Panna (Skt., prajna), wisdom, follows on the heels of renunciation in the Theravada list of the ten paramis (Skt., paramita), and it’s the linchpin that makes these virtues “perfections.” In the Mahayana texts, Prajnaparamita or “perfection of wisdom” also refers to a group of sutras that describe the Buddhist concept of emptiness, as well as to the personification of this type of wisdom as the mother of all buddhas. From a practical perspective, we could say that wisdom is necessary for the skillful cultivation of the other virtues. Its function is to illuminate the real nature of phenomena—the way things are—and it manifests as both concentration and insight. If delusion is walking around in a darkened room, wisdom is turning on the light. People and things, and the room itself, are all the same, but now we can see them clearly. On a deeper level, prajna shows us the impermanent and interdependent nature of things, an insight that transforms the ten virtues into perfections. (“Perfect” here doesn’t mean flawless but empty of a fixed, independent self nature.) Thus, when we cultivate wisdom, we realize that we don’t practice the other perfections just because it’s a good thing to do. Ultimately, we do it because, as wisdom shows us, the perfections are our very nature—the way we are.

  • “When one who develops wisdom to the end does not seize on the least dharma,
    Conditioned or unconditioned, dark or bright;
    Then one comes to speak in the world of the perfection of wisdom,
    [Which is like] space, wherein nothing real whatsoever is established.” —The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, trans. by Edward Conze
  • “In every place and in every moment, in thought after thought, never becoming muddled and constantly acting wisely—just this is practicing prajna.” —Dajian Huineng (638–713), the Sixth Ancestor of Chan
  • “The insight that eventually arises [from practice] is that we look at our self-illusion and recognize it for what it is.” —Ven. Ayya Khema
  • Tip: Wisdom is different from knowledge. Whenever you think you know something, ask yourself, “What is this?” Then get very quiet and look closely—not at your idea of things but at what they really are. How? By letting go of what you know, what you remember, what you assume to be true. Don’t know, and see what is actually there.
  • “Because the nature of all phenomena is ultimately found to be emptiness, the Prajnaparamita, which is emptiness itself, is the mother.” —Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown
  • “Just as light cannot coexist with darkness, wisdom cannot coexist with delusion. Therefore a bodhisattva wishing to accomplish the perfection of wisdom should avoid the causes of delusion.—Acharya Dharmapala
  • Tip: Consider what you’re bringing into being today. Is it based on wisdom or clinging, clarity or confusion?

This is the fourth installment of our Pocket Paramis series of quick tips to keep in mind while working with the ten perfections: generosity, ethical conduct, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, lovingkindness, and equanimity. If you need a visual reminder, a printable/downloadable version is available here.

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