6th Paramita—Wisdom – Aug 17th 2020
We have discussed the first five paramitas, or perfections, of Generosity, Ethics, Patience, Joyous Effort and Concentration. Tonight we’ll explore the 6th one, the Perfection of Wisdom, known as Prajna Paramita. This paramita refers to the highest quality of insight and understanding. The essence of this paramita is supreme wisdom and great understanding.
In his book Mindfulness, Joseph Goldstein writes about wisdom as one of the key factors of an awakened mind. Through discriminating wisdom, we discern and illuminate the truth. Like a sword, wisdom cuts through ignorance and delusion to liberate the mind. When we become mindful of a mental state, the wisdom factor acts like an investigative reporter to discern whether the state is wholesome or unwholesome (and therefore rooted in greed, hatred or delusion).
As Joseph says, “It takes honesty and openness to cultivate this factor of [wise] investigation in our lives, to see clearly the different motivations that arise in the course of a day.” For instance, if I pause to investigate my motivations before speaking, I might notice if they are stemming from a mental state of lovingkindness, of self-reference, or of anger. With that awareness, I can choose my words mindfully. In this process of discernment, it’s important to be aware of any reactive judgments about unwholesome mental states. Joseph reminds us that we are practicing not to shoot arrows of criticism at ourselves but to see things as they are and to make wise decisions based on that understanding.
Prajna paramita extends beyond words, concepts, or intellectual knowledge, to the awakened heart-mind of wisdom and compassion. It acknowledges the essential emptiness and the interconnectedness of all things, and it sees through false or distorted views. Prajna paramita is a result of contemplation, meditation, and understanding the nature of reality. With an awakened heart, we are drawn naturally to serve the welfare of all beings and to do no harm.
In their book Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield describe spiritual teachers who embody the mixture of wisdom and compassion that characterize prajna paramita.
One such leader was Maha Ghosananda, a Theravadan monk who served as the Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism during and after the Khmer Rouge regime. Even in the face of extreme danger, he courageously led peace marches around the country, chanting “Hatred never ceases by hatred,
but by love alone is healed.” He kept hope alive for thousands of Cambodians who had suffered unspeakable losses. At the end of the bloodshed, he worked tirelessly to promote reconciliation so that the country could move towards healing. Ghosananda was wise enough to realize that the one serving, the ones being served, and the compassionate action of service are all interconnected.
The Cambodian monk was following in the footsteps of the Buddha, who was renowned for his wisdom as a peacemaker. There is a story of the Blessed One hearing that two kingdoms were about to wage war over the possession of an embankment that bordered their territories. The Buddha visited the two kings while their armies were preparing to fight and asked about the cause of their dispute. After listening to complaints on both sides and recognizing that each king valued the embankment, the Buddha asked them, “Has it any intrinsic value?” Both kings admitted that it had none.
The Blessed One continued, “When you go to battle is it not sure that many of your men will be slain and that you yourselves are liable to lose your lives?” The kings acknowledged the likelihood of much bloodshed. “The blood of men, however,” responded the Buddha, “has it less intrinsic value than a mound of earth?” “No,” the kings replied, “The lives of men, and above all the lives of kings, are priceless.” Then, the Blessed One concluded, “Are you going to stake that which is priceless against that which has no intrinsic value?” The wrath of the two monarchs abated, and they came to a peaceable agreement.
In his book How Can I Help? Ram Dass writes about a young, physically fit, American Aikido student who was riding on a subway car in Tokyo. A dirty, aggressive, drunken man boarded the train and started threatening terrified passengers. Ready to show off his martial art skill to protect people he perceived as innocent victims, the student stood up to confront the aggressor, who reacted with rage. Before a fight occurred, a small, elderly Japanese gentleman intervened with a soft, “Hey!”
