Chiasmus in the Early Prajñāpāramitā: Literary Parallelism Connecting Criticism & Hermeneutics in an Early Mahāyāna Sūtra

Chiasmus in the Early Prajñāpāramitā:  
Literary Parallelism Connecting
Criticism & Hermeneutics
in an Early Mahāyāna Sūtra

Shì Hùifēng  (釋慧峰) / M B Orsborn
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy 
at The University of Hong Kong 
in December 2011 


This study examines the early Prajñāpāramitā sūtras through the theory of “chiasmus”.  Chiasmic methodology analyses a text into two parallel halves, identifying complementary “prologue” (A) and “conclusion” (A’), and highlighting the critical “central point” (X), with sub-themes paralleled in the two halves (A-B-C-D…X…D’-C’-B’-A’).  Through chiasmus theory, many ancient texts formerly considered fragmentary and incoherent have been shown to be structurally sophisticated wholes. 

The modern text-critical approach has re-written the traditional account of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras.  Several scholars have proposed theories regarding a pre-textual “ur-sūtra”, though with little consensus on this.  In general, most agree that after the formation of an “ur-sūtra” the main body of the text was then chaotically compiled from various fragmentary sub-texts, with the Sadāprarudita Avadāna finally appended at the end.  The result is the presently extant smaller sūtra.  This modern scholarship then claims gradual growth through expansion into the medium and larger sūtras.  The modern academic “discourse on emptiness” portrays the Prajñāpāramitā as focusing on the doctrine of “emptiness” (śūnyatā).  This study challenges many of these claims. 

On analysis, primary and secondary chiasmi were identified in the first two chapters of the sūtra.  Their scope is the authority of teaching and training in the Prajñāpāramitā, and maintenance of the lineage of the Buddhas.  Their central climax is definitions of “bodhisattva”, “mahāsattva” and “mahāyāna”, in the rhetorical formula “XY is ~Y”.  Clearly paralleled sub-themes include “samādhi”, “the illusory”, “Māra” and “entrance into certitude”. 

A second chiasmus comprising the entire Avadāna at the end of the sūtra was also identified.  The scope is Sadāprarudita’s quest for Prajñāpāramitā, “to see and hear the Tathāgatas”.  The central climax is his seeing and hearing the “Tathāgata” as one who has realized “suchness” (tathatā) or “dependent origination” (pratītyasaṃutpāda), again expressed in the form “XY is ~Y”.  Paralleled sub-themes include “samādhi”, “Māra” and “giving”. 

These two chiasmi are similar in scope, centers which define key terms through the rhetorical formula “XY is ~Y”, and sub-themes.  This suggests a larger chiasmus which spans the entire text, with these chiasmi as prologue and conclusion respectively.  While not conclusive, there is evidence for a central climax centered at “suchness” (tathatā), attainment of which results in the bodhisattva’s status of irreversibility.  This connects the prologue and concluding chiasmi, “bodhisattvas” to “Tathāgatas”, respectively.  Numerous paralleled sub-themes are more or less salient. 

There are major implications from the discovery of chiasmus in the Prajñāpāramitā.  Critically, it suggests that the sūtra was initially composed as a complete chiasmic whole, rather than from accumulated fragmentary parts.  Hermeneutically, the core message may be understood more systematically than earlier methods.  It proposes “suchness” (tathatā) as the central theme, rather than “emptiness” (śūnyatā).  It also rejects the genre designation of the Prajñāpāramitā as a “philosophical” rather than “religious” text.  This study also offers direction for uncovering other cases of chiasmus in early Mahāyāna and Buddhist literature in general, with examples.  If a range of chiasmi can be analyzed, a general theory of Buddhist chiasmus can be established for use as a standard Buddhological tool. 


  1. The most innovative perspective on a much debated text in years! A genius at work...

  2. Thank you "anonymous"... now I'm trying to figure out who you are exactly...

  3. Thanks for sharing your blog.
    I never know that you have a blog.
    Will look into all contents.

  4. Thank you for posting this, Huifeng Shi.

    I learned something quite novel that I'd never before run across.

    Adin in SF

    1. Thanks Adin. The inspiration for this approach came from Prof. Lewis Lancaster, UCBerkeley / UWest. I hope I can continue some of his scholarship, which was in turn inspired by Conze. :)

  5. aarrh..... a master piece and thanks for sharing. reading your paper rekindles my desire to 'learn' Buddhism in a scholarly approach....
    look forward to hearing your lecture one day..!!