Sources of Knowledge in Buddhist Views

By: Ven.Sayadej Vongsopha

Buddhism is a religion of paññā or wisdom. It encourages us to develop ourselves to reach the highest tip of knowledge. As Buddhist proverbs say: “paññā lokssamiṃ pajjoto”: means “Wisdom is the light of the world”. It is the light of the world because it shines through the darkness of ignorance, beyond the hindrance of the wall and penetrates into the mind of man to awaken from craving, hatred, and delusion. Unlike the light of a lamp or the sun, which only can shine in an open space.

Wisdom is a vital tool for a living. Those who are endowed with good wisdom can survive wisely. Terminologically, the words “Wisdom and knowledge” are very close in meaning. Wisdom is the knowledge with experience, though knowledge is gained through learning. In Buddhist terms, wisdom is literally translated as “paññā” while knowledge is “ñāṇa”. It must be complicated in some extent. In this context, only “paññā”-wisdom can be implied in both secular and trans-mundane sense, while “paññā” can only be obtained through practicing insight meditation. However, whether wisdom or knowledge is applied hereby, it should be incorporated and integrated with good disposition or virtues; otherwise, a secular wisdom alone is in vain. A worldly secular knowledge is dangerous as it is a cunning tool to fool and deceive others. In addition, in order to lead a meaningful life, one needs to possess a professional knowledge. As Lao proverb says: “A handful of money is unequal to a headful of wisdom”. In this respect, richness without wisdom cannot maintain a wealthy life. Therefore, wisdom is the brighter light to shine through the living.

Generally, in Buddhist perspective, there are two kinds of knowledge: secular knowledge and trans-mundane knowledge. The secular knowledge is obtained through studying or learning at schools, families and experience which is concerned with normal life which is still a general knowledge applied for daily living or applying for jobs. Another kind is about a transcendental level or trans-mundane knowledge which is profoundly gained from spiritual development. The first kind is that of the secular world while another one is for the transmission from secular circle to the super-mundane realm, to attain the highest goal of Buddhism. In reality, knowledge or wisdom is gained through three main channels:

  1. Sutamaya-paññā: Wisdom obtained by learning;
  2. Cināmaya-paññā: Wisdom obtained by reflectively thinking; and
  3. Bhāvanāmaya-paññā: Wisdom obtained by mental development or meditation.

Sutamaya-paññā is still up to date and applicable. Generally, it is applied in the standard of the educational system. As students gain knowledge through learning at schools under the instructions of their teachers by observing, listening, speaking, writing, reading, and conducting experiments.

Cināmaya-paññā is about the potentiality of mind. Thinking can expand and widen more knowledge from just seeing and hearing. Albert Einstein said: “Imagination is more important that knowledge”. This proves that thinking is another level of developing wisdom. In other words, “yoniso manasikāra” which means “a proper comprehension” is a part of the method of thinking. One needs to critically and analytically think, reflect or ponder upon any matters so as to clearly discern and penetrate them.

However, the thinking mind needs to empower by practicing meditation. It needs to sharpen by the power of right mindfulness and the right concentration. Therefore, it needs to develop the mind which is called Bhāvanāmaya-paññā.  Mental development is the most important source of knowledge. By doing so, one will gain the true knowledge to deal with any problems in life and understand the world as it is really is.

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