Over the past weeks, we have discussed the first five paramitas, or perfections, of Generosity, Ethics, Patience, Joyous Effort and Concentration. Tonight we’ll explore the 6th and final one, the Perfection of Wisdom, known as Prajna Paramita. This paramita refers to the enlightened quality of transcendental wisdom, insight, and understanding. The essence of this paramita is supreme wisdom, the greatest possible understanding.
Beyond words and limitations of ideas, concepts, or intellectual knowledge, we experience the awakened heart-mind of wisdom and compassion. Prajna paramita acknowledges the essential emptiness and the interconnectedness of all things, and it sees through false or distorted views of the absolute. Prajna paramita is a result of contemplation, meditation, and understanding the nature of reality. With an awakened heart, we are drawn naturally to serve the welfare of all beings.
In their book Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield describe spiritual teachers who embody the mixture of wisdom and compassion that characterize prajna paramita.
One such leader was Maha Ghosananda, a Theravadan monk who served as the Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism during and after the Khmer Rouge regime. Even in the face of extreme danger, he courageously led peace marches around the country, chanting “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed.” He kept hope alive for thousands of Cambodians who had suffered unspeakable losses. At the end of the bloodshed, he worked tirelessly to promote reconciliation so that the country could move towards healing. Ghosananda was wise enough to realize that the one serving, the ones being served, and the compassionate action of service are all interconnected.
I remember a story Ram Dass tells in his book How Can I Help? about a young, physically fit, American Aikido student who was riding on a subway car in Tokyo. A dirty, aggressive, drunken man boarded the train and started threatening terrified passengers. Ready to show off his martial art skill to protect people he perceived as innocent victims, the student stood up to confront the drunk, who reacted with rage. Before a fight occurred, a small, elderly Japanese man intervened with a soft, “Hey!”
From his seat, he quietly engaged the drunk in a conversation about the sake he’d been drinking and confided that he and his wife enjoyed sake too. The old gentleman said, “You must have a wonderful wife.” Suddenly the drunk began to cry about his wife’s recent death. He confessed that he had no home and no job, and that he felt ashamed.
As the Aikido student retreated from his self-righteous posture, he watched the homeless man lay his head on the gentleman’s lap and receive gentle, soothing strokes on his matted hair. It takes a high order of wisdom to perceive the hurt child underlying belligerant, drunken behavior, so that conflict can be resolved through loving kindness instead of force. With this kind of supreme wisdom, we can transcend fear, and dualistic, ego-based thoughts, to recognize the truth behind appearances.
On prolonged meditation retreats, I have had glimpses of prajna paramita and the interconnection of all life. I remember one time when I was concentrating during a period of slow walking meditation along a forest path. Suddenly my feet were moving on their own, bird and insect sounds were arising and passing away, and sunlight was dancing in and out of the flickering shadows of tree leaves, which seemed to quiver with energy.
For a moment, I felt as if I were being pulsed effortlessly in a cosmic vibratory dance that was constantly shifting and evolving. There was no sense of separate self or of evaluation of my experience—simply a sense of playful freedom and surrender. I felt at one with my surroundings and amazed by the preciousness and complexity of life’s myriad manifestations, with everything unfolding as it should. When I returned to my usual way of perceiving my surroundings, my body felt awkward, and I missed the seamless flow I’d been experiencing. When we let go of preconceived notions, opinions, and attachments, we see clearly and are open to all the wonders of our lives.
An essential teaching of the Buddha is called the Heart of Great Wisdom Sutra, which explains the concept of emptiness. Here are some excerpts from the Heart Sutra:
Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form; Form does not differ from Emptiness, Emptiness does not differ from Form; whatever is Empty, that is Form; whatever is Form, that is Empty. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.… [A]ll dharmas [natural laws]…have no beginning and no end, they are neither imperfect nor perfect, neither deficient nor complete….in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no name, no concepts, no knowledge. No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or objects of the mind, no sight organ, no hearing organ…no mind consciousness element; no ignorance or extinction of ignorance, no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, no attainment, nor anything to attain….the Perfection of Wisdom is the great mantra, the unequaled mantra, the destroyer of suffering.
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha. (3X) Bodhi Svaha. (Gone, Gone, Gone beyond, Gone completely beyond. (3X) Awakening fulfilled.)
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about mystical experiences that reflect this quality of the paramita. He quotes a 17th century Lutheran mystic Jacob Boehme:
The treasure of treasures for the soul is when she goeth…into that Nothing out of which all things may be made. The soul here saith,
I HAVE NOTHING, for I am utterly stripped and naked; I CAN DO NOTHING, for I have no manner of power, but am as water poured out; I AM NOTHING, for all that I am is no more than an image of Being… sitting down in my own Nothingness, I give glory to the eternal Being, and I WILL NOTHING of myself, that so God may will all in me…
Although Boehme frames nothingness in terms of his belief in God, his language is reminiscent of the Buddhist texts about emptiness.
This concept is difficult to understand ontologically, and the only way I can relate to it is when I’ve touched upon a sense of being suspended in stillness. You may have experienced moments, as I have, during meditation when the breath becomes so subtle that it seems to disappear, and nothing else seems to remain. In such moments, there are no thoughts, emotions or sensations, and there’s nothing to do.
Ram Dass tells a funny story about how we can become attached even to a concept of nothingness.
One day a rabbi, in a frenzy of religious passion, rushed before the ark, fell to his knees and started beating his breast, crying, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” The cantor of the synagogue, impressed by this example of spiritual humility, joined the rabbi on his knees, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” The custodian, watching from a corner, couldn’t restrain himself either. He joined the other two on his knees, calling out, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” At which point the rabbi, nudging the cantor with his elbow, pointed at the custodian and said, “Look who thinks he’s nobody!”
True wisdom entails humility and humor, so that we can let go of attachments, even to the disciplines of the paramitas. Illuminated wisdom transforms the other five paramitas into their highest state.