Prajñā (P. paññā; T. she rab ཤེས་རབ་; C. bore/hui; J. hannya/e; K. pannya/hye 般若/慧), commonly translated as "wisdom" or "insight," is insight in the true nature of reality, namely primarily anicca (impermanence), dukkha (dissatisfaction or suffering), anattā (non-self) and śūnyatā (emptiness).
Prajñā/paññā is identified within the Buddhist teachings in the following contexts:
- One of the threefold trainings
- One of the five spiritual faculties and one of the five powers
- One of the six paramitas in the Sanskrit tradition
- One of the ten paramis in the Pali tradition
- One of the twenty-five beautiful mental factors within the Abhidhammattha-sangaha of the Pali tradition
- One of the five object-determining mental factors within the Abhidharma-samuccaya of the Sanskrit tradition
Prajñā is often translated as "wisdom", but according to Damien Keown it is closer in meaning to "insight", "discriminating knowledge", or "intuitive apprehension".
- jñā can be translated as "consciousness", "knowledge", or "understanding".[web 1]
- Pra is an intensifier which can be translated as "higher", "greater", "supreme" or "premium",[web 2] or "being born or springing up", referring to a spontaneous type of knowing.
- The wisdom faculty: Paññā is wisdom, or knowing things as they really are. It is here called a faculty because it exercises predominance in comprehending things as they really are. In the Abhidhamma, the three terms—wisdom (paññā), knowledge (ñāṇa), and non-delusion (amoha)—are used synonymously. Wisdom has the characteristic of penetrating things according to their intrinsic nature (yathāsabhāvapaṭivedha). Its function is to illuminate the objective field like a lamp. It is manifested as non-bewilderment. Its proximate cause is wise attention (yoniso manasikāra).
The Path of Purification states:
- (i) WHAT IS UNDERSTANDING?
- Understanding (paññā) is of many sorts and has various aspects. An answer that attempted to explain it all would accomplish neither its intention nor its purpose, and would, besides, lead to distraction; so we shall confine ourselves to the kind intended here, which is understanding consisting in insight knowledge associated with profitable consciousness.
- (ii) IN WHAT SENSE IS IT UNDERSTANDING?
- It is understanding (paññā) in the sense of act of understanding (pajānana). What is this act of understanding? It is knowing (jānana) in a particular mode separate from the modes of perceiving (sañjánana) and cognizing (vijānana).  For though the state of knowing (jānana-bhāva) is equally present in perception (saññá), in consciousness (viññāṇa), and in understanding (paññā), nevertheless perception is only the mere perceiving of an object as, say, blue or yellow; it cannot bring about the penetration of its characteristics as impermanent, painful, and not-self. Consciousness knows the objects as blue or yellow, and it brings about the penetration of its characteristics, but it cannot bring about, by endeavouring, the manifestation of the [supramundane] path. Understanding knows the object in the way already stated, it brings about the penetration of the characteristics, and it brings about, by endeavouring, the manifestation of the path.
- Suppose there were three people, a child without discretion, a villager, and a money-changer, who saw a heap of coins lying on a money-changer’s counter. The child without discretion knows merely that the coins are figured and ornamented, long, square or round; he does not know that they are reckoned as valuable for human use and enjoyment. And the villager knows that they are figured and ornamented, etc., and that they are reckoned as valuable for human use and enjoyment; but he does not know such distinctions as, “This one is genuine, this is false, this is half-value.” The money-changer knows all those kinds, and he does so by looking at the coin, and by listening to the sound of it when struck, and by smelling its smell, tasting its taste, and weighing it in his hand, and he knows that it was made in a certain village or town or city or on a certain mountain or by a certain master. And this may be understood as an illustration.
- Perception is like the child without discretion seeing the coin, because it apprehends the mere mode of appearance of the object as blue and so on. Consciousness is like the villager seeing the coin, because it apprehends the mode of the object as blue, etc., and because it extends further, reaching the penetration of its characteristics. Understanding is like the money-changer seeing the coin, because, after apprehending the mode of the object as blue, etc., and extending to the penetration of the characteristics, it extends still further, reaching the manifestation of the path.
- That is why this act of understanding should be understood as “knowing in a particular mode separate from the modes of perceiving and cognizing.” For that is what the words “it is understanding in the sense of act of understanding” refer to.
