Tracing the oldest copy of Prajanaparamita

Satasahasrika Prajnaparamita, which means “Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in One Hundred Thousand Lines” (Dzongkha: ཤེར་ཕྱིན་སྟོང་ཕྲག་བརྒྱ་པ།, sher-chin tong-thra gya-pa) or simply referred to as bum (འབུམ་; meaning Hundred Thousand) is the most sacred set of sutras in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. It is this and the subsequent treatise by the Second Century scholar, Nagarjuna, that set the fundaments, and a divergence from, the older Theravada tradition. Nagarjuna can be referred to as the “founder” of Mahayana Buddhism.

A popular religious legend claims that the sacred texts were retrieved by Nagarjuna, from the Naga world and from the bottom of the sea. The texts were believed to have been kept for safekeeping by the divinity Manjushri (Jetsun Jamyang). The sacred manuscript is attributed to Jinashri Jnana, a disciple of Manjushri, with Manjushri himself, the legend goes, writing the first three pages with his own index finger, and dictating the rest.

I had heard that the manuscripts were in a family temple in Kathmandu and that it was possible to see them. Or at least that was what my Nepali friends told me. Having written the essence of the Prajanaparamita in my PhD dissertation, I was fascinated by the prospects of even getting a glimpse of the Original copy. 

So, I decided to make a trip to Nepal.

The Family Temple and the Ser Bum:

After asking around, and based on a book by Keith Dowman, I traced the family temple to Vikramshila Mahavihar (aka Bhagwan Bahal or Tham Bahil) in Thamel. The local Newari people refer to the volumes as Ser Bum (Golden Hundred Thousand), while the proper Sanskrit name is Satasahasrika prajnaparamita.

Getting to see it:

The Volume is taken out only on certain days – as deemed auspicious by the Newari calendar. There are no fixed days.

As instructed by another informant, I went to the office to introduce myself and make a request. Having a local reference helps but in my case, I was able to convince them that I was a serious scholar (maybe I looked very trustworthy) and, most importantly, I had to convince them that I was a devout Buddhist – and not part of any sinister groups. You have to make the appointment at least a day in advance for them to probably do some background-checks on us. 

The Scriptures Appear:

I got back to Tham Bahil on the day of the appointment and was led to a closed room, where I joined some 20 Ladakhi monks, lamas and pilgrims, who had probably made the same request. After some 30 minutes of waiting, the four volumes of the scriptures were brought in, and then solemnly opened by the Chief Custodian from behind a glass wall. He spoke and explained everything in Hindi since he assumed that we were all from Ladakh. He showed the first three pages, written by Manjushri with his own finger, and the rest of the pages written by his disciple, Jinashri Jnana. The noise from the Courtyard outside was muffling his voice, and I felt sorry for the Ladakhis since they were mostly illiterate pilgrims, and probably don’t know much of the legend that was shared.

Tracing the Entrance to the Subterranean World:

According to another legend, Kathmandu was a huge lake surrounded by mountains. Eons before Shakyamuni Buddha, the Bodhisattva Kanakmuni is believed to have thrown a lotus seed in the lake. A big lotus with a thousand leaves and flowers blossomed out of that seed. On one of the flowers, a self-arising butter lamp burned miraculously. 

Manjushri is believed to have visited the place and after meditating in Phulchoki mountain, he struck one end of the valley with his divine sword and drained the water from the lake. And as for that Eternal Butter Lamp, a hill rose on which now stands Soyambhunath (Phagpa Shinkun) Chorten. Just below the summit of Soyambhunath, I was told by the Chief Custodian of Tham Bahil, there is a place called Shantipur, where Nagarjuna is supposed to have entered, and returned from, the Subterranean world of the Nagas with the scriptures.

I thanked him for this piece of information, got out of the temple and to the street where I stopped a taxi. “Monkey temple, my friend,” I told the driver in Nepali. We dribbled through the traffic of Kathmandu and got to Soyambhu in 15 minutes. 

After a tough climb up the long stairs to Soyambhu Chroten, I asked around and found the place called Shantipur. Here Nagarjuna (in the Second Century) is supposed to have entered the Subterranean World on the invitation of the Naga King to come a teach the nagas the Buddha Dharma. And to reciprocate for the precious teaching, the Naga King offered the four volumes containing the Satasahasrika Prajnaparamita (the Ser Bum) to Nagarjuna.

What stands there today is one storied building with a large dark ornamented door. That door is supposed to lead to another golden door, one priest told me, and to another door, with a total of Five Golden Doors. That is the entrance to the World of the Nagas.

According to the same legend, the Naga King is still holding on to one more Volume and waiting for Nagarjuna to come and give more teachings, and offer him that last volume.

Leaving Soyambhu with a prayer:

I made a small offering through the door, rang the bell thrice as per the tradition and made a silent prayer and a Moelam: That this story and the legend, whether true or not, never dies and instead inspires thousands more like me, seeking both the knowledge and enlightenment – and that everyone who seeks them work towards the goodness of humanity and for the benefit of all sentient beings.

I climbed back to the Chorten and made 13 rounds of the Phagpa Shingkun (Soyambhu) and thanked the divinities, especially Manjushri, for this beautiful journey that I have undertaken – and requested him that I never get to my destination – and that may there be more of this wonderful mission.

One thought on “Tracing the oldest copy of Prajanaparamita

  1. Pingback: Ten must-visit sacred sites in Kathmandu – Dorji Wangchuk

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