level of wisdom--the wisdom of buddhahood--which is a perfected way of seeing the nature of reality
  • the collection of Mahayana sutras associated with this concept
  • the personification of the concept as the Bodhisattva known as the "Great Mother" (Tibetan: Yum Chenmo)

The development of prajñāpāramitā (in the sense of highest level of wisdom) is the goal of the Bodhisattva path.


The word Prajñāpāramitā combines the Sanskrit words prajñā "wisdom" with pāramitā "perfection".

Prajnaparamita Sutras

Avalokiteśvara. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra manuscript. Nālandā, Bihar, India.

According to Edward Conze, the Prajñāpāramitā Sutras are "a collection of about forty texts ... composed in India between approximately 100 BC and AD 600."[1] Some Prajnāpāramitā sūtras are thought to be among the earliest Mahayana sutras.[2][3]

Contemporary scholar Rupert Gethin writes:

The ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ (prajñāpāramita) literature evolved over many centuries and comprises a variety of texts, including some of the oldest Mahāyāna sūtra material. Edward Conze, a pioneer of the scholarly study of this literature, considered the oldest and most basic text to be the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-Prajnāpāramitā (‘Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines’), which he dates from the first century BCE. Subsequent centuries saw the production of vast expanded versions, such as those of 100,000 lines, 25,000 lines, and 18,000 lines, as well as shorter versions, such as the Vajracchedikā and Hrṛdaya (the ‘Diamond’ and ‘Heart’ Sūtras)...[4]

Early sutras

The earliest Prajnaparamita sutras are named according to the number of lines in the sutra. Thus, eight of the early sutras are named as follows:

  1. Triśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 300 lines, commonly known as the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra)
  2. Pañcaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 500 lines
  3. Saptaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 700 lines, the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī's exposition of Prajñāpāramitā
  4. Sārdhadvisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 2500 lines, from the questions of Suvikrāntavikrāmin Bodhisattva
  5. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 8000 lines
  6. Aṣṭadaśasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 18,000 lines
  7. Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 25,000 lines
  8. Śatasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: 100,000 lines

According to Joseph Walser, there is evidence that the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (25,000 lines) and the Śatasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (100,000 lines) have a connection with the Dharmaguptaka sect, while the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (8000 lines) does not.[5]

Heart sutra

The shortest and best-known Prajñāpāramitā sūtra is the Heart Sutra (Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya), which is said to present the essential meaning of the Prajnaparamita literature in condensed form.

Edward Conze writes, "...the Diamond Sūtra and the Heart Sūtra are in a class by themselves and deservedly renowned throughout the world of Northern Buddhism. Both have been translated into many languages and have often been commented upon."[6]

Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra

The Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra is a collection of sixteen Prajnaparamita sutras found in the Chinese Canon.

Tantric texts

Tāntric versions of the Prajñāpāramitā literature were produced from the year 500 CE on and include sutras such as the Adhyardhaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā (150 lines). Additionally, Prajñāpāramitā terma teachings are held by some Tibetan Buddhists to have been conferred upon Nāgārjuna by the Nāgarāja "King of the Nāgas", who had been guarding them at the bottom of the sea.


Editor's note: this section needs attention. Review-icon.png

Earliest texts

Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā

Western scholars have traditionally considered the earliest sūtra in the Prajñāpāramitā class to be the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra or "Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines", which was probably put in writing in the 1st century BCE.[7] This chronology is based on the views of Edward Conze, who largely considered dates of translation into other languages. This text also has a corresponding version in verse format, called the Ratnaguṇasaṃcaya Gāthā, which some believe to be slightly older because it is not written in standard literary Sanskrit. However, these findings rely on late-dating Indian texts, in which verses and mantras are often kept in more archaic forms.

