Altar Sutra: On Prajna: Part 1

On Prajna (Wisdom)

One day, after reciting the Heart Sutra, the Sixth Patriarch Huineng gave the following teaching:
The great seed of Awakening is within all of us. It is because our minds are under delusion that we fail to realize this. This is why we seek advice and guidance from Masters and Teachers
The truth is there is no difference between an Enlightened being and an ignorant one. The only difference is that an Enlightened being sees their own true nature.

Now, let’s talk about the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra so each of us can engage with wisdom.

Several things going on here. The Master is talking about the concept of Buddha nature. This is a traditional Mahayana Buddhist teaching that we are all awakened already, that Enlightenment isn’t something we are seeking, it’s just that we are trying to see through our delusion to see our Enlightened nature underneath. The Mahaprajnaparaimta Sutra is the Sutra of Great Transcendental Wisdom. We’ll talk more about that a little later.

Those who talk about wisdom all the time don’t know that wisdom is inherent in our nature. Talking about food won’t make you full when you’re hungry. Just so, talking about wisdom will not make you wise. We can sit and talk about Emptiness forever, but talking will not make us realize our fundamental nature. It’s pointless.

This is similar to a line from another famous Chinese spiritual text, the Tao Te Ching. “The way that can be spoken of is not the true way.” That is, once we start speaking, we have probably missed the point. The truth is beyond the language we can use to talk about it. Bodhidharma, the first Chinese Patriarch called it, “Beyond words and letters. Emptiness here means we are without inherent self nature. That is, there is no part of us that is really separate from the world around us. Our nature is oneness.

‘Mahaprajnaparamita’ is a Sanskrit word. It means Great Transcendental Wisdom.
We have to put Transcendental Wisdom into practice.Just reciting the teachings of Mahaprajnaparamita without putting them into practice is like a phantom, a delusion, a flash of lightning.

This reminds me of this quote from Ikkyu: ‘Like vanishing dew, a passing apparition or the sudden flash of lightning– already gone — thus should one regard one’s self,’

When we simply recite the teachings, we aren’t doing much good. We have to embody the teachings. Don’t study the Buddha. Be the Buddha.

The Buddha outside isn’t the true Buddha. The true Buddha is within.

Maha means ‘great’. The abilities of the mind are great. What lies within us is infinite, neither long nor short, neither happy nor sad, neither good nor evil.

Our true nature is Emptiness and there is really nothing to be attained. The Essence of our minds is the absolute void.

When I talk about Emptiness, don’t think in terms of nothingness or annihilation. We shouldn’t fall into this idea because then we could begin to think that nothing matters.

A very common mistake people make when they start learning about Buddhism. Buddhism is not nihilism. I think of Emptiness as being vast and open, like the sky.

The void we are talking about is capable of containing many things of various shape and size. The void
contains the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth.

The void contains all of these. So do we.

This echoes a quote by Rumi, the famous Muslim mystic:
‘You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop’

We call our true nature great because it contains all things. All things are within our nature. When we see the behavior of others, we must not be attached to it, so that our minds can be as void as the sky. In this way, we can say our minds are great. So, we use the word Maha.
The ignorant talk about it and the wise put it into practice.
The mind is great in capacity because it is one with everything.

When our minds work without being clouded by hindrance, to ‘come’ or to ‘go’ then we are dwelling in a state of ‘Prajna’, wisdom.

All wisdom comes from within ourselves.

Once we understand the essence of our minds, we can be free from delusion.

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher living in Kansas City. He gives online teachings through the Open Heart Project. He also runs the Monday Night Zen Group at the Rime Buddhist Center. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal.

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