A key translation proves that genuine scholarship survives in an age of faux Buddhism
The Perfection Of Wisdom
By By R.C. Jamieson
Frances Lincoln
Rs 1,050, Pages: 109
At this point in the publishing cycle, one tends to be sceptical of lavish books relating to Buddhism, especially when they carry a foreword by the Dalai Lama. That eminent personage tends to be a prolific and enthusiastic writer of endorsements, and Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism is still the flavour of the day, sometimes for all the wrong reasons.

The Perfection of Wisdom, a translation of sutras from the Sanskrit by R.C. Jamieson, is an honourable exception to the spate of faux Buddhist works flooding the market. It is excerpted from the Asta-saharika-prajna-paramita, an ancient collection of about 8,000 sutras on the contradictions of knowledge and being on the path to true enlightenment. In his foreword, the Dalai Lama categorises it as one of the definitive scriptures of classical Mahayana Buddhism and recounts the touching story of how, before leaving Lhasa for the long journey to India, he sat in his prayer room and read from these same sutras for solace and inspiration.

The Perfection of Wisdom is set in the community of monks at the Vulture peak in Rajgrha, modern Rajgir. The text is in the format of a conversation circle, where various disciples of the Buddha, such as the traditionalist Sariputra, Buddha's first cousin Ananda, and bodhisattvas such as Maitreya discuss what constitutes the correct path to enlightenment. In this version, Jamieson, a scholar of Sanskrit and Tibetan texts, provides a wonderfully direct English translation which also maintains all the subtlety and sophistication of the original Sanskrit. The sutras were first recorded and written within a predominantly oral tradition. It is easy to get lost in the profusion of honorific epithets, as well as in the arcane philosophical probings that characterise such texts. It has been the fate of many well-meaning translations to obstruct, rather than illuminate, or else to take the contrary path of over-simplification. To cut through the elaborate mnemonic structures to the essential message contained therein requires both inspiration and dedication.

Great scholarship often slides over into inaccessible academics, but Jamieson's translation effortlessly presents this ancient wisdom in a spontaneous contemporary rendition. The Buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods and monks debating the nature of existence and the right way of life present a synthesis of morality, ethics and spirituality that contain both the particularities of its historical setting and a transcendence into its essential core. The commentaries similarly maintain a balance between secular and spiritual insight, and the thousand years separating the time when these texts were first written from the time in which they are now being read appear inconsequential to their direct understanding.

The illustrations have been taken from two ancient palm-leaf manuscripts produced during the reign of Mahipala I, a Pala king who ruled over parts of Northern India and Nepal between AD 972-1042. These manuscripts are presently in the custody of the Cambridge University library, where the author is the keeper of Sanskrit manuscripts. The first is the oldest dated Sanskrit manuscript in the world (AD 997), while the second is the oldest illustrated Nepalese manuscript extant. They have an astonishing, unique vitality, an exuberance in colour and style, that reflects the joyous simplicity of the texts and demonstrates the continuity of our cultural and aesthetic history. The detailing of birds, animals, trees and architecture, the symbolism of mudras and facial expressions, and the entire canonical representation of a living and vibrant mythology make the texts leap into life.

To maintain a sense of history it is important to constantly go back to the source, to the core texts, and to re-examine and reassess them in the light of the present. This edition of The Perfection of Wisdom has performed this invaluable task both in the areas of art history and Buddhist studies and produced a book which is inspiring in the true intuitive sense of the word.

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