Prajna — Intuitive and innate wisdom


Prajna is our own innate and intuitive wisdom. Pema Chodron wrote that it is “the fundamental aspect of your being — this prajna, or Buddha nature, basic goodness.” It is prajna moves us to do something good and kind and to avoid the mean. It is also the deep understanding that we are all  interconnected. Thich Nhat Hanh says this is the “highest kind of understanding, free from all knowledge, concepts, ideas, and views.” 

There are three levels of Prajna or wisdom: the Wisdom of listening; the Wisdom of reflection; and the Wisdom of meditation.

  • Prajna of Listening

The first stage is the Wisdom of Listening or studying the Dharma. It is totally dependent on conceptual mind, on communication, and language. There is wisdom in our own self-directed study. We see a book or hear about one… Or we go through a list of podcasts and are drawn to one… listening, reading, studying the dharma. This is the foundation for the other levels of wisdom.

  • Prajna of Reflection

The second level of wisdom is thinking or reflecting on what we’ve studied. The Roman poet Horace said, “Wisdom is not wisdom when it is derived from books alone.” Of course, we know this to be true. Wisdom or prajna won’t arise simply by reading or listening to the Dharma. We have to take it in – digest it, otherwise it’s just more information. By concentrating on the Dharma, we can absorb it more fully. One way to do this is through more in-depth study. We do this often sitting together in sangha and discussing the Dharma—in Noble Conversation. Many of also attend book groups, study groups, retreats… all of these help to deepen our understanding and allow us to apply the dharma in our day to day lives.

  • Prajna of Meditation

With the third level of Prajna we go beyond conceptual understanding, usually as the result of a deep experience of the previous levels: we know the Dharma at the intellectual level, we have reflected on it deeply, it has become part of our thinking. Sadayasihi wrote, “The third level of wisdom involves us assimilating the truth we have heard and reflected on to the extent that we become that truth. At its highest we are talking about full Enlightenment. However, if we are sincerely practicing the Dharma, we often get glimpses of what this is like. Perhaps the easiest way of understanding what this level of wisdom looks like is through witnessing it in the lives of others. And it is often in times of adversity – through illness or oppression – that the teachings of the Dharma take on a life of their own.”

In the Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra, the Sixth Patriarch wrote, “The sharpness of prajna cuts at many levels. In the mundane sense, prajna represents a sharpening of perception and inquisitiveness. As we go about our lives, and particularly as we enter a spiritual path, we are always raising questions. We are always trying to understand. Instead of just accepting a superficial understanding, we think deeply and ask, “What do I really understand? Does any of this make any sense whatsoever?” Prajna has this quality of creative doubt—not just accepting things based on authority or hearsay, but continually digging deeper.”

[Edited by Dr. Martin Verhoeven and Rev. Heng Sure.]

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