Additionally, a number of scholars have proposed that the Mahāyāna Prajñāpāramitā teachings were first developed by the Caitika subsect of the Mahāsāṃghikas. They believe that the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra originated amongst the southern Mahāsāṃghika schools of the Āndhra region, along the Kṛṣṇa River.[8] These Mahāsāṃghikas had two famous monasteries near Amarāvati and the Dhānyakataka, which gave their names to the Pūrvaśaila and Aparaśaila schools.[9] Each of these schools had a copy of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in Prakrit.[9] Guang Xing also assesses the view of the Buddha given in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra as being that of the Mahāsāṃghikas.[9] Edward Conze estimates that this sūtra originated around 100 BCE.[9]

In 2012, Harry Falk and Seishi Karashima published a damaged and partial Kharoṣṭhī manuscript of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā.[10] It is radiocarbon dated to ca. 75 CE, making it one of the oldest Buddhist texts in existence. It is very similar to the first Chinese translation of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā by Lokakṣema (ca. 179 CE) whose source text is assumed to be in the Gāndhārī language. Comparison with the standard Sanskrit text shows that it is also likely to be a translation from Gāndhāri as it expands on many phrases and provides glosses for words that are not present in the Gāndhārī. This points to the text being composed in Gāndhārī, the language of Gandhara (the region now called the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan, including Peshawar, Taxila and Swat Valley). The "Split" manuscript is evidently a copy of an earlier text, confirming that the text may date before the first century of the common era.

Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā

In contrast to western scholarship, Japanese scholars have traditionally considered the Diamond Sūtra (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) to be from a very early date in the development of Prajñāpāramitā literature.[11] The usual reason for this relative chronology which places the Vajracchedikā earlier is not its date of translation, but rather a comparison of the contents and themes.[12] Some western scholars also believe that the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra was adapted from the earlier Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.[11]

Examining the language and phrases used in both the Aṣṭasāhasrikā and the Vajracchedikā, Gregory Schopen also sees the Vajracchedikā as being earlier than the Aṣṭasāhasrikā.[13] This view is taken in part by examining parallels between the two works, in which the Aṣṭasāhasrikā seems to represent the later or more developed position.[13] According to Schopen, these works also show a shift in emphasis from an oral tradition (Vajracchedikā) to a written tradition (Aṣṭasāhasrikā).[13]

Classification of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras

Arapacana manjusri with prajnaparamita in his right hand. Statue belongs to 18 CAD, Tibet. Currently at YSR state archaeological museum

An Indian commentary on the Mahāyānasaṃgraha, entitled Vivṛtaguhyārthapiṇḍavyākhyā, gives a classification of teachings according to the capabilities of the audience:

[A]ccording to disciples' grades, the Dharma is [classified as] inferior and superior. For example, the inferior was taught to the merchants Trapuṣa and Ballika because they were ordinary men; the middle was taught to the group of five because they were at the stage of saints; the eightfold Prajñāpāramitās were taught to bodhisattvas, and [the Prajñāpāramitās] are superior in eliminating conceptually imagined forms. The eightfold [Prajñāpāramitās] are the teachings of the Prajñāpāramitā as follows: the Triśatikā, Pañcaśatikā, Saptaśatikā, Sārdhadvisāhasrikā, Aṣṭasāhasrikā, Aṣṭadaśasāhasrikā, Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā, and Śatasāhasrikā.[14]

Commentaries and translations

There are various Indian and later Chinese commentaries on the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, some of the most influential commentaries include:

  • Mahāprajñāpāramitāupadeśa (大智度論, T no. 1509) a massive and encyclopedic text translated into Chinese by the Buddhist scholar Kumarajiva (344–413 CE). It is a commentary on the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. This text claims to be from the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (c. 2nd century) in the colophon, but various scholars such as Etienne Lamotte have questioned this attribution. This work was translated by Lamotte as Le Traité de la Grande Vertu de Sagesse and into English from the French by Gelongma Karma Migme Chodron.[15]
  • Abhisamayālaṅkāra (Ornament of clear realization), the central Prajñāpāramitā shastra in the Tibetan tradition. It is traditionally attributed as a revelation from the Bodhisattva Maitreya to the scholar Asanga (fl. 4th century C.E.), known as a master of the Yogācāra school. The Indian commentary on this text by Haribhadra, the Abhisamāyalaṅkāralokā, has also been influential on later Tibetan texts.
  • Śatasāhasrikā-pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikāṣṭādaśasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-bṛhaṭṭīkā, often attributed to Vasubandhu (4th century).[16]
  • Satasahasrika-paramita-brhattika, attributed to Damstrásena.
  • Dignaga's Prajnaparamitarthasamgraha-karika.
  • Ratnākaraśānti's Prajñāpāramitopadeśa.