From his seat, he quietly engaged the inebriated man in a conversation about the sake he’d been drinking and confided that he and his wife enjoyed sake too. The old gentleman said, “You must have a wonderful wife.” Suddenly the disheveled man began to cry about his wife’s recent death. He confessed that he had no home and no job, and that he felt ashamed.
As the Aikido student retreated from his self-righteous posture, he watched the homeless man lay his head on the gentleman’s lap and receive gentle, soothing strokes on his matted hair. It takes a high order of wisdom to perceive the hurt child underlying belligerant behavior, so that conflict can be resolved through loving kindness instead of force. With this kind of wisdom, we can transcend fear, and dualistic, ego-based thoughts, to recognize the truth behind appearances.
On prolonged meditation retreats, I have had glimpses of prajna paramita and the interconnection of life. One time I was concentrating during a period of slow walking meditation along a forest path. Suddenly my feet were moving on their own, bird and insect sounds were arising and passing away, and sunlight was dancing in and out of the flickering shadows of tree leaves, which seemed to quiver with energy.
For a moment, I felt as if I were being pulsed effortlessly in a cosmic vibratory dance that was constantly shifting and evolving. There was no sense of separate self or of evaluation of my experience—simply a sense of playful freedom and surrender. With no agenda, I felt at one with my surroundings and amazed by the preciousness and complexity of life’s myriad manifestations, with everything unfolding as it should.
As I returned to my usual way of perceiving my surroundings, my body felt awkward, and I missed the seamless flow I’d been experiencing. When we let go of preconceived notions, opinions, and attachments, we see clearly and are open to all the wonders of our lives.
An essential teaching of the Buddha is called the Heart of Great Wisdom Sutra, which centers around the concept of emptiness. Here are some excerpts from the Heart Sutra:
Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form; Form does not differ from Emptiness, Emptiness does not differ from Form; whatever is Empty, that is Form; whatever is Form, that is Empty. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.… [A]ll dharmas [natural laws] … have no beginning and no end, they are neither imperfect nor perfect, neither deficient nor complete….in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no name, no concepts, no knowledge. No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or objects of the mind,
no sight organ, no hearing organ…no mind consciousness element; no ignorance or extinction of ignorance, no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, no attainment, nor anything to attain … the Perfection of Wisdom is the great mantra, the unequaled mantra, the destroyer of suffering.
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate. (3X) Bodhi Svaha. (Gone, Gone, Gone beyond, Gone completely beyond. (3X) Awakening fulfilled.)
In a blog article, “Emptiness: The Most Misunderstood Word in Buddhism,” Lewis Richmond attempts to explain the term. His Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, taught that emptiness doesn’t mean a void, but that there is “something which is always prepared for taking [a] particular form.” Buddhist teacher Ari Goldfield points to two aspects: “the emptiness of essence,” which means that phenomena have no inherent nature in themselves, and “emptiness in the context of Buddha Nature,” which sees emptiness as endowed with qualities of awakened mind, such as wisdom, bliss, compassion, clarity and courage.
Emptiness doesn’t imply that nothing at all exists, but that things do not exist the way we think they do—as substantial, separate, independent phenomena. Most people tend to cling to what they conceive of as a fixed, individual identity. As they try to promote, defend, protect and perfect a solid sense of egoic and physical self, this misperception leads to suffering.
Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “interbeing” to signify that everything is interconnected in an ungraspable, fluid universe characterized by constant change. His actions reflect wise understanding about positive aspects of emptiness—a sense of compassionate connection with life as it is unfolding. You may have seen a cartoon depicting the Dalai Lama unwrapping a big birthday package. When he opens the box, he looks delighted to find it completely empty. The caption reads, “Nothing! Just what I wanted!” In his book about the Heart Sutra, His Holiness calls emptiness “the true nature of things and events.” He expresses this true nature through embodying kindness, joy, generosity, humility and humor.
True wisdom entails open-heartedness and deep understanding about the interconnection of all life. Illuminated wisdom transforms the other five paramitas into their highest state.