Prajna Paramita, “The Perfection of Understanding” or; “The Perfection of Non-Discriminating Knowledge” or; “The Perfection of Intuitive Apprehension”

I made a slide-deck primer on Prajna Paramita, which I share with only a small number of people. By popular demand, and because it’s unfeasible to keep sharing a slide-deck, I write out that particular presentation into a full Article.

If you look deeply into the person you love, you’ll be able to understand her suffering, her difficulties, and also her deepest aspirations. And out of that understanding, real love will be possible. When someone is able to understand us, we feel very happy. If we can offer understanding to someone, that is true love. The one who receives our understanding will bloom like a flower, and we will be rewarded at the same time. Understanding is the fruit of the practice. Looking deeply means to be there, to be mindful, to be concentrated. Looking deeply into any object, understanding will flower. The teaching of the Buddha is to help us understand reality deeply.

— Thich Nhat Hanh on Prajna Paramita, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings

What is Prajna?

  1. Prajna is said to be the Mother of Buddhas, because all Buddhas arise due to the practice of Prajna Paramita.
  2. Prajna is the Container of the Six Paramitas, because the perfection of understanding enriches all the other Paramitas (although all Paramitas are in all other Paramitas; when we practice one deeply, we practice all of them).
  3. Prajna is Right Understanding.
  4. The Root of Prajna is looking into One’s Mind.

What is Prajna, really?
Prajna Paramita is the practice of RIGHT UNDERSTANDING, and refers to the Direct Insight into:

  1. The Four Noble Truths.
  2. The Three Marks of Existence, anicca (impermanence), anattā (non-self), dukkha (dissatisfaction or suffering).
  3. And Sunyata (Emptiness); which is synonymous with Co-Dependent Origination.


The Four Noble Truths

  1. Exisence is marked by Dukkha (dissatisfaction/suffering
  2. The cause of Dukkha is primarily “Craving” (Taṇhā).
  3. Dukkha can be ended by the cessation of Craving (and other causes).
  4. The path to the cessation of Dukkha is the Noble Eightfold Paths.

Threefold PartitionEightfold PathMethod of Practice
SILA (Ethical Compass of Virtues)3.Right SpeechFive Precepts (with the correct motivation, not a blind obligation to appearances and bodily morality).
4.Right Action
5.Right Livelihood
SAMADHI (Correct Meditation)6.Right Effort (Diligence)Meditative practices such as Mindfulness (samatha), and Concentration (samadhi).
7.Right Mindfulness
8.Right Concentration 
WISDOM (Insight)1.Right View Knowing the Four Noble Truths, the Three Marks of Existence, and understanding Codependent Origination. And having correct intentions for why you practice.
2.Right Intention

Anicca (Impermanence)
All phenomenon (what is observed— such as objects, feelings, and the world), whether perceived as so-called physical or mental, is a formation (Saṅkhāra), it has a co-dependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda) and is impermanent. 

Any given phenomenon arises in conjunction with other phenomena (codependency), undergoes changes and disappears.

When we see a Mountain, we feel that it has a real existence, because the process of its existence seems so much longer than our own, and seems to have always been there. But at a microcosmic level, it is undergoing trillions of changes as things move, things transform, and things decay and disappear. Thus a Mountain is actually dynamic flashes of energy, like a shadow, a lightning bolt, a raindrop, just as we are, just as all things are. It arise and dies every moment.

Anatta (Non-Self)
Because everything is Anicca (impermanent), the phenomena that codependently forms the sense of ownership and the sense of self, are also impermanent, and will dissolve and transform into other phenomena. Thus, the Self dies every moment, and re-originates as a similar but different self.

So when we grasp deeply onto a sense of Self (I am Justin, I am a skilled designer, I love this sense-object, and I dislike this sense-object. This is feeling is mine. This sensation is mine. This organ is mine. This history is mine), we will suffer when those objects & stories we are attached to inevitably dissolves or prove themselves not ours to own.

“This not mine, this is not me, this is not myself.”

Shakyamuni Buddha

Dukkha (Dissatisfaction/Suffering)
Because things are Anicca (Impermanent), and we are Anatta (Non-Self), when we grasp and become attached to these transitory phenomena, we are distressed when they dissolve.

When we want something, and cannot have it, we become distressed.

When we have something, and cannot keep it, we become distressed.

When we despise something, and we have it, we become distressed.When we do not have what we despise, but cannot keep it from becoming ours, we become distressed.

