Also situated towards the end of the hall on this floor is the Aranya Sutra Chamber, the Depository of Buddhist Texts, where a copy of the entire Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra according to the Chinese Buddhist Canon is kept. Here you will see a statue of the splendid Manjushri Bodhisattva inspiring those seeking wisdom and statues of the Sixteen Shaka Protectors.
BTRTS had commissioned a team of renown calligraphers from Yangzhou, China to transcribe the Maha-prajna-paramita Sutra in regular script, with brush and ink. The total of 600 fascicles of this Sutra translated by the great Master XuanZang was thus be written down on 10,331 pieces of paper. This remarkable Sutra is enshrined in the Depository.
Each fascicle is written in traditional chinese black text in the manner of Regular Script or Kai Shu (楷书), vertically right-to-left on a long scroll which, in turn, is folded accordion-style into 14 × 18 cm vertical folios. Only the top side of this scroll is used, the bottom side is left blank.
The front and end folios are glued onto thick covers measuring 14.5 × 18.5 cm. The covers themselves are wrapped in a silk-like but textured red cloth adorned with thin golden floral patterns. The front cover contains the title and the chapter number written in gold on a rectangular black background with a decorative frame.
Spreading across the second to fourth folios is a print illustration of Buddha Shakyamuni surrounded by two bodhisattva disciples, other gods and celestial generals. In front of Buddha Shakyamuni is Xuan Zang depicted in his most iconic form as an ordained pilgrim carrying scriptures on his back. The last folio has a printed image of Wei Duo (Chinese: 韦驮, Sanskrit: Skanda) as a Chinese general with his hands in the anjali mudra and a sceptre laid horizontally across his elbow pits.
Each folio containing calligraphy of the sutra consists of 7 vertical columns with a top and bottom margins of 2.5 cm and 1.5 cm respectively. Characters are written above a pre-printed drawing of a ten-petalled lotus (five upright and five inverted in two layers). 17 characters can be written on each vertical column, making a total of 119 characters per folio.
For safekeeping, each volume is clothed carefully in a glossy yellow brocade which emulates the way in which Tibetan pechas are traditionally stored. These are then housed volume by volume in rectangular wooden boxes measuring 42 (length) × 19.5 (width) × 17.5 (height) cm. The boxes are painted red with gold patterns of flowers, leaves and branches, and finished with high gloss lacquer. The name of the sutra together with the relevant chapter number is written vertically, also in gold, on the lid of the box within a thick rectangular outline.
The Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra (Chinese: 大般若波羅蜜多經) was an encyclopedic collection of Prajnaparamita texts. Alternatively, this name refers to the Large Sutra on the Perfection of Wisdom (Skt. Pancavimsatisahasrika-prajnaparamita-sutra, meaning 25,000-Line Perfection of Wisdom Sutra) (Chinese: 摩訶般若波羅蜜多經; pinyin: Móhē Bōrě Bōluómìduō Jīng, whence the name Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra).
According to Indo-Tibetan traditions, the longest Perfection of Wisdom sutra is known as the Śatasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Tibetan: Shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa stong-pa brgya-pa) with 100,000 lines. Belonging to the same category as the Heart Sutra, these texts expound explicitly the Perfection of Wisdom and implicitly the other five Perfections, which are the main Sutric paths a Bodhisattva have to practise in order to attain Buddhahood.
It was said to have been delivered by Buddha Sakyamuni in four places at sixteen assemblies, ie Gridhrakuta (Vulture Peak) at Rajagrha, Sravasti, Paranirmitavasavartin and Veluvana (Bamboo Garden) near Rajagrha.
According to Buddhist legend, this sutra together with other important Mahayana sutras was entrusted by Buddha to the nagas, until the time when the faithful were ready to hear it.
By other accounts, it is said that the nagas, gods and the yaksha lords of wealth each took a copy of these teachings. It was subsequently brought from the naga realm back to the human world by the Indian pandita Nagarjuna in the 1st-2nd centuries CE. In order to ensure that he will return and teach them in the future, the nagas kept the last two chapters of the Śatasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra from him. These missing chapters were later replaced by the last two chapters from the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (in 8000 lines). This is the reason why the last two chapters of these two sutras are identical.
Ven. Xuanzang returned from India’s Nalanda to China with three copies of the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra. Xuanzang, with a team of disciple translators, commenced translating the voluminous work in 660 CE, using all three versions to ensure the integrity of the source documentation. Xuanzang was being encouraged by a number of his 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. It is the fundamental philosophical work of the Mahayana school, the formulation of wisdom, which is the sixth paramita.
