Translation Note: The difference between ‘prajñā’ (sherab) and ‘jñāna’ (yeshe) and their role in understanding the Buddhist ‘view’

As an homage and offering to the great mother prajñāpāramitā, on this new moon day, I offer this short translation and research note of what the term prajñā means, how it differs from the other important term jñāna and thus how it is best translated.

It is ‘knowing’ but ‘knowing’ what?

In many Buddhist texts, the Sanskrit word prajñā (shes rab)  is often used to describe the ‘wisdom’ or ‘insight’ necessary to realise non-duality/emptiness (an essential realisation on the path to enlightenment) and also the word jñāna (ye shes) to describe  the qualities of the ultimate nature/dharmakaya itself. However, if you Google search the term online, there are very few, if any, accurate explanations of it from within the Tibetan Buddhist context.

Previously, and even these days, translators have translated the word prajñā as ‘wisdom’, but this is problematic, as scholars have written about in various articles and publications. One of the main reasons being that the use of the word ‘wisdom’ fails to successfully capture its meaning and also to differentiate between the ultimate nature ‘primordial awareness’  jñāna.  There is no doubt that when the Tibetan lotsawa translators considered how to translate these Sanskrit words they would have been very aware of their meaning and difference. It is no coincidence that both words contain the Tibetan word ‘shes’ in them, for example, as the translation of the Sanskrit root -jñā. Both these words indicate a type of ‘knowing’ or ‘understanding’ something.

The difference between prajñā  and jñāna

In my own research and work on the empty-of-other view and it’s relation to prajñāpāramitā, I translate  jñāna as ‘primordial awareness’ and prajñā as ‘special insight’. The problem with the use of the word ‘insight’ though is it is often used to describe another type of ‘seeing’ in the meditative analytic technique of ‘superior seeing’ or ‘insight’ (lhagthong in Tibetan).   However, ‘insight’ gets across the non-conceptual, visionary aspect of prajñā and is closer to the meaning. (For a detailed discussion of the etymology and translation of prajñāpāramitā, see also Brunnhölzl 2010: 28–34, Lopez 1988: 21–23 and Almogi 2009: 162, n. 66).

To distinguish the term ye shes (jñāna) from shes rab (prajñā), the better translation is ‘primordial awareness’.  In Guenther 1987: 53, n. 13, he translates ye shes (jñāna) as:

…a primal or primordial (ye nas) awareness (shes pa). It is a direct intuition, non-dual in nature, it is that awareness which exists before the perception process comes into operation that makes the distinction between subject and object and that identifies and labels an object as being this thing or that.

(For a detailed and thorough discussion of the Tibetan and Sanskrit etymology of the term ye shes, see Almogi 2009: 160–163 and for the four types of ye shes, see Almogi 2009: 68–70.  For rDzogs-chen interpretations of ye shes, see Higgins 2013: 99–109).

Jñāna and the Ultimate Nature

In his Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Tomlin 2017), Tāranātha explains how ‘primordial awareness’ jñāna is connected to the  Heart Sūtra explanation of reality:

Whatever is the dharmatā form is the primordial awareness of emptiness. Whatever is the primordial awareness of emptiness, appears as the dharmatā form.

Even if you understand merely that these two have a common locus, in order to refute any doubt that thinks it possible for there to be empty primordial awareness that is not the ultimate form (don dam gyi gzugs), and that it is possible for there to be ultimate form that is not empty primordial awareness [there are the lines]: “Emptiness is no other than form.”

Here ‘empty’ [does] not [mean] completely empty, but ‘primordial awareness empty of dualism’.  The ultimate form aggregate (don dam pa’i gzug phungs) is not the form aggregate.  The ultimate aspect of the form aggregate within the [endowed with] all supreme aspects dharmadhātu is the dharmatā form aggregate or the ultimate form aggregate.

The other aggregates follow the same reasoning as before.  In the same way, sensations, perceptions, conditioned factors and consciousnesses are all empty. Emptiness [applies] from sensations [up to and including] consciousnesses. Sensations up to consciousnesses are nothing other than emptiness.  Emptiness is also nothing other than sensations up to consciousnesses.  So it is said.

