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The concept of paññā (wisdom) in early Buddhism: Its significance and

relevance to the present time

Research Scholar, JNU, New Delhi, India


Paññā occupies a unique position in the Buddhist thought and tradition. It denotes the sense of
proper appropriate understanding, insight, the highest knowledge etc. It is not merely a
theoretical knowledge but practically a way out to get rid of all sorts of misery in life. It is
required to wisely choose the practice which will overcome defilements and problematic
conflicts that prevail in human life. Paññā meaning wisdom is usually understood as the
intellectuality of human beings but in Buddhism, it has a particular meaning and position, where
it is the final destination and the ultimate aim towards which every path heads. The aim of
Buddhism is liberation and enlightenment, but wisdom alone is the sole means to bring liberation
and enlightenment. Therefore the role of a wise man and the role of wisdom occupies a key
position in all the direction of wisdom, is to find the appropriate definition for Buddhism.
The study of Paññā is very relevant, in particular, to the present time. As we know that there are
many advantageous uses of sciences and technology in this contemporary era but the same is
misused many times to increase the acts of violence and to develop more and more deadly
weapons of war. Generally, nations talk about peace but prepare for war. It is essential to follow
the Buddhist norms of conduct and thinking.
In the early Buddhist literature, there is discussed sufferings in human life and the reasons behind
these sufferings. It has been also mentioned there that how Paññā is momentous in all aspects of
today'ss life in general as well as life in contemporary times in particular. The significance of the
topic of the research paper is to present the relevance of the concept of Paññā in the context of
life as a vast ocean of sufferings and their remedies by the use of Paññā.

Keywords: 1.Wisdom 2. Modern life, sufferings 3. Enlightenment

Paññā is required to wisely choose the practices which will overcome defilements and
problematic conflicts that prevail in human life. “Wisdom is so designated because it controls the
defilements as well as body and speech.”
Firstly Paññā is understood as an intellectual awareness of the true nature of life and overselves.
Secondaly, Paññā is the smart choice for measures of secular psychology. Paññā is understood
as a spiritual level achieved in practice as a result of enlightenment. It is seen as an
understanding of the fullness of one who has complete freedom, as Arhat, Bodhisattva and the
Paññā is a mental event, a state of consciousness which results from analysis, investigation, is
discemment Ipravicaya). The function of Paññā /prajñā is to exclude doubts which are destroyed
avidya(ignorance) and klesas (defilement). It is examination (upalakSana) of the following eight
kinds of dharma inclusion (samgraha), conjuction (samprayoga), endowment (samanragama),
causes (hetu), conditions (pratiyaya), functions (pala), specific- characteristic (svalaksana) and
common characteristics ( samangalakshana). Prajna is defined as that which discriminates
characteristics of being true and false with regard to and object of perception (ālambana). Prajñā
is a strong and bright lamp that illuminates thoroughly. From the point of view of abhidhamma,
Paññā /prajñā is the only means for liberation. This is consistent with Sarvastivadin viewpoint
that abhidhamma represents the ultimate teaching of the Buddha.
The aim of Buddhism is liberation and enlightenment, but wisdom alone is the sole means to
bring human liberation and enlightenment. Therefore, the role of a wise man (man who brings
wisdom) and the role of wisdom is to find the appropriate definition for Buddhism.
In the Dhammapada, in the verse 28th , the Buddha advocates:
Pamadam appamadena yada nudati pandito
Panna pasadamaruyha asoko sokinim pajam
Pabbatattho va bhumatthe dhiro bale avekkhati.
“when the wise man drives away sloth strenuous effort, climbing the high tower of wisdom, he
gazes sorrowless on the sorrowing crowd below. The wise person gazes on the fools even as one
on the mountain peak gazes upon the dwellers on the plain below.”

