Saturday, February 13, 2021

Prajñā without Knowing - Sengzhao - 084


Prajñā without Knowing - Sengzhao

(From the Translator’s Introduction:
The Text: … “Sengzhao composed his first essay, translated in the present volume as “Prajñā without Knowing,” around 405, following on Kumārajīva’s retranslation, in 403–404, of the the Larger Prajñāpāramitā-sūtra. In this essay Sengzhao attempts to distinguish from ordinary knowledge the special mode of cognition that is unique to the sage. In the introductory passage Sengzhao praises the king’s patronage of Buddhism as well as the genius of Kumārajīva, and announces the essay’s topic: wisdom (prajñā) that knows everything without being limited to the cognizance of individual things. A longer section follows in which this theme is developed over a series of nine objections from a fictitious opponent with nine responses by Sengzhao.

This essay was taken south to Huiyuan’s community at Lushan by Daosheng (408), where it was read by many, including the literatus and lay devotee Liu Yimin, as well as the scholar-monk Huiyuan. In response Liu wrote a lengthy letter to Sengzhao; this letter, along with Sengzhao’s subsequent reply (circa 410), forms the “Correspondence with Liu Yimin” translated in this volume. The polite greetings that open both letters contain valuable information about the history of this period. In the main part of the essay Liu expresses his own and Huiyuan’s doubts about the coherence of Sengzhao’s portrayal of the “sagely mind” as at once all-knowing yet being altogether without knowledge. .”)

[Statement of Topic]

Prajñā: vacuous, tenebrous, the unifying principle of the three vehicles. Truly, it is ultimate unity, free from all distinctions. Yet contentious debates about it have raged on and on.

The Indian śramaṇa Kumārajīva was still a youth when he trod into the Great Square35 and set about investigating this mystery. Alone he reached beyond words and images, and wondrously tallied [his mind] with the realm of the Invisible and Inaudible. 36 He subdued the non-Buddhist teachers in Kapilavastu, 37 and with the wind of his virtue he filled the fans of the East. He would have carried his torch to yet other countries but he hid it in the land of the Liang; 38 the Dao does not respond without cause, it responds only when the conditions are ripe.

Hence, in the third year of the Hongshi era (402 C.E.), with the year-star in the second position, the king of Qin took Liang’s intent to submit to the [Qin] kingdom as an opportunity to send troops there to bring Kumārajīva. 39 Then I thought, the age of the Northern Sky40 has arrived.

The Heavenly King of the Great Qin, whose Dao tallies with the source of the hundred kings of antiquity and whose virtue will nourish a thousand generations to come, he who plays with his blade freely amidst the myriad affairs of state while tirelessly spreading the Dao, he is truly like Heaven for the pitiful beings in this age of decline, like a pillar for the Dharma bequeathed by Śākyamuni. He assembled over five hundred learned monks at the Hall of Free-and-Easy Wandering, and held the Qin text, setting down the correct meaning of the universal [Mahayana] scriptures alongside lord Kumārajīva. Does the path he blazed benefit only his own day and age? It is a bridge [across samsara] for countless ages to come.

Ignorant though I am, I had the privilege of taking part in that august assembly. It was then that I heard for the first time this doctrine so unique and profound. Truly, sagely wisdom is abstruse, subtle, difficult to fathom. Free from marks and names, it cannot be captured in images or words. I can do no more than to purge my mind of all images and try to fashion a likeness for it in these my untamed words. 41 Yet let no one think that the sagely mind can be captured in analysis!

It is said in the Radiance, “Prajñā perceives no marks of existence, no marks of arising or ceasing.”42 And in the Dao Practice, “Prajñā has no objects of knowing, no objects of seeing.”43 These statements assert wisdom’s illuminative activity, even as they claim that there are in it no individuating marks and, accordingly, no knowledge. What do they mean? There must be a markless knowing, a knowledgeless illumination.


