Articles March 18, 2018

Prajnāpāramitā: The Wisdom of Emptiness

Erin Selover

Prajnāpāramitā is a Buddhist goddess of wisdom. She sees through the perpetual cycles of reactive habits of mind without having to be separate from them. So often, our tendency is to make reactivity the problem and peace and ease our goal. But life doesn’t work like this. Reactivity and ease go hand-in-hand; they actually inform each other. Like a stone being polished, the rough stone and the polisher have to come into contact for the stone to become smooth. Prajnaparamita is the wisdom that invites us to enter into life fully while simultaneously letting go of our preconceived notions about ourselves and the world.

One benefit of this wisdom is that it allows us to turn towards difficulties arising from relational problems with our boss or our partner or uncomfortable feelings like loneliness or despair around global and political crises. And when we learn to turn towards difficulties, we can also train ourselves to see the wisdom co-arising in every circumstance. Prajnaparamita is said to be the wisdom of emptiness. What is meant by emptiness here is not a void but the absence of self-referencing, seeing through the perpetual story of “me, me, me, me, me.” It’s counterintuitive, but when there is less self-referencing in the mind, there is much more space for qualities like intelligence, intuition, creativity, generosity, compassion, and love to arise and express themselves.

This is one of the reasons people enjoy going on retreat, although at first, they might not be aware that this is what they are enjoying. People will say, “I feel so much lighter,” “I feel at ease,” and “I feel some of the weight of a particular issue has let go some.” This lightness is a byproduct of turning the attention to the simplicity of the moment and away from obsessive perpetual thinking about ourselves and pressing issues in our personal lives or the world. We are much lighter and happier when the habit of obsessive thinking and putting ourselves first is unlearned. This clarity and ease of the mind actually make us more available to respond to the issues we most care about.

I first encountered Prajnaparamita from Buddhist elder and teacher Joanna Macy. In her book, World as Lover, World as Self, she writes, “The light she bestows does not dazzle, eclipse, or blind one to mundane phenomena and the traffic of beings; but clear and cool, it illuminates the ‘as it is.’” This is known as yathabutham in Pali, the language of early Buddhism, “to see things as they are.”

When reflecting on Prajnaparamita, we consciously choose to let go of our stories of who we are and what the world is and instead choose to see what is actually emerging before us, moment-to-moment. Letting go of our stories about who we are leaves us available for the awakened and creative qualities of our heart and mind to express themselves naturally.

Macy writes, “She is the pregnant zero point where the illusion of ego is lost and the world, no longer feared, is re-entered with compassion.”

At this moment in history of environmental, social, political, and economic crises, many people are coming to meditation practice for guidance. Prajnaparamita offers us a refuge that ennobles dignity, allowing our unique contribution to express itself more and more fully. She trains us to see the emptiness and wisdom within all situations, so we do not have to turn away but we can turn towards, over and over again, and act courageously from the depths of our unique human journey.

Erin Selover

Erin Selover

Residential Retreat Teacher

Erin Selover is a Dharma teacher with over 25 years of Buddhist training and co-stewards a meditation community integrating the Celtic Wheel of the Year, Buddhism, gift economics and distributive governance. She is a member of the Nonviolent Global Liberation practice community. She works as a Spiritual Strategist with individuals.