The awakening of wisdom (Sanskrit: prajñā) is essential in Buddhism. The Sanskrit term prajñā – composed of jñā (“consciousness,” “knowledge” or “understanding”) and pra (“higher,” “greater,” “supreme,” “premium” or “being born or springing up”) – is usually translated as “wisdom,” although “insight,” “intuitive apprehension” or “discriminating knowledge” may be more accurate.
The aim is to gain an understanding of the truth in Buddhist teachings, although an intellectual or conceptual grasp is not sufficient. One strives to attain personal realization as to the true nature of reality, encompassing impermanence (Sanskrit: anityatā) and suffering (Sanskrit: dukkha), and ultimately emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā) and non-existence of self (Sanskrit: anātman).
Developing wisdom is one of the core components – alongside ethical conduct and mental discipline – of the Noble Eightfold Path, known as the Path to the Cessation of Suffering, that the Buddha taught as the fourth of the Four Noble Truths. Two of the eight parts of the Noble Eightfold Path pertain to wisdom, these being Right View or Understanding, and Right Thought.
In terms of cultivating Right View or Understanding, one does so through the study of Buddhist teachings and direct observation. There are three wisdoms related to this process – wisdom from listening; wisdom from contemplating; wisdom from practice – as Dharma Master Cheng Yen explains:
“Wisdom from listening” comes from listening to the sutras or to the ancient sages’ insights through lectures and discourses, [so we can gain] their wisdom and insights. When we make an effort to listen more and better understand, this is [called] “listening to virtuous friends.” No matter who is speaking, as we listen to the Dharma, everyone will have their own insights and [interpretation] of the key essence. So, we must also listen patiently [and] not give rise to discrimination in our minds. Depending on our capabilities, as we listen to the Dharma, we’ll be able to accept the teachings that are helpful to us. This is “wisdom from listening.”
“Wisdom from contemplation” [comes from] contemplating [what we hear] from the sutras, discourses and virtuous friends. Previously, we completely depended on others. When we don’t understand yet, we must learn from the sutras and discourses or from virtuous friends. But wisdom from contemplation comes from relying on ourselves. After listening to the sutras, we must remember them. That which we understand, we must absorb into our hearts and earnestly contemplate over and over [and] make careful analysis. This is [the process of attaining wisdom from] contemplation. We must contemplate and analyze before we can apply the Dharma in our lives.
[To attain] “wisdom from practice,” we must truly and diligently practice by putting [the Dharma] into action, without being lax in the slightest. As we actualize the Dharma in our lives, we see how other people also listen to it and actualize it in their lives. We listen to the same Dharma, but are our daily lives oriented in the same direction? When we have confirmed that our methods are [aimed] in the right direction, we’ll feel at ease as we practice according to the teachings. After we temper ourselves and gain insights from our practice, these insights that we gain are “wisdom from practice.”
If we can simply listen, contemplate and practice [the Dharma], its meaning, principles and direction will become thoroughly clear to us. At this time, with the right direction, true contemplation, right thinking and steadfast practice, this is the path we must now follow. As we steadfastly engage in practice, since we’re putting [the Dharma] into practice, our direction must not deviate. So, having faith and understanding in the sutra’s meaning means not deviating. We must be focused and precise. Through wisdom from practice, we will have focus and precision. In this way, for a long time, we must follow this path without deviating to develop our wisdom.”
Wisdom is also among the Six Perfections (Sanskrit: pāramitās) that Buddhists cultivate – alongside generosity, precepts, forbearance, diligence and meditative concentration (samadhi). Master Cheng Yen elaborates, pointing out how wisdom plays a key role:
The path we walk on comprises the Five Paramitas, and the Five Paramitas need wisdom to lead the way so we will not go astray. If we have wisdom, we are giving wisely, upholding precepts wisely, practicing patience wisely, practicing diligence wisely, and practicing Samadhi wisely. When we can converge with [all the Paramitas], [our wisdom] will be flawless. Being flawless means fully eliminating afflictions and ignorance and being upright in the direction of our practice.
Meditative concentration (samadhi) also plays an important role in awakening wisdom, and can be seen as synonymous with Right Thought, part of the Noble Eightfold Path.
This “Samadhi” refers to right thinking and cultivating contemplation. So, our minds should always abide in the state of Samadhi, which is right thinking. If we [cultivate] right contemplation, it is actualized as Samadhi. Our minds must be focused and settled. When it comes to people, matters and things, we must carefully observe them, for only then can our minds be settled [and] we’ll give rise to wisdom.
So, “listening, contemplation and practice” are very important. Everyone must be focused, steadfast and precise. We already know that time is closing in on us. As each day continuously passes, none of those minutes or seconds will ever return, so we must seize the moment and earnestly make use of our lives in the present.
The sections in italics are abbreviated excerpts from a transcribed teaching on the Lotus Sutra that Dharma Master Cheng Yen gave on April 18, 2019.