WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Gyatongpa, literally ‘one with eight thousand’ is one of the most common books found in traditional Bhutan. It is the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Verses also called Aśtasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitāsūtra in Sanskrit.
The Prajñāpāramitāsūtras or the Perfection of Wisdom books come in different sizes. The largest one is called bum or hundred thousand verses; the middle one called nyithri or twenty thousand verses and shorter and condensed one called Gyatongpa or eight thousand verses. There are also others, which are longer or shorter than Gyatongpa. The Heart Sūtra is an example of a very short one.
Gyatongpa and other Perfection of Wisdom sūtras deal with the topic of Emptiness and how we must perfect our wisdom and understanding of the way things are. The understanding of Emptiness is the ultimate form of wisdom. So Gyatongpa mainly deals with Emptiness arguing how everything starting from one’s own body to the enlightenment of the Buddha is utterly empty of real existence and how we can eliminate the assumptions and conceptual constructions we have about people, things, life and existence.
The Bhutanese tradition traces the origin of the Gyatongpa to the historical Buddha. After the Buddha’s death, the text is believed to have been taken to the subterranean world of serpents until Nāgārjuna, the second century Indian master brought it back to the human world. Modern scholars however argue that this is a myth and the text actually may have been composed between 100 BC and 100 AD in south India. As a Mahāyāna Buddhist classic, the Gyatongpa has ever since spread across the globe, from Mongolia to Indonesia and from Korea to the Americas. It has been translated into many dozen languages and commented by scores of Buddhist scholars and meditation masters.
In Bhutan, thousands of copies of Gyatongpa were produced including simple ones with black ink on traditional paper or gold and silver manuscripts with exquisite illuminations. Special book covers and clothes are prepared to store it. It is often read during a ritual or rimdro to help people overcome misfortunes, cure from illness, succeed in their projects and for speedy progress on the path to enlightenment. It is believed that the place where the book is kept becomes holy and remains protected from harmful spirits and people who produce, write, commission, carry, read, sponsor reading or worship Gyatongpa accrue a lot of merit.
What should one think when one reads Gyatongpa?
One should be mindful that Gyatongpa represents Perfection of Wisdom. By reading or having it read, one is expounding the teachings on Emptiness, which will gradually help people enter the path of wisdom and enlightenment. One should read with the intention of sustaining and spreading the dharma because Gyatongpa is core a Mahāyāna scripture.