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Perfection of Wisdom: Ratnagunasamcayagatha

by Sangharakshita

Sangharakshita in Seminar

Perfection of Wisdom: Ratnagunasamcayagatha seminar
Held at Padmaloka, summer 1976.

Transcribed by Janet Owen, Terry Richardson, John Wakeman, and Maha Upasika Gotami, and corrected by Ven. Sangharakshita. Words within square brackets are later explanatory additions by Ven. Sangharakshita, except those marked "tr." which are later annotations. Digitized by Diane Hughes. Corrected, copy edited, and annotated by Shantavira, November 2004.

Text: the Ratnagunasamcayagatha, from 'The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary' by Edward Conze, published by Four Seasons Foundation, Bolinas, California.

Those present: Ven. Sangharakshita, Padmapani, Padmaraja, Sagaramati, Vessantara, Alan Angel, Ian Anderson, Mark Barret, Roy Campbell, Kim Catala, Mike Chivers, Peter Cowen, Pat Dunlop, Dominic Kennedy, John Rooney, Graham Steven, Mike Thomsen.

Part 1

Sangharakshita: Today we come to the Perfection of Wisdom, one of the oldest of the Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom texts. In fact, we come on to what may well be the very oldest of all the Perfection of Wisdom texts, and in particular to the first two chapters, which according to some modern scholars are the oldest part of that text. Dealing as it does with the Perfection of Wisdom, obviously the text is quite profound, but, fortunately for us, it is expressed in relatively simple terms. So we are going to take it quite easily, and go through it bit by bit, section by section, and see what we can get out of it. Let's go round the circle, each person reading a section at a time, beginning right at the top of the page with the homage.

p.9 "Homage to all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas!

"Thereupon the Lord, in order to gladden the four assemblies, and to further lighten up this perfection of wisdom, preached at that time the following verses.

"Chapter 1: Preliminary Admonition

"Call forth as much as you can of love, of respect and of faith!
Remove the obstructing defilements, and clear away all your taints!
Listen to the Perfect Wisdom of the gentle Buddhas
Taught for the weal of the world, for heroic spirits intended!"

S: First of all, the homage - not simply to the Buddha, you notice, but to all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. What does that tell you about the text? What do you know immediately when you see it? [2]

Padmapani: It's the Mahayana.

S: It's a Mahayana text. Does that mean that only the Mahayanists revere the Bodhisattvas?

Peter: No, because the Theravadins revere Maitreya, don't they?

S: Yes, they do. But do they revere any other Bodhisattva, who is now a Bodhisattva?

Mark: The Buddha before his Enlightenment was a Bodhisattva.

S: Yes, they do regard the Buddha as having been a Bodhisattva before his Enlightenment, but he is not now a Bodhisattva. The only Bodhisattva whom they revere who is now a Bodhisattva is Maitreya: they don't revere any other. Bodhisattvas in the plural therefore clearly indicates the Mahayana.

"Thereupon in order to gladden the four assemblies ... "

What are these four assemblies? (pause) It is the chaturvarga. What is the chaturvarga?

Peter: It is the shravakas and the pratyeka Buddhas.

S: No, no. The four assemblies.

John: Is it the four subdivisions within the sangha?

S: Yes, so what are they?

John: They would be the bhikshus and the upasakas.

S: It's the bhikshus, bhikshunis, upasakas, and upasikas. The sangha, as made up of these four assemblies, or groups, is therefore called the Chaturvarga sangha, or the sangha of the four divisions. There is probably a parallel intended with the Brahminical Chaturvarna. The difference is of only a single letter: Chaturvarna and Chaturvarga. Chaturvarna means the four colours, or as we would say, the four castes; that is to say, the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, the Vaishya, and the Shudra, or the priest, the ruler and landowner, the merchant and trader, and the labourer or serf. These four make up the Chaturvarna of Brahminical society. The four vargas, that is to say, the bhikshu, bhikshuni, upasaka and upasika, make up the Chaturvarga - the four groups or four assemblies - of the spiritual community, the sangha. I don't think this has ever been pointed out by anyone before, this parallel between Chaturvarna and Chaturvarga. But what is the great difference between the varna and varga - between colour and assembly, between a caste, on the one hand, and a group within the spiritual community on the other?

Mark: Caste implies a sort of hierarchy, just a set rule because of which of those you belong to.

