The Buddhist Concept of Wisdom

by Mary Ann on January 21, 2012

What is wisdom?  The Wikipedia provides this definition:

Wisdom is a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to apply perceptions, judgments and actions in keeping with this understanding. It often requires control of one’s emotional reactions (the “passions”) so that universal principles, reason and knowledge prevail to determine one’s actions. Wisdom is also the comprehension of what is true or right coupled with optimum judgment as to action. Synonyms include: sagacity, discernment, or insight.”

What stands out for me in the definition is “resulting in the ability to apply…” Wisdom isn’t just about being able to use language, or quote something, but being able to act in a way that is true or right.  What makes something true or right?  I believe what applies value to our choices will involve a sense of ethics.  My intention here is to develop an understanding of wisdom from a perspective that includes traditional Buddhist references, blended with modern scientific and psychological references, in the hope that it will be understood and applied in ways that are of benefit for our 21st century circumstances.

When the future Buddha, Siddhatha Gotama, left his comfortable family life, his intention didn’t include creating a religion.   It seems that a core focus for his life was his preoccupation with the human problem of suffering.  Setting aside the mythical and cultural add-ons of later generations, we can only presume that he sought help from the predominant religious authorities of the time, the Brahmans, in his quest.  The Vedic view they represented saw life as the manifestation of a supreme power, Brahma, and that man’s destiny played out according to what pleased Brahma.  Therefore the Brahman priests of his era were experts in ritual practice, seeking favorable outcomes from perfecting these rites.

The major alternative view was that of the Sramana movement.  The Sramanas believed that salvation did not depend upon pleasing Brahman, but from renouncing worldly pursuits through asceticism, meditation and contemplation.  These Sramanas evolved over the generations into the yogis of medieval India.

Siddhatha learned everything that the Sramanas had to offer, discovering that meditation and austerity alone were insufficient to resolve the problem of suffering.  He developed a radical contemplative structure that arose out of his use of heightened degrees of concentrated awareness to reflect on the process of cognition, as it was occurring.  This revealed to him that salvation did not depend upon sacrifice, ritual, or austerity, but upon a new view of karma. His Awakening experience represents the most sophisticated analysis of the human condition that history provides prior to the development of modern psychology in the 20th century.

Traditionally, karma was action that manifested the will of Brahma.  Humans are fated to live out their karma with humility; this surrender pleased Brahma, which allowed a more promising future incarnation.  The Buddha’s transformation of karma shifted the responsibility for the betterment of the human condition to an ethical basis, that is, salvation doesn’t depend upon the whim of a higher power, but rather on the natural law of cause and effect.  When a particular intention manifests behavior, a predictable consequence arises (called vipaka); when the intention is wholesome, wholesome consequences arise, and when unwholesome intentions manifest even the same behavior, suffering is the result.

He, like Jesus of a later era, was considered first and foremost a healer, even to the use of diagnostic terms set out in Buddhist doctrine: what are the symptoms (1st Truth, suffering), what is the cause of the disease (2nd Truth, craving and clinging), what is the cure (3rd Truth, the release of craving and clinging that Nibbana represents), and the applied intervention (4th Truth, the Eightfold Path)?  The essential ingredient of the Eightfold Path is the cultivation of Panna, wisdom.

Wisdom combines clear awareness, typically termed Right Understanding, with benevolent intention, typically termed Right Intention, and dedicated to the benefit of all beings.  Clear awareness of what?  Buddhism describes reality to have three characteristics: anicca, dukkha and anatta; wisdom is clear awareness of these characteristics.

Anicca means impermanent, transitory, unstable, lacking a constant base.  Everything is in a state of flux, from the micro/atomic level to the macro/cosmic level; it’s just that some things change more rapidly than others.  It’s interesting to note that the most obvious example of the most rapidly changing subjective reality characteristic is thought!  I’ve noted during my meditation practice that thoughts are incredibly ephemeral and insubstantial; when not observed with mindfulness, they seem to be solid and demand belief.  The more closely thoughts are investigated without attachment, the more obvious it is that they are just these brief flashes of something quite mysterious!