How is this so? For every thing that is known, there is a thing that is not known. But in the sagely mind, there is no thing that is known, thus there is nothing not known. This knowledgeless knowing is called “all-knowledge.” Thus, the words of the sutra true are: “In the sagely mind there is nothing known, nothing not known.”45

In this way, the sage empties his mind and makes full his illumination. He cognizes constantly yet is always without knowing. Thus he can dim his brightness and conceal his glow, while mirroring mysteriously with a vacuous mind. He can shut down his intellect and turn off his cleverness, while solitarily realizing the mystery of mysteries.

In wisdom there is a mirroring that reaches the deepest depths, yet there is in it no knowledge . Spirit has the function of responding to and according [with events], yet it is free from deliberate effort. Since spirit is free from deliberate effort, it can reign sovereign beyond the world. Since wisdom is without knowledge, it can mysteriously illuminate beyond [conditioned] events. Yet, even though wisdom is beyond events it is never without them. Though the spirit is beyond the world it is always within its borders.

Therefore, as [the sage] contemplates [the earth] below and [the heavens] above and follows their transformations, he accords with phenomena and responds to them with an inexhaustible acuity, there are no depths to which his vision cannot reach, yet his illumination shines forth with no deliberate effort. This is how not-knowing knows, how sagely spirit accords with phenomena.

Now, as for prajñā in its objective aspect: it is actual yet not existent, vacuous yet not nonexistent, present yet beyond description. Is this not sagely wisdom itself? How so? You wish to claim that it is existent? Yet it lacks form or name. You wish to claim that it is nonexistent? Yet the sage is numinous by its power. Since the sage is numinous by its power, even though it is vacuous it never forfeits its illuminative functioning. Since it lacks form or name, even though it is illuminating it never loses its vacuity. While illuminating it does not lose its vacuity; therefore it merges with things without being altered by them. Even though it is vacuous, it never ceases to illuminate; therefore its every movement meets gross phenomena.

In this way the functioning of sagely wisdom never ceases, but seek for it among shapes and marks and you will never find it.

Thus Ratnākara says, “The Buddha acts without conscious intention,”46 while in the Radiance it is written, “Unmoved in perfect awakening he establishes all dharmas.”47 Clearly, though the traces of the sage reach out in a myriad directions, what they all lead to is one.

Hence, prajñā can illuminate while remaining vacuous; ultimate truth can be known despite not being there. The myriad movements can be met in stillness, sagely response can nonexist yet remain efficacious. Such is self-knowing without knowing, self-acting without action. “Action,” “knowing”—these ords simply miss the mark.

[Nine Arguments]


Objection: The sage, his ultimate mind uniquely brilliant, illuminates each and every thing. His responsiveness unlimited, with every movement he accords with phenomena. Since he illuminates each and every thing, nothing eludes his knowing. Since with every movement he accords with phenomena, his responsiveness is never amiss. It is never amiss: he unfailingly accords with all that is to be accorded with. Nothing eludes his knowing: he unfailingly cognizes all that is to be known.

Now, since the sage cognizes all that is to be known, his knowing is surely not without content. Since he accords with all that is to be accorded with, his responsiveness is likewise not empty of content.

Since he thus both cognizes things and accords with them, why do you claim that he does neither? If by saying that the sage forgets knowledge and ceases to accord with things you mean only that his knowing and according are free from personal desires—and that for this very reason he is able to fulfill his personal desires—then you can only say that the sage is not attached to his knowledge, but can you argue that he does not know at all?

Answer: The feats of the sage surpass those of the Two Principles, 48 yet he is not humane. 49 His brightness exceeds that of the sun and moon, yet this only deepens his darkness. Could one say that he is blind like stone or wood, that he lacks cognition altogether? Indeed, it is just that on account of what distinguishes him from a common person—his spiritual perspicacity—he is not defined by marks of conditioned events.

You, sir, would like to argue that while it is not for his own satisfaction that the sage possesses his knowledge, he is never devoid of it. Does this not misrepresent the sagely mind and miss the purport of the scriptures? After all, it is said in a sutra, “Ultimate prajñā is pure like empty space: not sullied by knowledge or perception, unproduced, unconditioned.”50 That is, this knowledge is itself without knowledge. How could this knowledgelessness be said to result from a mere “turning back of the illumination”?51 If one were to call prajñā “pure” by arguing that while it does cognize, its objects are essentially empty, such a “prajñā” would not be distinguishable from conventional “wisdom.” Indeed, under this premise the three poisons52 and the four inverted views53 would also have to be considered pure. Why then extol prajñā alone?

