This is the transcript of a talk given to the Paramitas Study Group on March 16th, 2018. As usual, it draws heavily on talks by respected Zen teachers, in this case particularly Zoketsu Norman Fisher.
Although Prajna is usually translated as “wisdom”, Norman Fisher suggests that it should be translated as “understanding” … because in English, when you say someone understands, you mean they understand something intellectually, but you might also mean that they are sympathetic and kind, that they understand with not just their mind but their heart and their whole being. Prajna is just like that. You understand and you are understanding. So what is it that you understand?
Technically, the perfection of wisdom means that you recognise the emptiness of all Dharmas. All of Buddhist doctrine is fundamentally organised around the emptiness teachings. When we speak of emptiness or the emptiness teachings, we mean that everything is “empty of own being”: things arise and disappear, and that arising and disappearing is dependent upon conditions and influences too vast, complex, and inextricably interwoven to ever begin to tease apart. Nothing exists independently of everything else, and nothing exists forever.
When you practice Prajna, you’re not merely clever; you understand that what you think you know, you don’t really know. When you really take this on board, you’re able to have an open feeling about life. You have sympathy for others, because you understand that we are all in exactly the same boat: all of us are sad and magnificent and mysterious creatures. And we’re sad and magnificent and mysterious creatures together.
Sitting regularly helps us see this, in part because it gives us a break from that very human process of verbal definition and reification, which then shapes our experience of life. If you keep on practising Zazen, you start to undermine the persistent tendency to reify things, to consider things more substantial, independent, and permanent than they could possibly be. As a result, a whole lot of things that seemed terribly important no longer seem so important. You start to have some composure when tough things happen, because you understand that things come and go and they always have, and they always will. It’s a big relief to really see and accept this, and that acceptance helps you to be kind. When you’re tense and upset, fighting with reality, it’s harder to be kind.
Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of Perfect Understanding. He’s often depicted as holding a sword in one hand, and a book – the Prajnaparamita Sutra – in the other. The sword is to slice right through all entangling words and ideas, so everyone can see the emptiness.
As Dale Wright says, “Wisdom… is the ability to face the truth and not be unnerved or frightened. It is the capacity to be disillusioned, but not disheartened. .. Wisdom means setting aside illusions about oneself and the world and being strengthened by that encounter with the truth. It entails willingness to avoid seeking the security of the unchanging and to open oneself to a world of flux and complex relations.”
It’s sometimes said that there’s only one Paramita, and that’s Prajna; or that all the other Paramitas are just the expressions of Prajna. There is no pure expression of Prajna itself; it’s the other Paramitas that are the expression, the manifestation of Prajna. For example, it’s Prajna that makes Dana a Paramita, instead of just ordinary generosity, because Dana Paramita flows from the awareness that we are not separate. And Kshanti Paramita, the capacity to patiently endure difficulties, is not rigid stoicism; it’s sweetened and softened by the felt sense that we are part of a universal process that is intelligent, whole, and beautiful.
To sit in Zazen is to sit in Prajna. As Dogen says, impermanence is Buddha nature. To be is to be emptiness.
In Chinese folklore, as in European folklore, ghosts don’t have feet; it is said that they have to cling to grasses and bushes to stay in one place. In a commentary on the koan MU, Master Wu Men says “If you don’t cut off the mind road, you are a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses.”
If we rely on thoughts and emotions, we are like footless, rootless ghosts, being blown about by the vagaries of our minds and hearts, clinging to some shred of something we possess or identify with. In order to be stable, we need to drop down into a deeper wisdom than our ideas or our whims and desires.
Dedicated steady practice over time produces a mode of being that is firmer than thinking or feeling, though it doesn’t exclude thinking or feeling. When we cut off the mind road, we see beyond our thinking and feeling to the root of thinking and feeling, and we grow feet; we become firm and strong and can stand on the earth. We are no longer ghosts, but fully human.
The paradox is that our minds can only perceive through separation and definition and reification. But Life – which we also are – is larger than our thinking and our feeling. Prajnaparamita invites us to experience our lives as Life itself, beyond our human need to define and understand, and this requires some kind of contemplative practice, to allow life to show us the vastness of Life Itself. But it also requires that we hold our minds and hearts in a new way – a more stable and open way – and allow ourselves to be led by vow, rather than pulled about by our conditioning.