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Genesis of Eden Diversity Encyclopedia

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Return to Genesis of Eden?

Macey, Joanna 1991 World as Lover World as Self,
Parallax Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-938077-27-9

NOTE: This extract is included as an essential reading for transforming the world. You are requested to purchase the book yourself as it is, without question, essential reading material.

Mother of all Buddhas: The Second Turning of the Wheel

About five centuries after the Buddha, the Wheel of the Dharma, they say, turned again. The Buddha's central teaching of the dependent co-arising or interbeing of all phenomena, which he had identified as the Dharma itself, was reaffirmed and renewed, clothed in fresh language and imagery. This turning is represented by the scriptures called Perfection of Wisdom, or Prajnaparamita, which herald the advent of Mahayana Buddhism.

Here the hero figure of the bodhisattva appears, no longer limited to former lives of the Buddha, but extending to all beings who are able to perceive the interdependent nature of reality. And here that saving insight itself is personified. Emerging in the same era as did her Mediterranean counterpart Sophia, this wisdom, too, is female. She is the Perfection of Wisdom, the Mother of All Buddhas.

She presents an archetypal structure very different from the feminine attributes we have inherited from patriarchal thought. Freed from the dichotomies which oppose earth to sky, flesh to spirit, the feminine appears here clothed in light and space, as that pregnant zero point where the illusion of ego is lost and the world, no longer feared or fled, is re-entered with compassion.

To get acquainted with her and learn more about the wisdom of interbeing, let us look at one of the richest and most beautiful of the scriptures that honor her, the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines, written down some two thousand years ago.


Because she pointed to a reality which eludes classifications, this wisdom, prajna, was called paramita, which means "gone beyond' or to the 'other side," as well as "perfection." To those who were dryly and doggedly analyzing the dharmas, she offered not theories, but paradoxes. "Countless beings do I lead to Nirvana and yet there are none who are led to Nirvana." ... No formula captured her insight, but through the paradoxes shone a light offering release from the self-adhesive nature of human logic. The self is nonsubstantial, true, but so also are its concepts, the very dharmas into which the self was analyzed; they are radically relative, empty, void. In other words, Perfection of Wisdom, freeing us from absolutizing concepts, returned to the Buddha's central insight into dependent co-arising.

This wisdom, then, is not the kind one can think oneself into; it is away of seeing. Without it, the very practice of virtue and meditation can be an ego prop, to which we cling in pride or desperation; with it, liberated by it, the world itself (sanuara) is altered-not suppressed or rejected, but transfigured.


The Buddhas in the world-systems in the ten directions
Bring to mind this perfection of wisdom as their mother.
The Saviours of the world who were in the past,
and also are now in the ten directions,
Have issued from her, and so will the future ones be.
She is the one who shows this world [for what it is],
she is the genetrix, the mother of the Buddhas.

The mother, like the wisdom she offers, is elusive, 'signless.' She is barely personalized in the sutra; no stories attach to her

In his eagerness to learn and his sense that his time has come to experience enlightenment, the bodhisattva is likened to "a pregnant woman, all astir with pains, whose time has come for her to give birth.' He is "like a mother, ministering to her only child,' in his devotion to the welfare of other beings. "Just as a cow does not abandon her young calf," so does the bodhisattva follow the teacher until he knows this Perfection of Wisdom by heart. In his constant pondering of this wisdom, he is like a man who "had made a date with a handsome, attractive and good looking woman.'"

As light and insight, she reveals that all dharmas are void, signless, and wishless, not produced, not stopped and non-existent. By the same token, Perfect Wisdom herself is empty, sunya. She is "not a real thing"; like dharmas, Buddhas and bodhisattvas themselves she offers "no basis for apprehension.' The text recognizes that this is fearful to contemplate. It acknowledges that this teaching is "alarming" and "terrifying." Those who are not distressed, "not frightened on heating the Mother's deep tenets,' "not cowed, p@ed or stupefied," those 'who do not despair, turn away or become dejected," reveal their advancement on the Path, their potential for Buddhahood soon.

While Perfection of Wisdom reveals sunyala, the void, in all its awesomeness, she seems to recognize the terror it can initially induce, for she also offers comfort. "In her we find defense and protection." "She offers the safety of the wings of enlightenment.' "She helps with the four grounds of self-confidence." The reassurance she gives is symbolized in the abhaya mudra of her raised right hand, the fearnot gesture that we encounter in some later Tantric images of her.

Her evident compassion ... inheres in her very seeing and is implicit in her clear-eyed vision of the world's suffering. ... It is not surprising that metaphors of sheltering and enclosing are relatively rare for the Perfection of Wisdom and the help she offers. Since, as the bodhisattva is repeatedly reminded, there is no basis, no ground to stand on, the predominant movement is to image her in space, in boundless immensity. ... Like space, she is endless, ananta. Like space she is immeasurable, incalculable, and insubstantial; like space she cannot be increased, decreased, or confined in categories. Like sheer space, she can terrify, but the bodhisattva must plunge right into it, unafraid and ready to delight. If he is not frightened and trusts her, he becomes "like a bird who on its wings courses in the air. It neither falls to the ground, nor does it stand anywhere on any support. It dwells in space, just as in the air, without being either supported or settled therein. ,

This space, into which the bodhisattva ventures, is not the old realm of the sky gods, traditionally accorded to the male in the mythical dualities of sky father-earth mother. Attributes of the sky father featured the sovereign heights of his heavens, his astronomic regularity and law, the power of his thunderous downpours. ... Furthermore, she is not set in opposition to the recumbent earth; on the contrary, she is, on occasion, metaphorically equated with it as ground of being. "As many trees, fruits, flowers as there are have all come out of the earth... (so have) the Buddha's offspring and the gods and the dharmas issued from Perfect Wisdom." This wisdom is also linked with earth by the act ascribed to the Buddha during his enlightenment vigil, in which he called her to witness. He reached down, touched her, to affirm his right to be there and to destroy Mara's illusions.


