Paññā : Wisdom

Good morning, friends.

Today’s subject will be Wisdom, Paññā in Pali. I think wisdom is often confused with knowledge, a word that is much better for explaining the understanding of mundane things such as fixing cars, operating computers or equipment, or the arrangement of planets in the solar system. Most of us seem to have truck loads of knowledge but very little wisdom, myself included.

If knowledge is an understanding of how things work, wisdom might sometimes be equated to an understanding of why they work. Wisdom can’t really be put into words but can, instead, be learned by direct evaluation.

Another way of seeing it might be that wisdom is that which lives in the emptiness of mind when one sets aside mental fabrications (thoughts, for instance) and meditates. It doesn’t arise when one’s inner “mental-voice” is turned on, but when stillness of mind and concentration are brought together, wisdom is there. I can say this only from a vague perspective, as I have not attained any states resembling canonical jhana, but even pre-jhana one can certainly find sufficient stillness to bring about some modicum of wisdom. The more we lower the volume of our inner voice, the more we may tap into this vast storehouse of wisdom.

In the suttas, wisdom often refers to a direct understanding of the four noble truths, dependent origination, and kamma (among other things). Having the wisdom to understand does not necessarily imply that one can teach (that is a sort of supra-mundane power in an of itself) — these are subjects that cannot be understood in words alone. With the arising of wisdom, the suttas proclaim that the Buddha could know the particulars of his (or others’) past lives, see the causes for the arising and passing of all beings, and ended the causes for suffering and rebirth in himself as well taught the path to do so to others. Some suttas indicate that the Buddha could even know the states of others’ minds (not necessarily their thoughts, but their afflictions and the state of their defilements) and others psychic powers were mentioned — and such powers would certainly be helpful in teaching, I imagine.

See the Samaññaphala Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 2, for a lengthy (but very educational) read on the subject.

Wisdom is the faculty that lets go of the negative mind states of anger, lust, and delusion. It is the understanding, deep down, that that things are causes for suffering in spite of seeming pleasurable, or that something that is really difficult and time-consuming can be worth suffering for…

If by renouncing a lesser happiness one may realize a greater happiness, let the wise man renounce the lesser, having regard for the greater.

Entangled by the bonds of hate, he who seeks his own happiness by inflicting pain on others, is never delivered from hatred.

The cankers only increase for those who are arrogant and heedless, who leave undone what should be done and do what should not be done.

The cankers cease for those mindful and clearly comprehending ones who always earnestly practice mindfulness of the body, who do not resort to what should not be done, and steadfastly pursue what should be done.

Dhammapada 290-293

The number one delusion that is to be overcome by the development of wisdom is that of the self. Your “self” or that of others, either is merely an idea to which we cling. If I had to identify the “ground of all being,” I would implicate “self-conceit” or similar. Intellectually, this is as obvious to me as water is wet, so I can say I have “knowledge” of it in a crude sense, but I wouldn’t say wisdom has arisen to that degree yet as I still find myself attached to certain conventions of identity-view. These are ideas and actions that we often perpetuate unknowingly, but if we have at least limited mindfulness we can see them in passing, and as we are more mindful in our practice we learn to see them in their happening, and eventually as they arise (before we act). As the practice progresses, we choose to alter these behaviors, then the thoughts that drive them, eventually cutting the conceit at the root.

Maybe many lifetimes have to pass before it is done with… or maybe not… but concerning yourself too much with the time frame is not wisdom. Maybe procrastination (of the worst kind), but not wisdom.

So what is the practice of wisdom in the case of the American practitioner? It starts at the breath just as it did in the Buddha’s time.

“Mindfulness of in-&-out breathing, when developed & pursued, is of great fruit, of great benefit. Mindfulness of in-&-out breathing, when developed & pursued, brings the four frames of reference to their culmination. The four frames of reference, when developed & pursued, bring the seven factors for awakening to their culmination. The seven factors for awakening, when developed & pursued, bring clear knowing & release to their culmination.”
Anapanasati Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 118

The breath is the foundation of continued life. You can survive a fairly long while without food, and quite a few days without water even, but if you stop breathing even for 5 minutes you are probably dead. Contemplate that… whether one was alive in the Buddha’s time in ancient India, in Thailand 100 years ago, or in America today, the breath is always there, and it has always been the basis for the arising of wisdom.

On breath meditation, I would suggest reading the complete text of the Anapanasati Sutta for the detailed canonical explanation. After reading that, you might consider obtaining a copy of Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond, written by Ajahn Brahm (Bodhinyana Monastery, Serpentine, Western Australia). Alternatively, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Metta Forest Monastery, San Diego County) offers a number of study guides and books on meditation practice via the the DhammaTalks site his monastery operates. These monks have different approaches to meditation (and teaching Dhamma in general) so, for the serious practitioner, it might be beneficial to explore the methods of both to see which resonates most.

Perfecting one’s wisdom is most certainly a life’s work. This is not something to be measured in so little a time span as even years, but one who has attained to a measure of wisdom need not be elderly either. In fact, if one waits to become old before practicing any perfection, what hope does one have of success as his faculties invariably deteriorate and death nears?

Meditate and be well, friends. Find peace within your mind, and in the absence of your inner-voice you will find more than you ever conceived.



  1. Excellent summary of Buddhist wisdom.

    1. Thank you for saying so. I hope you are well, friend! 🙂

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