Category: Buddhist Concepts
Wisdom (Sanskrit: Prajñā or Pāli: Paññā) may also mean understanding, knowledge, or insight. In Buddhist thought, a person is said to have true wisdom once he or she gains intuitive knowledge or a direct realization of the following:
1. Four Noble Truths - the Buddha's teaching on the nature of suffering, what causes it, the possibility of ending it, and the method that we can use to eradicate it.
2. Dependent Origination - the Buddha's teaching on the Law of Karma, the origin of consciousness, and the nature of existence.
3. Three Marks of Existence - the Buddha's teaching on the nature of reality which includes three aspects: change/impermanence (annica), suffering (dukkha), and non-self (anatta).
4. Emptiness - a Buddhist concept referring to the realization that all physical and mental phenomena are intrinsically empty.
The direct experience of these teachings brings about the Four Paths or Stages of Enlightenment and the realization of Nirvana. All of us can achieve this by following the Noble Eightfold Path. Nevertheless, to understand what is meant by "direct" experience, we must first be able to differentiate the three kinds of wisdom.
The Three Kinds of Wisdom
According to Buddhist literature, wisdom may arise due to three conditions: learning (or study), reflection (or thinking), and meditation (or mental development). "Direct" experience of the Buddha's teaching can only be achieved through meditation. Learning and reflection may give us some sort of insight, but these do not serve the true goal of eliminating suffering and cannot lead us beyond birth, aging, sickness, and death.
1. Wisdom based on learning or study
Wisdom based on learning or study (śruta mayā prajñā in Sanskrit) is the kind of knowledge that one gets by listening to other people or reading written texts.
A person may listen to the Dharma from an outside source (learning) and then try to understand the nature of reality intellectually (reflection); thereby he develops the second limb of the Noble Eightfold Path which is Right Understanding.
Conversely, the same person may start by contemplating on his own intellectual understanding of reality (reflection) and then, by consulting with others or reading the texts (learning), he may confirm the knowledge that he has.
Nevertheless, whichever of the two may come first, neither of them can give Enlightenment. It is said that the knowledge amassed by the intellect only creates even more suffering. Historically speaking, we can see how numerous people of great power and influence used their knowledge based on learning for violent and destructive ends.
2. Wisdom based on reflection or thinking
Wisdom based on reflection or thinking (cintāmayā prajñā in Sanskrit) is the kind of knowledge that one gets through rational thinking. We exercise this knowledge when we reflect or contemplate on the things we have learned from other people by verifying the accuracy of the information based on our previous or present experiences and our own perception of what’s intellectually and morally right or wrong.
With this kind of wisdom, we apply a higher-order of thinking. We questions assumptions to help us decide whether a claim is true, false, or sometimes true and sometimes false, or partly true and partly false. We actively and skillfully analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the information we have gathered from various sources.
This kind of wisdom may seem acceptable, except for the fact that we still rely on abstract ideas that serve only as representations of reality. This means that what we are dealing with is not the “real” thing. We are just using words and symbols to understand the world around us, but these words and symbols are actually empty and don’t have any real substance behind them.
Take the case of a theoretical physicist who comes up with an equation to explain the nature of black holes. The language that he uses to comprehend the phenomenon of black holes and to communicate his knowledge is that of science while the symbols that he utilizes to arrive at his findings is that of mathematics. Although he may prove the existence of black holes and may give us a good picture of what they are, the fact remains that the theoretical physicist does not have any direct experience with a real black hole. He is still required to schedule a meeting with King Leonidas.
With regard to the Buddha's teachings, a person may be able to understand the nature of reality by intellectually analyzing the teachings of the Buddha and determining whether they appeal to one’s logic and reasoning. If it indeed appeals to one’s sense of what’s true, the person becomes knowledgeable about the Dharma. He or she may even explain it to people who don’t understand it. However, the Buddha said that this alone cannot enable you to achieve Enlightenment because you are just playing around with mere words and symbols. What’s important is for you to actually see and investigate reality with an awakened spiritual vision, which can only be developed through meditation.
3. Wisdom based on meditation or mental development
Wisdom based on meditation (cintāmayā prajñā in Sanskrit) is the kind of knowledge that one acquires from the development of insight through meditation. It is the knowledge that arises from the direct realization of the truth, which we can only experience once we extinguish all the Mental Defilements or Klesas (greed, hate, delusion, etc.) and reach the stage of full concentration. This concentration is used mainly to verify the accuracy of the Buddha’s teachings regarding the Four Noble Truths, Dependent Origination, the Three Marks of Existence, and Emptiness.
The attainment of wisdom through the development of insight is called Vipassana-bhavana (Vipassana Meditation). The kind of wisdom being referred to here is neither the mere accumulation of facts nor the result of logical reasoning. It is, instead, the direct knowledge of the nature of reality.
The Buddha frequently used the term yathabhuta when describing the practice of Vipassana Meditation. Usually this term is translated as “as it really is”.
At Saavatthii, the Venerable Kaccaayana asked the Blessed One:With Vipassana Meditation, a person makes the right effort to realize for himself that everything in the world is impermanent, without essence, and a source of suffering. This is done partly through the analysis of physical sensations, since it is through these sensations that reality manifests itself to us as the Five Aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness).
"Right view, right view, it is said, Lord. In what way, Lord, is there right view?”
"The world in general, Kaccaayana, inclines to two views, to existence or to non-existence. But for him who, with the highest wisdom, sees the uprising of the world as it really is, 'non-existence of the world' does not apply, and for him who, with highest wisdom, sees the passing away of the world as it really is, 'existence of the world' does not apply. (Kaccaayanagotto Sutta)
A person who fully masters Vipassana Meditation simultaneously attains true wisdom and extinguishes all kleśas. Removing these defilements is important since it is the very reason why we are unable to see the defining essence of things. This is the primary goal of Buddhists, prior to asking any transcendental question. If one can see the defining essence of things, one becomes Enlightened and one becomes free of suffering.