- However, it is not always to be found where perception and consciousness are.  But when it is, it is not disconnected from those states. And because it cannot be taken as disconnected thus: “This is perception, this is consciousness, this is understanding,” its difference is consequently subtle and hard to see. Hence the venerable Nágasena said: “A difficult thing, O King, has been done by the Blessed One.”—“What, venerable Nágasena, is the difficult thing that has been done by the Blessed One?”—“The difficult thing, O King, done by the Blessed One was the defining of the immaterial states of consciousness and its concomitants, which occur with a single object, and which he declared thus: ‘This is contact, this is feeling, this is perception, this is volition, this is consciousness’” (Mil 87).
- (iii) WHAT ARE ITS CHARACTERISTIC, FUNCTION, MANIFESTATION AND PROXIMATE CAUSE?
- Understanding has the characteristic of penetrating the individual essences of states. Its function is to abolish the darkness of delusion, which conceals the individual essences of states. It is manifested as non-delusion. Because of the words, “One who is concentrated knows and sees correctly” (A V 3), its proximate cause is concentration.
- Prajñā means fully discerning the examined object. Its function is to cast away uncertainty.
The Abhidharma-samuccaya states:
- What is prajñā? It is the distinction of all that which is firmly established. Its function is to avoid any confusion or doubt.
The Necklace of Clear Understanding states:
- It is an awareness which discriminates between the individual observable qualities and defects as well as between the qualities of what is under consideration. The object which has been singled out by appreciative discrimination is threefold (1. Positive 2. Negative 3. Indeterminate) and the individual defects and qualities of these are distinguished.
- “The definition of wisdom is: a mental factor that, focused on an object of inquiry, has the function of analyzing it by its own power. An example is a mental factor that analyzes properly the distinctions between gross and subtle atoms. The Compendium of Knowledge says: “What is wisdom? It fully differentiates the qualities of things to be investigated. It has the function of removing doubt.”143 So in terms of its function, it removes doubt and so on regarding its object.
- “Differentiates” in the definition of the nature of wisdom means to differentiate individual objects without conflation. Wisdom and discernment are not the same: wisdom, by its own power, differentiates individual things, whereas discernment, by its own power, applies a classificatory convention to them. Also, wisdom, by its own power, eliminates doubt, whereas discernment does not eliminate it. Inquiry and analysis are also not the same as wisdom because those two, by their own power, do not eliminate doubt. Furthermore, one could explain the term wisdom, or prajñā in Sanskrit, by noting that it is an awareness (jñāna) that is excellent (pra) for seeking its object’s way of existing. Or it is called wisdom (prajñā) since it is an excellent (pra) form of knowing (jñāna).
- When categorized in terms of its nature, wisdom has two types: innate wisdom and wisdom acquired through mental cultivation. When the latter is subdivided according to order of arising, there are three types: wisdom generated through learning, wisdom generated through critical reflection, and wisdom generated through meditative cultivation.
In the Pali tradtion, paññā is the fourth of ten paramis.
In the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition, prajñāpāramitā is the sixth of the six paramitas.
Prajñāpāramitā, or the perfection of wisdom, is a central topic in the Mahayana tradition. The Prajñāpāramitā Sutras are the core texts which expound on this topic. The Mahayana tradition emphazes the development of prajna in combination with karuna, compassion.
- Keown 2003, p. 218.
- Loy 1997, p. 136.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. The wisdom faculty.
- Buddhaghosa & Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli 1999, pp. 431-432.
- Mipham Rinpoche 2004, s.v. Discrimation.
- Yeshe Gyeltsen 1975, s.v. Apprciative discrimination [shes-rab].
- Thupten Jinpa 2020, s.v. Mental factors with a determinate object.
- Buddhaghosa; Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli (1999), The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga, Buddhist Publication Society, ISBN 1-928706-00-2
- Keown, Damien (2003), A Dictionary of Buddhism, Oxford University Press
- Loy, David (1997), Nonduality. A Study in Comparative Philosophy, Humanity Books
- Nyanaponika Thera; Bhikkhu Bodhi (1999), Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya, Altamira Press, ISBN 0-7425-0405-0
- Rhys Davids, T. W.; Stede, William (1921–25), The Pali Text Society’s Pali–English Dictionary, Pali Text Society
- See, e.g., Monier-Williams (1899), "jña," p. 425 (retrieved 14 August 2012 from "Cologne U." at mw0425-jehila.pdf).
- See, e.g., Monier-Williams (1899), "prā," p. 652 (retrieved 14 Aug. 2012 from "Cologne U." at http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/cgi-bin/monier/serveimg.pl?file=/scans/MWScan/MWScanjpg/mw0659-prajalpana.jpg)
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