The sutras were first brought to Tibet in the reign of Trisong Detsen (742-796) by scholars Jinamitra and Silendrabodhi and the translator Yeshe De.[17]

Prajñāpāramitā in Central Asia

By the middle of the 3rd century CE, it appears that some Prajñāpāramitā texts were known in Central Asia, as reported by the Chinese monk Zhu Shixing, who brought back a manuscript of the Prajñāpāramitā of 25,000 lines:[18]

When in 260 AD, the Chinese monk Zhu Shixing chose to go to Khotan in an attempt to find original Sanskrit sūtras, he succeeded in locating the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā in 25,000 verses, and tried to send it to China. In Khotan, however, there were numerous Hīnayānists who attempted to prevent it because they regarded the text as heterodox. Eventually, Zhu Shixing stayed in Khotan, but sent the manuscript to Luoyang where it was translated by a Khotanese monk named Mokṣala. In 296, the Khotanese monk Gītamitra came to Chang'an with another copy of the same text.


In China, there was extensive translations of many Prajñāpāramitā texts beginning in the second century CE, main translators include: Lokakṣema (支婁迦讖), Zhī Qīan (支謙), Dharmarakṣa (竺法護), Mokṣala (無叉羅), Kumārajīva (鳩摩羅什, 408 CE), Xuánzàng (玄奘), Făxián (法賢) and Dānapāla (施護).[19] These translations were very influential in the development of East Asian Mādhyamaka and on Chinese Buddhism.

Xuanzang (fl. c. 602–664) was a Chinese scholar who traveled to India and returned to China with three copies of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra which he had secured from his extensive travels.[20] Xuanzang, with a team of disciple translators, commenced translating the voluminous work in 660 CE using the three versions to ensure the integrity of the source documentation.[20] Xuanzang was being encouraged by a number of the disciple translators to render an abridged version. After a suite of dreams quickened his decision, Xuanzang determined to render an unabridged, complete volume, faithful to the original of 600 fascicles.[21]

There are also later commentaries from Zen Buddhists on the Heart and Diamond sutra and Kūkai's commentary (9th century) is the first known Tantric commentary.

The Bodhisattva and Prajñāpāramitā

Gandharan depiction of the Bodhisattva (the future Buddha Shakyamuni) prostrating at the feet of the past Buddha Dipankara.

A key theme of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras is the figure of the Bodhisattva, which is defined in the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra of 8,000 lines as:

"One who trains in all dharmas [phenomena] without obstruction [asakti, asaktatā], and also knows all dharmas as they really are."[22]

A central quality of the Bodhisattva is their practice of Prajñāpāramitā, a most deep (gambhīra) state of knowledge which is an understanding of reality arising from analysis as well as meditative insight. It is non-conceptual and non-dual (advaya) as well as transcendental.[23] Literally, the term could be translated as "knowledge gone to the other (shore)",[24] or transcendental knowledge. The PP sutra in 8000 lines says:

This is known as the Prajñāpāramitā of the bodhisattvas; not grasping at form, not grasping at sensation, perception, volitions and cognition.[25]

According to Karl Brunnholzl, Prajñāpāramitā means that "all phenomena from form up through omniscience being utterly devoid of any intrinsic characteristics or nature of their own."[26] Furthermore, "such omniscient wisdom is always nonconceptual and free from reference points since it is the constant and panoramic awareness of the nature of all phenomena and does not involve any shift between meditative equipoise and subsequent attainment."[27]

