What is Prajna Transcendental Wisdom?
(from Nan Huai-chin's Commentary on the Diamond Sutra, translated by Pia Giammasi)
Prajna wisdom is not ordinary wisdom. The word wisdom in Chinese (zhe hui) often gets linked up conceptually with intelligence. If one has intelligence one then also, of course, must have wisdom. But, in actuality, there are many kinds of wisdom. Prajna wisdom indicates that which is able to understand Tao, realize Tao, cultivate the self, release one from the bondage of birth and death and leap over the mundane. This is not common intelligence. It is the wisdom which is the root and origin of the body of Tao. The "so-called" original, or primal, wisdom is merely a name. To use contemporary understanding, it's that which goes above and beyond average intelligence and common wisdom, that which can understand the essence and origin of life, the original nature.
This cannot be the result of cognition. Rather, it's the great wisdom achieved through complete engagement in the cultivation of one's body and mind. It is this level of wisdom which is prajna. The word wisdom, which we commonly use, cannot express the full extent of the meaning of the word prajna. Therefore, it is not translated.
In Buddhism, the entire scope of the meaning of prajna can be divided into five groups or kinds. These five kinds are just a form of categorization. The first is true form prajna; the second is visaya prajna; the third, the prajna of literature; the fourth, the prajna of expedient means and the fifth, the relatives of prajna. The collective substance of these five categories is the "prajna" of Diamond Prajnaparamita.
Now, let's discuss these in turn, starting with the question, "What is true form prajna?
True Form Prajna
True form is the essential substance of Tao, or dharmakaya, and is exactly the true essence of enlightenment. It is the Tao to which one awakens. And just what is this Tao? Is it found in emptiness or in phenomena? That which is called true form is just the dharmakaya, the original source of being.
Did humankind originate from a man or woman? At the creation of the universe, was there an egg or was there a chicken? And was it a chicken or was it a rooster? I'm just joking! The idea is to find the original source of being and diligently pursue the fountainhead of the universe, the original form of the dharmakaya. Enlightenment is awakening to the dharmakaya. In Buddhist terminology, enlightenment is awakening to the empty nature of the dharmakaya. This is what's called true form prajna. It is wisdom as opposed to mere intelligence, which is conceptual in nature. Intelligence is limited to previous knowledge, experience, feelings or images; whereas, the true dharmakaya is inconceivable.
Those who study the sutras will often encounter the expression inconceivable (lit. cannot be conceived), and through the literati, this expression has been brought into common usage (in Chinese, the modern usage of this phrase cannot be conceived has become synonymous with incredible). The common use of this word, however, is fraught with misunderstanding. Its original meaning was exclusively used to describe a method of realizing the dharmakaya. We can't reach it through common knowledge or ideas, or through thinking about it, discussing it or researching it; therefore, it is termed inconceivable. But take notice! This is not to say that it cannot be thought about.
This "cannot" means that one cannot use the conceptual mind. If one uses ordinary knowledge or thinking to force a logical idea of the Tao, this is completely wrong. If the Dharmakaya can be attained through conceptualizing, this still falls within the boundaries of false thinking. Therefore, it is said that it cannot be reached through thought, but that is not to say that one can't think about it. It must be attested to through realization and not merely through thinking about it.
By the later period of Zen Buddhism, the meaning of the word Tao was very difficult to express. For instance, if one says the word Buddha, one has an impression or an idea in mind. Even though in Buddhism the word Buddha can sometimes mean the dharmakaya, most people who hear it automatically think of a big shining Buddha statue in a temple, which is once again clinging to form. Therefore, after the Tang and Sung Dynasty, the Zen sect simply didn't use the word Tao and didn't use the word Buddha. It's just this, this is just that and that is just this. They're all just names anyway. In the Avatamaksa [Flower Ornament] Sutra, it says, "Call it Tao, call it Heaven and Earth, call it God, calling it a Sage will do, Buddha will do, Tathagata will do, Nirvana will also do..." and continues to list over a hundred names. They are all just representative of true form prajna, the dharmakaya. Actually many people are searching for this "thing," and it's only after they find this "thing" that they recognize the Origin of Life. So within the five categories of prajna, true form prajna is the most basic.
Visaya Prajna (Prajna of different scenarios)
As to visaya prajna, within recent years, many foreign students have discussed with me how to translate the Chinese words for visaya (jing jie). I have told them, "You absolutely must not translate them." Stretching it, one could use the word phenomena or state of being, but this comes with the idea of being in the natural world. Visaya can only be transliterated as visaya, with an explanation added. It is very difficult to translate. It is even hard to explain or to express its full flavor. For example, the visaya of a "man of Tao" is expressed in the following two quotes. As Zen master Yao Shan said, "Clouds are in the clear sky, water is in a vase." This is very natural: Clouds float in the sky; water is in a vase on the table One is very high and far away; one is very shallow and near. This is simply a visaya. A Tang dynasty poem, which describes another visaya reads, "A thousand rivers have water, a thousand rivers' moons; ten thousand cloudless miles, the ten thousand mile sky."
