Today I am looking at Wisdom, the last perfection to be considered in my reflections on the six Buddhist Parami, often translated as the Six Perfections – the shortlist favoured in the Mahayana scriptures. Wisdom, expressed as Prajna in Sanskrit and sometimes translated as ‘Knowing Grace’, is quite challenging to describe in words as it is really an ongoing process of perfecting, rather than some one-off definable state.
The experience of Sunyata – the merging of all duality and realisation of the interpenetration of all phenomena – is encouraged by the practice of meditation and is a necessary basis for the development of wisdom. It is necessary to go beyond ego clinging to an all encompassing state of non-clinging awareness for wisdom to arise. In Buddhist thought wisdom is not equated with ‘knowledge’ about things. It is more an understanding of the inherent emptiness of all phenomena, including oneself and all beings. Emptiness is not referring to non-existence but rather to no separate identity, or separate, inherent existence. All our wants, desires and cravings arise from the illusion that we are separate, individual entities or selves. But there is no evidence for this for everything within us is as ceaselessly changing as are the things without. There is no permanent individual self. Dukkha (suffering), Annicca (impermanence) and Anatta (selflessness) sum up the facts of our earthly universe. This understanding is referred to, from a Buddhist perspective, as ‘wisdom’.
As I said earlier, it is difficult to put into words and is an understanding that has to be experienced directly, rather than through descriptions. It is often said that the describing words are like ‘the finger pointing to the moon’, rather than the moon itself. Sometimes a flower is used as a symbol of wisdom.
From a Western, psychotherapeutic, perspective, people reporting a distressing sense of emptiness are usually perceived as suffering from a lack of vitality and sense of reality that is interpreted as pathological and often worthy of a psychiatric diagnosis. They may be labelled as “borderline” or even psychotic. And they may indeed be suffering from a seriously damaged sense of self that is fragmented and projects a distorted image of themselves and their world that bears little resemblence to the experience of ‘Sunyata’ described in Buddhadharma. The experience of emptiness, from a a Western psychological perspective, is targeted as something to be fixed: to be filled.
From a Buddhist perspective, emptiness – or Sunyata or Mahamudra – is seen as wisdom. When the suffering of emptiness is associated with a sense of badness, grandiosity or psychosis – as in the case of mental illness – there is still a sense of ego and seperate identity. Paradoxically, the suffering (or uneasiness) associated with the discovery of one’s inherent emptiness is a transitory sign of the difficulty of letting go of what we thought we were and if this uneasiness is met with non-clinging awareness, it transforms into love, compassion, joy, equanimity and wisdom.
It is therefore necessary for us to distinguish between the existential uneasiness associated with a dawning awareness of emptiness, as against the severe suffering associated with a sense of meaninglessness and worthlessness that is often described as a sense of emptiness by people in the West when they present to therapists and doctors for relief of this suffering. A key difference is whether there is, or is not, a sense of duality and separate existence. I am talking here about a mentally healthy person, rather than someone suffering from psychosis who may believe their thoughts are broadcast to all and sundry, or that people on the television are talking to them alone (as opposed to addressing a viewing audience). The boundaries between self and other can break down in psychotic illness but this is a different experience to a developed awareness of the interdependence and interbeing of all phenomena that is recognised as ‘wisdom’ in Buddhist thought.
As it is said in the Prajna-paramita sutra on the Perfection of Wisdom:
“Form is emptiness, emptiness is not different from form, neither is form different from emptiness, indeed, emptiness is form”. Or, as my teacher, the late Namgyal Rinpoche, used to say: ’emptiness is forming and form is emptying’. A continual process of emptying and forming, moment to moment. Similarly, the sutra goes on to show how this is so for each of the aggregates of our perceived existence: “Feeling is emptiness, emptiness is not different from feeling, neither is feeling different from emptiness, indeed emptiness is feeling. Perception is emptiness, emptiness is not different from perception, neither is perception different from emptiness, indeed, emptiness is perception. Mental formations are emptiness, emptiness is not different from mental formations, neither are mental formations different from emptiness, indeed, emptiness is mental formations. Consciousness is emptiness, emptiness is not different from consciousness, neither is consciousness different from emptiness, indeed emptiness is consciousness” (excerpt of sutra taken from ‘Body, Speech and Mind by Namgyal Rinpoche, p.415).
On a more mundane level, or relative level, wisdom appears to be present when there is a ‘fit’ between the action and the situation in which the act or speech occurs. Perhaps this sense of ‘fit’ comes from some level of awareness of the non-separation or non-duality of act, actor and the acted upon. It seems that what we conventionally refer to as wisdom is a quality that is ‘realised’, rather than something to be proved or learned – as in the way of knowledge, acquired and demonstrated. The presence of wisdom can be felt – as can its absence.
Your thoughts on this tricky concept of ‘wisdom’ will be much appreciated.
I look forward to hearing from you in the comments box below.
With warm wishes,