Co-Dependent Origination
All phenomena are not static, but are processes of Becoming. This exists, so that exists, if this ceases to exists, that also ceases to exist. Ie, Because Eye and Light have contact, and there is a consciousness to perceive that contact, there is colour. When Eye and Light do not have contact, and no consciousness to perceive it, there is no colour. In truth, Colours don’t exist independently. Neither do eyes. Neither do Light. Neither do consciousness.

Things do not have substantive existence (there is no substance). What appears to be substantive (Justin is alive) are dynamic processes in homeostasis (equilibrium of processes) that last until it stops. There are no things, only processes. Ie, When I am feeling unwell, I become paranoid, when people interact with me, I take it as a slight, I then feed my paranoia by making up stories about why people are trying to hurt me, which feeds my anger. This is a process (with causes), but in ignorance, I think “that person is making me angry!” (when in reality, I made me angry— and anger doesn’t really exist as something substantive, only as processes). Or take evolution for example. We call a cat a cat, but a cat is a process of biological evolution that is ongoing. That cat was once a different cat, and was once a fish. Even the idea of a cat or a fish are not substantive, they are ideas we construct. No alien would recognize a cat or a fish, and might not even perceive that a cat or a fish are different in any meaningful way.

Things are codependent, no matter how reductive. That is to say, everything is made of something, caused by something, conditioned by something, allowed by something, brought forth by something. There is not a single thing you can demonstrate that isn’t in some way or form, evolved from an earlier set of codependent aggregates of phenomena.

Some words of wisdom from the Sixth Zen Patriarch.

Good and Wise Friends, the capacity of the mind is great and far-reaching; it encompasses the dharma realm. When functioning, it is clear and distinct, discerning and responsive. It knows all. All is the one [the mind]; and the one [mind] is all. Things naturally come and go, but the essence of the mind is unimpeded. That is prajna [wisdom].

Good and Wise Friends, prajna wisdom comes from one’s own essential nature: it does not come from outside. Do not make the mistake of using will and intellect. It is called “The natural workings of the true nature.” When the self-nature is true, everything else is true.

The mind has the capacity for great things; it is not meant to behave in petty ways. Do not talk about emptiness all day long, but fail to cultivate it in your minds. That would be like a commoner proclaiming himself the king of the country. How absurd; this could never be! Such people are not my disciples.

Good and Wise Friends, what is prajna? In our language [Chinese], prajna means wisdom. In every place and in every moment, in thought after thought, never becoming muddled and constantly acting wisely—just this is practicing prajna.

With one deluded thought, prajna is cut off. With one wise thought, prajna springs to life. Ordinary people, muddled and confused, fail to recognize prajna. Their mouths talk about prajna, but their minds remain confused. They are forever saying, “I cultivate prajna!,” and though they talk on and on about emptiness, they have no idea of its true meaning. Prajna has no shape or form; it is only the mind of wisdom. If you understand it in this way, just this is prajna wisdom.

— Huineng, The Platform Sutra

Further quotes, from the Fourth Zen Patriarch.

One should maintain an awareness of one’s own body as without substance; as purely an experience like a shadow, which can be seen but not grasped. Wisdom-awareness appears within this shadow. Ultimately without location, wisdom is unmoving, yet responds to all things, forever transforming. It produces the six senses and their realms of perception – all insubstantial, like dreams or illusions.

…To “maintain the One without wavering” is to focus on remaining with this single awareness with the eye of non-grasping purity, and to be committed to this practice at all times without wandering off. When the mind tries to run away, bring it back quickly.

…When the eye sees something, there is actually no outside “thing” that enters the eye. Like a mirror reflecting a face – although perfectly clear, there is no “thing” within the mirror. A person’s face doesn’t enter into the mirror; the mirror doesn’t reach out to a person’s face…If the mind becomes aware of some sensory stimuli and perceives it as coming from outside oneself, then return to a view of that sense object as not ultimately substantive (or independent).

The conditionally generated experiences of the mind do not come from anywhere within the ten directions, nor do they go anywhere. When you can regularly observe thinking, discrimination, deluded views, feelings, random thoughts, and confusion as not individually substantive mental events, then your practice is becoming basically stable. If you can settle the mind and remain free of entanglement with this continual conditioned thinking, you will be serene and fully aware, and discover an end to your afflictions. This is called liberation.

If on observing the mind’s subtle afflictions, and it’s agonizing confusions, and even its deepest introspections, you can, in a single moment, let go of them all and return to gentle stability, your mind has naturally become peaceful and pure. Only you must be courageous.

— Commentary from Dayi Daoxin, The Essentials of Entering the Way and Pacifying the Mind

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Justin C. Hsu

Designer, Artist, and Consumer of Pop Culture.

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