Paññā/Prajñā: Its meaning and description in early Buddhism

Paññā/Prajñā is derived from the verbal root jñā which can be translated as consciousness
knowledge or understanding. The prefix pra is an 67 intensifier which can translated as higher,
greater, supreme or premium, signifying intuitive knowledge. M. Monier Williams translates
prajñā as ‘wisdom, intelligence, knowledge, discrimination, judgment. The Sanskrit term
‘prajñā’ is usually regarded equal to the Pāli term ‘paññā’. Pañña is derived from the verbal
root ‘ñā’ meaning ‘to know’, preceded by the prefix ‘pa’, which merely gives the root meaning
its more dynamic nuances. It has been translated into English as gnosis, insight, intuition,
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transcendental idealism, spiritual enlightenment, transcendental knowledge, transcendental
In the early agamas and nikāyas, Paññā/ prajñā is integrated with the practice of sīla and
Samādhi. Primarily it is the true understanding of the four Noble Truths. In sarvastivada Paññā
/prajñā is explained along with jñāna dṛśṭi and other technical terms related to the mental
function of understanding. In particular, it is defined as the discernment of dhamma. In the
context of the spiritual realization of the Four Noble Truths. It is also defined as ākār ( aspect or
mode of mental comprehension). Thus, compared to the other Buddhist traditions preceding
contemporaneous and subsequent the Sarvastivāda assigned the widest scope of meaning to
prajñā. Prajñā comprises all kinds of jhāna and dṛsti (excepting the eye). In terms of function and
nature, it may be pure or impure, correct or erroneous. However, notably, the Pāli abhidhama
tradition is in alighnment with the standpoint of the early Buddhism in confining prajñā to the
positive aspects alone.
In the prajñāpārmitā sutras prajñāpārmitā is a designation for the highest purpose . in practicing
prajñā a practitioner concentrates on observing everything as sunya.
prajna in the highest sense or prajñāpārmitā is that which enables one to be not attached to
anything and to accept reality just as it is without conceptual bifurcation. This is a common
theme in all Mahāyāna Buddhist studies.
Where prajñā has various connotations in the sarvastivāda abhidharma, it is distinguish from
prajñāpārmitā in the upadeia. Only buddhas and bodhisattvas . Arhata as well as pratyekbuddhas
have only prajñā.
The notion of prajñāpārmita in prajñāpārmitā sutra and the upadesa clearly represents a further
stage of development in the notion of prajñā as found in the early sutras and the abhdhamma.
There would have been no Buddhism had it not been for the profound spiritual experience
known as samyaksambodhi ( perfect Awakening) of Śakyamuni, The Buddha. However, what is
this all important spiritual experience revolutionary and profoundest of its kind according to the
Buddhists?It is perfect insight or wisdom, prajñā on account of which the Buddha thoroughly
and totally realized the root cause of the human predicament and the way of its transcendence.
When this Perfectinsight arose. The Buddha could not find any ready- made words to describe it.
Consequently he had to express it by newly coining words and imageries and compared this
insight to an eye and light as follows:

Idaṃ dukḳham ariyasaccan ti me bhikkave pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu cakkuṃ udapādi

nanam udapādi paññā udapādi āloko udapādi. (this is the truth of unsatisfactoriness- to me O
bhikḳhus, unheared of before.)

The above description clearly suggests, amomg other things, that from the very beginning. Prajñā
is of paramount importance for Buddhism. From the Buddhist standpoint. Transcendence of
human existential predicament of dukḳha (unsatisfatoriness)1 and the perfection of humanity are
possible through the liberating insight, prajñā only, it is for this reason that Buddhism has rightly
been called a religion of wisdom, instead of one of faith and revelation. It is no exaggeration to
state that the historical development of Buddhism into the various schools- Hinyāna and
Mahāyāna- is in a way the result of the continuous doctrinal ramifications of the Buddhist
concept of prajñā, whatever the pre buddhistic connotation of the term might have been.

There are various impetuses for buddhological developments within the Mahāyāna. However,
among them, the most important may be said to be intricately interwoven with the doctrinal
development of prajñā. The Buddha is said to have various attributes- various powers (bala) and
various unique qualities (avenika Buddha dharma) because his prajñā is uniquely perfected.

As a technical term, prañā has been translated into English term “wisdom” is cognate with the
Sanskrit vidyā, the Latin video, and German wissen.2 Wisdom is not an Indo European cognate
of jñā; Wayman, therefore, prefers to reserve the translation “wisdom” was only a very
approximate equivalent of prajñā.3

Underwood has given various reasons for translating panna by the term “insight” both words are
associated with seeing, vision and eyes. This vision of insight (paññā) goes beyond the normal
visual faculty of sight and operates in a super sensory mental or spiritual capacity.

Prajñā, as the culminating supreme insight derived from the whole process of Buddhist spiritual
training, has a very profound meaning that neither “wisdom” nor “insight” can fully convey.
Moreover, in the Sarvastivada abhidharma tradition prajñā has a very wide scope, it subsumes all
mental functions of understanding- pure or impure, right or wrong, deep or shallow. In such
contexts, we shall occasionally render it as “understanding’ a more generic term.