A rich and startling new dimension is added to our understanding of the Perfection of Wisdom, when we learn how some terms used to describe her played a role in the development of mathematics in India, and particularly in the emergence of the concept of zero. ... This zero space becomes the still center of the turning world. Kha and nabha, two other terms used technically by mathematicians, originally meant "the hole in the nave of a wheel through which the axle runs." For the wheel to revolve the center must be empty. Hence, presumably, the sign for zero. It is the circle in which end and beginning merge. It is also a sexual sign for the female, linking the feminine and the void, as does the Perfection of Wisdom.

The Mother of the Buddhas, therefore, does not call the bodhisattva beyond this world, to final nirvana. She retains him on this side of reality, for the sake of all beings. "In this dwelling of Perfect Wisdom ... you shall become a saviour of the helpless, a defender of the defenseless ... a light to the blind, and you shall guide to the path those who have lost it, and you shall become a support to those who are without support."


To appreciate the distinctiveness of the Perfection of Wisdom, consider the feminine archetype prevailing in Hindu culture. Her symbolizations as wisdom, light, and space run counter to Hindu views and uses of the female principle.

Hindu culture presents a mytho-philosophic worldview rooted in polarities posited between earth and sky, nature and consciousness, matter and mind. The aboriginal pre-Aryan culture provided the basis in its worship of a goddess representative of fertility. Like other neolithic societies dependent on agriculture, it worshipped the productivity of nature (seen as female because of its birthing capacity), while recognizing its remorseless vegetative cycle of growth and death. The goddess of the Indus valley and Dravidian culture was driven underground by the invading Aryans and their chariot-driving, warrior sky-gods. Centuries later she resurfaced, clothed in respectability, in the Samkhyan philosophy, which had a profound and formative effect on subsequent Indian thought. Samkhya reestablished her in the form of the eternally evolving and fecund @rti (nature principle). She is dynamic and unconscious, in contrast to purusa, the conscious spirit. The individual soul finds himself entrapped in prakrti's turbulent world of change and materiality, and it is only in extricating himself from her that transcendence and release can be won.

The ancient matriarchal element also reasserted itself in the later development of the Devi and her cult. Represented variously as Durga and Kali, and other female forms, she is essentially one-Devi, the goddess. Whether adorned with peacock feathers or garlanded with skulls, she is the ceaselessly active one, prakrti, maya, shakti. She is the restlessness of primal matter, the fecund and cruel mother. As the creative power of the male gods, from whom she issues, she complements their pure, passive intelligence.

The goddess is both indulgent and terrible. The ambivalent feelings about the mother figure which she reflects can be related to the dual status of women in traditional Hindu society.

The positing of a metaphysical dichotomy between consciousness and nature leads to a vision of spirit as struggling to be free from the toils of matter. In such polarization matter comes to be seen as polluting and binding, her fertile nature as arbitrary, lavish, cruel.

Even when maya is understood as derivative of the transcendent One, as in Vedanta, it is perceived as both binding and maternal. The Perfection of Wisdom, Mother of all Buddhas, escapes this role and presents a radically different feminine archetype. The doctrine of dependent co-arising permits no polarization of consciousness and nature. Matter, seen as co-emergent with mind, is neither temptress nor trap. Faith in this wisdom mother is very different, therefore, from devotion accorded to the Devi. ... Faith in her is not a seeking of favors, but a letting go, a falling into emptiness. ... Because such a zero experience is a kind of birth, generative of new worlds, it is fitting that she who leads us through it is seen as "genetrix' and mother.

Centuries later, in profusion of graphic imagery, the Perfection of Wisdom plays a dominant role in Buddhist Tantrism. She is the prototype of all the female figures featured in Buddhist Tantric interplay. With serene aplomb she copulates with upaya, skill in means; her "other face," compassionate action, has become her male consort.

Scholars and art lovers have wondered and debated why, in these Buddhist figures, the sexual roles are reversed from the Hindu brand of Tantrism. There in connubial embrace is Shiva, who is the sublimely passive partner, and his consort Shakti, who represents dynamism. We now understand why the Perfection of Wisdom cannot, without misrepresentation, be equated with Shakti, or even Shiva for that matter. The Buddhist yab-yum (mother-father embrace) embodies a different vision altogether.

The fundamental difference is ontological: Perfection of Wisdom is empty, devoid of independent being, whereas Shiva as wisdom is the ultimate essence with which, by aid of Shakti, the adept would merge. In the Hindu pair, maya (material manifestation) is subsumed into moksha (spirit and release). In contrast to this, the Tantric symbolism of Buddhism represents not a cancelling of one pole, but the continual interplay of both. These poles are not moksha and maya or pure consciousness over against energy/matter, but rather two kinds of consciousness/energy. In the embrace of prajiia and upaya, wisdom and skillful means, life's dialectic modes of vision and action are held in balance, complementary and mutually essential. That numinous copulation expresses the Buddha's insight into the codependently arising nature of reality.

Appearing both as luminous space and compassionate caller of bodhisattvas, Prajnaparamita, the mother of all Buddhas, conveys a transforming vision of the world. In her and through her the central insight of the Buddha is rediscovered and reaffirmed; and that is why the scriptures that honor her are known as the Second Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma.