06/21/2012 07:59 am ET Updated Aug 21, 2012

Look, See, Be

Everything we do, no matter how seemingly simple or straightforward, entails some sort of conceptual underpinning -- some grounding in a belief or system of beliefs. Even doing something as simple as washing our face implies certain notions about what a face is. It also involves, on a subtle or obvious level, certain beliefs about ourselves: ideas, opinions, and judgments about our own face, for example, or about other people's faces. If we believe we're not attractive, for instance, or not as attractive as some other people, we may have a hard time just putting forth the effort to washing our face.

More broadly, most of us believe in a solid, enduing, independent "self" -- an "I" that requires a good deal of maintenance. We expend a lot of physical, emotional, and mental energy in the service of this belief. We often panic when this belief in "I" begins to wobble or waver, when we feel weak or threatened, or not quite so solid. And when our "I" is hurt, ignored, or angered by an "other," we tend to conceptualize that person as an "enemy" or a "bad person," which spontaneously gives rise to a whole set of feelings, ideas, and behaviors appropriate to dealing with "enemies."

It takes a lot of effort to maintain not only a belief in a "self" and "others," but also, fundamentally, the whole network of concepts out of which "self" and "other" arise -- a level of experience, referred to as "relative reality," which is characterized by relativistic, dualistic perception: subject and object, friend and enemy, self and other, good and bad.

One of the core principles of Tibetan Buddhism is that all phenomena, all experience, is essentially free of enduring, sharply delineated characteristics. We aren't defined by our past, our present, or our thoughts and feelings about the future. We have the potential to experience anything. And anything has the potential to arise within our experience.

The process of cultivating and stabilizing this insight on a level that goes beyond entertaining an interesting idea is the focus of the sixth and final paramita, known in Sanskrit as prajña and in Tibetan as sherab. Both words can be translated as in a variety of ways: wisdom, insight, knowledge, understanding. A more complete definition might be the intelligence that fully recognizes the nature of all phenomena as it is. In some texts, this intelligence is referred to as "transcendent wisdom" because it is the ability to see through, or transcend, the essentially interdependent, temporary, and illusory nature of relative reality to the fundamentally open, clear, and limitless nature of absolute reality. It's the keen perception that enables us to see the brilliant, spacious mind behind the "clouds" of fantasies, stories, and projections, and open to the unconditional, unconditioned essence love that shines undimmed by whatever habitual patterns of identification we've accumulated along the journey of our lives.

Practicing this paramita means using the basic discriminating ability with which we were born -- the tendency to wonder, to question, to pull together information and analyze it -- to investigate the characteristics of individual things and of things in general, to examine how phenomena and our experience function. And that is a very different process from surrendering to prejudices or preconceived ideas, from simply assuming or blindly believing that things exist in a set manner. It means to actually look in order to see.

The process involves connecting with our analytical ability and developing it deliberately. Traditionally, the cultivation of wisdom along the Buddhist path involves three stages: listening, reflecting, and meditating. Listening (sometimes referred as hearing) entails quite simply becoming familiar with the teachings.

The Buddha, I'd like to point out, was an "equal-opportunity teacher." When he taught, he encouraged people to make up their minds about whether the teachings made sense to them. "Believe nothing," he said, "no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." He advised the people who came to hear him to approach his teachings with the same attitude they would adopt if they were going to purchase gold. "You have to put it to the test," he explained, "to see if it is really pure or not." In other words, the Buddha empowered people to be intelligent, to use their wits, to think for themselves. And this is a special quality; he never said close your mind, stop thinking, just believe. He emphasized that we have the ability to understand, and encouraged us to use it and carry it to the fullest. Evaluating the teachings, then, determining whether they make sense to us or have any value in our lives, is the second step in the process -- reflection or contemplation.

If we determine that there may something to the insights he offered into the free and open nature of reality and the bright, creative, intelligent and loving spark within all living beings, then we're ready to move on to the third phase: using the practices of meditation such as mindfulness and calm-abiding to kindly and gently identify our biases, our prejudices, and so on in order to arrive at a more precise understanding of our habitual patterns of interpreting experience.

In other words, we begin by looking, and then we see.

We may not all see the same things, of course, or not in the same way. True wisdom is wide. It is both universal and uniquely personal. It transcends the intellect to touch the heart.

So the challenge, as we conclude our exploration of the paramitas, is to discover the personal meaning in the universal teachings of the Buddha. How has your vision widened or deepened? How has your mind opened? How has your heart become warmer and wider?

Now, can you just let it all go -- the teachings, the questions, the challenges? Can you simply, fearlessly, freely be?

For more by Tsoknyi Rinpoche, click here.

For more on wisdom, click here.