Buddhist prajñā and Greek sophia

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    Edward J. D. Conze Visiting Professor, Universit;v of Lancaster

    For two reasons a comparison of the Sanskrit and Greek terms for Wisdom may be of interest. There is first the current discussion on how Buddhist terms should be translated. H. Guenther, for instance, claims that prajr%i should not be rendered as wisdom, but as analytical appreciative understanding.l One of the many objections to this proposal is that it fits only the initial stages of pra$i, which in its final consum- mation, as pra$i+.iramitti, becomes non-discriminative, non-dual, evincing the sameness of all. Others propose to translate as insight knowledge, etc.2 My point is that if wisdom is correct for sophia,. it must be equally correct for praj&i.

    Secondly, reliance on wisdom is an essential ingredient of the peren- nial philosophy. To quote a previous article,3 it maintains:

    that the wise men of old have found a wisdom which is true, although it has no empirical basis in observations which can be made by everyone and everybody; and that in fact there is a rare and unordinary faculty in some of us by which we can attain direct contact with actual reality,-through the ~rajiSi(p&amita) of the Buddhists, the logos of Parmenides, the sophia of Aristotle and others, Spinozas amor dei intellectualis, Hegels Vernunft, and so on.

    In the following I will indicate this aspect of the perennial philosophy in some detail. The article is only one of a series of studies in comparative religious philosophy which have been pursued over the years, and pre- supposes some of the results which I believe to have established before.4 The topic would fill a book and all I can give are the headlines of its various chapters. Assertion must take the place of argumentation, and my conclusions will be more obvious to those who knew them before than to those to whom they are new.

    The sources for this study are, of course, almost infinite. A footnote will enumerate those for Buddhism, as these are less well known.5 For suphia I rely greatly on Aristotles Protrejticus,e ca 350 B.C., and contemporary with a particularly creative period of Buddhist history. The parallelism is here very close, and even extends to a few side-issues. For instance, Aristotle clearly states the law of karma,7 i.e. For it is an inspired saying of the ancients that the soul pays penalties and that we live for the punishment of great sins. This is akin to NagigBrjunas remark* that


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    what happens is that I just suffer the punishment for the perverted views of my previous lives. And we even meet here with the paradise of Amitabha, when we read3 that in the Isles of the Blest we get the reward for our devotion to philosophy, for there we can pursue it without caring for anything else. Among later sources the value of the Imitatio Christi lies in that, without scholastic accretions, it concentrates on what is important for life.

    Next a few words about the terminology. In pra-j&i, Bra- is a prefix to the root j&i, to know, and means superior, excellent, as in Tibetan Ses-rab, superior knowledge. Often it is synonymous with jZin.a, a term preferred in the Bhagavad Gita. lo One should not, however, translate $&a as knowledge, but as cognition, or gnosis, because it is a special kind of knowledge, distinguished from mere cleverness and from scientific thinking by its spiritual purpose, which is to cut off the defilements.rl Other synonyms are investigation into dharmas (dharmapravicaya), dhi, vidyc, and so on. Antonyms are avidy8, moha, vicikitsd, ignorance, folly, stupidity, bewilderment, doubt and indecision.

    There is no room here to talk about sophia, or such synonyms as phron&s, ennoia, sapientia, etc. It should, however, be remembered that in both traditions the word covers both practical and theoretical wisdom.12 Bodhisattvas are expected to be wise as to statecraft, economics, family life, etc., whereas for monks a certain sancta simplicitas would be more fitting. In the Protrepticus, sophia and phront%is are not at all clearly distinguished, phront?sis being a blanket term for everything from practical skill and commonsense to pure speculative theory.13 It is only later, in the Rhetoric, that Aristotle clearly distinguished practical from theoretical wisdom.14

    Praj&i and Sophia correspond in at least nine ways:

    I. Their relation to the sensory world

    In this kind of philosophy, sense-data are at a discount. The six15 senses deceive.l To some extent they may reflect some objective reality, but to a greater extent they are karmically determined,-a pool of water being perceived differently by humans and fishes, whereas the devas see nectar, the hungry ghosts pus and blood, and the denizens of hell poisonous liquid or fire. l7 In fact they deserve no credit, as distinct from the true wisdom acquired by the Buddhas over countless aeons. Wisdom has the task of removing all the obstacles to clear vision which are bound up with our sensory environment,-the bias and prejudice which distort and distract, the emotional impediments to clearsightedness, and the covering (&@a) caused by sensual desires (kdma). Likewise, so Jamblichus tells us,l* Plato and Pythagoras teach that sense-impressions, mere shadows in the cave, only obscure the nous and prevent it from exerting its own proper activity, so that it becomes paralyzed. Wisdom has the taskI of freeing the soul from the body, making it collect and concentrate


    itself from among the dispersed senses, and employing all its power on its inward activity, released from the bonds of the body.