Selected English translations

Author Title Publisher Notes Year
Edward Conze Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom ISBN 978-0877737094 Buddhist Society, London Portions of various Perfection of Wisdom sutras 1978
Edward Conze The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom ISBN 0-520-05321-4 University of California Mostly the version in 25,000 lines, with some parts from the versions in 100,000 and 18,000 lines 1985
Edward Conze Buddhist Wisdom Books ISBN 0-04-440259-7 Unwin The Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra with commentaries 1988
Edward Conze The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary ISBN 81-7030-405-9 Four Seasons Foundation The earliest text in a combination of strict translation and summary 1994
Edward Conze Perfect Wisdom; The Short Prajnaparamita Texts ISBN 0-946672-28-8 Buddhist Publishing Group, Totnes. (Luzac reprint) Most of the short sutras: Perfection of Wisdom in 500 Lines, 700 lines, The Heart Sutra and The Diamond Sutra, one word, plus some Tantric sutras, all without commentaries. 2003
Geshe Tashi Tsering Emptiness: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, ISBN 978-0-86171-511-4 Wisdom Publications A guide to the topic of emptiness from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, with English translation of the Heart Sutra 2009
Lex Hixon Mother of the Buddhas: Meditation on the Prajnaparamita Sutra ISBN 0-8356-0689-9 Quest Selected verses from the Prajnaparamita in 8000 lines 1993
R.C. Jamieson The perfection of wisdom, ISBN 978-0-67088-934-1 Penguin Viking Foreword by H.H. the Dalai Lama; illustrated with Cambridge University Library Manuscript Add.1464 & Manuscript Add.1643 -
Richard H. Jones The Heart of Buddhist Wisdom: Plain English Translations of the Heart Sutra, the Diamond-Cutter Sutra, and other Perfection of Wisdom Texts, ISBN 978-1478389576 Jackson Square Books Clear translations and summaries of the most important texts with essays 2012
Lopez, Donald S. Elaborations on Emptiness ISBN 0-691-00188-X Princeton The Heart Sutra with eight complete Indian and Tibetan commentaries 1998
Lopez, Donald S. The Heart Sutra Explained ISBN 0-88706-590-2 SUNY The Heart Sutra with a summary of Indian commentaries 1987
Rabten, Geshe Echoes of Voidness ISBN 0-86171-010-X Wisdom Includes the Heart Sutra with Tibetan commentary 1983
Thich Nhat Hanh The Heart of Understanding ISBN 0-938077-11-2 Parallax Press The Heart Sutra with a Vietnamese Thiền commentary 1988
Thich Nhat Hanh The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion ISBN 0-938077-51-1 Parallax Press The Diamond Sutra with a Vietnamese Thiền commentary 1992
Red Pine The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom; Text and Commentaries Translated from Sanskrit and Chinese ISBN 1-58243-256-2 Counterpoint The Diamond Sutra with Chán/Zen commentary 2001
Red Pine The Heart Sutra: the Womb of Buddhas ISBN 978-1593760090 Counterpoint Heart Sutra with commentary 2004
14th Dalai Lama Essence of the Heart Sutra, ISBN 978-0-86171-284-7 Wisdom Publications Heart Sutra with commentary by the 14th Dalai Lama 2005
Doosun Yoo Thunderous Silence: A Formula For Ending Suffering: A Practical Guide to the Heart Sutra, ISBN 978-1614290537 Wisdom Publications English translation of the Heart Sutra with Korean Seon commentary 2013
Kazuaki Tanahashi The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism, ISBN 978-1611800968 Shambhala Publications English translation of the Heart Sutra with history and commentary 2015
Brian Chung Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra Purelandsutras English liturgical translation of Heart Sutra with decorative calligraphy. In Public Domain. 2018