When we speak of enlightenment or prajna, we usually employ the two sentences above. There is one moon in the sky. When it shines down upon a thousand rivers, every river has the moon's reflection. This is the meaning of "A thousand rivers have water, a thousand rivers' moons." If for ten thousand miles there is not a speck of cloud, then it's just unobstructed clear sky. This is a wonderful visaya. Many Zen masters have gained enlightenment because of such visaya.
There was a monk who lived in a hut and who wrote the following visaya couplet: "Ten thousand miles of clear sky opens its mouth to laugh, three white rooms raise their fists."
"Ten thousand miles of clear sky opens its mouth to laugh." It is the same as Maitreya Buddha, who always heartily laughs, "Ha! Ha!" When the beloved smiling Buddha with the big belly became enlightened, everything appeared in its empty nature-everything appeared joyous. The three white rooms are just three empty rooms endlessly vast. Such verse describes one kind of visaya, but doesn't necessarily represent the visaya of enlightenment. We constantly experience different visaya in our lives. Going through a painful experience, or without there being an actual painful situation but a fantasy of suffering, or worrying about suffering, all can be called a suffering visaya. After a happy experience has gone by, the more we muse about it, the more satisfying it becomes. This is especially true with older people. They don't like to muse so much about the future as they're losing their strength to walk that uncertain road. Rather, they'll think back on their younger days, shake their head and laugh to themselves, once again recollecting the flavor of that visaya. These are all visaya. One can see that they can be recognizable experiences, but can't be put into words.
A person who is on the path of Tao, or an intellectual, will experience different visaya with each step that person takes. Just like one who is an artist, today he gets some new insight, or paints a painting and from it gains insight or inspiration difficult to put into words. This result is his visaya. Laborers also will have visaya specific to them. If a bricklayer, when he today lays the bricks and applies the mortar, produces an especially even wall, he will feel very satisfied. "Ahh! This is bricklaying!" This is a visaya that comes from laying bricks. This term visaya includes every different kind of state. When followers of the Tao make a little improvement or accomplish a small achievement, their visaya is just a little bit different. If they make a big improvement or advance, then there will be a big difference in their visaya. To put it another way, when one, through cultivation, reaches a certain visaya, life's visaya-in the larger sense of the word-opens up to a certain degree.
For us who are not yet walking the path of Tao, what visaya is there? There is the visaya of suffering common to all sentient beings. There is an old poem that reads, "One hundred years, thirty-six thousand days; if not in the mist of worry, then it's in the middle of sickness."
If one lives to be a hundred, that's one hundred years, day by day, three hundred and sixty days in a year. If one lives to be a hundred, it's but thirty-six thousand days. This is the visaya of humans. During the course of a day, if it's not frustration, then it's worry, or else maybe coming down with a cold, or a sore back perhaps. Even the perfectly healthy still get old-the eyesight goes, the hearing goes, the hair goes white, not a day goes by without some malady. This is the average human visaya. So it is said that the human experience is one of suffering as opposed to the majestic experience of "Ten thousand miles of clear sky opens its mouth to laugh, three white rooms raise their fists." The deportment of such a person is quite different.
There is an old saying, "To be a true Buddhist is the work of a great man, but not necessarily the work of emperors, generals and statesman." To be a Buddhist and walk the path of Tao takes a great man. Emperors, generals and statesman, although they may have an impressive manner, great ambitions, magnanimity and gifted abilities, still may not have the capacity to become enlightened or be true Buddhists. Why is this? Because the impressive manner, great ambitions, magnanimity, etc. of a true Buddhist are still different from those of great worldly men.
Where does this different kind of visaya come from? It comes from true form prajna, arising naturally from the dharmakaya. For those who have realized true emptiness, the development of great wisdom is boundless. In Buddhist terminology, it's called "untaught wisdom" or "natural wisdom." At the moment of enlightenment, one's own treasury of wisdom opens up. It's not transmitted by a teacher; rather, one's original wisdom bursts forth. Above and below the heavens, there is not a thing unknown. This highest visaya of prajna cannot be attained through mental effort. It comes forth naturally. One doesn't need to think about it; it flows out naturally. This is the visaya of prajna wisdom itself.
