Wisdom

The 9th chapter, “Transcendent Wisdom,” in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life that I referenced in my Sept. 8th post, begins with these words:

Wisdom is the only true final antidote to all suffering (the whole path aims at this).”

The Sanskrit word for wisdom is prajna, which is syllabified as praj, meaning “higher,” and na or “consciousness.” But higher consciousness should not be taken to mean that wisdom some sort of mystical state. It is more like the difference between viewing a landscape from the ground or atop a mountain. The higher one’s vantage point then the more one is able to see.

Dharmic wisdom has many shades and hues. Wisdom obtained by study is what the sutras call “literary prajna.” Prajna-paramita, or Transcendent Wisdom, is the coupling of compassion with emptiness-knowledge. Prajna-Dhyana is the non-duality of wisdom and meditation. But none of these constitute the highest form of wisdom.

“The Way is your everyday mind,” is a saying attributed to Huang Po, a Ch’an master during the Tang Dynasty. He means there is no wisdom that is detached from daily life.

You can go off in search of higher states of consciousness, but the state of mind that is most important is the one rooted in the everyday world. Through understanding daily life, we can understand the whole of life.

I don’t know how many of readers consider yourself Buddhists. It’s not important. Being a Buddhist is nothing special in the long run. It’s just being an ordinary person. Doing ordinary things. However, because most Buddhist engage in some sort of meditative practice, ordinary things are done with a bit more awareness, and one hopes, tranquility.

The ancient Ch’an/Zen tradition seemed to understand this very well. There’s old story from the school that illustrates the point, with the usual dash of paradox, of course:

Someone asked the Zen master three questions, What is Buddha? What is Dharma? What is Sangha? And the master answered each question with the same words, “Go and drink tea.”

In other words, you practice, and you do your daily life. That’s wisdom. That’s true Buddhism.

Share

Wisdom You Won’t Find on Duck Dynasty

I’ve never watched the show, but somehow I don’t think this is what “Duck Dynasty” is about.

A frequent criticism of modern Buddhist is the almost one-sided emphasis on meditation. In response to my post last week on modern Buddhism, a reader commented that “not only is the sila [ethics] being left out by some folks, the prajna is also devalued as well.” I agree this certainly seems to be the case.

The Sanskrit word prajna is syllabified as praj, meaning “higher,” and na or “consciousness.” Wisdom is “above” consciousness, a state of realization caused by direct awareness into reality. In general, Buddhism distinguishes higher wisdom from knowledge. To the dismay of those critics of modern Buddhism obsessed with a purely intellectual approach, dharmic wisdom is not based solely on intellectual achievement.

It’s said that under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha awoke to three kinds of wisdom: the wisdom concerning all dharmas (things), the wisdom obtained by his own effort, and the natural wisdom.

The first wisdom corresponds to knowledge, specifically the understanding that nothing in the universe exists without a relationship of mutual dependence with other things. However, as previously stated, knowledge alone is not enough; the aim of Buddhism to go beyond knowledge to higher or deeper wisdom.

The second wisdom corresponds with jiriki, self or inner power. This wisdom, obtained through meditative concentration, we call dhyana-prajna.

The third wisdom, the natural wisdom, is the most intuitive of the three, the most difficult to describe in words. It has nothing to do with intelligence or shrewdness, rather it is the pristine wisdom innately possessed by mind. It is the buddha-nature, the mind of original enlightenment, also called “dustless wisdom.”

I think people grow tired of hearing about ineffable wisdom, wisdom that goes beyond wisdom, and so on. Maybe you have to experience it to understand, or perhaps folks would get a better feel for what we mean if we explain that it’s like breaking out of the prison of thought.

Awakening, the process of enlarging awareness, is different from thought. The aim is to free awareness, so that awareness requires no thought. It unfolds, as a flower unfolds, opening to the sun.

MP90040bThis is why Su Tung-p’o, the famous Chinese poet of the Song Dynasty, wrote,

The lush chrysanthemum is not different from prajna.”

Share

Spiritual Maturity

I’ve never felt that Buddhism was concerned with discovering, embracing or flaunting our ‘inner child,’ except perhaps in the sense of experiencing a “renaissance of wonder,” to borrow a phrase from Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I may not have a good handle on what the term ‘inner child’ means, but it sounds like something that belongs with “pop” psychology and spirituality. Practicing Buddhism is about finding inner wisdom, a process that requires a certain level of maturity, and should result in an increased level of maturity.

Spiritual maturity isn’t a topic I’ve heard discussed much. As a concept, I imagine that you could easily pick it apart, and yet, I think it’s a quality that’s recognizable when you see it, hear it, or read it.

Obviously, spiritual maturity is tied in with our mental and emotional maturity. Scientists have a newly developed scan that can measure the maturity of the brain which according to reports is “an advance that someday might be useful for testing whether children are maturing normally and for gauging whether teenagers are grown-up enough to be treated as adults.” [Washington Post]

I don’t know if there’s any way to gauge something as subtle as spiritual maturity. At the same time, if they someday developed a scan for it too, I wouldn’t be that surprised.

