Both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism have lists of “perfections” (paramitas or paramis) that are important guides for spiritual development and practice. The lists have many items in common, including the Perfection of Wisdom. However, in this case, what is meant is slightly different.
This article will be about the Theravada perfection, Panna Parami. For the Mahayana perfection, Prajna Paramita, see “Sunyata, or Emptiness: The Perfection of Wisdom.”
For more about the Theravada Perfections, see “The Ten Perfections of Theravada Buddhism.”
All Buddhism makes a distinction between wisdom and knowledge. In his book What the Buddha Taught, the Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula wrote,
“According to Buddhism there are two sorts of understanding: What we generally call understanding is knowledge, an accumulated memory, an intellectual grasping of a subject according to certain given data. This is called ‘knowing accordingly’ (anubodhd). It is not very keep. Real deep understanding is called ‘penetration’ (pativedha), seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label. This penetration is possible only when the mind is free from all impurities and is fully developed through meditation.”
penetrating insight is not about an intellectual or conceptual understanding of these doctrines. It is not about being able to write an essay about the Three Marks or Four Truths and explain them on a test. This penetrating insight is one’s own personal and intimate insight into the dharma. Dharma is a word used to mean many things, but in this case it refers to the true nature of reality.
Read More: “What Is Dharma in Buddhism?”
The 5th century scholar Buddhaghosa wrote (Visuddhimagga XIV, 7), “Wisdom penetrates into dharmas as they are in themselves. It disperses the darkness of delusion, which covers up the own-being of dharmas.”
Edward Conze explained, “Objects are not what they appear to be. Their true reality, in which they stand out as dharmas, is opposed to their appearance to commonsense, and much strength of wisdom is required to go beyond the deceptive appearance and to penetrate to the reality of dharmas themselves.” Penetrating or discerning wisdom, then, is this penetration of the true nature of dharmas, or phenomena, themselves. It’s “seeing” things for what they are, not for what they appear to be.
Now that we have a basic definition of panna, or wisdom, the next question is, how is it developed? The historical Buddha taught for about forty years after his enlightenment, and in one way or another everything he taught was about developing wisdom.
For example, in the Eightfold Path, the “wisdom” path is Right View and Right Intention. Right View is the “first” item on the Path and is ultimately about viewing reality as-it-is. So the Path might be said to begin with wisdom. But Right View is built on an understanding of the Buddha’s teaching. Studying what the Buddha taught is essential. Right Intention is the second item on the Path, and it refers to a kind of purification as one commits oneself to the Path.
This leads to the Ethical Conduct part of the Path and then to the Mental Discipline Part. The last two items on the path are the mental disciplines of Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. It is through mindfulness and concentration in particular that direct insight happens, concentration in particular. But all parts of the Path relate to and support all other parts.
And the wheel turns, and after Right Concentration one comes to Right View again.
[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]