Early Buddhism in the context of this research paper refers to doctrine preserved in Pāli suttas. In
the early discourses, the doctrine of prajñā/paññā is closely related to that of no-self
(nairatmya/anattā). Things are said to be no-self because they are dependently co-arising
(pratityasamutpada).4 “One who sees dependent co-arising sees the dhamma; one who sees the
dhamma sees dependent co arising (yo paticcasamuppādaṃ passati, so dhammaṃ passati; yo
dhammaṃ passati, so paticcasamuppādaṃ passati).5 Seeing the dhamm is seeing things truly as
they ara (yathābhūtaṃ) seeing with prajna, which is the realization that all dhamma are
nairatmya/sunya (Pāli: Sunna- though this notion may not have exactly the same connotation as
Sunyatā in the Mahāyāna).

The Pāli Soṇadaṇda- stta of Dīghnikāya has the following statement in its explanation of paññā:

For paññā, oh Gotama, is purified by sīla (moral virtue) and sīla is purified by paññā; where one
is the other is, the moral man has paññā and the wise man has sīla, and the combination of sīla
and paññā is called the highest thing in the world. Just, oh Gotama, a one hand washes the other,
or one foot the other, so oh gotama, paññā is purified by sīla.. and the combination of sīla and
paññā is called the highest thing in the world.6

Buddha explains that sīla is only a common practice of the mundane world, while prajñā is of the
highest meaning.

The world honored one (lokanātha) claims, “the teachings of sīla is of the worldly method, the
accomplishment of Samādhi7 is also of the worldly method. The pāli tradition distinguishes two
types of sila, pannatti sīla and pakati sīla. The former may be termed conventional morality. It is
the sila of an ordinary being without paññā. In the case one struggles to restrain oneself- one will
not to do this, nor to do that, or cultivate this or that virtue. One here follows a prescriptive
course of action. In the case of pakati sīla ( natural morality) one needs to struggle no more with
cetnā ( will). This is the case of awakened being whose actions are a natural expression of his/her
paññā. One’s reason and emotion are perfectly integrated, and one’s actions are in perfect
alignment with one’s insight. The Buddha is thus as one who vijja-carana-sampanna- fully
accomplished in both knowledge and conduct.
At the end of Soṇdanda Sutta the Buddha answers a question concerning the definition of paññā.
The sutta says:

He attains the four jhānas meditative absorption) … he attains various insights.. and the
cessation of the corruption… Thus he develops (paññā). That, Brahmin, is wisdom(paññā)8

In the majjhimanikāya, the Buddha explained that one who has prajñā has understood the four
Noble Truth. :

Oh, Friend! In what respect is one called the wise (paññavā)? Because one knows clearly, one
knows clearly, oh friend, therefore one is called the wise. What does one know clearly? One
knows clearly, “This is the cessation of dukḳha.” One knows clearly, “ This is the path leading to
cessation of dukḳha.” Because one knows cleary, one knows clearly, oh friend, therefore, one is
called the wise.9

Prajñā is a process of practicing the Buddha dharma. One begins by understanding the human
predicament or human condition just as it is and the four Noble Truths, and thus realizing the
characteristic of all phenomena to be that which is always changing. Then, the practitioner
practices sīla and all wholesome things and through the practice of Samādhi one finally obtains
prajñā. In order words, prajñā refers to proper understanding of the Buddha dharma and to means
of spiritual practice. It is clear that early Buddhism the practice of sīla and Samādhi and the
understanding of prajñā.

In the Vibhanga the second book of the abhidhammapitaka, there is a Pali phrase which is
repeated frequently in referring to panna: “amoho dhammavicayo sammaditthi- absence of
delution, investigation of doctrine and proper view. The text explains four kinds of panna:

1. Cintāmaya paññā- paññā arising from reflection

2. Sutmaya paññā- paññā arising from listening
3. Dānmaya paññā- paññā arising from giving
4. Sīlamaya paññā- paññā arising from moral virtue.
5. In theDīghanikaya, the Buddha explains that there ara three kinds of paññā; chintāmaya
paññā, sutmaya paññā, bhavanamaya paññā ( paññā arising from cultivation).
In another Abhidhamma book of Theravāda, the Dhammasangaṇi, there is the following
passage describing paññā:

What on that occasion is the faculty of panna? The panna which therein is understanding
(pajanana), investigation (vicaya), further investigation (pavicaya), investigation of the
doctrine (dhammavicaya), discernment (sallakkhana), discrimination (upalakkhana),
distinction (paccupalakḳhana), erudition (pandiccam), proficiency (kosallam), subtlety
(nepunnam), criticism (vebhavya), reflection (cinta), analysis (upaparikḳha), breadth
(bhuri),sagacity (medhā), a “guide” (painayika), intuition (vipassanā), intelligence
(sampajannam), a goad (patodo); paññā as a height paññā as light, paññā as glory, paññā as
splendor, paññā as a precious stone; the absence of delusion. Investigation of the doctrine,
proper views- this is the paññā that there then is.

