“Good friends, people of the world originally have the knowledge of bodhi and prajna within them, but they cannot realize it themselves because of the wandering of the conditioned mind…” ( Huineng, Platform Sutra, chapter 2)
“Prajna,” an ancient Sanskrit word meaning insight or wisdom, is one of the so-called “paramitas” in Buddhism, (generosity, ethics, inclusiveness, resolve, meditation, wisdom), practices that help us ‘cross over’ the turbulent river of birth and death. ‘Paramita,’ another Sanskrit word, means ‘perfection’ or ‘having reached the other shore.’ Prajna’ is the row boat, but it is also the far shore itself.
There is something wonderful about that far shore. You know it’s there and want to get there. But there is difficulty – it is far away, beyond clear sight and knowing – and rivers can be dangerous. At first thought, I can’t get there from here – no boat, no wings. Something else is required.
It’s like being young and believing you can solve everything yourself, but around middle age (or older) waking up and realizing , ‘I might not live forever.” All of a sudden life and death are a problem “I” am not going to solve. We start looking for help. Maybe Zen practice will get me there!
But Huineng says you already have the knowledge of prajna! It is only due to the “conditioned mind” that you can’t get there! In other words, the “I” that cannot solve life and death is a condition of mind, a concept that, whatever its usefulness, is limited.
Of course, you have not always had an “I am” self. We were not born with that state of mind. And, we might reflect, that we will not die with it, either. At some point, we will have to let go of everything that “I am.” If “I am” is all there is, then this is a disturbing prospect to say the least.
But Huineng suggests you already know something larger than that ‘I am’ self. When you ‘throw yourself’ into whatever you do, where have you gone? And what is left behind? Is there not, in such moments, a kind of freedom and energy, focus and attention - wisdom, even - appropriate to the task at hand?
We assume “I” to be something objective, something concrete, this body, this identity, this physical reality. But sometimes we say “I forgot myself,” or “I was beside myself” or “I’m dying to do that!” From the standpoint of awareness, “self” is a fleeting experience.
Though born without self-awareness, we are urged by our parents to develop the language and knowledge to function in society. But we reach a stage of maturity where we long for the innocence of childhood, and search for a way to reconcile our social selves and that original lack of self-consciousness.
Zen is practice to notice that this history is present in every moment. Every instant of sensory connection moves from raw, unselfconscious sensation to the perception, volition and consciousness that defines the social self and its relationship to the world.
Prajna (wisdom) is fullness of mind, the wisdom that embraces both the coming and going of an ‘I am’ self. It is not to be sought after, because it is already here, if only we resolve to examine our own experience.
Commentary by Gendo