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PRAJÑĀ . The Sanskrit term prajñā (Pali, paññā; Tib., shes rab ), variously translated as "wisdom, gnosis, insight," or "intuitive knowledge," is central to all Buddhist traditions, imparting unity to them as well as serving to distinguish them from other philosophical and religious systems. Prajñā is primarily understood as a complete comprehension of the nature and aspects of phenomenal existence (sasāra ), the forces that govern it, the method of becoming free from it, and the reality that stands beyond it. Although the notion has been expounded in a variety of ways by Buddhist thinkers, it serves for them all as an intellectual and spiritual faculty that imparts a correct grasp of Buddhist teachings, guides and perfects the spiritual life, imbues it with a sense of direction, and brings it to maturation.

Early Buddhist scriptures record that Śākyamuni Buddha frequently explained to his followers how, during his striving toward enlightenment, he mastered the four consecutive stages of mental concentration (dhyāna ) and gained knowledge of his previous lives, knowledge of the past and future lives of other people, and knowledge of the destruction of the depravities (āsrava ). Awakening to this threefold knowledge was considered by early Buddhist thinkers as the factor fundamental to the transformation of the practitioner into an arhat. One becomes an arhat by mastering these three kinds of knowledge, but it is the knowledge of the destruction and elimination of the depravities that possesses the decisive and essential power to bring final deliverance.

The standard code of religious training for the early disciples (śrāvaka s) comprised a trilogy of morality (śīla ), meditation (samādhi ), and wisdom (prajñā ). Through the practice of morality, it was held, one becomes purified, perceptive, and mindful, and thus prepares and develops the ground for meditation. Being mindful, one is able to control the senses, thus conducing to the practice of meditation, through which the mind becomes purged of the five "hindrances" (nīvaraa ). In the course of well-developed meditational techniques one becomes able to pursue the four consecutive stages of mental concentration (dhyāna ). Skill in practicing these concentrations leads to gaining and perfecting the threefold knowledge. That is, one first applies one's thought to the knowledge of one's own former lives; second, one directs the mind to the knowledge of the demise and rebirth of other people; and third, one gains the knowledge of the destruction of the depravities. The third knowledge is the most important, for it contains the penetrating and comprehensive insight into phenomenal existence and thus brings final deliverance. Once this knowledge is acquired, an intrinsic understanding of the sorrow and impermanence of sasāra, its cause, the means of pacifying it, and the path that leads to its elimination is intuitively gained. Being endowed with such knowledge, one's mind becomes free from the four depravitiessensual desire, attachment to life, wrong views and opinions, and ignorance. One understands perfectly that birth is destroyed, that religious aspirations are accomplished, and that there remains nothing more to be strived for or achieved. One has thus reached the state of prajñā, which endows arhat status on the practitioner.

The threefold knowledge comprised within prajñā is often grouped together with three other kinds of knowledge, that of magical feats, intuitive hearing, and clairvoyance. Within this set of six knowledges, jointly known as the six "superknowings" (aabhijñā ), the first five are regarded as spiritual and psychic endowments and the sixth, the knowledge of the destruction of the depravities, as an inherent function of the mind in its purified state. Prajñā stands both at the beginning of the path of spiritual purification and at its final stage. The practice of morality and meditation alone, although indispensable, cannot bring about the realization of the final goal. It is prajñā that imparts unity, perfects virtues, and provides the guidance toward the goal, thus bringing its realization. Its presence at the initial stages of religious striving is not fully apparent or understood, but in spite of its being obscured by impurities and imperfections, prajñā is active as the controlling factor throughout the religious career of the practitioner. It grows and unfolds with the gradual purification and perfection of human personality. In Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga there is an excellent exposition of the gradual stages in which prajñā unfolds itself: The roots of prajñā are purity of morality and purity of the mind. Purity of morality is achieved through the observance of monastic rules, through correct living, and through control of the senses; purity of the mind is attained through meditational practices. The foundation of prajñā lies in correct comprehension of, and acquaintance with, the aggregates (skan-dha s), the elements of existence (dharma s), the twenty-two faculties (indriya s), the causal nexus of dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda ), and the four noble truths (āryasatya ). The inherent quality of prajñā consists of a perfect and thorough comprehension of the various categories and aspects of phenomenal existence and the comprehension of the correct path of liberation.

In Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa the attainment of the immaculate and perfect prajñā is said to be a process of gradual purification of impure prajñā s that are inborn and natural to the human personality. The accumulation of prajñā can be achieved in three ways: through listening to Buddhist teachings, through mental reflection, and through contemplation. The elements (dharma s) of existence are here divided into two groups, conditioned (saskta ) and unconditioned (asaskta ); the unconditioned elements are further divided into space (ākāśa ), emancipation through discerning knowledge (pratisakhyānirodha ), and emancipation through nondiscerning knowledge (apratisakhyānirodha ). These three elements are considered to be unchanging, pure, and timeless. Discerning knowledge (pratisakhyā ) refers to a pure prajñā of transcendental order that brings the destruction of all desire and imperfection and that is thus viewed as synonymous with nirvāa. Within the division of the elements into the twenty-two faculties (indriya s), prajñā is listed among the five moral faculties, along with faith, vigor, mindfulness, and meditation. These five faculties, together with the last three faculties of the group as a wholenamely, the knowledge of the unknown (ajñātam ajñāsyāmi ), the faculty of perfect knowledge (ajñā ), and the faculty of the "one who knows" (ajñātāvī )are considered the predominant factors in the purification from worldly entanglements. These three faculties are unified by the common factor of ajñā, or perfect knowledge, which leads to the realization of the truths that are unrealized, uncomprehended, unknown, and unattainable.

One section of the Abhidharmakośa deals with an exposition of the ten kinds of correct knowledge (jñāna ). Within this group of ten, four relate to the four noble truths (the knowledge of suffering, the knowledge of its origin, the knowledge of its cessation, and the knowledge of the Eightfold Path), further analyzed into sixteen characteristics as enumerated here: The truth of suffering is the knowledge of impermanence, pain, sorrow, and nonexistence of self (anātmya ). The second truth is the knowledge that understands the cause, origin, successive evolvements, and terminal effects of the causal nexus that is the empirical person. The third truth is the knowledge of the abolition of the impure skandha s, of calming the three poisons (ignorance, hatred, and desire), of the absence of pain, and of the presence of freedom. The fourth truth is the knowledge characterized by the correct path, the requisite resources, the potential attainment of nirvāa, and the departure into it. The notion of prajñā comprehends all these sixteen characteristics of the four knowledges.

Many Mahāyāna Buddhist texts, in particular the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras and the important commentaries on them, deal in great detail with the exposition of prajñā. Prajñāpāramitā, or "perfection of wisdom," is seen as the essence of all wisdom and knowledge. It is explained from various angles and approaches, often through the use of figurative descriptions, dialogues, and similes. Perfection of wisdom, expounded and praised as the highest value and goal of human aspirations, is proclaimed as the mother of all the Buddhas and becomes personified as the goddess Prajñāpāramitā. Within the newly construed concepts of cosmic Buddhahood, the theory of the three Buddha bodies (trikāya ), and the philosophical exposition of "emptiness" (śūnyatā ) as an identity or nonduality of conditioned existence (sasāra ) and unconditioned reality (nirvāa ), prajñā receives a much broader and deeper interpretation than it did in the early stages of Buddhist thought. There, its role and function, although fully recognized, were somewhat overshadowed, insofar as prajñā was viewed almost exclusively as a tool for gaining individual deliverance, as exemplified in the idea of arhatship.