Relevance and significance of Prajñā

Buddhism is the religion of wisdom and compassion (karuṇā). These two aspects are the basic
principles of Buddhism. The general sentient beings have only the knowledge. The knowledge
can arise because of learning. Therefore, prajñā can develop because of the practicing dharma.
Prajñā can develop more and more while the process of practicing continuously goes on. As the
buddha’s teaching, prajñā appears only when the practitioners do the noble dharma. Just as oil is
not to be obtained from sand, so wisdom is not gained from another, from the blind fool’ just as
oil is obtained from sesame seeds, so one gains wisdom by learning the dharma of the good and
by following a wise person.
Prajñā is the apex of Buddhism. It is the right understanding of the nature of the world in the
light of impermanence (anitya), suffering (dukḳhaṃ) and non- self (anatman). A true disciple of
the Buddha tries to acquire knowledge even from his servant. What he knows is always at the
disposal of others and that he imparts to them unreservedly. He leads others from darkness to
Practice of prajñā which is the factors of enlightenment ultimately lead to Morality(sīla),
Concentration (Samādhi) and Wisdom (prajñā). A buddhist through wisdom becomes fully
aware of This is suffering, This is cause of suffering, This is the cessation of suffering and This
is the way leading to the cessation of suffering. Then there arises in him the mindfulness. He
lives contemplating the dharmas with respect to the four Noble Truth and is ultimately led to the
realization of the reality of things as they really are and this attainment of prajñā makes him
aware of the fact of the full possibility of the confident attainment of purification and destruction
of sufferings. It is realized that there is a unique way for the destruction of suffering, for the
purification of beings, for the attainment of wisdom and for the realization of Nirvāna.
Prajñā grows up commonly by learning and thinking. Prajñā is used to benefit careers and
livelihoods. There are many wise people who being possessed of good conduct make their
livelihoods by good and useful means but there are some persons who with immoral thoughts use
their wisdom to do bad things in the underworld and cause various harmful effects to others and
the society in general.

The study of prajñā is relevant in particular to the present time. There are many beneficial uses of
science and technology in the contemporary times but many times misused to increase the acts of
violence and to develop more and more deadly weapons of war. Generally, nations talk of peace
but prepare for war. There are many hot spots that are likely to flare up in violence and erupt in
warring conditions. It is essential to follow the Buddhist norms of conduct and thinking. Wisdom
is the only way to pursue the Buddhist way.
The twentieth century was the age of progress and the present twenty first century has continued
to tread on this path of advancement both in respect of material progress and development of
learning. In spite of such laudable aims, the social ills have multiplied by hundred and thousand
times. Corruption, pollution, addiction are the man made disasters which are the outcomes of
greed, anger, and delusion. The path of compassion for others, love for all the animate and
inanimate objects and indifference towards the sufferings, sorrows, tears, fears, losses and others
will have to be pursued in right earnest. It is essential to attain the peace of mind through moral
conduct, one pointed concentration and wisdom. The luxuries and comforts of the life style of
the present times bring along with them tension of all sorts. To control the processes of the mind
can only be achieved through the pursuit of the Buddhist way of life which will bring detachment
from material objects and remove the ignorance about the things by making on capable to see the
things as they really are. This benefit of prajñā will definitely promote menta peace, moral
conduct, concentrated meditation and enlightened view of life through prajñā that is wisdom.
In this respect, the role of prajñā is bound to prove both significant and relevant. This line of
thinking and its roadmap of action will have to be promoted to enable one all to attain liberation
from sufferings.
We must apply the Buddhist teachings to our daily life. If we live accordance with prajñā, our
lives will improve. It is just like a man walking in the dark who suddenly sees where he is going
because there is light. Prajñā frees us from our afflictions and enables us to find peace and relief
from our disputes with others. In our daily lives, we are often entangled in disagreements with
others, the pursuit of fame and fortune, and problems with our spouses and children, if we apply
prajñā in our daily lives, then all these issues will no longer bother us, and we will look at life in
a totally different light. There is a saying, “The moon outside the window is the same as usual; it
is the plum blossoms that make the difference.” With prajñā, our lives remain same yet different.
If you have prajñā, then you can clearly see that the five aggregates are empty. Once it is
understood that these aggregates are empty, then we are able to cross the ocean of suffering. We
will no longer be consumed by the differentiation of what is mine versus what is yours. All the
selfish struggles in society will dissipate. If we can understand emptiness and attain wisdom,
then we can see that everything in this world is illusory. When we have such an understanding,
there is no room for disputes and discords due to dualistic notions, such as self versus others.
With prajñā, we can leave behind differentiations and dualities, and in so doing, we also keep the
many afflictions of this world at bay.
“We would rather have a mountain high false view of existence than a tiny, seed like false notion
of emptiness.”


