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Wisdom (Extract) 1

Homage to the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Highest Self—Enlightened One!

Edward Conze

Published: 2014-11-24 — Updated: 2018-11-15

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And so we come to wisdom (Skt: prajña; Pali: pañña), the highest virtue of all.

“Wisdom is based on concentration, because of the saying: ‘One who is concentrated knows, sees what really is.’”[11] Is concentration then an indispensable pre—condition of wisdom? The answer lies in distinguishing three stages of wisdom, according to whether it operates on the level of: (1) learning about what tradition has to say concerning the psychological and ontological categories which form the subject—matter of wisdom; (2) discursive reflection on the basic facts of life; and (3) meditation development. [12] The third alone requires the aid of transic concentration, [13] whereas without it there can be proficiency in the first two. And the wisdom which consists of learning and reflection should not be despised.

The main stream of Buddhist tradition has always greatly esteemed learning. Our attitude to the apple of knowledge differs from that of many Christians. On the whole, we regard it as rather more nourishing than baneful. The wisdom, which is the fifth and crowning virtue, is not the wisdom that can be found in the untutored child of nature, the corny sage of the backwoods, or the self—made philosopher of the suburbs. It can operate only after a great deal of traditional information has been absorbed, a great deal of sound learning acquired.

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The required skill in metaphysical and psychological analysis would be impossible without a good knowledge of the material on which this skill ought to be exercised. From this point of view learning is perhaps less to be regretted than its absence.

The second stage, after learning, is reflection, which is an operation of the intellect. Even the relative beginner can greatly increase his wisdom by discursive meditations on the basic facts of life. Finally, it is on the level of mental development (bhavana) that this meditation technique reaches its maturity, and then it does, indeed, require the aid of mindfulness and concentration.

“Wisdom” is, of course, only a very approximate equivalent of prajña. To the average person nowadays “wisdom” seems to denote a compound made up of such qualities as sagacity, prudence, a well—developed sense of values, serenity, and sovereignty over the world won by the understanding of the mode of its operation.

The Buddhist conception of “wisdom” is not unlike this, but more precise. It is best clarified by first giving its connotations, and then its actual definition.

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As for the connotations, we read in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi: [14] “On that occasion the dominant [15] of wisdom is wisdom, understanding, [16] search, research, search for dharma; [17] discernment, discrimination, differentiation, erudition, expert skill, subtlety, clarity, [18] reflection, investigation, [19] amplitude, [20] sagacity, [21] a guide (to true welfare and to the marks as they truly are), insight, comprehension, a goad (which urges the mind to move back on the right track); wisdom, wisdom as virtue, wisdom as strength (because ignorance cannot dislodge it), the sword of wisdom (which cuts through the defilements), the lofty (and overtowering) height of wisdom, the light, [22] lustre and splendour of wisdom, the treasure [23] of wisdom, absence of delusion, search for dharmas, right view.” From mere cleverness wisdom is distinguished by its spiritual purpose, and we are told expressly [24] that it is designed “to cut off the defilements.”

Now to the actual definition: “Wisdom penetrates [25] into dharmas as they are in themselves. It disperses the darkness of delusion, which covers up the own—being of dharmas.” [26]

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What then does wisdom meditate about? Wisdom may be held to concern itself with three possible topics: (1) true reality; (2) the meaning of life; (3) the conduct of life. Buddhist tradition assumes that the second and third depend on the first. In its essence wisdom is the strength of mind which permits contact with the true reality, which is also called the realm of dharmas. Delusion, folly, confusion, ignorance and self—deception are the opposites of wisdom. It is because ignorance, and not sin, is the root evil that wisdom is regarded as the highest virtue. A holiness which is devoid of wisdom is not considered impossible, but it cannot be gained by the path of knowledge, to which alone these descriptions apply. The paths of faith, of love, of works, etc., have each their own several laws.

As the unfaltering penetration into the true nature of objects, wisdom is the capacity to meditate in certain ways about the dharmic constituents of the universe. The rules of that meditation have been laid down in the scriptures, particularly in the Abhidharma, and a superb description can be found in the latter part of Buddhaghosa’s Path of Purification. Mindfulness and concentration were, as we saw, based on the assumption of a duality in the mind—between its calm depth and its excited surface. Wisdom similarly assumes a duality between the surface and depth of all things. Objects are not what they appear to be. Their true reality, in which they stand out as dharmas, is opposed to their appearance to commonsense, and much strength of wisdom is required to go beyond the deceptive appearance and to penetrate to the reality of dharmas themselves.

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  1. Saṃyutta Nikaya, iii, 13; Visuddhimagga, XIV,7.
  2. E.g., Abhidharmakoṣa, vi, pp.142—144.
  3. Triṃsika by Vasubandhu, ed. S. Levi, 1925—26.
  4. Sec. 16; commentary in Atthasalini,PTS, 1897 (=Asl), pp.147—49.
  5. Indriya. As 122: “Through overwhelming ignorance it is a ‘dominant’ in the sense of ‘dominant influence’; or it is a ‘dominant’ because by exercising discernment (dassana) it dominates (associated dharmas).”
  6. As 123: “As a clever surgeon knows which foods are suitable and which are not, so wisdom, when it arises, understands dharmas as wholesome or unwholesome, serviceable or unserviceable, low or exalted, dark or bright, similar or dissimilar.” Similarly Abhidharmakoṣa,I,3; II,154.
  7. Dharma: the four holy Truths (Asl).
  8. Vebhabya; aniccadinam vibhavana—bhava—vasena. Or “a critical attitude”?
  9. Or “examination.”
  10. Or “breadth.” Wisdom is rich and abundant, or massive.
  11. Medha; also “mental power.” “As lightning destroys even stone—pillars, so wisdom smashes the defilements; alternatively, it is able to grasp and bear in mind.”
  12. Milindapañha,I,61: “It is like a lamp which a man would take into a dark house. It would dispel the darkness, would illuminate, shed light, and make the forms in the house stand out clearly.”
  13. Because it gives delight, is worthy of respect (or “variegated”), hard to get and hard to manifest, incomparable and a source of enjoyment to illustrious beings.
  14. Milindapañha, as translated in my Buddhist Scriptures, 151—52 (see Appendix, Ia).
  15. As 123: “This penetration is unfaltering (akkhalita), like the penetration of an arrow shot by a skilled archer.”
  16. Visuddhimagga, XIV, 7. Dhammasabhava—paṭivedhalakkhaṇa pañña; dhammanaṃ sabhavapaṭicchadaka—mohandhakara—viddhaṃsanarasa.

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May all be happy and well!


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