Generally speaking, in a Buddhist context, whether Mahayana or Vajrayana, we speak about three ways of the arising of wisdom, or the three prajnas: the prajna of hearing, the prajna of contemplation, and the prajna of meditation.
The Prajna of Hearing: Understanding
The prajna of hearing is the prajna that develops from studying the view, such as Center of the Sunlit Sky. The prajna of hearing is studying these kinds of detailed theories and developing a precise, genuine understanding. The process of developing the prajna of hearing is simply engaging in learning the theories. Don’t worry about practice at this stage. Worrying about practice can become an obstacle in learning the theory. If you try to connect theory with practice too much, you will then lose the basic purpose of learning the theory. You should not connect the theory with practice at this stage; you should not connect it to beliefs. It should not be a belief system—it is simply a theory, a theoretical understanding. You should put your emphasis and focus in simply learning the new theory and what there is to learn from that.
For example, emptiness is not easy learning for anyone right? It is not easy for me, it is not easy for you, and it is not easy for our neighbors. Don’t try talking to your neighbors about emptiness! We have to learn about it because it is a difficult topic. If it was easy, why would we want to learn about it? Just to waste our time? If it was easy, and if we already knew why we needed to learn it, it would not make any sense to learn about it, would it? When we learn new theories, we always experience some sense of challenge. The more challenge we face, the better it is. We know we are learning something new; we know we are exploring a new avenue of knowledge and wisdom. Therefore, the prajna of learning explores a new reality, whether it is called emptiness, tathagatagarbha, or shunyata, it doesn’t matter. That is the kind of exploration we call learning.
When you can listen with an open heart, when you can listen with a clear intellect, you will develop the prajna of hearing. Clear intellect is an intellect free from assumptions and preconceptions. When you have a heart that is free from preconceptions about the subject, then you have a clear intellect of learning. When you have preconceptions about the subject matter, when you project your ideas about what the subject is going to be, when you project your ideas about what you are going to hear or learn, then you are not learning anymore. You are just repeating your old song. You are not learning anything new. At some point, if that song keeps playing, it will drive you crazy. If the song is always echoing in your mind saying, “Time is on my side,” then you are wasting all your time and you are learning nothing.
Therefore, the prajna that we acquire through learning comes through the sense of clear intellect. This intellect should be without any data in it, without any information in it, without any mathematical equations in it. When it is free from such information, then we can really learn. At the same time, our heart has to be completely open, not closed, not stuck in any emotions. If you listen and study with too many emotions, then your heart narrows down. With such a narrow heart and emotional mind, we cannot really develop this prajna of hearing and learning. Therefore, when learning a new subject, learn with open heart and clear intellect.
The most important element of the art of listening is knowing how to relax your mind, knowing how to simply observe without projecting your ideas. We have to be objective when we listen to what the Buddha and bodhisattvas are saying. Only then can we process the information and give rise to the prajna of listening and hearing. That prajna is known as the prajna of understanding. We truly understand what they are saying when we have these experiences in our everyday life.
For example, when a couple tries to discuss their issues, before one even finishes saying something, their partner has already started responding “blah, blah, blah”—all kinds of answers come from their partner. Before one starts answering the other’s question, the other is already answering something else. Later, when he or she meets one of their common friends, they tell them, “he doesn’t listen to me” or “she doesn’t hear what I am saying.” That is a common experience for all of us, and in fact, we do the same kind of thing with the sources of knowledge and wisdom. However, if we continue with that kind of behavior, we will never hear what the Buddhas and bodhisattvas are saying. We will never hear Shantideva or Nagarjuna’s message. Even if we hear the teachings, we will not hear them correctly. When we do not hear them correctly, we do not process them correctly, and if we do not process them correctly, we will never have a pure and genuine understanding of the shastras. Therefore, the prajna of understanding includes three necessary aspects: an open heart, a clear intellect, and the art of listening. The art of listening is very important. Through these three aspects, we develop the prajna of understanding. Then you can say, “Yes I understand this shastra. Yes, I understand the concept of Madhyamaka.”