We all know that literature embodies wisdom. Literature is also language because it takes spoken words and records them, changing them into written language. The symbols which represent Chinese language and thought are called Chinese characters and produce Chinese literature. The symbols which represent spoken English are called English words and produce English literature. French, German, and Russian all serve as symbols for their thoughts and spoken languages. Literature has its own realm. We've all been to schools and can read, but how many people actually become true literateurs? We know all the words, but still are not within the realm of the literati. For most, the wonderful sentences don't come out. There is no literary prajna. Yet some people's spoken language is like verse, where every sentence is poetic. Such a person has reached a scholarly visaya and has literary prajna.
Why is the Diamond Sutra so popular in China? One reason is because it is the product of Kumarajiva's literary prajna. He translated many sutras of which the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra have had an enormous influence on Chinese culture. The style of his writing created a special kind of elegant verse within Chinese literature-very moving Buddhist literature. By the way, his translation of the Vimalakirti-Nirdesa Sutra is also very special. It formed virtually its own literary realm. So later, when the Dharma Master Xuan Zang and others made translations, there was no way for them to outdo Kumarajiva simply because of the difference in their levels of literary prajna.
Even though all may have the same amount of education, not everyone will become a true scholar. It's the same with those who cultivate the Tao. Some, although they may be diligent cultivators, may not reach the goal of enlightenment. This has a definite connection with literary prajna.
In the Ching Dynasty, there was a historian named Zhao Yi, who was also a great scholar and poet. In his later years, he wrote three famous poems. One of them reads as follows:
In youth learning to wield language seems a bitter study, difficult to complete;
The presumption is made that one's effort is insufficient.
Not 'til one's golden age does he know it's not the effort;
Three parts are human striving, the remaining seven determined by heaven.
The poem says that as a youth while studying the subtleties of using language, one cannot fully express one's self, and one often feels awkward or unskillful while wielding this tool. It always seems as though one's effort is not enough. It's only after one becomes old that one realizes one could kill oneself trying, but the effort is useless because only thirty percent is in the effort. The other seventy percent comes from natural ability. But, this refers just to the ordinary case. I know of and have personally met several great monks, who, although completely illiterate, after enlightenment wrote wonderful poetry, prose, etc. It's really almost unbelievable. When did they do all that studying? On which day? They hadn't received any formal education and they ordinarily didn't read any books.
Eighty years ago, my teacher met a monk one day who had originally been a barber. Unlike the hair stylists of today who are very sophisticated, the barbers of those days held a very low position in society. A barber would wander throughout the countryside "carrying his shop on his shoulder," so to speak. With a small stove on the front of the carrying pole and a bucket of water on the back, he would stop and set up shop whenever someone called to him. At that time, the children of barbers were not even permitted to attend the national examinations as the entrance qualifications were very strict. However, this barber became an enlightened Zen master, an omniscient being.
Upon passing away, an abbot left his temple to this barber. After he became abbot, some called him Abbot Yang, while others called him Barber Yang. Many scholars came to test him asking, "Abbot Yang, there's a sentence about which I'm unclear. Which book is it from?" He'd answer, "It's on such and such page from such and such book." My teacher was very mischievous in his youth and went to ask the abbot about a sentence from Dream of the Red Chamber. Strangely enough, the abbot answered without mistake.
There was a rich opium addict who wished to quit, but couldn't do so on his own. He decided to ask Barber Yang to use some supernatural method to help him break this opium addiction. He went to see Abbot Yang and said, "Venerable Yang, please shave my head." (*Note: It was the style at the time for Chinese men to shave the front half of their heads and form a long braid of the hair on the back half.) While being shaved, the man started to have withdrawal symptoms-his nose ran and eyes watered profusely. Incidentally, he forgot to state his reason for coming. As he was in great pain, this "Barber Yang" knowingly gave him a light slap on the back saying, "Leave it!" meaning escape. After this shave, the man never again smoked opium.
This story speaks about literary prajna, which upon enlightenment flows forth naturally. It is not the product of intelligence, which is merely superficial. Enlightened persons have incredible powers of memory. Just how powerful? Not only back to the memories of early childhood, but even the events of past lives can be clearly recalled. You may find this to be very strange, but there actually is such a thing. This is why the poet Su Dong Puo wrote, "To begin one's studies in this lifetime is already too late." If we really wish to study, we must start early. This lifetime's efforts are in preparation for the next life.
Upon enlightenment, the knowledge learned throughout thousands of lives is at one's fingertips. This is the result of the functioning of prajna wisdom. Great cultivators have good memories. At a glance, they can take in ten lines. Those unskilled at study must plod along word by word. For a few, a page goes by at a glance, ten lines at a time, a thousand lines a day are not forgotten even when old. The older this person gets, the stronger his or her power of memory becomes. Of course, this person has great samadhi and prajna wisdom. This is literary prajna.
