Chapter 25: The Perfection of Wisdom
Wisdom arises from practice;
Without practice it is lost.
Knowing these two ways of gain and loss,
Conduct yourself so that wisdom grows.
– Dhammapada 282
Buddhism is sometimes known as a wisdom tradition: the practice of awakening is supported by and expressed in a deep understanding of life. Wisdom is also one of the ten qualities or “perfections” developed in Buddhist practice.
The Buddhist tradition distinguishes three kinds of wisdom, each of which has a place in the spiritual life: wisdom acquired through learning, reflection, and developing meditation.
People sometimes hold wisdom in opposition to knowledge, undervaluing study. But in Buddhism, the knowledge that comes from learning is appreciated as a form of wisdom. Studying the teachings is a valuable foundation for the practice. Studying includes reading the words of Buddhist and other spiritual teachers. It can include classes. Traditionally it also includes memorization of Buddhist writings. I sometimes ask practitioners to memorize short texts or passages, and wonderful things can occur. A memorized passage seems to be processed within us in subtle and varied ways apart from our intellectual understanding. A line or passage will suddenly appear in the mind at an opportune time, providing a new perspective on the teachings or on the words’ application in our lives.
The second form of wisdom is reflective wisdom: using our powers of reflection to think about important themes in our lives. This includes discussions with friends, fellow practitioners, and teachers. Sometimes people think that mindfulness is in opposition to reflection – i.e., because mindfulness is non-discursive, discursive activity must somehow be unspiritual. The tradition, however, doesn’t see reflection and mindfulness as opposed. Each one has its importance.
Any topic can be the subject of careful reflection. In Buddhist practice it is considered valuable to reflect upon, digest, and challenge such teachings as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, impermanence, non-self, karma, and dependent co-arising. An important traditional subject of reflection is death. There is a saying that age brings wisdom. This wisdom may come from increased life experience, but perhaps even more so from a sense of the proximity of death. When the actuality of death becomes clear to us, it can be a source of wisdom. It may clarify our intentions and priorities. Rather than a morbid concern, reflecting on death can help us live our life mindfully, appreciating what is most important.
The third kind of wisdom is that of developing meditation. This is the understanding that arises from developing the qualities of mind – such as mindfulness – that allow us to see deeply into the nature of our experience. Most people take their experience for granted, relating only to surface appearances. We tend not to question the very nature of the experience itself, and miss an opportunity to see more deeply.
As the non-discursive investigation of mindfulness becomes stronger, our vision is less and less filtered through our ideas. We begin to see things more clearly for what they are. As mindful- ness becomes more penetrating, we see the three universal characteristics of experience: all experiences are impermanent, none are satisfactory refuges of lasting happiness, and no experience or thing known through awareness can qualify as a stable self.
As we meet these characteristics directly, wisdom grows. We begin to understand the suffering that comes from resisting the constant flux of experience. We begin to see that mindfulness can lead us to a happiness that is not dependent on our experience. And we gain ease in our lives. We find a place of freedom with no self to defend or bolster. We can see our shortcomings and our pain without their limiting us, without believing that they define who we are.
The perfection of wisdom, of insight, comes when the heart and mind neither cling to nor resist anything. Seeing the three characteristics is a powerful step to this perfection. It leads to an awareness that doesn’t appropriate, doesn’t fixate on our experiences . The mind and heart allow experiences to reside and pass through, as they are. From this place, we can more wisely decide how to act, when to take a stand, and how to say what needs to be said. The art of liberation is learning how to do what we have to in life, without the mind or heart becoming contracted or tense. In Ash Wednesday, T. S. Eliot expresses this wisdom beautifully: “Teach us to care and not to care.” To care and not to care at the same time. It’s not one or the other.
More often than we realize, we have an alternative to holding things in opposition. Study, reflection and developing meditation strengthen the practice of mindfulness. They help us toward liberation, and bring harmony to our lives and the lives of others.