If you were to praise prajñā because of [the properties of] the objects of  its knowing, remember: if it has objects, it is not prajñā. Though the objects be perfectly pure, such “prajñā” can never be considered pure and there is no reason to extol it as such.

Thus, when the sutras describe prajñā as pure, is it not because it is in essence ultimately pure, that is, fundamentally free from deluded grasping? Being fundamentally free from deluded grasping, it cannot be called knowledge at all. It is not only ordinary ignorance that can be called “not-knowing.” Indeed, [in prajñā] knowledge itself is without knowing.

Thus the sage with knowledgeless prajñā illuminates the markless ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is without limitations, like those of the “hare” and the “horse,”54 prajñā’s mirroring leaves nothing unfathomed.

In this way, the sage accords [with individual things] without differentiating them, corresponds without affirming. Quiescent, bland, he does not know, yet there is nothing he does not know.


Objection: Things cannot communicate themselves; in order to render them communicable words are established. Even though things are distinct from names, in reality nameable things that correspond to names do exist. Therefore, for every given name it is possible to identify the thing to which it refers.

Yet you claim that “in the mind of the sage there is no knowing,” even as you assert that “there is in it nothing that it doesn’t know.”

Now, in my view, not-knowing can never be called “knowing,” and knowing can never be called “not-knowing.” My objection is in line with the doctrine of names, with the fundamental rules of establishing words.

You, however, insist that [knowing and not-knowing] are one in the sagely mind, and differentiated [only] in textual descriptions. When I try to follow your words to reach the reality they purport to describe, I do not see how they could correspond. How is this so? If “knowing” correctly describes the mind of the sage, then “not-knowing” cannot be correct. If “not-knowing” captures it, then “knowing” does not apply. If both miss the mark, it is pointless to continue the discussion.

Answer: It is said in scripture that prajñā is inexpressible, no name applies to it: neither existent nor nonexistent, neither full nor vacuous. Though vacuous it never ceases to illuminate; illuminating, it never loses its vacuity. 


It is a nameless dharma—language cannot express it. However, if not for language, it could not be communicated. Thus, the sage speaks ceaselessly, never saying as much as a word.

Now listen on, as I shall attempt to intimate it for you in these, my untamed words.

The sagely mind is subtle, markless, and cannot be considered “existent.” Vastly generative in its activity, it cannot be called “nonexistent.” As not “nonexistent,” sagely wisdom endures in it. As not “existent,” the doctrine of names does not apply to it.

Thus, when “knowledge” is asserted of it, this is not predicated literally  but merely to point to its [function of] mirroring. When “not-knowing” is asserted of it, it is not predicated literally but solely to indicate the [absence of] marks therein. To signal its [freedom from] marks is not to assert that it is nonexistent; to indicate its mirroring is not to assert that it is existent. As not “existent,” it knows, and is yet without knowing. As not “nonexistent,” it is without knowing, and yet it knows. Thus, not knowing is one with knowing. That the two are differentiated in words does not mean they are distinct in the sagely mind itself.


Question: Wisdom alone, profound and abstruse, can fathom ultimate truth. Thus is manifested the power of sagely wisdom. Accordingly it is said in the sutras, “Without the attainment of prajñā, ultimate truth cannot be seen.”56 This means that ultimate truth is the condition of prajñā’s knowing. If wisdom is defined by conditions, this “wisdom” must be [mere] knowledge.

Answer: If we were to consider wisdom in terms of its conditions, we would see that wisdom is not [mere] knowledge. Why? In the Radiance it is said, “To produce consciousness not conditioned by form, this is called ‘to not see form’”57 and “As the five aggregates (skandhas) are pure, prajñā is pure.”

Now, prajñā is the faculty of knowing, the five skandhas are the known. The known is the condition [of knowing]: now, knowing and the known can either exist in mutual codependence, or mutually nonexist. When they mutually nonexist, there is no thing at all that is existent; when they mutually exist, there is no thing at all that is nonexistent. When no thing is nonexistent, [knowledge] arises in response to conditions. When no thing is existent, [knowledge does not] arise in response to conditions. When [knowledge does not] arise dependently on conditions, it only illuminates them and never becomes “knowledge.” When it does arise dependently on conditions, knowledge and its conditions bring each other about. Thus, the distinction between knowing and non-knowing is defined by the [nature of the] object.

How so? If “wisdom” is of the type that knows objects or grasps marks, it is [mere] knowledge. But ultimate truth is markless; could ultimate wisdom then be [mere] knowledge?

Here is why. What is known is not what is known [by and of itself]. Rather, the known arises dependently on the knowing, and since the known arises dependently on the knowing, the knowing likewise arises dependently on the known. Since the known and the knowing bring each other about, they are conditioned dharmas. Because they are conditioned, they are not ultimate. Not being ultimate, they are not ultimate reality. 58 It is said in the Middle Way Treatise, “Things that exist dependently on conditions are not ultimate. If they existed without dependence on conditions they would be ultimate.”59 Now, ultimate reality is called “ultimate” precisely because it is not dependent on conditions. Because it is ultimate and thus not dependent on conditions, there is in it no thing produced from conditions. Of this the sutra says, “No existent dharma can be found that arose independently of conditions.”60

Hence, ultimate wisdom’s contemplation of ultimate reality is never the grasping of an object. Since wisdom thus does not grasp objects, how could it be called “knowledge”? This is not to say that wisdom is altogether without knowledge; it is just that since ultimate reality is not an object, ultimate wisdom is not knowledge. Yet you claim, sir, that if we consider wisdom in terms of its conditions, it will prove to be mere knowledge. But since its conditions are itself not conditions, how could it be called “knowledge”?


Question: When you claim that [the sage] does not grasp, do you mean that he is altogether devoid of knowledge? Or that even though he does know he does not consequently grasp [that which he has cognized]? If his not grasping means that he is altogether without knowledge, the sage is like a traveler lost in the dark of night, unable to tell black from white. If his not grasping means that even though he does cognize, does not grasp subsequently, then [the sage] does have knowledge and thus cannot be without grasping.

Answer: Neither do I claim that [the sage] is altogether without knowledge and in this sense does not grasp, nor do I argue that, though cognizing at first, he does not grasp subsequently. Rather, his knowing is in itself a non-grasping, and thus he is able to know yet be without grasping.


Objection: You argue that the sagely mind does not grasp, because indeed

it is free from deluded grasping, in that it does not reify things. But “nongrasping” means lack of affirmation, and no affirmation means no corresponding [between the knowing and the known]. If so, what exactly is it that corresponds with the sagely mind so as to justify your description of it as


Answer: True, [the sagely mind] is without affirmation and without corresponding. But, as for this lack of affirmation and of corresponding: although there is in it no corresponding, there is nothing with which it does not correspond. Though there is in it no affirmation, it leaves nothing unaffirmed. That it leaves nothing unaffirmed means that it affirms while not affirming; that there is nothing with which it does not correspond means that it corresponds while not corresponding. In the words of a sutra, “Seeing all dharmas, he sees not a thing.”61


Objection: It cannot be that the sagely mind does not affirm. Rather, it is precisely because it is devoid of affirmable things that even though devoid of them, it must be able to affirm that very absence of the affirmable. Accordingly, when it is said in scripture that “ultimate truth is without marks, prajñā is without knowledge,”62 this is indeed because prajñā is free from mark perceiving knowledge. How could prajñā’s ultimacy be in any way compromised if it were to know that marklessness as the markless?

Answer: The sage does not have [knowledge of the] markless. If he were to take the markless as the markless, he would be turning the markless into a marked. To discard being and cling to nonbeing is like fleeing the mountain peak only to become trapped in a ravine: in neither situation is one safe. Accordingly, the Perfected Person establishes himself in existing while not existing, resides in nonbeing while not nonexisting. Not grasping either being or nonbeing, neither does he reject being or nonbeing. In this manner he can “harmonize his radiance with the dust and toil”63 and travel freely among the five realms of rebirth. 64 Silently he goes, soundlessly he comes; bland, without deliberate action, there is nothing he does not accomplish


Objection: Sagely mind may be without knowledge, yet in according with and responding to conditions the sage is infallible. It responds to that which calls for its response, and abides with that which does not. Therefore we can say that the sagely mind now arises [in activity], and then perishes. Can this be so?

