Cultivating the Pefection of Wisdom

Wisdom is the Bodhisattva perfection that brings true and lasting happiness as well as the end of all suffering. With the attainment of this virtue, a Bodhisattva becomes a fully-enlightened being. He or she knows, from experience, the complete path to enlightenment.
01/09/2013 05:55 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

Wisdom is the Bodhisattva perfection that brings true and lasting happiness as well as the end of all suffering. With the attainment of this virtue, a Bodhisattva becomes a fully-enlightened being. He or she knows, from experience, the complete path to enlightenment. The mind of someone who has attained the perfection of wisdom observes how things really exist, and it is our ignorance of this that causes us to act in the negative ways that prevents us from finding true and lasting happiness and the end of all suffering. Ignorance, anger and clinging attachment are known as the "three root delusions" in Buddhism, but ignorance is the cause of both anger and clinging attachment. We ignorantly pursue happiness by trying to acquire material things, power or fame, because our deluded way of viewing these things results in thinking that possessing them brings the happiness we are seeking. However, all things -- including wealth, power and reputation -- are fleeting, so they cannot bring us the lasting happiness we seek. Instead, ignorantly pursuing them for any reason other than to possess resources that can be used to help everyone reach enlightenment is actually a cause of suffering.

In my blog "Lojong Meditation: The Bodhisattva's Mind-Training Practice," I explained the process of using both analytic meditation and placement meditation to develop any accomplishment on the Bodhisattva path. This practice is employed in order to develop the perfection of wisdom. A Bodhisattva must review the reasons why things do not exist in the way we ignorantly think they do until he or she is convinced that this is true. He or she then does placement meditation on this conclusion until our ordinary, ignorant way of perceiving things is overcome. When this ignorant way of perceiving things is overcome, a Bodhisattva will experience neither the clinging attachment nor the anger that result in the negative behaviors that block the experience of true and lasting happiness and cause all of our suffering.

We ignorantly perceive things existing as discreet and singular. We think that these seemingly-unrelated things exist independently of the minds that observe them, and we think that each one of them can be identified independently of one another. This way of observing things as existing independently is called "innate self grasping." The word "self" here does not only refer to our sense that we each have an independent self, but also to the appearance of other things as having "self existence." The philosopher, Immanuel Kant, called a mentally-observed object a "phenomena" and an object conceived of as independent of mind a "noumena" or "thing-in-itself." Kant wrote that we always observe phenomena, not noumena -- since noumena are defined as independent of mind -- but he asserted that we must assume noumena exist, as otherwise we have no reason to conclude that our phenomena represent "real things." Kant complained that unless noumena exist, waking experiences are as meaningless as (he assumed) dream experiences are. He referred to illusory experiences as "dreams and other things of idle imagination." Kant was wrong that there must be noumena for there to be meaningful experiences, because the view we have of things determines whether we attain happiness or experience suffering, and every living being seeks to attain happiness and avoid suffering. These two ultimate aims structure what we view as meaningful, and attaining the perfection of wisdom gives one the ability to observe directly the causes of happiness and suffering.

Kant's theory of noumena is an example of a sophisticated theoretical justification for believing that things have independent self-existence. Almost all of us, if challenged to defend the claim that things exist "out there" independent of our minds, would give some kind of justification for this claim. Both philosophically sophisticated theories, like Kant's, and the reasons non-philosophers would give are called "intellectually formed self grasping." Actually, the objects of waking experience are just as lacking in self-existence as the objects of dream experience, but we grasp at the things of our waking experience as sources of happiness because of innate and intellectually formed self grasping. We chase after the figments of our imaginations that we view as attractive, and we try to push away the figments we view as unattractive. This results in the experience of suffering in just the same way that a thirsty person chasing after a mirage suffers from continuing thirst. Although things do not exist the way we think they do, they do exist as temporary, interdependent phenomena, and the way we view these temporary phenomena and react to them can cause either happiness or suffering. The point of pursuing wisdom is to observe them in the way a Buddha observes them and, thereby, achieve true and lasting happiness.

Shakyamuni Buddha explicitly taught that we must think of phenomenal objects of our waking experience as like dream objects. When one adopts this attitude toward things, one undermines and eventually eliminates intellectually-formed self-grasping. When we do this, suffering is greatly diminished, and the temporary happiness that comes from a calmer and more peaceful mind is achieved, because one understands the futility of chasing after and pushing away things as a means of achieving true and lasting happiness. However, "the happiness that is without sorrow" -- enlightenment -- is not achieved until innate self-grasping is overcome, and this can be overcome only by doing placement meditation on the conclusion that the objects we think have independent self-existence do not actually exist in this way at all.

We must study and understand the philosophical arguments in support of the claim that there are no self-existing objects in order to confidently believe that this is the truth about the way things are. Chapter seven of my book, Ocean of Compassion , contains arguments of this kind. Other sources, such as Nagarjuna's Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way contain different philosophical arguments in support of the claim that there are no self-existing things. This truth about things is named "emptiness" or "interdependent co-arising." These names are used in order to have short-hand expressions for the truth about things, but emptiness is not a thing, it is the true mode of existence of things. When placement meditation is done on emptiness, eventually the perception of independent, self-existing things is overcome, and what is then perceived can only be described metaphorically. The most common metaphor describes the experience as "like seeing clear water pouring into clear water." Monotheistic mystics have described it as experiencing the self as dissolving into God. One's own self is, at this time, observed as having dissolved into emptiness, and the same is true of all other things. At this point, one directly observes that it is impossible to hold onto things, just like one cannot grasp hold of liquid water. By observing things in this way, one overcomes the ignorance that leads to the grasping and aversion that cause our suffering. At this point, one is actually observing the process of emptiness that one has concluded is true on the basis of the philosophical arguments that support it. Thus, placement meditation on this conclusion gives rise to a new way of seeing things.

I cannot explain the philosophical arguments in support of emptiness in this blog post. In fact, Bodhisattvas take a vow not to expose those who are unprepared to the philosophical arguments in support of the truth of emptiness. It is important to understand the general concept of emptiness before one tries to understand the philosophical arguments that support it, and so in this blog I have given a general explanation of emptiness and how placement meditation on the truth of emptiness leads to enlightenment. Because of innate self-grasping, emptiness is counter-intuitive, but it is no more counter-intuitive than the claim that light is both a wave and a particle. Those who learn the physical theories and experiments that support this counter-intuitive claim eventually accept it. This is also true of emptiness; it is possible confidently to reach the conclusion that happiness cannot be found by possessing things, because all things are like mirages. If we pursue our happiness by acting virtuously through cultivating the Bodhisattva way of life, rather than by trying to cling to dream-like things, we will actually find the true and lasting happiness we are seeking.

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