April 28, 2013

Wisdom: The Fruit of Practice. ~ Barry H. Gillespie

Photo: HaPe_Gera

Practice, Practice, Practice.

From practice comes wisdom,
From not practicing, wisdom’s end.
Knowing these two courses, development or decline,
Conduct yourself so wisdom will grow.
~The Dhammapada

Wisdom (Panna) is the fourth of the ten paramis, the perfections that Theravaden Buddhism encourages you to cultivate. It arises as you develop the third parami, renunciation (nekkhama) and dedicate yourself more seriously to the practice. There are three kinds of wisdom, that which arises from study, that which arises from reflection on what has been studied, and that which arises from meditation.

The wisdom arising from studying the dhamma is usually called knowledge. Study is an essential part of the practice. The knowledge gained helps you to recognize what is arising in the moment. It gives you a framework or a point of reference. The problem with this sort of wisdom is that it is primarily mental, it gives you a set of ideas to believe in, but you haven’t actually experienced its’ truth. You may understand what you have read but you don’t know it, you haven’t experienced it.

Reflection is the process of looking at the knowledge you have gained from study and consciously challenging it, trying to look at it from various angles or perspectives. Reflection may be something you do alone or as part of a group of like-minded people discussing the dhamma, where your own thinking may be challenged by someone with a different viewpoint. Done with an open mind reflection helps you clarify the wisdom gained from study, making it more personal, more your own. But this wisdom is still at the level of discursive thought. It still needs to be integrated at the level of personal experience.

The third form wisdom takes arises directly out of insights gained from meditative practice. This wisdom is the blossoming of right understanding, seeing the truth of the three characteristics; unsatisfactoriness, impermanence and no-self. Conventional life is unsatisfactory because as much as you try you can’t make yourself happy by grasping at what is pleasurable and resisting what is unpleasant. This strategy for achieving happiness doesn’t work because everything you are reacting to is impermanent, ever-changing.

Doing something or having something you think makes you happy won’t last because the causes and conditions that brought about that time of happiness are in constant flux. You are changing, the object is changing and the world out of which the object arose is changing. Much of the grasping or pushing away that you are constantly involved in is aimed at bolstering your self-image, the idea that you are a permanent entity, with particular characteristic that are distinct and separate from everything and everyone else. Everything else around you might be changing but you aren’t. You aren’t deeply connected to everything else. Unlike everyone else you aren’t subject to sickness, old age and death.

I had an insight of this nature on one of my long retreats. It was in the last week of a four week period of practice. I was quite concentrated. Every day I rang the bell for the two o’clock sit. On this particular day I was standing by the bell, the striking hammer in my hand. I’d swing the hammer, feeling the motion of my arm, feeling the impact, hearing the sound of the bell. Nothing special. I was just in the moment, noticing what was arising, not thinking about anything. Just concentrated awareness. When I was finished I hung up the hammer. As I stepped away from the bell the thought arouse “You may never ring the bell again.” I noted the thought, which was quickly followed by another. “But there are still a few days of the retreat left, I’ll ring the bell tomorrow.” Then it struck me. I was thinking I was some sort of permanent  self, that I was “definitely” going to be around the next day to ring the bell.

Previously I had understood the idea of impermanence. I’d studied it and reflected on it. I intellectually knew “I” was impermanent. But I was still thinking “Ya, I’m impermanent, but not for another 20 years or so!” There is no “definitely”. I didn’t, I couldn’t know what might happen over the next 24 hours. An insight of this sort is true wisdom. You “know” it in some totally non-intellectual way. You feel it in your bones. You know it in some deep place in your heart.  Study and reflection had prepared me for that particular moment, but it was practice that brought it home so clearly.

The three forms of wisdom; arising from study, from reflection and from meditative practice, are connected. One leads to the next. A dedicated practitioner needs to work with all three. Find time for study. Reflect on the meaning of what you’ve studied. Then practice, practice, practice.


Barry H. Gillespie was introduced to formal meditation practice in 1978, through the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram. In 2003 he began exploring Theravaden Buddhist practice, sitting many long retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. His principle teacher is Guy Armstrong. His teaching arises out of his desire to share what he has learned with others. Barry currently leads the Full Moon Sit at the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, CO. This article is based on a dharma talk he gave there. For more information on his teaching go to his web site, www.barryhgillespie.com.

This is the fourth of a series of 10 articles on the Paramis, the “perfections” of character that Theravaden Buddhism encourages us to develop: Dana: Generosity, Sila & What It Means To Be Virtuous, Renunciation: The Art of Letting Go.

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Asst. Editor: Edith Lazenby/Kate Bartolotta

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