Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk from New York City, born in 1944. He obtained a BA in philosophy from Brooklyn College and a PhD in philosophy from Claremont Graduate School. After completing his university studies he traveled to Sri Lanka, where he received novice ordination in 1972 and full ordination in 1973, both under the leading Sri Lankan scholar-monk, Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya (1896-1998). Ven. Bodhi has many important publications to his credit, either as author, translator, or editor. These include The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Majjhima Nikaya, 1995), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Samyutta Nikaya, 2000), and The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya, 2012).
The following is an excerpt from the Pali Canon with commentary from his book, In the Buddha’s Words.
The Pali Canon
Suttanipata 35:85, IV 54
Then the Venerable Ānanda approached the Blessed One … and said to him: “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘Empty is the world, empty is the world.’ In what way, venerable sir, is it said, ‘Empty is the world’?”
“It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’ And what is empty of self and of what belongs to self? The eye, Ānanda, is empty of self and of what belongs to self. Forms are empty of self and of what belongs to self. Eye-consciousness is empty of self and of what belongs to self. Eye-contact is empty of self and of what belongs to self…. Whatever feeling arises with mind-contact as condition—whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant—that too is empty of self and of what belongs to self.
“It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’”
"It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.'"
Shining the Light of Wisdom
Commentary by Bhikkhu Bodhi
The texts cited in the last chapter treated meditation as a discipline of mental training aimed at a twofold task: stilling the mind and generating insight. The still mind, calm and collected, is the foundation for insight. The still mind observes phenomena as they arise and pass away, and from sustained observation and probing exploration arises “the higher wisdom of insight into phenomena” (adhipaññādhamma-vipassanā). As wisdom gathers momentum, it penetrates more and more deeply into the nature of things, culminating in the full and comprehensive understanding called enlightenment (sambodhi).
The Pāli word translated here as “wisdom” is paññā, the Pāli equivalent of Sanskrit prajñā, which gives its name to the voluminous prajñāpāramitā sūtras of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The idea of paññā/prajñā as the principal tool on the path to enlightenment, however, did not originate with the prajñāpāramitā literature but is already deeply embedded in the teachings of Early Buddhism. The Nikāyas take paññā not only as a point of doctrine but as a rich theme for imagery. Thus, [texts] speak of paññā respectively as a light and a knife. It is the supreme light because it illuminates the true nature of things and dispels the darkness of ignorance. It is a knife—a sharp butcher’s knife—because it cuts through the tangled mass of the defilements and thereby opens the way to liberation.
"The Nikāyas take paññā not only as a point of doctrine but as a rich theme for imagery."
The Pāli word paññā is derived from the verbal root ñā (Skt: jñā), meaning “to know,” preceded by the prefix pa (Skt: pra), which merely gives the root meaning a more dynamic nuance. So paññā/prajñā means knowing or understanding, not as a possession, but as an action: the act of knowing, the act of understanding, the act of discerning. In Pāli, the verb pajānāti, “one understands,” conveys this sense more effectively than the correlative noun paññā. What is meant by paññā, however, is a type of understanding superior to that which occurs when one understands, for instance, a difficult passage in an economics textbook or the implications of a legal argument. Paññā signifies the understanding that arises through spiritual training, illuminates the real nature of things, and culminates in the mind’s purification and liberation. For this reason, despite its drawbacks, I continue to use the familiar “wisdom.”
Contemporary Buddhist literature commonly conveys two ideas about paññā that have become almost axioms in the popular understanding of Buddhism. The first is that paññā is exclusively nonconceptual and nondiscursive, a type of cognition that defies all the laws of logical thought; the second, that paññā arises spontaneously, through an act of pure intuition as sudden and instantaneous as a brilliant flash of lightning. These two ideas about paññā are closely connected. If paññā defies all the laws of thought, it cannot be approached by any type of conceptual activity but can arise only when the rational, discriminative, conceptual activity of the mind has been stultified. And this stopping of conceptualization, somewhat like the demolition of a building, must be a rapid one, an undermining of thought not previously prepared for by any gradual maturation of understanding. Thus, in the popular understanding of Buddhism, paññā defies rationality and easily slides off into “crazy wisdom,” an incomprehensible, mind-boggling way of relating to the world that dances at the thin edge between super-rationality and madness.
Such ideas about paññā receive no support at all from the teachings of the Nikāyas, which are consistently sane, lucid, and sober. To take the two points in reverse order: First, far from arising spontaneously, paññā in the Nikāyas is emphatically conditioned, arisen from an underlying matrix of causes and conditions. And second, paññā is not bare intuition, but a careful, discriminative understanding that at certain stages involves precise conceptual operations. Paññā is directed to specific domains of understanding. These domains, known in the Pāli commentaries as “the soil of wisdom” (paññābhūmi), must be thoroughly investigated and mastered through conceptual understanding before direct, nonconceptual insight can effectively accomplish its work. To master them requires analysis, discrimination, and discernment. One must be able to abstract from the overwhelming mass of facts certain basic patterns fundamental to all experience and use these patterns as templates for close contemplation of one’s own experience.
"Paññā signifies the understanding that arises through spiritual training, illuminates the real nature of things, and culminates in the mind’s purification and liberation."
This article is an excerpt from In the Buddha’s Words. This landmark collection is the definitive introduction to the Buddha’s teachings—in his own words.
The American scholar-monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, whose voluminous translations have won widespread acclaim, here presents selected discourses of the Buddha from the Pali Canon, the earliest record ofwhat the Buddha taught. Divided into ten thematic chapters, In the Buddha’s Words reveals the full scope of the Buddha’s discourses, from family life and marriage to renunciation and the path of insight. A concise, informative introduction precedes each chapter, guiding the reader toward a deeper understanding of the texts that follow.
In the Buddha’s Words allows even readers unacquainted with Buddhism to grasp the significance of the Buddha’s contributions to our world heritage. Taken as a whole, these texts bear eloquent testimony to the breadth and intelligence of the Buddha’s teachings, and point the way to an ancient yet ever-vital path. Students and seekers alike will find this systematic presentation indispensable.
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