Developing wisdom

Paññā pāramī : transcendental wisdom, insight

This will necessarily be an incomplete discussion of panna or wisdom. The subject is too vast and varied for the blog format. Within the context of the perfections, which we hope to develop in our daily living, here are some ways of looking at wisdom that might be helpful.

Three types of discernment
understanding that comes from listening (sutamaya-pañña)
understanding that comes from thinking (cintamaya-pañña)
understanding that comes from developing/meditation (bhavanamaya-pañña)

— from DN 33, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

According to canonical Theravada Buddhism, these are the three main ways in which wisdom can be developed. The first is hearing wise teachings (referring here to the Buddha’s words). Since there were virtually no books at the time of the Buddha, this would have been the only way to come into contact with what he taught. Today, we are more likely to read the Buddha’s teachings and their many (and variously reliable) interpretations in our own language, at our leisure. In any case, to have the opportunity to hear/read these teachings is a great blessing and should not be taken for granted. For those who are ready to hear, the teachings are powerful.

The second method of developing wisdom is by reflecting on the teachings we’ve heard or read. We think about how we might implement them in our own lives, or how we might adjust our attitude to take into account the things that the Buddha recommends considering. Breaking mental habits is hard, but we can change the lens through which we view our experience by thinking deeply about what the Buddha advises.

The third method is development or cultivation. This refers to actually putting the Buddha’s advice into practice in our own lives and seeing how things change as a result. It also refers to meditation as a training to make the mind more sensitive to our direct experience, setting aside (temporarily) the stories we tell ourselves. There are many meditation methods, and different ones will work best for different people at different times in their development. A foundational practice, though, is mindfulness of the body:
“…Mindfulness directed to the body. This is the one thing that, when developed and cultivated, leads to penetrativeness of wisdom.”
– from AN 1.615, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Mindfulness of the body can be cultivated both in sitting meditation and throughout our waking experience. It comes highly recommended as a way to bring our experience into focus and develop wisdom.

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