Buddhist teachings are ultimately concerned with wisdom, or, in Sanskrit, prajñā (Pali, paññā). The term “perfection of wisdom” (prajñāpāramitā) is nearly synonymous with “awakening.” While prajñā is a type of knowing, it means much more than simply “being knowledgeable” or even “having discernment.” To understand exactly what early Buddhists meant by prajñā, it helps to look at the other words they used to describe different ways of knowing.
A reconstructed Indo-European root gno, common to a large family of languages, conveys the meaning “to know.” This shows up in English know, in Greek gnosis, in Polish znać, and in Sanskrit jñāna (Pali, ñāṇa). The first three letters of each word have a similar structure—a consonant, an “n,” and a vowel—and the word plays an important role in Buddhist usage.
When prefixes are added to the Sanskrit form of the verbal root jñā, different senses of the word are brought out. The prefix sam-, which has a sense of gathering together, can yield saṃjñā (Pali, saññā), the word for “perception” in Buddhism. The idea here is that perception is the kind of knowing that assembles a common meaning from various examples. We might, for example, perceive something to be a chair or table by grouping together stationary objects with four legs.
The prefix vi-gives us vijñāna (Pali, viññāṇa), the word for “consciousness.” Vi-connotes discrimination or discernment, and consciousness (jñā) here is taken to be the kind of knowing that focuses on a particular object in a given moment. There are six kinds of consciousness in Buddhist psychology: consciousness of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking. Each of these senses supplies discrete moments of knowing that flow into a stream of consciousness.
The prefix pra- intensifies a root or carries the sense of bringing something forward, and when it is affixed to the root jñā, the word prajñā is born: a wisdom that progresses beyond mere knowing “about something” and provides insight into the very nature of knowing.
In Buddhist contexts this penetrating way of knowing apprehends such universal characteristics as the impermanence of all phenomena, the inherent limitation of all constructions, and the transformative understanding that there is no essential self. Prajñā is the antidote to ignorance and the means of liberating the mind from suffering. It is the culmination of the Buddhist path.
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