According to the founder of the Tiantai school, Buddha taught for forty-nine years and could be divided into five periods, namely: 1) the Avatamsaka sutra period; 2) the Mrigadava & Agama sutras period; 3) the Vaipulya sutra period; 4) the Prajna sutra period; and 5) the Saddharma-pundarika sutra period. Just for the Prajna Sutra period alone, Buddha had spent twenty two years teaching the Dharma. These were collected into one sutra called “Maha-prajna-paramita Sutra”, with a total six hundred chapters.
“Prajna” is a Sanskrit word, with a very sophisticated meaning; just simply translating this word into ‘knowledge’ or ‘super-knowledge’ is unable to express its meaning fully. There is no single ancient Chinese phase that is able to incorporate its total meaning and to replace it, hence it could only be transliterated.
This is because the Buddhata (Buddha-nature) is without form, unable to express in words, unable to describe, can not be named and can’t be seen. Therefore, during Prajna period, Buddha applied two “temporary plans” and one “real plan” for teaching, i.e. using two temporary methods and one real Dharma. “Temporary plan” is to use simplified theory that suit the understanding level of the followers; the other way is using simple convenient examples to illustrate the sophisticated theory that is not easily understood by normal people. The real plan is to teach the real Dharma, the true Dharma, the Ekayana (the One Vehicle), pointing directly to our Buddhata, true and genuine Suchness, the Shunya principle.
The “real plan” is applied during the Avatamsaka period, the “temporary plan” is applied during the Agama and Vaipulya periods, while only during the Prajna period, Buddha applied both the temporary and the real plans. As the Prajna is the cream of the Dharma, it is the directory to become the Buddha. During the entire period of teaching, Buddha never moved away from the Prajna, therefore Prajna Dharma not only connects from the past but also leads us to the future. At this time just like the sun rises to the optimum high, its rays shine over the entire earth. The Buddhist circle using “ripe crisp” as metaphor, the crisp turning from green to ripe, the taste is getting better, this is what is said to the great Bodhisattva. This shows how exquisite and sophisticated the “Maha-prajna-paramita-Sutra” is.
Xuanzang was born near Luoyang, Henan in 602 as Chén Huī or Chén Yī (陳 褘) and died 5 February 664 in Yu Hua Gong (玉華宮). Xuanzang, whose lay name was Chen Hui, was born into a family noted for its erudition for generations. He was the youngest of four children.
At a young age Xuanzang expressed interest in becoming a Buddhist monk as one of his elder brothers had done. After the death of his father in 611, he lived with his older brother Chensu (later known as Changjie) for five years at Jingtu Monastery (淨土寺) in Luoyang, supported by the Sui Dynasty state. During this time he studied Mahayana Buddhism and various early Buddhist schools, preferring Mahayana.
In 618, the Sui Dynasty collapsed and Xuanzang and his brother fled to Chang'an, which had been proclaimed as the capital of the Tang state, and thence southward to Chengdu, Sichuan. Here the two brothers spent two or three years in further study in the monastery of Kong Hui, including the Abhidharmakosa-sastra (Abhidharma Storehouse Treatise). When Xuanzang requested to take Buddhist orders at the age of thirteen, the abbot Zheng Shanguo made an exception in his case because of his precocious knowledge Xuanzang was fully ordained as a monk in 622, at the age of twenty. The myriad contradictions and discrepancies in the texts at that time prompted Xuanzang to decide to go to India and study in the cradle of Buddhism. He subsequently left his brother and returned to Chang'an to study foreign languages and to continue his study of Buddhism. He began his mastery of Sanskrit in 626, and probably also studied Tocharian. During this time, Xuanzang also became interested in the metaphysical Yogacara school of Buddhism.
In 629, Xuanzang reportedly had a dream that convinced him to journey to India. The Tang Dynasty and Eastern Türk Göktürks were waging war at the time; therefore Emperor Tang Taizong prohibited foreign travel. Xuanzang persuaded some Buddhist guards at the gates of Yumen and slipped out of the empire via Liangzhou (Gansu), and Qinghai province in 629. He spent 16 years away from China travelling to India and back.
On his return to China in 645, Xuanzang was greeted with much honor but he refused all high civil appointments offered by the still-reigning emperor, Emperor Taizong of Tang. Instead, he retired to a monastery and devoted his energy to translating Buddhist texts until his death in664. The Jade Flower Palace was transformed into a temple for him to work in, where he translated the Mahaprajnaparamita sutra.
