Wisdom is the fourth of the ten perfections in Buddhism. Why is it the fourth perfection? Some teachers believe that this parami (perfection) should be at the end of the perfections. The reason is that without wisdom, not much works. Only through knowledge is it possible to develop the Noble Path at all.

Dana, Sila and Nekkhama

The ten paramis begin with generosity (dana), because generosity opens the heart. In doing so, one opens oneself not only to the need of  others, but also to the Buddhist teachings. This openness gives rise to a tendency towards an ethical (sila) lifestyle, where one tries to do wholesome things that lead to wholesome results. One tends more and more to avoid things that lead to suffering. Therefore, ethics is the second parami.

Nekkhamma, the third parami, is renunciation. When one realises that certain things lead to suffering for oneself and for others, then one automatically practices renunciation, the letting go of unwholesome states of mind. Therefore, letting go is the third of the paramis. It is through this process that wise perception arises.

Wise discernment can be achieved by practising three things. First, through study. By reading books or listening to a teacher, one achieves greater understanding. Then there is reflection on what has been heard/read, and meditation, and then finally realisation, the arising of wisdom through understanding.

The next parami would be energy. This parami involves making an effort to practise in a certain direction. If there is no wisdom or understanding, these efforts can go in the wrong direction. Then one practices unwholesome things with all one’s effort. That is why it is so important to have wisdom or at least knowledge.

The Sword of Wisdom

It is important to note that wisdom is one of the first parami. The main parami of the historical Gotama Buddha was wisdom. Each Buddha has a different main perfection. All the Buddhas have realised the ten perfections, but each has a main parami..

Wisdom is always compared to a sword with a very sharp edge. Like a knife that cuts through soft butter, so is the sharp sword of wisdom. It quickly cuts through all ignorance. That is why Gotama Buddha became enlightened very quickly. It took him “only” four kalpas and one hundred thousand aeons to attain Buddhahood. In comparison tothe next Buddha, Maitreya Buddha. His main parami is effort (viriya) Buddha Maitreya needs 16 kalpas for the attainment of Buddhahood.

The Illusion of Permanence, Happiness, and Substance

Normally we always see things a little distorted and not quite clear. This is called vipallasa in Pali, not seeing things as they really are.

For example, we know that everything is transient and that one day we will have to die, but we look at this as something that is still far away. Yet impermanence happens every moment. Most of us lack this awareness. We think things are stable. They will change sometime, but not now. That is a wrong view, there is no wisdom.

We think that owning things brings us happiness. We believe we will be happy when we have these things. But things change all the time. No sooner do we get something we want than we are unhappy again and want more of it. Otherwise, we want something else that might help us to be really happy. We do not see the unsatisfactoriness  (dukkha) that is existent in all things and experiences.

The third twisted view is that we believe things have substance. If you look at the body, for example. It is not a solid unchanging thing. The body is constantly changing. Nor is there a deeper substance, such as a soul. If you reflect on it with wisdom, you won’t see anything that has substance. The mind is also constantly changing. Even if we are good people and do good things, we are still subject to constant change. Nowhere is there any substance that is permanent. These are only delusions. We don’t see things as they are. And from that we can see that wisdom is lacking.

Clarity Through Wisdom

Wisdom, then, means recognising these three features of existence that are always present: Impermanence, the unsatisfactory and the uncontrollable nature of body and mind. One should always remind oneself of this. Sometimes one may have a brief insight into the true nature, but that too is transient. Therefore, one should keep bringing the three characteristics of existence to oneself and reflect on them until they become a part of our self. It is like a puzzle. The more pieces you put together, the clearer the picture becomes.

Wisdom causes liberation from all impurities of mind such as hatred, greed and delusion. The letting go of these states of mind happens through one’s realisation of the true nature of things.

Wisdom has an overview of the nature of all things. It sees things as a whole. When we practise mindfulness, we only see a section, the present moment. Wisdom, on the other hand, has the breadth of perfect understanding of the context of all things.

The Three Types of Wisdom

There are three types of wisdom by how they are cultivated. The first wisdom is suta-maya-pañña, the knowledge acquired through reading or hearing. Then comes cinta-maya-pañña, the wisdom acquired through one’s own reflection. You hear or read something and then you reflect on what it means for you and how you can apply what you have heard or read in your own daily life. The third level of wisdom is bhavana-maya-pañña, wisdom based on purification of the mind. Bhanava-maya-pañña is the insight gained through knowledge, reflection, and meditation. It is true and absolute wisdom.

Wisdom in the Noble Eightfold Path

The historical Buddha understood on the night of his enlightenment that all things are impermanent, suffering, and insubstantial. In the first part of that night, the Buddha saw all his previous existences and their causes, recognising the conditionality of existence. Then he also recognised the causes of the existence of all beings.

He then taught the Noble Eightfold Path, of which wisdom is an important part. The first two parts of the Noble Eightfold Path are dedicated to wisdom. First, right view and right thinking, because that is what makes the wheel of dhamma turn. All eight spokes must be present, but wisdom is crucial because otherwise, it will not go in the right direction.

In the Samyutta Nikkaya (Connected Discourses of the Buddha), the Buddha said: “Genuine knowledge, O Bhikkhus, precedes the occurrence of wholesome things, followed by the sense of shame (hiri) and the shyness of doing wrong (ottappa). Right view arises for the sage who has attained true knowledge. Right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right collection’ arises in him who has right view.

The Five Healing Powers

Wisdom is also part of the five healing powers that we should develop: Energy, Concentration, Confidence (faith), Wisdom and Mindfulness.

Wisdom should be in balance with confidence. In practice, it often becomes a problem when these two forces are not balanced. If confidence is too strong and wisdom too weak, it can lead to blind faith. If, on the other hand, knowledge (wisdom) is too strongly developed and confidence is lacking, this leads to wanting to question everything and the mind is not at peace as a result. That’s where the middle way is important.

What Promotes Wisdom?

The Buddha said: “Four things, monks, lead to the growth of wisdom. Which four? Interaction with good people, listening to the Good Teaching, wise contemplation, and living according to the dhamma. These four things, monks, lead to the growth of wisdom. These four qualities, monks, unfolded and trained, lead to this. But the most important thing is to associate with good, noble friends.”