We've discussed these three different aspects of prajna so as to understand what the prajna of the Diamond Prajnaparamita Sutra means. The remaining two aspects of prajna are even more subtle and difficult to achieve. They deal with mental processes and moral behavior. The fourth aspect of prajna is expedient prajna.
Expedient Prajna (prajna of convenience)
Buddhist scriptures always mention expedience. Think of a situation in which I need a sheet of paper, see that you have one, and ask you to expediently give me one-this is not the meaning spoken of in the sutras. Within Chinese literature, there is a famous insult which goes, "Without erudition, one is unskilled." This is not an ordinary insult. In the book History of the Han Dynasty, it is used to insult Huo Gwang, one of the greatest generals of the Western Han Dynasty. During the Western Han period of Chinese history, he was a high-ranking general who was also a great leader and could be said to have been the stabilizing force behind that dynasty. But later historians criticized him saying, "Without erudition, one is unskilled." They were of the opinion that he didn't have enough education. Therefore, in handling matters of national importance, he lacked intellectual suavity and used inappropriate methods. So, we can see that this was no light insult. The average person is not even worthy of such an insult. It is an insult that has gone down in the annals of history, an incredibly skillful and sophisticated insult.
Skillfulness is not merely having means and ways. If one who has erudition and moral values wishes to educate another person, he naturally will be able to accomplish this task without anyone telling him how to be an educator. Simply being a good person and handling affairs well can reach the height of a sophisticated art without training, just naturally. For example, if one who teaches the sutras is able to make use of some special method to help others immediately grasp the meaning of difficult concepts, this can be said to be expedient prajna. This is the behavior of realized beings who use all kinds of expedient means to help society, to help mankind.
We've all seen images of the thousand-armed, thousand-eyed Kuan Yin Bodhisattva (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit)-one thousand arms, each with an eye in the middle of the palm and three more eyes on the head. We must kneel down and bow our heads in respect, great merciful thousand-armed, thousand-eyed Kuan Yin Bodhisattva. We must bow our heads to the ground; but, if when you lifted your head up, standing there in front of you were a person with a thousand arms and eyes, you'd probably jump out of your skin. Right? Of course you would. You've never seen anything like that before. You bow down your head and pray to the Bodhisattva, but if the Bodhisattva really comes, you may not be able to handle it.
There is a Chinese historical figure called "Duke of Ye, Lover of Dragons" from the Spring and Autumn Warring States Period. Ye was a place name and the Duke of Ye was the feudal prince of this small place. People today like to keep pet dogs. The Duke of Ye, however, throughout his whole life was interested only in having a pet dragon. Unfortunately, he had never seen a real one. Still, he had dragons carved on the pillars of the main hall, the paintings were all of dragons, in the bedrooms there were dragons, the furniture was decorated with dragons, and so forth. This whole thing really touched the heart of a real dragon who decided then to go see the good duke. When the duke caught sight of it, he dropped dead out of fright.
Such is the case with many who search for the Tao; when they finally have some realization, it's the same old story. So, if Kuan Yin Bodhisattva stood in front of you-we won't even mention the thousand eyes in each of the palms looking at you-just the eye in the middle of the forehead would be enough to make one faint. Don't you think so?
What does all this represent? Just think, if a person had the ability of a thousand arms and the wisdom behind a thousand eyes what he would be capable of doing! If one is to truly achieve great compassion and sympathy, one must have all the expedient methods and abilities of the Buddha with a thousand arms and eyes. This is the multifarious functioning of conduct and wisdom. To put it literally, "Randomly picking up an object, each reveals the highest truth." Any object randomly chosen can be used to express the highest wisdom. Like a magician who can grab any item and create magical illusions, those with expedient prajna can use any common thing to illustrate the highest wisdom.
Relatives of Prajna
The relatives of prajna follow from the wisdom that pours out from enlightenment. To use Buddhist terminology, it can be called virtuous conduct in accordance with resolution; or in modern language, behavior which is naturally moral. Virtuosity effortlessly comes forth in all situations.
What then are the relatives of prajna? We've all heard of the six paramitas, which are generosity, discipline, patience, enthusiasm, samadhi and prajna. The first five make up the relatives of prajna. How do those who cultivate the Tao practice generosity? How are they patient? How can they reach perfect samadhi, which enables them to reach the highest enlightenment and become a Buddha? Before the paramita of prajna, five other members of the prajna paramita family are listed. These can also be seen as five categories of virtuous conduct in accordance with resolution, all of which make up the family of prajna. I will not explain this further at this point since the content of the Diamond Sutra explains these five actions.
Now we can see that the concept of prajna includes all of these different aspects. Therefore, it cannot merely be translated as wisdom. There is really no appropriate translation. Thus, we'll just use the original Pali term. Prajna includes the origin of enlightenment, and from the origin of enlightenment springs forth all these different aspects of prajna.