During Xuanzang's travels, he studied with many famous Buddhist masters, especially at the famous center of Buddhist learning at Nālanda University. When he returned, he brought with him some 657 Sanskrit texts. With the emperor's support, he set up a large translation bureau in Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), drawing students and collaborators from all over East Asia. He is credited with the translation of some 1,330 fascicles of scriptures into Chinese. His strongest personal interest in Buddhism was in the field of Yogācāra (瑜伽行派), or Consciousness-only (唯識).
Xuanzang's work, the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, is the longest and most detailed account of the countries of Central and South Asia that has been bestowed upon posterity by a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim. While his main purpose was to obtain Buddhist books and to receive instruction on Buddhism while in India, he ended up doing much more. He has preserved the records of political and social aspects of the lands he visited.
BTRTS had commissioned a team of renown calligraphers from Yangzhou, China to transcribe the Maha-prajna-paramita Sutra in regular script, with brush and ink. The total of 600 fascicles of this Sutra translated by the great Master XuanZang was thus written down on 10,331 pieces of paper. This remarkable Sutra is enshrined in the Depository.
Each sutra is written on special traditional rice paper, with each character carefully written upon a printed lotus. Large complex Chinese characters need to fit into this standard space—a challenge for the calligraphers. The completed sutra is then audited by 3 successive proof readers. Any mistake will require the entire sutra to be rewritten.
After which, the sutra was sent for binding at Anhui, with Japanese brocade cloth personally selected by Ven Shi FaZhao and brought over from Kyoto, Japan.
The binded sutra was then wrapped and individually placed into their respective lacquered box, produced by Xianyou Longwei Arts & Crafts Ltd, Putian, Fujian, China. These lacquered boxes were a result of an extensive search of numerous craftsmen from several cities. There were several designs developed before the final one was selected for production.
The artworks in the sutra were painted by Mr Zhang Jian of Shanghai You Shan Guan Decorative Design Co Ltd. The gold leaf on the external sides of the sutra was also added on by him.
The sponsorship for each chapter of Maha-prajna-paramita sutra is $3,000, with 600 individual chapters/books available.
Yangzhou Yishanju Sutra Transcribing Group is a voluntarily formed purpose-driven group. Based on the devotion to support the Buddhist cause and determined to produce perfect transcripts of 600 chapters/books of Buddhist Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra, Yishanju conducted a two-month recruitment and selection campaign, before forming a hale and hearty group consisting elderly, middle-age and youth members.
Among the members were calligraphers who have won numerous prizes at state-level competitions and have had their calligraphy entered into State’s collections. Some members participated in competitions in Japan, Hong Kong and South East Asian countries. Each of the members had been trained in calligraphy for more than 20 years. Their strong fundamentals and polished skills, coupled with devotion was an assurance for the production of perfect transcripts of 600 chapters/books of this Buddhist Sutra. The three proof readers (below) are also equally devoted to ancient sutras, conscientious in completing tasks and enthusiastic to the Buddhist cause.
The Yishanju members were officially appointed in a Ceremony on 18 March 2006 at Yangzhou. Thereafter, the calligrahers commenced their painstaking work of art for XXX months, culminating in the arrival of the Sutra at BTRTM on XXX.
This Sutra will be progressively brought to the 100 Dragons Hall for recitation during the annual Rains Retreat ceremony.
Further Reading: Shuwen, ‘An Affinity With The Buddha: Yangzhou “Yi Shan Ju” Scripture Transcribing Group,’ BTRTM Nagapuspa Magazine, Vol. 18, Sep/Oct 2008, pp.70-73.
You may find BTRTM Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra ebooks under BTRTM Publications>>BTRTM Sutras>>Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra.
1. William Edward Soothill and Lewis Hodous, A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2000, ISBN 81-208-0319-1, page 94b
2. Meher McArthur, Reading Buddhist Art, An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs & Symbols, Thames & Hudson,2002, pages 77
3. Denise Patry Leidy, Shambala, The Art of Buddhism, An Introduction to its History & Meaning, 2008, pages 207, 136
4. Samuel Beal, Buddhist Records of the Western World – Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang, AD 629, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt Ltd, 2004, ISBN 81-215-0741-3.
5. Paul Williams, Māhāyana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, 2nd ed., London: Routledge, 2009, pp. 47-49.