At this stage, do not worry about believing in the theory. That is not your problem here. You do not have to believe in anything or even in Buddhism in the beginning. However, you do need to develop a clear certainty that says, “Yes, I understand what this word means. Yes, I understand the theory about emptiness or the concept of buddha nature.” That kind of certainty developed from hearing is the prajna of understanding, and the certainty that you gain from this process becomes a very important prajna. At the same time, you must know this is just the prajna of theory. It has nothing to do with your experience. But don’t worry about your experience at this point. If you worry about your experience at this point, you will never learn, and you will never develop this prajna.
So don’t worry about believing it or not believing it. Don’t worry about whether you experience it or do not experience it. Just focus on getting the theory right. That is all we need at this point. This prajna is a theoretical prajna. It has a lot of concepts, thoughts, and ideas—it is not an experience.
The Prajna of Contemplation: Experience
The second prajna is the prajna of contemplation, and it is the prajna of experience. Now comes the experience. Once you understand the theory, and you truly want to explore that theory further, then you have to process the theory and bring it into your life and your experience. If you do not want to explore the theory further, then you do not have to bring into your experience. If you do not feel a connection or have an interest, then you can just leave it as the prajna of understanding. But if you have the interest to go deeper into the theory, then you can engage in the prajna of contemplation.
The practice of analytical meditation is the method through which we bring these theories into contemplation. That analysis we engage in here is not a replication of someone else’s analysis, but it is our own analysis. We must put it into our own experience. We must analyze on our own. We do not just use Nagarjuna’s analysis or Chandrakirti’s analysis in our analytical meditation. You can use them as a basis or ground at first, but you also have to bring your own way of processing this information into the analysis. The way Nagarjuna processed information is how an Indian would process that information. Nagarjuna was an Indian man. The way Pawo Rinpoche processed information is the way a Tibetan person would do it. He was a Tibetan guy, so he processed it in his own way. The way you process information is how a Westerner would approach and analyze this theory. You can still take Nagarjuna’s teaching, Chandrakirti’s teachings, and all these great Tibetan masters’ teachings as a basis, but the way you process it has to be individual. Of course, analytical meditation has a basic structure, but on top of that basic structure, you must bring your own mind to the experience; you must use your own mind to analyze. Through that kind of process, we bring these theories into a kind of living entity, and at that point, we are blending theory with our mind.
At this stage, the theories are not just concepts, but they become a thought process for us, or sometimes, they even become a part of our emotional mind. For example, when you analyze the experience of anger, desire, or attachment or the mind of ego-clinging, your analysis becomes connected to the emotional mind. The emotional mind and the intellectual mind come together in the analysis at this point. The one who analyzes is the mind of intellect, whereas what one analyzes in experience is an emotional moment. The watcher is analyzing anger and passion. You are joining the two hands of the mind of intellect and the mind of emotion, the emotional mind and intellectual mind. Joining these two minds of intellect and emotion is a very important project. Then when you experience the arising of emotions, you can say, “Yes, I can feel the emptiness nature of my emotions. I can feel the emptiness nature of the outside phenomenal world. I can feel the emptiness nature of the preceding moment of mind.” You can have these kinds of conceptual experiences of emptiness. Yes, they are still conceptual experiences. They can be the imaginary nature, but that’s fine. This kind of experience is closer to your mind, in comparison to the very dry, conceptual theory that remains outside of your experience.
As we discussed earlier, when you are cooking a meal, you first have a concept or idea of what you want to eat. “Oh, I feel like curry today, or maybe I feel like having pasta.” Then you take out the cookbook and learn how to make curry or pasta. That whole process of learning is the first prajna, the prajna of understanding. The second prajna is when you bring that theory into your experience. You don’t just leave it as a wonderful theory about how to bake chocolate chip cookies. The next step is to take the recipe and go out and get the ingredients for those cookies. At that time, you are really touching it. It is not just knowledge of curry powder; it is not just knowledge of vegetables or chicken. You are touching and smelling the ingredients. When we connect with the ingredients, we really look forward to eating the meal. At that point, we begin to see some taste, an experience is arising. It is not just a theory of curry, but you are actually seeing and smelling it. Then when you cook the meal, actually tasting the food is the last part of the experience. In the same way, when you take the theory of emptiness and blend it with your mind of analysis, when you blend your emotional mind with what you have learned, you really taste that theory in action. You are putting the theory into action with the mind processes.