In the Mahāyāna one strives for supreme wisdom and perfect enlightenment in order to share these gifts with all living beings by guiding them on the path toward this state. Acquisition of, and abode within, perfect wisdom becomes the primary goal. The focus of the Prajñāpāramitā teachings is on the penetration into the true sense of things by metaphysical discernment and by appropriate moral conduct, as advocated by the bodhisattva ideal. A bodhisattva, out of compassion (karuā ) for all living beings, pursues the path of the pāramitā s ("perfections") in order to gain the supreme enlightenment, which he wishes to impart to others. The philosophical tenets of the Prajñāpāramitā teachings are a further development of the earlier teachings. First, one must acquire the wisdom of understanding the nonexistence, or emptiness, of self and of the elements of existence. By making the distinction between the conditioned and unconditioned elementsand through the comprehension of the conditioned elements as empty, impermanent, and as repositories of unhappinessone acquires the wisdom of knowing that they are not worth pursuing, adhering to, or striving for. The next step leads to considering the unconditioned elements characteristic of nirvāa as also being empty insofar as they are devoid of any identification with the conditioned elements of existence and with anything that concerns one's life. Having reached this stage of wisdom, the perception of the emptiness of both the conditioned and unconditioned elements, one advances to the next stage of perfect wisdom, through which one is able to identify the conditioned (sasāra ) and the unconditioned (nirvāa ) with the aim of transcending both their common identity, characterized by emptiness, and their inherent differences. Once one considers them as being without any real distinction one reaches a state of transcendent nonduality in which all oppositesnegation and affirmation, sasāra and nirvāa are identified and comprised within the notion of emptiness.

This speculative process, realized through meditation and moral purification, brings about the realization of supreme and perfect wisdom. The path toward that realization is demonstrated by the bodhisattva 's career. A bodhisattva 's striving for supreme enlightenment follows the unique course of practicing six or ten "perfections." He also practices the thirty-seven principles conducive to enlightenment (bodhipakā dharma ) practiced by an arhat, but it is the practice of the perfections that dominates all his activities and occupies the central position in his spiritual journey. By means of perfect wisdom he gains the correct understanding of the true nature of reality and of the very means (upāya ) that he can employ for the benefit of others; concurrently, he surpasses and transcends the categories of sasāra through his wisdom. Thus, through his compassion he remains in sasāra and pursues the cause of living beings; through his perfect wisdom he abides in the sphere of nirvāa.

There is an inherent relationship between perfect wisdom and all the other perfections. The other perfections bring spiritual purification and progress and provide the ground for perfect wisdom to grow and to reach its fullness. Without them, perfect wisdom can neither be fully developed nor attained. On the other hand, perfect wisdom accompanies, guides, and elevates the other perfections to the status of being truly perfections. On their own the other perfections can bring positive results within the world of sasāra, but they cannot lead beyond it. Thus, their elevation from the sphere of sasāra, within which they are practiced, is facilitated by perfect wisdom. The harmonious growth and development of all the perfections leads to spiritual maturation and to the acquisition of perfect wisdom, which coincides with enlightenment.

Using his dialectical method, Nāgārjuna (c. 150250), the chief exponent of the Mādhyamika philosophy, demonstrated that through conceptual constructions (vikalpa ) reality is perceived as phenomenal existence. By stripping away all thought constructions one arrives at the perception of absolute reality, which Nāgārjuna defined in a negative way as "emptiness" (śūnyatā ). According to him, conceptual constructions are motivated by ignorance (avidyā ), and the process of unveiling the true reality is activated by prajñā and compassion. He applied the term emptiness to both phenomenal existence and absolute reality. Phenomenal existence is emptiness as it does not possess a true nature of its own (nisvabhāva ); absolute reality is also emptiness in that it is devoid of all conceptual distinctions, because the comprehension and realization of absolute reality escapes and transcends all intellectual categories. Its realization can only be achieved through the intellectual and spiritual intuition represented by prajñā. Prajñā as free of all concepts and speculations coincides with the absolute reality as defined by emptiness. As an intuition of the absolute reality, where all knowledge and the absolute coincide, prajñā penetrates into the absolute and views it without making distinctions or differentiations that conceptual thinking entails. It simply views the absolute just as it is. Prajñā is not the same as an intuition resulting from empirical perception or from discursive thinking; it is an intuitive insight into total reality and thus is described as infinite, inexpressible, universal, and unfathomable.

