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The Ten Paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism : Wisdom (Part 1)

Last Saturday, on August 3, 2019, we studied The Ten Paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism — Prajñā (Wisdom / Insight).

Following meditation, we started Dharma learning session with a quick overview on the definition of the Sanskrit word: Prajñā (wisdom) and Śūnyatā (emptiness), and their meanings in Mahayana Buddhism.  We then shared an passage from the The Platform Sutra on Prajna. Then, we watched two Dharma talks by Master Sheng Yen on how “world-transcending wisdom” — Prajñā Paramita, relates to “worldly wisdom” and other Paramita practices. We had open discussion both before and after watching the videos. Aside from the questions posted by the facilitator, members brought up many related ideas during group discussion, including the meaning of “emptiness” in the text of The Heart Sutra, and the subtle difference between being selfish and self-centered.

Below is a copy of our handout, reading materials, videos we shared, questions we discussed, and our homework for the week. Happy learning!


The Ten Paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism : Wisdom / Insight

RECAP: Pāramitā (Sanskrit) or Parami (Pāli): “Perfection” or “Transcendent”. In Buddhism, the Paramitas refer to the perfection or culmination of certain practices. These practices are cultivated by Bodhisattvas for crossing from sensuous life (Samsara) to Enlightenment (Nirvana).

Wisdom / Insight (Prajñā):

Prajñā (Sanskrit) or paññā (Pali) — is often translated as “wisdom”, but is closer in meaning to “insight”, “non-discriminating knowledge”, or “intuitive apprehension”.

  • jñā can be translated as “consciousness”, “knowledge”, or “understanding”
  • Pra is an intensifier which can be translated as “higher”, “greater”, “supreme” or “premium”, or “being born or springing up”, referring to a spontaneous type of knowing.

Prajna Paramita: Perfection of Wisdom
In Mahayana Buddhism, wisdom is the direct and intimate realization of sunyata, or emptiness. Very simply, this is the teaching that all phenomena are without self-essence or independent existence.

Prajna is the ultimate perfection that includes all other perfections. The late Robert Aitken Roshi wrote:

“The Sixth Paramita is Prajna, the raison d’être of the Buddha Way. If Dana is the entry to the Dharma, then Prajna is its realization and the other Paramitas are Prajna in alternate form.” (The Practice of Perfection, p. 107)

That all phenomena are without self-essence may not strike you as especially wise, but as you work with prajna teachings the significance of sunyata becomes more and more evident, and the importance of sunyata to Mahayana Buddhism cannot be overstated. The sixth paramita represents transcendent knowledge, in which there is no subject-object, self-other dualism at all.

However, this wisdom cannot be understood by intellect alone. So how do we understand it? Through the practice of the other perfections–generosity, morality, patience, energy. and meditation.

SOURCE: O’Brien, Barbara. “The Six Perfections of Mahayana Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Jun. 12, 2019,

Emptiness / Non-self (Śūnyatā):

Śūnyatā (Sanskrit) or suññatā (Pali) — is usually translated as “devoidness,” “emptiness,” “hollow, hollowness,” “voidness.” It is a Buddhist concept which has multiple meanings depending on its doctrinal context. It is either an ontological feature of reality, a meditative state, or a phenomenological analysis of experience.

In Mahayana, Sunyata refers to the tenet that “all things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature (svabhava),” but may also refer to the Buddha-nature teachings and primordial or empty awareness. Sunyata is often misunderstood to mean that nothing exists. This is not so. Instead, it tells us that there is existence, but that phenomena are empty of svabhava – a Sanskrit word, means self-nature, intrinsic nature, essence, or “own being.”

SOURCE: O’Brien, Barbara. “What Do Buddhist Teachings Mean by Sunyata, or Emptiness?” Learn Religions, Jun. 25, 2019,


Dharma Reading:

From The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch

'Prajna' by Huineng*, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan


* Dajian Huineng (大鑒惠能; 638–713), also commonly known as the Sixth Patriarch or Sixth Ancestor of Chan, is regarded as the founder of the “Sudden Enlightenment” Southern Chan school of Buddhism, which focuses on an immediate and direct attainment of Buddhist enlightenment. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (六祖壇經), which is said to be a record of his teachings, is a highly influential text in the East Asian Buddhist tradition.


Dharma Videos:

Can worldly wisdom be elevated to world-transcending wisdom?” by Master Sheng Yen**

The Five Perfections are like the blind without Prajna” by Master Sheng Yen**

** Sheng Yen (1931–2009) was a Chinese Buddhist monk, a religious scholar, and one of the mainstream teachers of Chan Buddhism. He was a Dharma heir in the Linji school (Japanese: Rinzai), and the Caodong (Japanese: Sōtō) lineage. He was the founder of the Dharma Drum Mountain, a Buddhist organization based in Taiwan.



  1. In the first video, the teacher explained Prajna this way:
    “‘Prajna’ indicates involving no self-centeredness; and using the viewpoint of causality and conditions to prove, observe, and experience that all knowledge and learning are temporary — neither permanent nor unchangeable.”

    How does this explanation of Prajna compare to your understanding of “wisdom”?

  2. In the second video, the teacher said:
    “‘Prajna’ enable us to let go of our selfishness and liberate us from self-centeredness.”

    Do you agree? How can Prajna have such effect on us?



  1. Start bringing Prajna into your daily life! This video will show you how:
    How prajna-wisdom helps us in our daily life” by Master Sheng Yen