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By Ven. Chönyi Taylor
We all know what wisdom is, yet we find it hard to define. It is not knowledge, although knowledge is one of its qualities. It is not ethics, although that also is a quality of wisdom. There are countless images that appear on a Google image search. Some are trite, some funny and some are profound. Yet there is some part of us that recognizes wisdom when we see it.
Mostly wisdom is depicted in male form, but there is a question that does its rounds on the internet: what if there were three wise women rather than three wise men? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts and there would be peace on earth. A woman’s wisdom is more likely to be practical.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are five wisdoms identified, one for each of the tantric families of deities. They are the mirror-like wisdom which simply recognizes things as they are; the wisdom of equality which recognizes that feelings are just that and nothing else; the wisdom of discrimination which allows us to recognize things and give them labels; the wisdom of accomplishment which enables us to achieve our goals; and our own innate wisdom, our dharmadhatu, which enables us to recognize wisdom when we meet it.
These are not just Buddhist or Tibetan qualities. Nor are they specifically male or female. Wise people, regardless of gender, would have all these wisdom qualities well developed. We can find a Western version of wisdom in Abraham Maslow’s list of the qualities of self-actualized (wise) people. He also adds a few more in addition to our five wisdoms: spontaneity, comfort with solitude, a freshness of appreciation. Wise people usually know first-hand what Maslow called “peak experiences,” that experience of being at one with all things, of being in the “flow.” Wisdom seems to have a spiritual component as well.
And yet, even with all these qualities, there is a simplicity that we recognize in wise people, of humility, of gratitude, of their knowing they are just one in a network of beings who have contributed to that wisdom. They do not seek fame, or wealth, or praise or comfort from their wisdom. They are not trapped in a self-seeking ego.
The Stanford University Dictionary of Philosophy describes five different ways of understanding what it takes to be wise: (1) wisdom as epistemic humility, (2) wisdom as epistemic accuracy, (3) wisdom as knowledge, (4) a hybrid theory of wisdom, and (5) wisdom as rationality. All of these are different ways of understanding what wisdom really is. But Buddhism goes one step further, it has, as its central theme, the wisdom that overcomes our root ignorance, the wisdom realizing emptiness. The prajñaparamita.
Prajñaparamita means, literally, the “perfection of wisdom.” We know this perfection of wisdom in terms of the prajñaparamita texts such as the Heart Sutra. The ground of wisdom is the clear and experiential knowing of the truth of the lack of inherent existence. This is the ground from which all things dependently arise. When it is fully realized, it is the antidote to all our suffering. Prajñaparamita texts are the teaching on emptiness, a favorite topic of intellectuals who like the conundrums embedded in this study. And yet the depiction of Prajñaparamita in human form is not an intellectual male, but an older woman. She is not a sex object, but the mother of all the Buddhas. She is not a playful dakini, but a mature woman, one who has given birth to all the wisdom of all the buddhas.
We do not become wise just because our skin has become wrinkled and our hair white. But a life that is lived with wisdom and compassion will have a quality of maturity that we may not recognize in our rush to be young and trendy. To reach the realization of emptiness is not just a matter of having worked it out intellectually, but of living in a way in which the qualities of wisdom become fully developed. That is the psychological component of the realization of emptiness.
Prajñaparamita is the embodiment of a life of having given birth, of continual creativity, an example of a dignity that is only possible when a life has been lived with all the qualities of wisdom. She is a deity for the elderly.
Ven. Chönyi Taylor is a registered Foundational Buddhism FPMT teacher and an elder for the Discovering Buddhism at Home Course. She is the author of Enough! A Buddhist Approach to Working with Addictive Patterns (Snow Lion, 2010) and has been published in Mandala, Buddhadharma, Dharma Vision and Sangha Magazine. She is a founding member and member of the training committee of the Australian Association of Buddhist Counsellors and Psychotherapists and an Honorary Lecturer in the Discipline of Psychiatry at Sydney University.
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