Some years ago Norman Fischer, former co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, wrote a book entitled Taking Our Places: the Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, and while it’s aimed at teenagers, I think we’re talking about a quality that transcends the measure of one’s years:

When I think about the world of the future, with so many difficult choices ahead, I know that only mature people will be able to deal with what arises. I am heartened by the many people I know – young and old alike – who are concerned with their own maturity and willing to work toward it with courage and energy. The development of human maturity does take much work and effort. But I am sure we are all capable of doing the work and enjoying the fruits. Maturity can’t be hurried or produced on schedule. Growth takes time. We have to steep ourselves for a while, like a good cup of tea. We need to go through what’s necessary for us to endure . . .

Our particular lineage of Zen, founded by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, puts little emphasis on enlightenment. It’s not that we are unconcerned about enlightenment or that we are opposed to it. Enlightenment is certainly important. Personally seeing the truth of the teachings, breaking through the habit of self-centeredness, opening out to something much wider, and having some clarity and flexibility – all of this is crucial . . . Maybe someone is not very enlightened, or not enlightened at all. But if he or she is mature, it is good enough, for as Suzuki Roshi taught us, it is the ongoing practice, carried out with balance, faith, perseverance, kindness, and willingness to reach out to others, that is the most important thing. To practice like this takes a quiet and stable maturity.

Buddhist practice should be life changing. There are concrete measures we can take to facilitate transformation and enhance our practice. Three important ones would be:

Active listening – this is a new buzzword, but I rather like it. Most of us really don’t listen very well. Active listening means to make a conscious effort to understand and interpret what we hear. This also applies to study, since reading is listening with the eyes.

Learning from contemplative thinking – reflected in the ways that we change our thinking, learn to make better choices, engage in better actions, and avoid repeating negative patterns. Learning in Buddhism is more than acquiring knowledge and gaining insight, it’s akin to the psychological sense of behavioral change, learning to use new behaviors.

Commitment to growth – spiritual and personal growth are difficult to maintain, development occurs over time and requires dedication and determination, along with the spirit to take advantage of every opportunity for growth.

Here are some more important characteristics. You might be familiar with the physical characteristics of a Buddha (the 32 Signs and the 80 secondary characteristics) but these you may not have run across before. I’m not sure where I got this list, but it lays it all out nicely, I think. After all, maturing spiritually is just becoming a Buddha:

Characteristics of a Buddha

1. Does not stumble.

2. Not harsh in speech

3. Always mindful.

4. Makes no distinctions.

5. Always able to concentrate.

6. Has an open mind.

7. Enthusiastic about things.

8. Maintains energy.

9. Mindfulness never fails.

10. Concentration never fails.

11. Wisdom never fails.

12. Deliverance never fails.

13. Thinks before acting.

14. Thinks before speaking.

15. Avoids negative thoughts.

16. Understands the past clearly.

17. Has vision for the future.

18. Lives in the present moment.

Share

Do The Right Thing

A verse of the Dhammapada reads:

To avoid evil actions, to do actions that are good
and to purify the mind is the essence of Buddha’s teachings.

One of the primary concerns of religion and philosophy is the issue of morality, of defining what is good and what is evil. Some say that it is a divine force that determines the nature of good and evil. Others feel that morality is something created by human beings and is relative to time and place.

Those who hold to an absolute measure of morality have often tried to establish a moral code or set of commandments upon which all human conduct is to be adjudicated. In the world of law, this may be necessary. But the world of morality is not black and white. The biggest problem with this approach is how to motivate people to follow the commandments. The usual solution has been to proffer a fear of consequence such as the “wrath of god,” eternal damnation.

Buddhism is called the philosophy of the Middle Way because its concepts often fall in-between these and other extremes. While Buddhism neither confirms nor denies the existence of a supreme being, it is rather pessimistic about the idea, so we tend to view morality as a human concern, with more than two shades of color.

In Buddhist philosophy there is a theory of consequence called karma. This doctrine was probably not taught by the Buddha himself, rather it was a Brahman idea likely layered on sometime after the Buddha. Nonetheless, it has become an integral part of the dharma.

The idea of karma is that one’s actions produce effects, either good or bad depending upon the nature of the action undertaken. That, by the way, is the little loophole. Conceivably one can perform some action that is technically ‘bad’, but if the motivation is right-minded then it’s ‘good.’

In any event, effects from past actions are said to come back in time to affect the individual. With this scenario, there is a tendency to lock in on the idea of ‘bad karma’ and speculate on what was done to deserve it. Frankly, all speculation of this sort is rather foolish. As I mentioned in a recent post, the T’ien-t’ai teacher Chih-i, as well as many other teachers past and present, have taught that none of us can know the true nature of our karma from the past.

Another flawed way of thinking is to believe that we should engage in positive actions in order to avoid negative karma. All this does is replace the supreme being who judges our behavior with ‘mystic karma,’ a divine force that can somehow perceive the difference between good and evil. For me, using this doctrine as a  carrot stick doesn’t work too well.

Some question the very idea of karma, after all, there is no real empirical evidence to support it. However, it doesn’t really matter whether you accept karma or not. At least in regards to morality, for as far as good and evil is concerned, both arise from our own mind. The Buddha taught that if one purifies the mind and trains it toward goodness, then wisdom will arise. It’s a kind of simple and intuitive wisdom, where one naturally understands the virtue of positive, wholesome actions. In other words, we learn to practice goodness because it is the right way to live.

In fact, it is the only way to live.

Mookie: C’mon, what. What?
Da Mayor: Always do the right thing.
Mookie: That’s it?
Da Mayor: That’s it.
Mookie: I got it, I’m gone.

Share