I googled “wisdom definition” and I got this: the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment. And while this is a good English definition, it’s not exactly what is meant by Prajna.
Prajna Paramita, The Perfection of Wisdom, Wisdom Paramita. Prajna is not just wisdom, but wisdom beyond wisdom. It is the wisdom that transcends wisdom. This is the Wisdom of the Heart Sutra.
In Buddhism, "wisdom" is realizing the true nature of things; seeing things as they are, not as they appear to be. This is the wisdom of being with reality in the moment - just as it is. This kind of wisdom cannot be book-learned. It must be intimately experienced to be understood.
In the Mahayana tradition, of which our tradition is a part, prajna is taught perfectly within the Heart Sutra. In our tradition we chant; Kannon the bodhisattva of compassion when practicing the deepest wisdom clearly saw that the 5 aggregates are empty, thus transcending distress and suffering.
Here, practicing is zazen. The deepest wisdom is prajna. When encountering wisdom while practicing Zazen, clearly saw. Nothing vague or cloudy about it. Nothing to question. Clarity. Wisdom brings clarity.
What did Kannon clearly see? They saw that form, feeling, thought, impulse, and consciousness, the five aggregates, or the stuff that makes living things alive, are empty. Emptiness here means that they do not exist separate from each other.
Two main concepts in this sutra are; emptiness and interconnectedness. Our perception of things being separate from each other is an illusion - we are all connected - to everything. Continuing on;
All buddhas, bodhisattvas of past, present, and future live this deepest wisdom and therefore reach the most supreme enlightenment. Therefore, know that this wisdom beyond wisdom is the greatest dharani, the brightest dharani, the highest dharani the peerless dharani. It completely ends all suffering. Know this as truth and do not doubt.
This is the absolute teaching of the Heart Sutra. We are humans living in the relative world. So we can get this - for a minute. So how, apart from chanting the Heart Sutra can we practice with prajna?
The Buddha left us a map.
Zazen, the seated meditation practice of Soto Zen is a place where we can quiet our body and mind and experience reality as it is. Whatever comes up. We can experience the interconnectedness of all things whilst spending time on the cushion. We can simply go outside at night and look at the stars and experience the connectedness to all things. Nature itself is a great teacher of the emptiness and prajna of the Heart Sutra.
When we do experience hard feelings on the cushion, we have a choice. We can get carried away by our habit energy, or we can take the Sacred Pause, and through diligence, patience and mindfulness find clarity and a spot of peace, even amidst pain. As we get more “sitting time” on the cushion, we find taking the practice of the Sacred Pause off the cushion and into the daily vexing moments of our lives an easier and more skillful approach to hard emotions and hard times. This is prajna.
Sylvia Boorstein, in Pay Attention for Goodness Sake, laid it out in table form for us:
She said that the practice of wisdom develops the habit of discernment by understanding that peace is possible and supported by practicing Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration (from the Noble Eightfold Path) and manifests as CLARITY.
Two things I have learned in my twenty years of Zen practice:
There is no way around the cushion
You get wise through suffering and practicing with the paramitas in those times
It’s easy to be generous when you have enough. It’s easy to be moral and upright when you’re not tempted. It’s easy to be patient when you’re not agitated. It’s by growing in awareness whilst walking through the hard stuff that we gain clarity - wisdom.
When you experience the tough stuff, uncomfortable emotions (on and off the cushion), and situations, you can ask the question, “What is real?”. This question is helpful in gaining clarity (wisdom) into what actually is the reality at that moment. Many times it’s not exactly what we think it is. For instance, sometimes fear masks itself as anger.
Three things we learn from asking “What is real?”
What is really real is many times not about what I’m feeling. (We lose a job. We feel angry. It’s actually fear we’re feeling because we don’t know what’s ahead of us
Everything is impermanent. (This feeling won’t last. I will find another job.)
Everything is interconnected ( I am not alone in this - there are others facing the same situation).
Practicing in this way brings awareness to our emotions and reactions to situations that are not helpful, for us or for others. With patience and diligence in our daily practice, we find that we start to become aware of our habit energy sooner than later. We can see before us a choice. We can lean into the habit energy of anger, anxiety, and volatility, or we can choose another way and find a modicum of peace amidst the chaos.
Thich Nhat Hanh told a story about the refugee boats:
Without doing anything, things can sometimes go more smoothly just because of one person with a peaceful presence. In a small boat when a storm comes, if one person remains solid and calm, others will not panic and the boat is more likely to stay afloat.
We see this in our own lives, right? We all know people who stir things up. We know people who by their energy and words have the ability to stir up a room. We can, by our awareness, and calm, stable energy, be the grounding force in difficult situations.
Practicing to gain awareness cuts through the BS, if we let it. It opens us to greater insight. It helps us to see clearly the reality of our lives and invites us to choose skillfully. Often in the beginning this is a scary prospect. Staying where we are is more comfortable than pushing through into the unknown. If we’re courageous, if we embrace this practice and move with it, entering the stream and becoming the water, our lives can become enriched and changed by awareness and the freedom to become unstuck. This is the essence of Zen.