Dukkha translates historically as suffering, but more contemporary translations include stressful, dissatisfying, and uncertain.  Modern renderings of stress include distress, uncomfortable feeling, and eustress, comfortable feeling.  Feeling is regarded as a bridge between physical stimulation and emotional awareness, and isn’t considered to be suffering unless and until there is a fixation on the feeling, wanting to increase pleasant feeling or eliminate unpleasant feeling.

Anatta translates as the absence of an enduring, autonomous self.  This is hard to comprehend for those of us conditioned to believe in a soul or ego.  I find it easier to understand from a psychological and physical perspective.  Psychologically, modern research cannot find a central locus of control for the brain’s functioning, as its energy is dispersed throughout the activities of millions of neurons with trillions of connections, firing off rhythmically.  Also, modern attachment theory of personality formation suggests the individual personality emerges from millions of interpersonal interactions, modified throughout the life span.  Quantum mechanics, a field of physics, suggests that ultimate reality is inextricably interdependent, with a phenomenon at point A relying on the presence or absence of a phenomenon at point B for its characteristics; if point B’s characteristics change, the presence of point A is modified.  Where is any individual, person or material substance, separable in that matrix?

Benevolent intention, the second aspect of wisdom, organizes the emotional energy that accompanies the thoughts that stream through subjective awareness. defines benevolent as: “wishing to do good, kindly, from O.Fr. benevolent, from L. benevolentem (nom. benevolens) “wishing (someone) well, benevolent,” related to benevolentia “good feeling”.  In the same site, intention is defined as: “Middle English  < Late Latin intentus  an aim, purpose…”

In Buddhism, benevolent intention is determined to function through metta (lovingkindness), karuna (compassion), and mudita (empathic attunement to happiness), accompanied and balanced by upekkha (equanimity).  The term “cetana” is also associated with intention, and is defined by Wikipedia entry as: “…”volition”, “directionality”, or “attraction”. It is defined as the process of the mind moving forward and settling on an object.”  It is considered to be equivalent to the term kamma (karma).  A respected modern commentator, Herbert Guenther says:

“It is a mental event that arouses and urges the mind with its corresponding events on towards an object. From among all mental events, it is said to be the most important because the force of this mental event sets the mind and any mental event on to the object. Just as iron cannot but be attracted by a magnet, so also the mind cannot be but set on an object by this mental event.” Herbert V. Guenther & Leslie S. Kawamura, Mind in Buddhist Psychology: A Translation of Ye-shes rgyal-mtshan’s “The Necklace of Clear Understanding” Dharma Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The default mode of the human emotional system is organized around survival.  The brain generates an initial impulse: friend or foe?– food or poison?  Modern research suggests strongly that the feeling of urgency that arises with this impulse significantly influences the images and plans that arise a split second after the feeling organizes.  The implication of this is that we react on impulse more often than we realize, rationalizing and justifying our actions.  Apparently, this system works pretty well, as the human race has been incredibly successful on this planet (at least so far).  It’s also important to keep in mind that modern civilization has often surged ahead of the development of human self-awareness and self-regulation.  Mindfulness allows us to check our reactivity with mindfulness of feelings, so we can monitor the self-states as they arise with mindfulness of mental objects, thereby redirecting thoughts and actions through benevolent intention rather than the default mode.

I propose that cultivating wisdom as the Buddha showed us represents the leading edge of evolution of the human organism.  Combining  clear awareness with benevolent intention allows us to notice the emotional impulse as it arises and regulate our reactivity to provide more adaptive responses to situations that occur.  Instead of reacting out of impulse, we can check our responses and, where the impulse is not so benevolent, substitute a more benevolent intention.

To summarize: The Buddha’s teaching emphasizes the cultivation of wisdom as key to bring relief from dissatisfaction.  In a sense, wisdom represents the focusing function that brings attention to what is reflected in consciousness (clear awareness); benevolent intention organizes an ethically derived commitment to action around this awareness.  This function is manifested through the practice of virtue, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, and can only be realized through the mental training of meditation, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.  There are causes for our dissatisfaction, that is, an incorrect understanding (attachment to views of a separate self) and incorrect aspiration (to act out craving for pleasantness to endure and unpleasantness to cease).  Seeing through these attachments is the clear awareness, and nonreactivity/equanimity regarding feelings is benevolent intention.  I hope this clarifies your understanding and helps you find peace.

I wish you well,
Peter Carlson


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