In the Vijñānavāda school, prajñā coincides with supreme truth (paramārtha ); as unobstructed and lucid knowledge it comprises everything that can be known (sarvajñey-ānāvaraajñāna ). It implies the correct comprehension of Buddhist teachings, the correct vision of the path, and the knowledge of all intellectual categories and appropriate conduct. It is neither thought nor lack of thought; it does not think but springs naturally from thought. Its object is the inexpressible and indescribable nature of things. It is free of any characteristics, as it is inherent and manifest in its object of cognition. As an unconstrued knowledge (nirvikalpajñāna ), it stands beyond all mental categories and constructions. It does not make up the description of reality or the destruction of consciousness. It is nonconceptual and free of reflection. It is intuitive, born spontaneously, and surpasses all kinds of ordinary and mundane knowledge. Prajñā as the perfect wisdom in all its aspects is the knowledge of the absolute reality (tathatā).

The Tantras, following the philosophical assumptions of the Mādhyamika school, assert the basic unity of nirvāa and sasāra. The purpose of different kinds of Tantric practices is to eliminate the apparent duality of these two entities, which are wrongly conceived as dual because of defilements and lack of knowledge. The sphere of knowledge and understanding of nonduality between these two is perceived in nirvāa, the chief force and attribute of which is constituted by wisdom (prajñā ). In Tantric meditation and ritual performances wisdom is explicitly identified with nirvāa and means (upāya ) with sasāra. The highest truth as mystical experience is described in the Tantras as the union or mingling of wisdom and means. In ritual and meditational practices, wisdom is symbolized by a bell, a lotus, or a sun, as well as by the vowels. In yogic practices involving a female partner, wisdom is identified with a yogini. In the union of wisdom and means, it is wisdom that plays a dominant role, for although it is unattainable without means, it embraces the highest truth of emptiness. In Tantric texts wisdom is frequently named Nairātmyā ("absence of selfhood"), and it is with her that a Tantric practitioner, as means, attempts to become united. Wisdom is mostly characterized as having a female aspect, but it also appears under a masculine aspect, symbolized by a vajra, an epitome of the perfect and indestructible truth. Buddha Vairocana and any other Buddha of the Tantras comprehend within them the whole truth and wisdom just as much as does the goddess Prajñāpāramitā or Nairātmyā. In such cases, the Tantric goddess is made to transmute into the male deity. In yogic practices with a female partner, it is the yogin who is absorbed into wisdom.

Comparing prajñā with jñāna, one can make the following observations. Prajñā is a religious term that at once encompasses both knowledge and deliverance. Within the context of worldly existence permeated by ignorance, prajñā comprehends false notions and leads away from everything that binds one to this world. Prajñā is a spiritual realization gained through correct knowledge and moral purification. Buddhist thinkers of all times refrained from categorizing prajñā in the same way as they did jñāna. Prajñā was always seen as being beyond the categories of knowledge and as being born naturally within a fully perfected practitioner; jñāna, on the other hand, was categorized and graded from that of ordinary empirical knowledge to the level of the highest and transcendent knowledge. From the scholarly approach it is possible to make clear distinctions between the highest levels of knowledge, often described as being intuitive, and prajñā; doing so is difficult, though, because these notions very often overlap and coincide. The correct assessment of their relationship should be sought, perhaps, in seeing the acquisition of knowledge as an important and necessary factor that, along with meditation, induces the presence of prajñā.

In the early phases of the Mahāyāna, compassion and wisdom are given equal status. However, at some stage in the Buddhist writings wisdom assumed a dominant role. Mañjuśrī, as a manifestation of wisdom, became frequently invoked and praised. The glorification of wisdom reached its climax in the Prajñāpāramitā and Mādhyamika literature, in which prajñā is constantly praised and extolled while karuā is seldom mentioned. During the later phase of the Mahāyāna a reverse process occurred. Compassion became more emphasized, and Avalokiteśvara, as its manifestation, assumed a predominant position, overshadowing other bodhisattvas and even the Buddhas. Despite extreme tendencies in literary works, in iconography, and in practice, the tradition has always recognized that proper balance between compassion and wisdom must be retained, for it is the practice of both that brings enlightenment. Compassion as the basis for enlightenment is not a simple feeling of pity but an application of appropriate practical means (upāya ) that lead toward the realization of the final goal. The employment of different means (such as the practice of the Perfectionsgiving, morality, etc.) and prajñā always go together. Prajñā cannot be fully realized without upāya; in turn, upāya cannot ascend beyond the worldly existence without prajñā.

