Prajñā Paramitā 1: Perfect Wisdom and the Three Marks


The first introductory talk on Prajna Paramita. The notes are pretty close to what I actually said although I didn’t get into emptiness really and charted out the three marks a little more thoroughly in the recording.

Over the next few months we’ll be investigating the Mahayana Buddhist teaching of Prajñā Paramitā. This phrase shows up all over our liturgy. We hear it in the closing “universal dedication” that we end almost every service with:

All Buddhas, Ten Directions
All Honored Ones, Bodhisattva Mahasattvas
Wisdom Beyond Wisdom
Maha Prajñā Paramitā

Which actually is mentioning it twice for emphasis because prajñā paramitā means something like “wisdom beyond wisdom.” And it’s mentioned three times in the Heart Sutra which we chant very regularly also.

Prajñā means wisdom. And by itself it has a similar connotation to the English concept of wisdom as the ability to make wise choices based on knowledge or understanding.

But when we add paramitā it takes on a more subtle and deeper gloss. Often translated as perfect or as going beyond. Here is the scholarly low-down for those a who are interested in such things:
Scholar Donald Lopez describes the etymology of the term:
The term pāramitā, commonly translated as “perfection,” has two etymologies. The first derives it from the word parama, meaning “highest,” “most distant,” and hence, “chief,” “primary,” “most excellent.” Hence, the substantive can be rendered “excellence” or “perfection.” This reading is supported by the Madhyāntavibhāga (V.4), where the twelve excellences (parama) are associated with the ten perfections (pāramitā). A more creative yet widely reported etymology dividespāramitā into pāra and mita, with pāra meaning “beyond,” “the further bank, shore or boundary,” and mita, meaning “that which has arrived,” or ita meaning “that which goes.” Pāramitā, then means “that which has gone beyond,” “that which goes beyond,” or “transcendent.” This reading is reflected in the Tibetan translation pha rol tu phyin pa (“gone to the other side”).[2]

So wisdom beyond wisdom is one translation, or the wisdom that goes beyond. The meaning here is that prajñā paramitā is not wisdom based on cleverness, knowledge, or skill. Cleverness, knowledge, and skill which are indeed wonderful things to develop are seen as limited. Limited by the idea of self. By the powerful dualistic notion that our language and thinking rests on that I am separate from you. And that separation leads to comparison. I think I’m better, that’s not right. I think I’m less worthy, that’s not right. I think we’re the same that’s not really right either.

Rather it’s a kind of wisdom which is based on clear seeing of how things really are.

And how are things really according to Buddhism? Here we have two complementary visions.

The older Buddhist vision which is really fundamental and important is that reality is essentially impermanent, non-self, and never able to satisfy desire. The Pali list of these three marks of reality is: annica (impermanent), dukkha (suffering), and annata (not-self).

Hearing this teaching it sounds like a really big bummer. So reality keeps changes, it’s full of suffering, and there’s no me. Great. What do we have left?

But if you turn that over this is great news. There is nothing to hold on to so we can relax. Nothing that we might try to hold onto in that graspable way is going to stay the same, is going to bring us lasting satisfaction or can be made a part of this “me” because there’s no “me” exactly anyway. This really liberating if we can learn to give ourselves to it more.

We still work, we still try our best to help ourself and others. We still practice compassion. But if we can appreciate these three marks of reality we can relax about the outcome. We are less shocked when things break – impermanence. We are less disturbed when we are frustrated or annoyed – dukkha or suffering. We are less caught up in our own imperfections and strivings – no self anyway. We can just show up in the middle of that and be.

These three marks that are one way of looking at the basis for this deeper kind of wisdom from early Buddhism really can’t be underestimated. Or our mind’s ability to attempt to do the opposite can’t be underestimated: we are always trying so hard to find something fixed, lasting, and satisfying so that this me can be fixed, lasting and satisfied.

In later Buddhism these three teachings were more or less subsumed by one larger concept: emptiness. The idea being that to think there is a thing that can appear, be impermanent, change, and disappear or that there is a thing that can exist and be unsatisfactory, or that there is a thing that we can mistakenly call me, that none of things exactly exists in the way we assume them to. That everything is so radically flowing and interpenetrating and meetings and arising and dissolving that there is really no where to stand at all.

These radical teachings on emptiness are summed up in the Heart Sutra. That what we take in with our senses and assemble into various concepts is radically not what we think it is. And again this is a teaching that we train in finding joy and happiness in not utter nihilistic despair. Buddhist training here being cultivating the ability to dance with this flow and not be freaked out by it or knocked around by it. When something happens that upsets us if we understand on a gut level that it’s empty of the threat we see in it and we ourselves are empty of anything that needs defending we are radically  okay not matter what. That’s kind of the idea but there is a lot of experiential exploration and meditation and training involved in really bringing this into our hearts in a way that’s helpful.

It’s this kind of understanding of the three marks, of emptiness that is the basis of this prajñā paramitā practice.

And the expression of prajñā paramitā is at center of a wheel of practices that are seen as the primary trainings for bodhisattvas. So here like the Bodhi Pakshika Dharma that we studied last year is a powerful Buddhist list. Some in Mahayana Buddhism see this one as the most important and central list of all.

So I thought we look at this list and think a little together about how a kind of wisdom that has a basis in emptiness and understanding the radical impermanent non-self nature of reality would inform and support each of these other 5 paramita practices. Or another way to look at if is what we if we took up these 5 practices in a very self-centered frame of mind and thought that through to the end. Then extracted the self-centeredness, what would that look like? Or another way of thinking about this: what is the basis? What is the basis of what I’m doing, how I’m thinking, who “I” am? What is the basis?

The Six Paramita Practices of Bodhisattvas:
Generosity – Dāna pāramitā
Ethical Living (precepts) – Śīla pāramitā
Patience – Kṣānti (kshanti) pāramitā
Energy/Enthusiasm – Vīrya pāramitā
Concentration – Dhyāna pāramitā
Wisdom – Prajñā pāramitā

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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