Lama Padma Samten founded the Centro de Estudos Budistas Bodisatva (CEBB) [Buddhist Bodhisattva Study Center] network, including ten rural Buddhist villages, retreat centers, and numerous urban area centers across Brazil. Formerly a professor of physics and leader in the Brazilian environmental movement, Lama Samten was ordained by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche in 1996. The following article is adapted from a Buddhism and Social Action Immersion Course for youth in June, 2022, at the Caminho do Meio Buddhist Village in Viamao, Brazil.

We are here in the world, so how can we better use our short and precious existence? What can we do to improve our life? The Buddha teaches us how to practice five wisdoms, or qualities, which we can encounter when we look inside and observe our minds. Derived from the Mahayana Buddhabhumisutra [Scripture on the Stage of Buddhahood], the five wisdoms are aspects of the enlightened mind that pervade every living being without exception, including ourselves. Veils of ignorance and disturbing emotions obscure these wisdoms. The goal of practice is to cultivate these five wisdoms until they shine forth without obstruction and transform our lives. 

The first, mirror-like wisdom, is our capacity to understand others in their own worlds. Others include people, animals, and minds in general, not just human minds or the minds of beings. For example, we can ask what would be good for the country, the state, the city, or beings a hundred years from now. We have the capacity to look at things more broadly. We can look at beings and see if they need support. H.H. the Dalai Lama says it is essential that everyone has security, food, water, protection, housing, and the other foundations of human dignity. This is the principal point. Nobody should be abandoned, not one person. When we look this way, we no longer focus on what I like or do not like. Our mind is capable of seeing what is happening with others. 

The second, the wisdom of equality, is quite essential. This is the ability to rejoice in what happens to others. Once, I heard Chagdud Rinpoche say that if we rejoice only in what happens to us, then we don’t have much of a chance for happiness in life. However, if we can rejoice when something goes well for others, we smile because we are happy for them. He also said that jealousy is useless. He pointed out that if a person has a competitive spirit, sometimes they win. But with jealousy, one always loses. 

The opposite of jealousy is our ability to look at others, understand their world, cooperate in their world, and rejoice in the good in their lives. We feel enriched. Because we look, contemplate, and rejoice with everyone, we do not need to pursue the cultural narrative of acquiring possessions for happiness. If we are too focused on accumulating things and our happiness comes only from what happens to us, we end up demanding too much of ourselves. But if we have the contemplative capacity to rejoice with plants, animals, the sky, rivers, oceans, and mountains, then we can live a less complicated life. This is a good thing! We don’t have to run around the world trying to obtain everything for ourselves. We engage others and rejoice with them.

The third is the wisdom of discrimination. When we sit in equilibrium, in silence, we delve into more profound internal phenomena. We escape from eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and touch and then look calmly and see how disturbances and outflow arise. Outflow is an impulse we have to follow things in a particular direction. Let’s say you study law. You may get a job and work toward a career in the private sector, public service, or politics. Wonderful! All of this is an outflow sequence. We go on, creating one thing, creating another thing, and this becomes our life. But this is not our life—it is a construction. When we calm ourselves and really see this, we say, “This is all artificial.” You can do this thing, but you can do other things. This wisdom can also be seen as the wisdom of lucidity—it clarifies the facts.

The fourth is the wisdom of causality. We act in a certain way, and this produces happiness or suffering. In short, all actions produce effects. So we must take great care of how we act because our actions will produce positive or negative consequences. Understanding this wisdom, we can practice four specific actions in any environment we find ourselves in. The first action is to avoid being disturbed by the appearances we encounter, which is not easy. The second is to seek to calm the environments we navigate, which can be challenging. Third, we try to improve the circumstances of whatever environments we are in. And fourth, we avoid negative actions, help others, and seek to support others in performing positive actions (and avoiding negative actions). 

The fifth is the wisdom of dharmata [the way things are], which is recognizing how all appearances are inseparable from our minds. There is a non-duality between what is seen and the mind that sees. This non-duality means that the seen and seer are not separate. In whichever direction I look, I practice the wisdom of dharmata by seeing non-duality. On the other hand, the mind manifests the creative aspect, which is luminosity. I have this luminosity that creates, and I have the natural freedom to create. For example, we can look at a little table and see it as a bench. In the same way, we can see a meditation bench as a place to set books. But, in principle, the meditation bench is not for books. It’s where we fold our legs and sit. We can also use a meditation bench as a little table! This creativity is the luminous aspect. 

We have the ability, in this generation, to imagine the world differently and construct new realities and mental categories for our planetary and ecological age.

We don’t need to change the object. We relate to the luminous aspect and not something else that would be inherent in the object. This way of relating with the world is luminous action. Our life will crucially depend on how we luminously construct the constellation of things we relate to. The base of our mind is free, allowing a variety and infinity of things to arise without limit. As we navigate the world, things look solid but are not really solid. They appear solid along with our mind, but our mind is free and can construct other things. 

When we see the difficulties in imagining a positive future in the face of environmental destruction and profound social and political crises, we can see this is simply our constructed mental categories appearing. These worlds that we live in are nothing but the mental creations of previous generations. We have the ability, in this generation, to imagine the world differently and construct new realities and mental categories for our planetary and ecological age. Many new possible directions are emerging simultaneously, and though we don’t know which directions have stability or are the best for our new world, the five wisdoms can serve as our basis.

When you practice the five wisdoms, you will discover energy, or lung in Tibetan Buddhism, arising within you. When we understand, support, and collaborate with others, there is a glow within us. This glow is a happiness not bound by attachments but a happiness that springs from the lucid perspective of the five wisdoms. When we understand things as they are and act in skillful ways, seeing everything deeply, an awareness shines within us. Cultivating the five wisdoms can bring about our happiness and collective flourishing for all beings in the world.

At the CEBB communities [a Buddhist network of retreat and study centers in Brazil], we practice the five wisdoms together as a form of social and ecological transformation. We invite people to sit down in a circle together, listen deeply to each other, and begin luminously visioning and dreaming new worlds. This collective visioning and dreaming is the practice of mandala. The mandala is the five wisdoms in action that bring together individual visions and create and build collective dreams. Through the self-organization of mandalas at CEBB, we have created a network of ten rural Buddhist villages, retreat centers, and many urban centers. We developed the Caminho do Meio (Middle Way) Institute, which works for human development, social transformation, and a culture of peace. Currently, the mandalas, which form the body of the Institute, operate three transformative schools and two agroecological test and education sites, support traditional communities, and undertake many other activities. We also supported the indigenous Mbyá-Guarani in their retaking of traditional lands. And now the Caminho do Meio Institute is affiliated with the United Nations, so we can bring our experiences to the global stage and translate what is happening globally back to our communities. Practicing the five wisdoms not only brings about our own happiness, but when we practice them with others, these wisdoms can be the basis for our collective flourishing.

Ana Nedochetko and Klaus Reishtatter contributed to this translation.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .