This inquiry into the nature of wisdom was our Sunday dharma activity. I provided the introduction and a bit of context, and we together explored some questions I had set out. You might even reflect or do a bit of writing in response to any of these questions. I didn't capture the thoughtful answers that sangha members offered, but you can listen to them on the recording here.

A great deal of pop Buddhism as well as serious discussion of Zen is focused on being awake. Of course it is important to be present to this moment of life, but skydivers are awake; new parents are very awake. We focus a lot on lovingkindness and compassion. New parents are filled with lovingkindness and compassion, but they know that what they need more than anything  is wisdom. 

Two pillars of Zen: wisdom and compassion

We talk about compassion and compassion practice a lot but we do not seem to spend as much time talking about wisdom. Yet we revere the Buddha because of his boundless wisdom, which he offered to kings and commoners, monks and lay people through his teachings, showing profound compassion for the relief of suffering and the liberation of beings.

I've been studying Lex Hixon's Mother of the Buddhas, a translation and commentary of selections of the Prajnaparamita Sutra in 8,000 lines. Prajna means wisdom and paramita means "the supreme excellence which transcends all that is excellent." (Probably a better English term might be "ultimate" or "optimal.") Here is the excerpt:

The Perfection of Wisdom is flawless and faultless, because it is the spontaneous fulfillment of all moral and spiritual values and aspirations. Perfect Wisdom is undistracted and undissipated by any imaginings, rudimentary or sophisticated, because it perceives that the imagination possesses no inherent self-existence. No separate living being is isolated and then encountered by Prajnaparamita, for it does not limit or divide reality. This wisdom knows no limits, because no limits manifest as independent or substantial. 

The perfection of Wisdom does not engage or indulge in the duality of opposites, because it does not confine itself within any particular pattern of experience. This wisdom cannot be subdivided or differentiated, any more than any appearing structures can be fundamentally divided or differentiated. Perfect Wisdom is untarnished by various modes of personal ambition. No stages or dimensions of Prajnaparamita can be discerned, because no separately self-existing practitioners can be apprehended and no inherently existing levels or degrees of realization can be discriminated. 

The Perfection of Wisdom is infinite because Truth is infinite. Perfect Wisdom is not attached, joined or correlated to any subject or object. This wisdom is unconditional, just as all apparently conditioned structures are fundamentally unconditioned. Prajnaparamita is not relational, because the nature of truth is like open space, possessing no separate parts or interrelated components." (108)

Why do you think Wisdom would be called “the Mother of the Buddhas?”

Today we’ll take some time to see what we can learn through an inquiry into wisdom. 

Questions for the Inquiry:

1. Wisdom personified

  • Think of someone, living or dead, you think of as wise. Not smart, wise.
  • What, specifically, gives you the sense of wisdom? How is it shown?
  • Is wisdom something you are or possess, a quality, or something you do, an activity?

2. Wisdom and age

  • Can young people, even children, be wise? How so?
  • Why do we associate wisdom with age?

3. Wisdom by contrast

  • Think of a time when you acted unwisely. What was unwise about it? (How can you tell?)
  • What part of you knows it was unwise? Is that wisdom?

4. Wisdom by consequences

  • Think of a time when you did or said something wise, or someone else did. What was the result? 

5. Wisdom by felt sense

  • Can you feel something in your body when something is truly wise, or unwise? What is it like?

6. The Buddha said, “Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘The ascetic is our teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are unwholesome; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to harm and suffering,” then you should abandon them.”

What does the Buddha mean when he speaks of “things that would be censured by the wise?”

  • How would an unwise person know?
  • Is there anyone who does not have any wisdom in them, anywhere, or is it only clouded by conditioning and self-centered views?

7. Looking back on your life, do you think you have gained in wisdom? How, exactly?

8. What is the relationship between wisdom and compassion?

9. What are some paths to wisdom? How many have you explored?

  •  meditation
  • elders and exemplars
  • peers
  • people different from ourselves
  • stories and teachings
  • experiments/play
  • reflection/review
  • creative expression
  • crisis
  • disappointment
  • ceremonies and forms
  • observation
  • mistakes
  • life as it is

10. How are wisdom and compassion related? Given the complete interdependence of wisdom and compassion, can you think of anything more important than this? Anything you would value more in another person—a hero?

11. What percentage of your time do you spend immersed in or paying attention to cultivating wisdom/compassion? What percentage do you think would be appropriate? What might have to change for that to be possible?

Wisdom is not the same as insight: you can have brilliant insights into your own conditioning, or into a situation, or about a relationship, but that does not mean you act, think, or speak with wisdom. The quality of everything people might value depends on wisdom: wealth without wisdom is corrupt; talent or genius without wisdom is squandered; health without wisdom is animalistic,  brutal or coarse; intelligence without wisdom is dangerous; fame without wisdom is the dreary stuff of tabloids. Even compassion without wisdom is just sentimentality. Wisdom alone reveals our ultimate human potential and gifts. True human achievement is the expression of wisdom in all of its many forms and media. Our struggles, destruction, and conflicts come from blindness and seeking anything other than wisdom: money, land, status, power, influence, fame, self-promotion, ideology. 

We recognize when we act unwisely: how? because of our inherent wisdom and…because of what consequences it brings, the karmic ripples it creates. 

Wisdom is not graspable. You can’t try to gain it, yet without it, we suffer and cause suffering for others. It must inform even compassion

It is truly “the mother of the Buddhas.”

Stephen Batchelor writes, “Dharma practice is founded on resolve. This is not an emotional conversion, a devastating realization of the error of our ways, a desperate urge to be good, but an ongoing, heartfelt reflection on priorities, values, and purpose. We need to keep taking stock of our life in an unsentimental, uncompromising way.” 

In this way we can continue to deepen the practice of wisdom, so that we may think, speak, and act wisely in the service of our vow, the vow for the liberation of all beings and the relief of all suffering.

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Comment by Lisa Kuntz on April 25, 2016 at 5:57pm

Wisdom is something I wonder about a lot: specifically the relationship between wisdom and age.  It would be convenient if years alone made us wise, but they don't.

Stephen Batchelor's comment is rather challenging, in my view.  The  whole paragraph preceding the phrase "We need to keep taking stock of our life in an unsentimental, uncompromising way," seems intimadating!  Perhaps it is the very core of practice and inquiry: most of us can't do it on our own.




Appamada is not just the occasional mindful thought or attentive state of mind, it’s actually a commitment to being attentive. It’s more than just a meditative state of mind, it’s more than just being mindful. It has to do with that primary ethical or moral orientation we have in life, with which we bring into being whatever activity we’re engaged in. Whether in formal meditation, in our interactions with other people, in our social concerns, or in our political choices, it’s the energetic cherishing of what we regard as good.

—Stephen Batchelor


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