    2. Their relation to values, and to a good life

    (a) It is taken for granted that wisdom (sophia) and virtue (are@ are closely bound up with one another. In Ruddhism also wisdom is not just a mental faculty, but a virtue, a dominanP20 which, as a result of cultivation and effort, can exert power, i.e. can overcome ignorance and give the strength needed to contact reality (see no. 3).

    (b) There is here, however, a minor difference in that Buddhism is more systematic in delineating the way in which the virtues are succes- sively built up. Whereas Aristotle21 is content to state that wisdom is one of the nine elements, or components, of virtue, in Buddhism, as in the Bhagauad Gita, it is part of a progressive and logical scheme,-either the fifth, highest and most important of the five cardinal virtues,22 or, alternatively, the sixth of six perfections (p&am&).

    (c) Wisdom, as investigation into dharmas, knows I. what dharmas (=facts) are, and 2. what they are worth. As a clever physician knows which foods are suitable and which are not, so wisdom, when it arises, understands dharmas as wholesome or unwholesome, serviceable or unserviceable, low or exalted, dark or bright, similar or dissimilar.23

    (d) All other branches of knowledge deal with means, but wisdom decides which ends are worthwhile.

    (e) A true sense of values and a meaningful life result from contact with the Reality which wisdom discloses (see no. 3).

    3. Their relation to Reality

    (a) The perennial philosophy distinguishes between two worlds, that of appearance and reality. At present the word reality has acquired rather unpleasant associations,-the reality principle has been opposed to the pleasure principle, to face reality, as the ability to face up to the facts of the sensory world, is held to require a great deal of courage, one speaks of people being dragged into the realities of the 20th century, etc. In the past, however, the reality behind the sensory world2* was deemed to be fulfilling rather than frustrating, it was considered as the source of the supreme bliss and happiness, and it was wisdom that gave access to it. As it is said in the Visuddhimagga,25 wisdom penetrates into dharmas (=facts) as they are in themselves (dhammasabtiua). It disperses the darkness of delusion, which covers up the own-being of dharmas. Also in the Protrepticus26 wisdom has no other work (proper function) than (the attainment of) the most exact truth, truth about reality.27

    (b) In both traditions wisdom is associated with seeing and light. (c) A hierarchy inside, with wisdom as the best part of u.s,~~ cor-

    responds to a hierarchy outside. The activity of our truest thoughts is nourished by the most real realities.2s Aristotles Rhetoric30 arranges


    things (ta pragmata) according to whether they are more honourable, better and more dignified (kallious, beltiow, spoudaisterai), and to this hierarchy of things also corresponds a hierarchy of the desires (epithymiai) for and of the knowledge (epist&nai) of them.

    (d) The perennial philosophy postulates levels of reality31 which reveal themselves to people only if they reach a stage of personal development which makes them receptive to each level, or attunes them to it. In Buddhism this aspect of the matter has been elaborated more than in the West, and it is stated expressly that the full depth of Reality, i.e. its Emptiness, can be reached only by the full depth of the person, which is a completely unruffled Calm32 (see no. 6).

    4. Their relation to the self

    (a) The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita assume that wisdom reveals our inward true reality, our true, metaphysical self.33 Likewise in the Protrepticus the nous is in the highest degree our true self,34 and this part is, either alone or above all other things, ourselves.35

    (b) Correspondingly in Buddhism, where the self is in fact a not-self, it is the knowledge of the not-self (amftman) which becomes the principal topic ofprajG in the old sense of Abhidharma as developed by Sariputra.36 This must be a relatively late development because the eightfold path culminates in samiidhi, and not in prajii,-.