S: Ah, but how do you belong to them?

Mark: By birth.

S: Yes, by birth. So the principle of division here is hereditary. But what about the Sangha and the Chaturvarga? What is the principle there?

Alan: The degree of commitment.

S: The degree of commitment. Yes.

Peter: And sex.

S: Yes, and sex too. [3]

Alan: Was that division actually put forward by the Buddha, i.e. the one created between the upasaka and the upasika?

S: As far as we know. It's found in the Pali texts, where mention is made of the four assemblies: bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upasakas, and upasikas. It is a way of saying the whole spiritual community. The Ratnagunasamcayagatha is a quite early Mahayana sutra. In later sutras there is a much more elaborate description of the spiritual community. You not only get bhikshus and bhikshunis, upasakas and upasikas, but Bodhisattvas and arhants (Pali: arahats) as well. You get devas, you get nagas, gandharvas - even animals. You get all sorts of beings. In a sense all living beings make up the great sangha, the great community, in the widest sense of the term. The moment they listen to the Buddha they become members of the spiritual community. Thus in the Mahayana sutras, that is to say the more extended ones, you get all living beings - or at least representatives of all the different classes of living beings - ranged about the Buddha in great circles listening to him as he teaches the Dharma, and they all make up the sangha, in the very widest sense. Here in this text the spiritual community consists simply of the four vargas: the bhikshus, bhikshunis, upasakas, and upasikas. There is no mention of Bodhisattvas, no mention of arhants, though maybe many of the bhikshus and bhikshunis were arhants. There is no mention of non-human beings.

'And to further lighten up this perfection of wisdom.' It's as though the Buddha has lit up, that is to say, explained, the Perfection of Wisdom already on some previous occasion, but is now going to illuminate it, to explain it even further, and so he 'preached' i.e. uttered, 'at that time the following verses'. Thus he preaches, you notice, 'in order to gladden the four assemblies'. We had a touch of that at the end of the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, didn't we, when 'delighted, these monks rejoiced in what the Lord said'. So here also the Buddha is going to teach them, is going to open up the Dharma, open up the Perfection of Wisdom, or as Conze translates it 'Perfect Wisdom' - we can also say transcendental wisdom - in order to gladden them, to give them a special treat as it were. Maybe they have been good bhikshus and bhikshunis, upasakas and upasikas, so the Buddha is pleased with them; he wants to make them happy, wants to give them a special treat. For that reason he is not going to talk to them about sila, or even about samadhi. He is going to talk to them about prajna. Not only prajna, but prajnaparamita, Perfect Wisdom. He is going to really delight and gladden them. It's a pity the translator uses the word 'preached', because that suggests a sermon, and sermons don't usually gladden people's hearts. Rather otherwise.

Follows then a verse of Preliminary Admonition. I take it you all know what an admonition is. This is only the translator's heading. It's like a warning. So

"Call forth as much as you can of love, of respect and of faith!
Remove the obstructing defilements, and clear away all your taints!
Listen to the Perfect Wisdom of the gentle Buddhas
Taught for the weal of the world, for heroic spirits intended!"

Right at the beginning, right in the very first line of the verse, the Buddha says "Call forth as much as you can of love, of respect and of faith!" What does this signify?

Peter: It's a warning that it is going to be a bit difficult so to have lots of ...

S: Yes, certainly, there is that. It is going to be quite difficult.

Padmapani: It seems to refer to the fact that it is going to be exceedingly hard to grasp, maybe on an intellectual level, in the sense that it calls for faith. [4]

S: Yes, but faith in what sort of sense?

Padmapani: Presumably it would be faith in what the Buddha's teaching.

S: What I was getting at was not faith in the sense of belief, but faith in the sense of an emotionally positive in attitude, a receptive attitude. Also a joyous attitude. You are asked to "Call forth as much as you can of love, of respect and of faith!" In other words, if you haven't got this right emotional attitude - if you are not emotionally positive, if you are not open to the Dharma - then you won't be able to receive it, won't be able to understand it.

Vessantara: There's also the suggestion of the inseparability of wisdom and compassion. The Buddha doesn't say 'Call forth all your intellectual powers.'

S: The verse also suggests that Perfect Wisdom is deserving of love, respect, and faith - that this is the appropriate attitude to adopt with regard to Perfect ...

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