  1. Conze, E. Perfect Wisdom: The Short Prajnaparamita Texts, Buddhist Publishing Group, 1993
  2. Williams, Paul. Buddhist Thought. Routledge, 2000, pages 131.
  3. Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations 2nd edition. Routledge, 2009, pg. 47.
  4. Gethin, Rupert (1998-07-16). The Foundations of Buddhism (p. 234). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  5. Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2008. p. 6
  6. Conze, Edward. The Short Prajñāpāramitā Texts. 1973. p. 9
  7. Mäll, Linnart. Studies in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā and other essays. 2005. p. 96
  8. Guang Xing. The Concept of the Buddha: Its Evolution from Early Buddhism to the Trikaya Theory. 2004. pp. 65-66 "Several scholars have suggested that the Prajnaparamita probably developed among the Mahasamghikas in Southern India, in the Andhra country, on the Krsna River."
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Guang Xing. The Concept of the Buddha: Its Evolution from Early Buddhism to the Trikaya Theory. 2004. p. 66
  10. Harry Falk and Seishi Karashima, A first‐century Prajñāpāramitā manuscript from Gandhāra — parivarta 1 (Texts from the Split Collection 1). Annual Report of the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University XV (2012), 19-61.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations. London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-02537-0. p.42
  12. Schopen, Gregory. Figments and Fragments of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India. 2005. p. 55
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Schopen, Gregory. Figments and Fragments of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India. 2005. pp. 31-32
  14. Hamar, Imre. Reflecting Mirrors: Perspectives on Huayan Buddhism. 2007. p. 94
  16. Karl Brunnhölzl "Prajñāpāramitā, Indian “gzhan ston pas“, And the Beginning of Tibetan gzhan stong" (2011) 197p.
  17. Brunnholzl, Karl; Gone Beyond: The Prajnaparamita Sutras The Ornament Of Clear Realization And Its Commentaries In The Tibetan Kagyu Tradition (Tsadra) 2011, page 42.
  18. Heirman, Ann. Bumbacher, Stephan Peter. The Spread of Buddhism. 2007. p. 100
  19. Orsborn, M. B.. (2012). Chiasmus in the early Prajñāpāramitā : literary parallelism connecting criticism & hermeneutics in an early Mahāyāna sūtra. (Thesis). Page 41. University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong SAR. Retrieved from
  20. 20.0 20.1 Wriggins, Sally Hovey (2004). The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. Boulder, Colorado: WestviewPress. ISBN 0-8133-6599-6. p.206
  21. Wriggins, Sally Hovey (2004). The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. Boulder, Colorado: WestviewPress. ISBN 0-8133-6599-6. p.207
  22. Orsborn, Matthew Bryan. “Chiasmus in the Early Prajñāpāramitā: Literary Parallelism Connecting Criticism & Hermeneutics in an Early Mahāyāna Sūtra”, University of Hong Kong , 2012, page 159.
  23. Williams, Paul; Mahayana Buddhism, the doctrinal foundations, pages 49-50.
  24. Orsborn, Matthew Bryan. “Chiasmus in the Early Prajñāpāramitā: Literary Parallelism Connecting Criticism & Hermeneutics in an Early Mahāyāna Sūtra”, University of Hong Kong , 2012, page 176.
  25. Orsborn, Matthew Bryan. “Chiasmus in the Early Prajñāpāramitā: Literary Parallelism Connecting Criticism & Hermeneutics in an Early Mahāyāna Sūtra”, University of Hong Kong , 2012, page 201.
  26. Brunnholzl, Karl; Gone Beyond: The Prajnaparamita Sutras The Ornament Of Clear Realization And Its Commentaries In The Tibetan Kagyu Tradition (Tsadra) 2011, page 28.
  27. Brunnholzl, Karl; Gone Beyond: The Prajnaparamita Sutras The Ornament Of Clear Realization And Its Commentaries In The Tibetan Kagyu Tradition (Tsadra) 2011, page 30.


  • Vaidya, P.L, ed. (1960). Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā with Haribhadra’s Commentary Called āloka. Buddhist Sanskrit Texts. 4. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute. 

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