    (c) Both traditions regard individuality as a sign of diminished reality, and view the individual self as supremely unimportant.37

    5. Their relation to Emptiness

    (a) In Buddhism Emptiness is the true pasture of the wise. The Western tradition has ample parallels to this. The Protrepticus says: Therefore all men, insofar as they come within the reach of wisdom and taste its savour, reckon other things as nothing,38 as a laugh and of no worth.39 For to him who catches a glimpse of things eternal it seems foolish to crave for these things,40 and in fact all other things seem to be great nonsense and folly .41 The emptiness, i.e. worthlessness of this world, and the need to turn away from sensory life, is indeed a constant theme of all writings on wisdom.42

    (b) At this point we may be tempted to dwell on what may, or may not, be the one and only important difference between the two traditions. Buddhism tends to derive wisdom from hate, as a kind of sublimation of it,43 and it is inclined to stress the destructive side of wisdom.a4 The Platonic tradition, on the other hand, connects wisdom with love.45 Nevertheless, in the Bodhisattva of the Mahayana love (as compassion) is once more miraculously reunited with wisdom.

    6. Their relation to samEdhi

    (a) As for the definition of samcidhiJe , just one particularly striking


    formulation must s&lice: When he draws in on every side his senses from their proper objects as a tortoise (might draw in) its limbs,-firm- stablished is the wisdom of such a man.47 The Platonic description was very similar. 48 People have sometimes doubted whether the Platonists knew the actual technique,-but then how much may have been reserved for oral and secret teaching, like that of the Mysteries?

    (b) Samndhi alone can bring praj%a to full maturity. Wisdom has three stages:4g the first relies on the authority of expert testimony, where one is content to listen and to learn by heart; the second proceeds by inference and logical reasoning; the third, born of samsdhi, is a matter of direct experience, face to face (pra&zk;am). We cannot always quite follow what Buddhists tell us about this last stage, but the same applies equally to the direct intuitions of Western mystics and S&is.

    (c) Not only is samcdhi the indispensable prerequisite of pra$&, but of necessity leads to it. It is in the nature of things (dhammats) that a person in the state of samcdhi knows and sees things as they are. Automatically he then becomes disinterested and renounces all his belongings.50 Samddhi gives a basis for cognition, for with concentrated thought one compre- hends what really is.51 When one is in trance, i.e. single-minded and concentrated, this provides the basis (Graya) on which one can auto- matically and spontaneously contemplate the true marks of dharmas.52

    (d) Samddhi, on the fourth of its eight stages (dhy&za), is the basis for the superknowledges, forms of knowledge and activity which may be described as supernormal, or paranormal.53 The Neoplatonists also accepted wonderworking powers as real, and viewed them as more or less essential for philosophers. 54

    7. Personification as a female

    (a) Both traditions see wisdom as a mother figure,55 a form of the old World Mother of the Palaeolithic.

    (b) Where they become antinomian, the practitioners of wisdom advise ritual intercourse of siddhas and gnostics with females who are known as pra.$i or vidyd, and in Gnosticism as sophia or ennoia.56

    8. The benejits to be expectedfrom wisdom

    (a) Both traditions promise immortality. In the Upanishads vi&i leads to amyta, and we may quote Samyutta Nkaya57 for the saying that the five cardinal virtues, of which wisdom is the highest, plunge one into the Deathless, have their end and culmination in the Deathless. Likewise in the Protrepticus wisdom gives a share of immortality,58 and it is said of nous and phron&is that this alone of our possessions seems to be immortal, this alone to be divine.5g

    (b) In addition they hold out a number of other benefits, such as Srinti, serenity,60 detachment,61 and liberation (vimukti).


    g. The nature of the tradition

    (a) It is not an ordinary knowledge which is acquired here, and there is nothing either commonplace or commonsensical about it. In Buddhism and the Bhagavad Gita it is constantly described as wonderful, astonishing, a marvel, a prodigy, surprising, strange, supernatural and beyond comprehension.62 For Aristotle also63 wisdom consists in the knowledge of many things that excite wonder, and it is a source of happiness (hzdy) because it means the knowledge of many wonderful things. And else- where* the divine is identified with the marvellous (thaumaston).

    (b) The tradition is not public, and open to all, but mysterious, hidden and secret (guhya). Deep, hard to see, hard to comprehend, calm, sublime, supra-rational (atakka-avacani) and subtle, it can be felt only by the wise (pap&ta-vedaniya),65 It is not66 a matter of views, verbal expressions or thinking in the ordinary sense of the term. The Void is a way of acting or being, and should not be seized upon for intellectual speculation, verbal disputes, and so on. Buddhist tradition seems to...


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