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Mother of All Buddhas

Adapted from Joanna's Memoir, Widening Circles

My encounter with the Mother of All Buddhas was preceded by a dreary spell of studying the Abhidharma, a canonical body of thought written three centuries after the Buddha. In it scholastic monks employed the tool of analysis to demonstrate the illusory nature of the self: they took ordinary experience and broke it down into tiny, ephemeral psycho-physical events called dharmas (with a small d). These dharmas with their subtle distinctions were enumerated and listed, categorized and classified, all with mind-boggling diligence and much debate. The entire exercise came to be understood as wisdom (prajna in Sanskrit, or panna in Pali).

My head swam. I was confused and bored with all this attention to hypothetical dharmas, and a little irritated, too. To view them as the building blocks of reality struck me as reductionistic--and, aside from that, the scholastic hair-splitting reminded me of the early church fathers.

I didn't stay sullen as a scholar for long, however. The next semester a teaching and a presence broke into my life--as happened for Buddhist India too, back in the first century of the Common Era. I was reading a scripture from the dawn of Mahayana Buddhism, a Perfection of Wisdom sutra. That was her name too: Prajna Paramita, Perfection of Wisdom. She was not a historical figure, but the symbolic embodiment of true insight. As such she was called the Mother of All Buddhas. It was she who brought them forth and nursed them to enlightenment.

As I became familiar with this text of hers, dauntingly entitled Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines, I imagined her blowing into the scholastics' debates, scattering their arguments like dry leaves. I could almost hear her impatient, maternal voice: "Just stop it! This analytic exercise is not what it's about. You don't break free of the self by dissecting it into its components. The separate dharmas, with which you busy your minds, are empty! They're as empty of their own reality as the self is, and as all concepts and conjectures are." Sunya, empty, became one of her names.

Wisdom is not about bits and pieces, she said, it's about relationship. It's about the compassion that comes when we realize our deep relatedness. In this fashion, she brought forth in new words the Buddha's central teaching: the dependent co-arising of all phenomena. That's why her scriptures became known as the Second Turning of the Wheel.

To unglue the Abhidharmists' logic, she spoke in paradoxes. As you lead all beings to nirvana, the ultimate release from suffering, you lead them nowhere. Nirvana is no separate place. All is empty, there is no solid ground to stand on, but you can fly in that emptiness. It can hold you as the sky holds the birds.

Her scripture offered little to let me picture her, no physical descriptions, just attributes like "space" and "depth" and "endlessness." Her lack of features allowed images of my own to surface--images of strong gray arms and a rustling surround of sun-dappled green. With Prajna Paramita, I was back again in the maple tree on Ouie's farm, where changing light played through her leaves, and through me as well.

This text of eight thousand lines had much to say about those who venture into Prajna Paramita, trusting her wisdom of deep relation. These are the bodhisattvas. The hero model of the Mahayana is described here fully for the first time--not just as earlier incarnations of the Lord Buddha, but as a reality we each can be. Reading of their insight and compassion, I recognized the bodhisattvas who had graced my life, like Ouie and the Air Force chaplain at Blair, and Freda Bedi, Choegyal Rinpoche, Father Wendt, and Dr. King--even some Peace Corps volunteers I knew and some folks at the Urban League.

We can all be bodhisattvas--the Mother of All Buddhas was quite emphatic on this point. That's because we are, by our very nature, interdependent with all life and engendered by relationships. So we are perfectly capable of treating others as ourselves and opening to the world as to our own hearts.

It can be scary, of course, to discover that there's no separate self and no private salvation. That's why, over and over again, the Mother of All Buddhas says, "Don't be afraid." When, centuries later, images were made of her in the form of Tara, a celestial embodiment of compassion, her hand is raised, palm outward and open, in the gesture that means "Fear Not."