Answer: Arising and perishing is the mind of arising and perishing. Since the sage is without mind, how could there be for him any arising or perishing? Yet it is not that he is altogether devoid of mind; rather, non-mind is [the very nature of his] mind.Also, it is not that he does not respond; rather, non-responding is [the very nature of his] response—that is all. Indeed, the pattern of sagely response is infallible, just like the cycle of the four seasons. [The sagely mind,] in essence vacuous and nonexistent, cannot be described either as arising or perishing


Objection: Both the wisdom of the sage and the deluded [ordinary] “wisdom” you speak of in terms of “nonbeing”—of the absence of arising and perishing. How should one distinguish [between the two]? Answer: When asserted of sagely wisdom, “nonexistence” points to the absence [therein] of knowledge. When asserted of deluded “wisdom,” it refers to the fact that this knowledge knows “nonexistence.” Though “nonexistence” is asserted of both types of wisdom, it is used differently in each case.

Let me explain. Sagely mind, empty and still, has no knowledge of which it could be said that it [knows] nonbeing; thus we can say that it is a nonbeing of cognition, not that it cognizes nonbeing. Deluded wisdom does possess knowledge: there is in it a knowledge of which it can be said that it [knows] nonbeing, [which is why] I say that it knows nonbeing, not that it is a nonbeing of knowledge.

Nonbeing of knowledge: this is the “nonbeing” predicated of prajñā. Knowledge of nonbeing: this is “nonbeing” [known as] ultimate truth.

Now, as for the relation between prajñā and ultimate truth, under the aspect of function they are differentiated in their unity; under the aspect of stillness they are unified in their differentiation. When unified, the mind is not purposely directed to this and that, subject and object; when differentiated, nothing of prajñā’s illuminative power is lost. Even though I may speak of their unity, it is unity within differentiation; even though I may assert their differentiation, it is differentiation within unity. Therefore, neither “differentiation” nor “unity” captures the nature of this relation.

Allow me to explain further. Within is the light of solitary mirroring; without is the reality of myriad dharmas. Though dharmas are real, it is only through illumination that they can be reached. The power of illumination is activated just when the inner and the outer enter into mutual relation. This is the aspect of function: [under this aspect even] the sage cannot make them one. Knowledgeless illumination within, markless reality without, the inner and the outer are unagitated, mutually nonexistent. This is the aspect of stillness: [under this aspect even] the sage cannot make them different.

Thus when it is said in the sutra, “Dharmas are not differentiated,”65 could this mean that in order to abolish distinctions one must “extend the duck’s legs” or “shorten the crane’s neck,” “level the hills and fill up the valleys”?66 No. Here distinctions are not substantialized as distinctions; hence even though they are distinct, dharmas are not differentiated.

Thus a sutra says, “How marvelous, World-honored One! From within the dharma of nondifferentiation you teach that dharmas are distinct”67 and also “Prajñā and dharmas are neither unified nor differentiated.”68 So it is.


Objection: You say “differentiated under the aspect of function, unified under the aspect of stillness.” Do you mean that in prajñā functioning and stillness are distinct?

Answer: Its functioning is one with its stillness, its stillness is one with its functioning; the two are of one body, “one in origin, different in name.”69 Truly, there is here no motionless stillness that could prevail over function. The darker the wisdom, the brighter its illumination; the quieter the spirit, the swifter its response. How could one claim that the bright and the dark, the active and the still, are here distinct?

[Concluding Statement]

Thus it is said in the Complete Realization, “[The Buddha] does not act, yet his actions are supreme.”70 And Ratnakāra says, “Without discernment, without knowledge, he has total comprehension.” Such words speak of the perfect realization of spirit and the full activation of wisdom; they reach the apex beyond the realm of images. Follow these luminous words and knowledge of the sagely mind will be within your reach.


Titre 3




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