In Ornament of the Empty-of-Other Madhyamaka (gZhan stong dbu ma’i rgyan), Tāranātha also distinguishes between the Ālaya primordial awareness (kun gzhi ye shes) and Ālaya consciousness (kun gzhi rnam shes) that:

In the Abhidharma [teachings] it says: “What is the ultimate virtue?”  It is taught to be the fundamental reality itself. Thus the Ālaya primordial awareness is taught, since it is the fundamental reality itself, it is  ‘primordial awareness’ alone. Since it is called virtuous, it is not the Ālaya consciousness.  It was taught as Ālaya or Sugatagarbha.  Since the fundamental reality itself in the Abhi [dharma] is mentioned as the cause of the awakening and also as the fundamental reality itself, the reality of the only reality. It is not a non-existent thing and goes beyond the apparent reality. (chos mngon pa las | don dam pa’i dge ba gang zhe na | de bzhin nyid do || zhes bshad do || ’dis ni kun gzhi ye shes bstan pa ste || de bzhin nyid phyir ye shes kho na dang || dge bar bshad pas kun gzhi rnam shes min || kun gzhi dang ni bde gshegs snying por bstan || mngon par de bzhin nyid de byang chub kyi || rgyur gsungs ’dus ma byas s’ang bshad pa’i phyir || don dam ’gog pa’i bden pa bden gcig pu || dngos med min zhing kun rdzob las ’das pa’o || (121)).

Thus it is clear here, that in terms of the ultimate reality nature, sherab (insight) is not the final ultimate reality itself’ that is yeshe (primordial awareness).

HH 14th Dalai Lama and the uses of the word prajñā

In an interesting article,  The English translation of shes rab (prajñā) by the 14th Dalai Lama and the list of
English words for the fifty-one mental factors (sems byung lnga bcu rtsa gcig), TSUJIMURA Masahide (Kobe University), concludes that, ‘insight’ is the better translation of ‘shes rab’ for the following reasons:

We can summarize the Dalai Lama’s English translation of shes rab in the following manner:

    • shes rab (as one of the fifty-one key mental factors) = insight
    • shes rab (in thabs shes) = insight, wise discernment
    • shes rab (in thos bsam sgom gsum gyi shes rab)= understanding, wisdom
    • shes rab (in shes rab kyi phar phyin) = wisdom
    • lhag mthong 㸻 insight, insight meditation

The English words used by the Dalai Lama clarify the two meanings of shes rab. From his example, we can conclude that the Dalai Lama uses “insight” to refer to the functional side of shes rab. In contrast he uses “wisdom” for complete knowledge obtained by insight; thus, this term includes the function of insight and other actions, such as hearing, thinking, and meditation. Because the functional essence of lhag mthong is the same as shes rab, the English word “insight” is used for both lhag mthong and shes rab.

Conclusion

So in brief, it is possible to conclude that a key point about prajñā is that it is not the ultimate nature jñāna ‘quality’ that is ‘primordial awareness’, but it is nonetheless a necessary mental element of understanding and realising that ultimate nature. Prajñā is ike a sword that sharply and precisely cuts through the surface of appearances and self, as solid and dualistic, leading into the vast spacious expanse, the abiding, ever-present ‘awareness’ that ‘realises’, ‘sees’ and ‘encompasses’ that. The all-encompassing ‘wisdom eyes’ of the dharmakāya that ‘know and see’ all appearances as one and the same, as waves rising and falling in a vast ocean.

ཏདྱ་ཐཱ། ཨོཾ་ག་ཏེ་ག་ཏེ་པཱ་ར་ག་ཏེ། པཱ་ར་སཾ་ག་ཏེ། བོ་དྷི་སྭཱ་ཧཱ།

tadyathā | oṃ gate gate pāragate | pārasaṃgate | bodhi svāhā

 

RESOURCES

TEACHINGS and PRACTICE

FURTHER READING

Almogi 2009                           Orna Almogi, Rong-zom-pa’s Discourses on Buddhology: A Study of Various Conceptions of Buddhahood in Indian sources with Special Reference to the Controversy Surrounding the Existence of Gnosis (jñā-na : ye shes) as presented by the eleventh-century Tibetan scholar Rong-zom Chos-kyi-bzang-po.  Studia Philologica Buddhica Monograph series 24. Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 2009.