See Also

Arhat; Bodhisattva Path; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Early Doctrinal Schools of Buddhism; Buddhist Philosophy; Dharma, article on Buddhist Dharma and Dharmas; Four Noble Truths; Indian Philosophies; Jñāna; Karuā; Nirvāa; Pāramitās; Śūnyam and Śūnyatā; Tathatā; Upāya; Wisdom.


In the early Buddhist scriptures prajñā is dealt with in many passages in the four Nikāyas, but the most comprehensive and condensed expositions are found in later writings, namely in Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga, translated by Pe Maung Tin under the title The Path of Purity (London, 1971), and in Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa, translated by Louis de La Vallée Poussin under the title L'Abhidharmakośa de Vasubandhu, 6 vols. (19231931; reprint, Brussels, 1971). Much reliable information and many references to the original sources can be found in I. B. Horner's The Early Buddhist Theory of Man Perfected (1936; reprint, London, 1975) and also in K. N. Jayatilleke's Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (London, 1963).

All the necessary information relevant to the Prajñāpāramitā literature is contained in Edward Conze's The Prajñāpāramitā Literature (The Hague, 1960; reprint, Tokyo, 1978). The most succinct exposition of prajñāpāramitā is contained in the shorter sūtras, and a translation of nineteen of them, including the Vajracchedikā, can be found in Conze's The Short Prajñāpāramitā Texts (London, 1973).

The Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra, which contains a detailed exposition of prajñā, was translated into French from the Chinese translation of Kumārajīva by Étienne Lamotte as Le traité de la grande vertu de sagesse, 5 vols. (Louvain, 19441980). Asaga's Mahāyānasagraha, which expounds the Yogācāra position, was also translated by Lamotte as La somme du Grand Véhicule d'Asaga, 2 vols. (Louvain, 19381939).

Other recommended works include T. R. V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, 2d ed. (London, 1955; reprint, London, 1970); Étienne Lamotte's The Teaching of Vimalakīrti, translated by Sara Boin (London, 1976), a translation of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra; Marion L. Matics's Entering the Path of Enlightenment: The Bodhicaryāvatāra of the Buddhist Poet Śāntideva (New York, 1970); Har Dayal's The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature (London, 1932; reprint, Delhi, 1975); and David L. Snellgrove's The Hevajra Tantra, 2 vols. (London, 1959).

New Sources

Asaga, L. M. Joshi, and Kendriya-Tibbati-Ucca-Siksa-Samsthanam. Vajracchedika Prajñāpāramitāsūtra; Tatha, Acaryā Asangakta Trisatikakarikasaptati. Varanasi, 1997.

Cheetham, Eric. "The Pāramitās of Dhyāna and Prajna." Middle Way 70 (1995): 111120.

Conze, E. Perfect Wisdom: The Short Prajñāpāramitā Texts. Devon, U.K., 1993.

Ichimura, S. Buddhist Critical Spirituality: Prajñā and Śūnyatā. Delhi, 2001.

Kuiji, H.-c. Shih, and D. Lusthaus. A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā-Hrdaya-Sūtra ). Berkeley, Calif., 2001.

Obermiller, E., and H. S. Sobati. Prajñāpāramitā in Tibetan Buddhism. New Delhi, 1999.

Skorupski, T. The Six Perfections: An Abridged Version of E. Lamotte's French Translation of Nāgārjuna's Mahāprajñāpāra-mitāśāstra, Chapters 1630. Tring, U.K., 2002.

Tivari, M. Śīla, Samādhi, and Prajñā: The Buddha's Path of Purification. Patna, 1987.

Tadeusz Skorupski (1987)

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