Thus, the second prajna is the prajna of experience, and at this stage, we can talk about how the theory of emptiness translates into experience and how that experience translates into our ordinary lives. We know how that experience affects our lives and how that experience benefits our actions in the world. It is at this point that we can worry about experience and whether we feel connected to our practice or not. So the practice part comes at the stage of second prajna, not at the first stage. Theory comes first and practice comes second.
Through the process of experience, we deepen our true understanding of theory. Otherwise, theory stays at the level of concept and thought processes, and those thought processes and concepts continue and change without gaining any sense of ultimate certainty. True certainty arises from true experience. Therefore, a deeper sense of certainty and confidence in emptiness arises from the prajna of experience.
The Prajna of Meditation: Realization
Third is the prajna of realization. When we actualize the experience of emptiness fully, it is called the prajna of realization. This experience is not a fleeting experience. This experience deeply roots in our minds and becomes more stable and a part of our whole mind. Rather than being an external experience, it is more of an internal experience. When it blends into the whole mind, the whole state of our experience, when there is no sense of the subject-object experience, when it becomes fully one, it is what we call realization. This is the ultimate prajna. When we reach this stage and have the deep and profound experience of realization of actualization that never changes, it is so deep and so profound that it is always a part of our prajna mind.
This process of actualization is done through resting meditation. Earlier, the experience brought about by analytical meditation involved many thought processes, whereas the third prajna is brought to our experience through resting meditation. This is a simple resting in the actual state of emptiness, resting in the natural state of selflessness and egolessness that is brought to our meditation. Resting here means not moving our mind from that state and simply relaxing in the state of emptiness.
You can see how contemplation is important for reaching that experience or state, but contemplation does not develop without hearing or listening. Therefore, all the three prajnas are connected. However, the ultimate prajna is the actualization or realization that is unchanging, the deeper and profounder experience of prajna.
In Tibet, there is a story about how fleeting experiences are. There was a great scholar and yogi from the Amdo region of Tibet named Gendun Chopel who meditated on emptiness in a cave. He was contemplating emptiness and also practicing analytical meditation and resting meditation. After some weeks, he gained a clear experience of emptiness. His experience was very beautiful. While he was sitting, during the experience in which he was resting, his hand made a print on a rock. He was very impressed by his meditation and the handprint he made on the rock. He thought, “Wow, if I can do the same in front of all my students, it will be even better.” So he decided to do it in front of his students. One day, he gathered all of his students and they meditated on emptiness together. He led them through analytical meditation and resting meditation. He meditated on emptiness, and when he felt an experience of emptiness, he tried to leave the handprint. When he hit the rock with his hand, all his meditation students opened their eyes and looked at the rock curious to see another hand print. But when Gendun Chopel lifted his hand, there was only a pink palm—no print, only a pink palm. This story is used as an example of how experience is fleeting, not trustworthy. It can be very deceiving. That’s why all the teachings say, “Don’t trust your experience. Don’t get carried away by your experiences. Develop realization.” Experiences are temporary and fleeting, not ultimate, but realization is stable, unchanging, and ultimate.
There are countless stories of how great yogis and practitioners have been deceived by their experiences. The great Kagyü master Gampopa, before he met Milarepa, thought he had the realization of the first bodhisattva-bhumi. He was so happy with his realization and he thought he was on the first bhumi and was pretty close to attaining enlightenment. Then he met Milarepa. He told Milarepa about his experiences, and Milarepa said it was nothing but a good experience of shamatha. Milarepa then gave him further instructions, and Gampopa went back and practiced and realized the true nature of mind, emptiness, egolessness. Later, Gampopa recalled his experiences and said, “If I hadn’t met Milarepa, I would have been deceived by those experiences and would have been stuck with those experiences and then I would have been born at the highest birth in samsara, nothing beyond samsara.” So you can see how the prajna of experience is temporary and how we should not trust these experiences. Try to develop realization!
This has been a discussion on the three prajnas in a general Mahayana-Vajrayana context.
This article is based on a Madhyamaka class taught by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at Naropa University.