Brunnhölzl 2010                 Karl Brunnhölzl, Gone Beyond: The Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, The Ornament Of Clear Realization And Its Commentaries In The Tibetan Kagyu Tradition. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2010.

Guenther 1987 ,              The Creative Vision: The Symbolic Recreation of the World According to the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition of Tantric Visualization Otherwise Known as the Developing Phase. Novato, CA: Lotsawa, 1987.

Lopez 1988                          Donald S. Lopez Jr, The Heart Sūtra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

Tomlin 2017                      Adele Tomlin, Tāranātha’s Commentary on the Heart Sūtra . Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 2017.

3 thoughts on “Translation Note: The difference between ‘prajñā’ (sherab) and ‘jñāna’ (yeshe) and their role in understanding the Buddhist ‘view’

  1. Thank you for these reflections! Additionally, I find some of Davids Higgins’ [2013 & 2012] remarks very illuminating when he writes: “the Sanskrit term jñāna possessed many different, and sometimes divergent, connotations… The early Tibetan translators therefore deemed it necessary to render it by different Tibetan terms (shes pa, rnam shes, ye shes) according to context … [Concerning the term ye shes] the prefix ye (‘primordial’) has no obvious equivalent in the Sanskrit jñāna which it renders …”

    Another interesting remark is by the late translator Edward Henning who noted that Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche mentioned “ye nas gnas pa’i don shes pa” as the equivalent for “ye shes” – which he loosely rendered as “the cognition of the primordial nature/reality” while preferring simply [primal] “awareness” or Alex Berzin’s “deep awareness” for “ye shes”.

    In my view, I consider it rather a loss in meaningfulness if e.g. the chosen English terms for “ye shes” (Skt. jñāna) and “shes rab” (Skt. prajñā) don’t reflect the shared root in the source languages, i.e. Sanskrit “-jñā” and Tibetan “shes”. This is generally an issue in many Western translations which I consider rather confusing.
    I should note that I myself am primarily a practitioner and not a trained translator yet got quite surprised once I started to look up how renowned Western translators have translated certain terms, displaying a sometimes huge inconsistency. To give another example: Various well-respected translators have chosen the English term “cognizance” in their published texts, however for rendering different Tibetan terms, e.g. for “shes pa”, “rig pa”, “gsal ba” and even ” ‘od gsal ba”. Moreover, as in many cases a good glossary or word list is missing at the end of the book, the reader has to hope that at least a footnote somewhere presents the equivalent Tibetan term.

    1. Indeed! Thanks for your comments and interest. In my first major study of the Heart Sutra, Taranatha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra (LTWA, 2017), I went into some detail in the introduction, text and footnotes of the difference between ye she and sherab, all too often translated by people as ‘wisdom’. In addition, the other terms you mention are often synonymous but not necessarily the same either. Taranatha explains some of the synonyms used in the gzhan stong tradition for example. Like the terms ‘excellent’ and ‘amazing’ which have very similar meanings there are subtle differences too. That’s why sometimes it is better and more advisable to leave them in their original language with a footnote on the meaning. That said, translation is not an easy, and often thankless task, and there are always plenty of ‘armchair critics’ out there ! Nonetheless, the merit and benefit of attempting to translate these texts is undeniable and so I am grateful to people who have really put a lot of effort in to doing that, regardless of whether the translations are that great or not.

      I had several email discussions with Edward Henning in the months just before he passed away, on Kalacakra mainly, Even though he was very sick and dying he was still totally passionate about translation and the Dharma texts. Him and I agreed (and were on the same page, excuse the pun) that often oral translators don’t always make good written translators because they have not really studied the terms and texts to scholarly levels etc. You might want to see the memoriam tribute I wrote to Henning about this, and other things connected to him here: https://dakinitranslations.com/2019/12/02/a-memoriam-and-tribute-to-kalacakra-scholar-translator-and-calendar-expert-edward-henning-1946-2016/

      Ideally one would be able to do both. Good wishes and thanks

    2. Regarding being a practitioner or translator, after hearing the 17th Karmapa’s recent teaching on Gampopa’s Four Dharmas and what makes someone a Dharma practitioner or not, it would seem that most people (who are still attached to this life and it’s small pleasures) are not, which also excludes even a lot of Buddhists! One can be a Buddhist and not a practitioner, that is for sure! ha ha ha

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