Prajna: Sharp, Illuminating, and Compassionate Inquisitiveness

The following article is from the Spring, 2012 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


This excerpt is taken from Karl Brunnholzl's The Heart Attack Sutra, a practical and clear explanation of The Heart Sutra, perhaps the most well-known of the core Buddhist texts.

As, the basic inquisitiveness and curiosity of our mind, prajna is both precise and playful at the same time. Iconographically it is often depicted as a double-bladed, flaming sword which is extremely sharp. Such a sword obviously needs to be handled with great care, and may even seem somewhat threatening.

Since this sword cuts both ways, it not only serves to slice up our very solid-looking objective reality, but it also cuts through the subjective experiencer of such a reality. In this way, it is also that which makes us see through our own ego trips and self-inflation. It takes some effort to continuously fool ourselves about ourselves. Prajna means being found-out by ourselves, which first of all requires taking an honest look at the games we play.images

Therefore, prajna becomes even more important as we progress along the path because our ego trips just become more sophisticated. First, when we are not spiritual, our ego just thinks, I'm pretty good. But then, when we become spiritual, our ego thinks, "Now I'm also spiritual! Now I'm on the path! Now I'm a Buddhist! Now I can realize emptiness and develop great compassion and all those buddha qualities!" Obviously something needs to be done about that, which is the job of prajna. It has this self-checking quality.

Whenever we go off the track and whenever the balloon of our ego-inflation becomes too big, prajna simply pops the balloon and brings us back to where we are.

We could say that prajna is a means to sober up, which is one reason why it is not so popular, because we usually enjoy being intoxicated by our ego trips in samsara. Prajna cuts through all our attempts at taking credit for being a good Buddhist, being on the path, or having attained something. The prajnaparamita sutras describe all kinds of situations on the path where bodhisattvas can get mired down.

At each turn the sutras say, You cannot really hang on to that either. No matter how good you think it is, no matter how great you think you are, no matter how fantastic an insight may be, let go and keep moving.

Prajna also includes the quality of compassion, but it is a somewhat merciless kind of compassion in that it cuts through wherever it is needed. It is not the type of idiot compassion that just wants us to feel better, but it cuts through what needs to be exposed or what we need to let go of.

In brief, prajna questions everything that we are, everything that we think, everything that we perceive, and everything that we value. Prajna is the ultimate destroyer of our value systems, which is another reason why it is not so popular. Thus, prajna cuts not only through delusion, but also through any tricky attempts by our ego to take credit for being on the path of a bodhisattva or the like.

As the prajnaparamita sutras never tire of emphasizing, any colorful fancies of personalized spiritual attainments must be seen through and recognized to be as groundless as everything else. This spotlight quality of prajna is symbolized by the flames on the sword illuminating our blind spots.

In this way prajna functions like a stage spotlight, highlighting the main actor. In our personal dramas, the leading actor or actress is of course always me, and then there are the supporting actors whom we call others. Prajna serves to spot and highlight this main actor me, but the problem here is that the main actor is the blind spot in the show. Of course, the main actor does not realize that (and mostly does not want to realize it either), but through prajna this actor me will become a little more self- conscious because the spotlight shines on him or her all the time. There is a sense of no escape. We can no longer hide from ourselves or pretend to be unaware of what is going on in our mind.

Generally ignorance is of two types. The passive type is not knowing something and then googling it, but there is also an active part to ignorance, which means that we do not want to see or know, even if we could. In particular, we often do not want to know what is going on in our own mind or what is in its storehouse.

As someone recently said, M v mind is like a bad neighborhood, I usually avoid going there alone. That is our ignorance actively avoiding our own mind, avoiding other people, difficult situations, and so on. Prajna also functions as the direct antidote to these more active tendencies of our ignorance, which does not want us to look too closely at ourselves and what we do. In this sense, prajna entails both an illuminating quality and a sense of courage to face whatever is going on in our own mind and whatever is happening in any situation. Therefore, we need some courage to really hold the sword of prajna and wield it skillfully.

Often we think that knowledge or insight means to come up with all the right answers, but prajna is more like asking all the right questions. Often the question is the answer, or much better than any answer. Often one answer just produces ten new questions and trying to get all the right answers down may simply create more reference points in our mind and thus more rigidity and problems. We may think, Now I understand this really well, but this often just means to expand the territory of our planet Ego because I know, I got it. We simply add one more item to our collection of things that we know. That is why Zen talks about Don't-know mind. Of course this does not mean to simply be stupid, but to let go of trying to own anything, let go of our knowledge, and let go of our achievements. If we really have certain insights and achievements, we will not lose them anyway, but if we hold on to them and become puffed up, they turn into a problem.

To let prajna unfold in a natural way means to give our basic inquisitiveness more space for its natural acute freshness and to start its own process of inquiry rather than following the beaten track. The teachings on prajnaparamita are a clear message not to restrict prajna to merely rearranging or expanding our web of dualistic categories. Thus, the prajnaparamita sutras say: If you think, I cultivate prajna, Prajna is this, or It is for the sake of such and such, this may well be prajna, but it is not prajnaparamita.

Since prajnaparamita stands for directly encountering ultimate reality, it is the main highway to liberation and omniscience. Therefore, to be immersed in it is explained to be the supreme of all practices and realizations. This is why its qualities as well as its profound and far-reaching impact on our minds cannot be overestimated and are repeatedly praised in the scriptures. They declare that to rest for a single moment within prajnaparamita is of far greater merit than―and in fact includes―all other paramitas, such as generosity.

The Brahmavisesacintipariprccha-sutra declares:

Not reflecting is generosity.
Not abiding in any difference is ethics.
Not making any distinctions is patience.
Not adopting or rejecting anything is vigor.
Not being attached is samadhi.
Not conceptualizing is prajna.

Obviously, this is quite different from the usual explanations of what the six paramitas are. Here they are presented in terms of their connection to prajnaparamita or how they manifest as prajnaparamita.

It is also stated that dwelling in prajnaparamita is far superior to any studies, reflections, or other meditations on the dharma, even if these are performed for many eons. It is also the supreme way of making offerings, taking refuge in the three jewels, generating bodhicitta, and purifying all negativities. Both the sutras and their commentaries describe many signs that indicate increasing familiarity and ease with prajnaparamita. In brief, we are able to see much more clearly in any given situation and to deal more carefully and compassionately with both ourselves and with others. We mindfully engage in virtuous actions, afflictions become weaker, the dharma is practiced wholeheartedly, and distractions are relinquished. Clinging in general is reduced, particularly the attachment to this life.

On the positive side of prajna destroying or undermining everything that we know, the whole point is to arrive at a state of mind in which we do not cling. Maybe just for a split second we do not really try to achieve anything or to avoid anything. At that point we do not think, So what now?

We need to look at that very state of mind in which we do not hold on to anything, in which we have no agenda at all, and then see what it is like.


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