The study of prajñā as a concept in Buddhism has proved to be the most beneficial in order to
improve the level of life and in order to dispel the defilements. This is the practical implication
of the present study. It is in the interest of the individual and social life that the study has the
practical benefits. The practical as well as academic implication of the study will be to use the
concept of prajñā in the enhancement of goodwill and compassion among all the members of the
Dukḳha (or Pali dukḳha) is one of the four Noble Truths (cattari ariyasaccāni) generally translated by most
scholars as “suffering” and it is interpreted to mean that life according to Buddhism is nothing but suffering and
pain. Both translation and interpretation are misleading. Dr. Rahula says : “it is because of this translation that many
people have been misled into regarding Buddhism as pessimistic. A true Buddhist is the happiest of beings. He has
no fears or anxieties. He is always calm and serene, and cannot be upset or dismayed by changes or calamities,
because he sees things as they are.” He goes as far as suggesting that this word would be better left untranslated. The
term dukḳha, which represents the buddha’s view of life and the world, has a deep philosophical meaning and
connotes an enormously wider sense. It contains the ordinary meaning of “suffering” but in addition it also includes
deeper ideas such as “imperfection,” impermanence, emptiness, insubstantiality. It is difficult therefore to find one
word to embrace the whole conception of the term dukḳha as the first Noble Truth, and so it is better to leave it
untranslated. Than to give an inadequate or wrong idea of it by conveniently translating it as suffering or pain. See,
Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught ( New York:Grove Press, 1974) !6-17; 27
Alex Wayman, “Notes on the Sanskrit Term Jhāna,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, LXXV, No.
4(October-December, 1955); 253
Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India (London: George allen and Unwin Ltd, 1962) 53
The Pāli term is paticcasamuppāda. In the Vis. (Chap, XVII, Pass. 8, p. 16-18), Buddhaghosa has analyzed this
term grammatically and theoretically; paticcasamuppada consists of two terms: paṭicca (adj., “be arrived at” or
“dependent”) and samuppāda (co-arising) or paticca (having dependent) and samuppāda (co-arising). Samuppāda
means “co-arising”, not samma (right) uppada (arising), so the best English translation is dependent co-arising.
M. i. 190-91
D. I, 124; Sīlaparidhotā hi bho gotama paññā Paññāparidhotaṃ sīlaṃ yattha sīlaṃ tattha paññā. Yattha paññā
tattha sīlaṃ Sīlvato paññā, paññāvato sīlaṃ, Sīlapaññanca pana lokasmiṃ aggamakkhayati. Seyyatthapi bho gotama
hatthena vā hatthaṃ dhoveyya, paden va padaṃ dhoveyya. Evameva kho bho gotama sīlaparidhota paññā
paññaparidhotam sīlaṃ yattha sīlaṃ tattha paññā, yattha paññā tattha sīlaṃ. Sīlavato paññā paññāvato sīlaṃ.
Sīlapaññananca pana lokasmiṃ aggamakkhatati. Cf. Maurice Walshe, trans. Thus Have I Heard ( London : Wisdom
Publications, 1987) 131
Samādhi, the utmost perfection in mental concentration. Lit. “putting together” (sam+a+dha), means
“concentration of the thoughts, abstract meditation, intense absorption etc.” (monier 1156c). Samādhi is one of the
seven factors of awakening (bodhyanga, Pāli bojjhanga), one of the Five Spiritual Faculties (indriya) and powers
(bala), and the last link of the eight fold Path (mārga Pāli magga) Samadhi is defined as the four Meditative
Absorptions (dhyāna, Pāli Jhāna), See BD 156, Kumārjīva did not translate this term but transliterated it.
Walshe, Thus Have I heard 131, the pali text has a great amount of repetition, thus, I quote from the English
translation by Maurice Walshe
M. i. 292: