Prajnaparamita and the Four Extremes

Category: Buddhist Path | Mind Trainer Articles | Recent Meditation Posts

A bamboo grove with the Buddha teaching, the prajnaparamita sutra

What is Prajnaparamita Practice?

The first or second-century BCE Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Stanzas) is among the world’s oldest Buddhist manuscripts. From it and most other sutras, we understand that the entire Mahayana Buddhist path aims at developing prajñā, or wisdom. The perfection of this wisdom is called prajñāpāramitā.

The Six Paramitas

In the journey of a bodhisattva, there are six pāramitās. These are transcendent, liberating qualities that arise out of compassion. Whether it’s the paramita of generosity, ethics, patience, joyful perseverance or meditation, everything is motivated by compassion. The aim of these first five paramitas is to arrive at a deep understanding of reality called prajñā, wisdom, the sixth liberating quality. This wisdom, this deep understanding of reality, makes it possible to live compassion to its full extent. The entirety of the Buddhist path therefore focuses on developing prajñā based on compassion.

Buddhist masters define prajñā, wisdom, as the finely distinguishing understanding of the nature of all phenomena. ‘Finely distinguishing’ means that prajñā knows the world and all phenomena in all its nuance, variation and multiplicity. And at the same time, it knows the very nature of all phenomena to be empty and insubstantial.

So how do we come to know prajñā? To make it simple, there are two things to know: the nature of the so-called self and the nature of the so-called other, subject and object. Right now, with our dualistic perception, we encounter tendencies. Everyone, meditators and non-meditators alike, tends to think, ‘This exists because I perceive it. You are there. I am here.’

Further, we say ‘I have that emotion. I’m angry. My anger is eating me up.’ This solidification, the idea there is a ‘me’ eaten up by something else called anger, this is the belief in existence. We believe in the existence of objects, problems, joys, relationships, self and others. Out of compassion, we closely explore this belief in existence, because it is at odds with reality and the cause of great suffering.

The Extreme of Believing in “Existence” (Eternalism)

Intellectually, from an analytical point of view, existence is quickly refuted. Do I truly exist? I am not the same today as I was yesterday. I’m not even the same as I was at the beginning of this sentence. The so-called ‘me’ and the so-called ‘other’ and the rest of the world are changing processes. Everything is process. Perception changes, cellular responses change, hormonal discharges change. I’m aging. Nothing that can be found as a solid, unchanging ‘me.’

Even a so-called soul is learning, experiencing, and has joys and sorrows. If a soul were inert, it could not learn. But the ‘me’ can learn, so even the soul is not ‘me.’ It is changing. Recognizing that everything is changing is already wisdom. Wisdom begins with an analytical approach to prajñāpāramitā, the transcendent quality of wisdom.

By taking this analytical approach we understand it’s quite absurd to think of ‘me’ or ‘the world’ as something stable. There is a simple proof for the process-nature of the world. It’s called dust. Dust is everywhere, which shows that things are disintegrating all the time; the world is changing. It’s easy analytically to dismantle the belief in an unchanging, eternal existence.

The Extreme of Believing in “Non-Existence” (Nihilism)

But do things exist at all? When we investigate the nature of sensory processes, for example, we can’t find sound. Where is ‘sound’ from moment to moment? It cannot be found as a stable experience; the sound waves are dynamic. So, we say ‘sound’ is empty of something solid. We do the same with the idea of self. Where’s the self? It cannot be found as an entity. So, we say ‘self’ is empty of true existence.

As we examine the same way for all phenomena, we risk falling into the opposite idea of eternalism, the belief in non-existence. If things don’t exist, we say nothing exists. This world is just a projection. I don’t exist, you don’t exist. We arrive at a nihilistic view, denying existence.

But simply adhering to the opposite of our previous belief in existence is a pitfall. Things do exist somehow. If you slap me on the head, it will hurt, and I will react. That is not nothing. Experience shows that non-existence is not true. Actions do have an effect. We might have thought, ‘Since existence is not true, the opposite must be true.’ But the opposite is also not true.

The Extreme of Believing in “Existence plus Non-Existence”

If things (phenomena) don’t exist and at the same time are not non-existent, the next philosophical conclusion usually is that they must exist and non-exist at the same time. But that’s logically absurd. How can something be and not be at the same time? Either it exists, it is there, and I can prove its existence, or it is not there. Both at the same time are not possible; they contradict each other. The belief in both, existence and non-existence, have arguments going for them, but neither truly makes sense. To combine them is like saying, if something is not black and not white, it must be black and white at the same time. That doesn’t make more sense than the above positions.

The Extreme of Believing in “Neither Existence nor Non-Existence”

Realizing this, you let go and might say, okay, it’s neither existing nor non-existing. It must be neither of the two. But then, what are you actually saying? You’re saying it’s not this nor that. It’s not black, not white. But what are you saying about reality? Nothing. It’s a nonsensical statement to say it’s neither existing nor non-existing.

Prajñā, true insight, wisdom, refutes those four erroneous views or standpoints – sometimes simply called the “four extremes”. If we spend time contemplating these four in meditation, prajñā becomes clear.

Prajnaparamita Definition

However, prajñā goes beyond refuting the four extremes through analysis. This highest wisdom is not just taking another standpoint, another view. It is stepping out of that very desire to get a grasp on reality by nailing it down to one thing. Wisdom is to remain open and relaxed, without any standpoint whatsoever. No pinpointing of self, no pinpointing of other, no subject, no object, no denial, no affirmation, just being in the experienced unity of perception, where there are no such labels and distinctions.

Prajñāpāramitā unravels the mystery of life. We begin to understand life beyond the notions of existence and non-existence, this or that, both or neither. We begin to understand the ungraspable nature of everything – dynamic through and through. At the same time, we understand how causes create effects within dynamic processes. All of that is one undefinable, but clearly experienced reality.

The mind infused with prajñāpāramitā relaxes the wish to position itself, to be someone or something within this field of life. And that’s liberation. Freedom is just being without any need to affirm separateness or a standpoint. This open, nondual presence is wisdom. And this develops with the mindfulness of mental calm and the awareness of growing insight.

With meditation, we develop this non-dual understanding of reality. We cut through our mistaken beliefs and learn how to rest in the simplicity of being without a standpoint. That’s prajñā.

About the Author: Tilmann Lhundrup

Tillman Lhundrup has been teaching meditation and Buddhist philosophy for over 40 years
Lama Lhundrup (Tilmann Borghardt) M.D. began practicing meditation in the late 1970s. In 1981 he met the great Tibetan meditation master Gendun Rinpoche and was inspired to learn about and experience meditation as taught in a variety of traditions from Burma to Tibet and beyond. Lhundrup also studied medicine and received his M.D. degree in 1986, following which he entered full retreat for seven years in France under the guidance of Gendun Rinpoche, who subsequently asked him to guide others in the traditional three year retreats. Lhundrup speaks several languages, translates from Tibetan, and has traveled and taught extensively throughout Europe and in Brazil. He is interested in the interface between Buddhist contemplative practices and psychotherapy, and enjoys writing about contemporary approaches to ancient Buddhist practices. Learn more about Tilmann Lhundrup here.

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