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Books by Subject
Books on Sutras
Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom
By: Conze, Edward (tr/ed)
Conze, Edward; trans
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About the author
With the division of the AbhisamayaLankara
"This is a translation of one of the most important expressions of Mahayana Buddhism by the foremost Western authority on the perfect wisdom literature."...It warrants careful sutdy by anyone wishing to 'get into' the thought-world and the experiential frame of reference of Mahayana Buddhism. - Religious Studies Review
Eberhart (Edward) Julius Dietrich Conze (1904 - 1979) was born in London of mixed German, French, and Netherlands Dutch ancestry. His father belonged to the German landed aristocracy, and his mother to what he himself would have called the 'plutocracy'. His background was Protestant, though his mother became a Roman Catholic in later life. He seems to have had a rather difficult relationship with his mother. Conze claimed to be related to Friedrich Engels.
He was born in England because his father happened to be posted there as German Vice-Consul, but this meant that he had British nationality, should he ever need it (which he would). He was educated at various German universities and with a flair for languages picked up a command of fourteen of them, including Sanskrit, by the age of twenty-four. Like many other Europeans, he came into contact with Theosophy quite early on. But he also took up astrology. He took it seriously, remaining a keen astrologer all his life. And while still a young man, he wrote a very substantial book called The Principle of Contradiction.
During the rise to power of Hitler, Conze found himself so strongly opposed to the Nazi ideology that he joined the Communist Party and even made a serious study of Marxist thought. It seems that for a while he was the leader of the communist movement in Bonn, and in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic, talks about organizing communist street gangs in Hamburg. Consequently his life was in some danger.
In 1933 he came to England, having earlier taken the precaution of renewing his British nationality, and he arrived at the age of twenty-nine, virtually without money or possessions. He supported himself by teaching German, and taking evening classes, and he became a member of the Labour Party. He met a lot of prominent figures and intellectuals in the Labour movement and was not impressed. He had, after all, been to a whole series of German universities. He met Trades Union leaders and he met Pandit Nehru and Krishna Menon of the India League and he was not impressed by any of them either. He was not easily impressed.
He became very active in the socialist movement in Britain, lecturing and writing books and pamphlets, until eventually he became disillusioned with politics. At the age of thirty-five he found himself in a state of intellectual turmoil and collapse. Even his marriage had failed. Indeed, in his memoirs he admits 'I am one of those unfortunate people who can neither live with women nor without them.'
At this point he discovered - or rather rediscovered - Buddhism. At the age of thirteen he had read Gleanings in Buddha Fields by Lafcadio Hearn. However, Conze's first significant contact with Buddhism was at this mid-point in his life, at the beginning of the Second World War, and it was through the writings of D.T. Suzuki. They were literally his salvation.
After this there was no turning back. Conze devoted the rest of his life to Buddhism, and in particular to translating the Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom sutras, which are the fundamental scriptures of the Mahayana. But he wasn't just a scholar in the academic sense. During the war he lived on his own in a caravan in the New Forest and practised meditation, following very seriously the instructions given by Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga, and achieving some degree of meditative experience.
After the war he moved to Oxford and re-married. In 1951 he brought out Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, a very successful book which is still in print. However, his real achievement over the following twenty years was to translate altogether more than thirty texts comprising the Prajnaparamita sutras, including two of the most well-known of all Buddhist texts, the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra.
In the sixties and seventies he lectured at several universities in the United States, and he went down well with the students. However, he was very outspoken, and gained the disapproval of the university authorities and some of his colleagues. With the combination of his communist past and his candid criticism of the American involvement in Vietnam, he was eventually obliged to take his talents elsewhere. He died in on September 24, 1979 at his home in Sherborne, Dorset.
Dr Conze was a complex figure, and it is not easy to assess his overall significance. He was of course a Middle European intellectual refugee, fleeing from Germany before the war like so many others. But he wasn't at all representative of this dominant strain in twentieth century intellectual life, because he was very critical of many trends in modern thought. He was a self-confessed elitist. Indeed, he entitled his autobiography Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic, believing as he did that Gnosticism was essentially elitist. Nor did he approve of either democracy or feminism, which makes him a veritable ogre of 'political incorrectness'.
He is certainly representative of a whole pre-war generation in the West which became disillusioned with Marxism, especially in its Soviet form. Where he differed from others was in the fact that he did not really lose his sense of faith. He did not simply become disillusioned while carrying on within the milieu he was familiar with. He transferred his uncompromising idealism from politics to Buddhism.
Dr Conze was one of the great Buddhist translators, comparable with the indefatigable Chinese translators Kumarajiva and Hsuan Tsang. It is especially significant that as a scholar of Buddhism he also tried to practise it, especially meditation. This was very unusual at the time he started his work, and he was regarded then - in the 1940s and 1950s - as being something of an eccentric. In order to be 'objective' scholars were not supposed to have any personal involvement in their subject. So he was a forerunner of a whole new breed of Western scholars in Buddhism who are actually practising Buddhists.
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The Heart of Mahayana
June 2, 2007
Prajnaparamita Sutras through times had many great practioners that have chanted aloud these sutras. Its amazing text, the effect is always power
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