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BUDDHIST PRA3jitI AND

GREEK SOPHIA

Edward J. D. Conze
Visiting Professor,Universit;vof Lancaster

For two reasons a comparison of the Sanskrit and Greek terms for
Wisdom may be of interest. There is first the current discussion on how
Buddhist terms should be translated. H. Guenther, for instance, claims
that prajr%i should not be rendered as wisdom, but as analytical
appreciative understanding.l One of the many objections to this proposal
is that it fits only the initial stages of pra$i, which in its final consum-
mation, as pra$i+.iramitti, becomes non-discriminative, non-dual,
evincing the sameness of all. Others propose to translate as insight
knowledge, etc.2 My point is that if wisdom is correct for sophia,. it
must be equally correct for praj&i.
Secondly, reliance on wisdom is an essential ingredient of the peren-
nial philosophy. To quote a previous article,3 it maintains:
that the wise men of old have found a wisdom which is true, although
it has no empirical basis in observations which can be made by
everyone and everybody; and that in fact there is a rare and unordinary
faculty in some of us by which we can attain direct contact with
actual reality,-through the ~rajiSi(p&amita) of the Buddhists, the
logos of Parmenides, the sophia of Aristotle and others, Spinozas amor
dei intellectualis, Hegels Vernunft, and so on.
In the following I will indicate this aspect of the perennial philosophy
in some detail. The article is only one of a series of studies in comparative
religious philosophy which have been pursued over the years, and pre-
supposes some of the results which I believe to have established before.4
The topic would fill a book and all I can give are the headlines of its
various chapters. Assertion must take the place of argumentation, and
my conclusions will be more obvious to those who knew them before
than to those to whom they are new.
The sourcesfor this study are, of course, almost infinite. A footnote will
enumerate those for Buddhism, as these are less well known.5 For suphia
I rely greatly on Aristotles Protrejticus,e ca 350 B.C., and contemporary
with a particularly creative period of Buddhist history. The parallelism
is here very close, and even extends to a few side-issues. For instance,
Aristotle clearly states the law of karma,7 i.e. For it is an inspired saying
of the ancients that the soul pays penalties and that we live for the
punishment of great sins. This is akin to NagigBrjunas remark* that
160
161

what happens is that I just suffer the punishment for the perverted
views of my previous lives. And we even meet here with the paradise of
Amitabha, when we read3 that in the Isles of the Blest we get the reward
for our devotion to philosophy, for there we can pursue it without caring
for anything else. Among later sources the value of the Imitatio Christi
lies in that, without scholastic accretions, it concentrates on what is
important for life.
Next a few words about the terminology. In pra-j&i, Bra- is a prefix to
the root j&i, to know, and means superior, excellent, as in Tibetan
Ses-rab, superior knowledge. Often it is synonymous with jZin.a, a term
preferred in the Bhagavad Gita. lo One should not, however, translate
$&a as knowledge, but as cognition, or gnosis, because it is a
special kind of knowledge, distinguished from mere cleverness and from
scientific thinking by its spiritual purpose, which is to cut off the
defilements.rl Other synonyms are investigation into dharmas
(dharmapravicaya), dhi, vidyc, and so on. Antonyms are avidy8, moha,
vicikitsd, ignorance, folly, stupidity, bewilderment, doubt and indecision.
There is no room here to talk about sophia, or such synonyms as
phron&s, ennoia, sapientia, etc. It should, however, be remembered that
in both traditions the word covers both practical and theoretical wisdom.12
Bodhisattvas are expected to be wise as to statecraft, economics, family
life, etc., whereas for monks a certain sancta simplicitas would be more
fitting. In the Protrepticus, sophia and phront%is are not at all clearly
distinguished, phront?sis being a blanket term for everything from practical
skill and commonsense to pure speculative theory.13 It is only later, in
the Rhetoric, that Aristotle clearly distinguished practical from theoretical
wisdom.14
Praj&i and Sophia correspond in at least nine ways:

I. Their relation to the sensory world


In this kind of philosophy, sense-data are at a discount. The six15
senses deceive.l To some extent they may reflect some objective reality,
but to a greater extent they are karmically determined,-a pool of water
being perceived differently by humans and fishes, whereas the devas see
nectar, the hungry ghosts pus and blood, and the denizens of hell
poisonous liquid or fire. l7 In fact they deserve no credit, as distinct from
the true wisdom acquired by the Buddhas over countless aeons. Wisdom
has the task of removing all the obstacles to clear vision which are bound
up with our sensory environment,-the bias and prejudice which distort
and distract, the emotional impediments to clearsightedness, and the
covering (&@a) caused by sensual desires (kdma). Likewise, so Jamblichus
tells us,l* Plato and Pythagoras teach that sense-impressions, mere
shadows in the cave, only obscure the nous and prevent it from exerting
its own proper activity, so that it becomes paralyzed. Wisdom has the
taskI of freeing the soul from the body, making it collect and concentrate
BUDDHIST PRAJfA

itself from among the dispersed senses, and employing all its power on
its inward activity, released from the bonds of the body.

2. Their relation to values, and to a good life


(a) It is taken for granted that wisdom (sophia) and virtue (are@ are
closely bound up with one another. In Ruddhism also wisdom is not
just a mental faculty, but a virtue, a dominanP20 which, as a result of
cultivation and effort, can exert power, i.e. can overcome ignorance and
give the strength needed to contact reality (see no. 3).
(b) There is here, however, a minor difference in that Buddhism is
more systematic in delineating the way in which the virtues are succes-
sively built up. Whereas Aristotle21 is content to state that wisdom is
one of the nine elements, or components, of virtue, in Buddhism, as in
the Bhagauad Gita, it is part of a progressive and logical scheme,-either
the fifth, highest and most important of the five cardinal virtues,22 or,
alternatively, the sixth of six perfections (p&am&).
(c) Wisdom, as investigation into dharmas, knows I. what dharmas
(=facts) are, and 2. what they are worth. As a clever physician knows
which foods are suitable and which are not, so wisdom, when it arises,
understands dharmas as wholesome or unwholesome, serviceable or
unserviceable, low or exalted, dark or bright, similar or dissimilar.23
(d) All other branches of knowledge deal with means, but wisdom
decides which ends are worthwhile.
(e) A true sense of values and a meaningful life result from contact
with the Reality which wisdom discloses (see no. 3).

3. Their relation to Reality


(a) The perennial philosophy distinguishes between two worlds, that
of appearance and reality. At present the word reality has acquired
rather unpleasant associations,-the reality principle has been opposed
to the pleasure principle, to face reality, as the ability to face up to
the facts of the sensory world, is held to require a great deal of courage,
one speaks of people being dragged into the realities of the 20th century,
etc. In the past, however, the reality behind the sensory world2* was
deemed to be fulfilling rather than frustrating, it was considered as the
source of the supreme bliss and happiness, and it was wisdom that gave
access to it. As it is said in the Visuddhimagga,25 wisdom penetrates into
dharmas (=facts) as they are in themselves (dhammasabtiua). It disperses
the darkness of delusion, which covers up the own-being of dharmas.
Also in the Protrepticus26 wisdom has no other work (proper function)
than (the attainment of) the most exact truth, truth about reality.27
(b) In both traditions wisdom is associated with seeing and light.
(c) A hierarchy inside, with wisdom as the best part of u.s,~~ cor-
responds to a hierarchy outside. The activity of our truest thoughts is
nourished by the most real realities.2s Aristotles Rhetoric30 arranges
AND GREEK SOPHIA 163

things (ta pragmata) according to whether they are more honourable,


better and more dignified (kallious, beltiow, spoudaisterai), and to this
hierarchy of things also corresponds a hierarchy of the desires (epithymiai)
for and of the knowledge (epist&nai) of them.
(d) The perennial philosophy postulates levels of reality31 which reveal
themselves to people only if they reach a stage of personal development
which makes them receptive to each level, or attunes them to it. In
Buddhism this aspect of the matter has been elaborated more than in
the West, and it is stated expressly that the full depth of Reality, i.e. its
Emptiness, can be reached only by the full depth of the person, which
is a completely unruffled Calm32 (see no. 6).

4. Their relation to the self


(a) The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita assume that wisdom reveals
our inward true reality, our true, metaphysical self.33 Likewise in the
Protrepticus the nous is in the highest degree our true self,34 and this
part is, either alone or above all other things, ourselves.35
(b) Correspondingly in Buddhism, where the self is in fact a not-self,
it is the knowledge of the not-self (amftman) which becomes the principal
topic ofprajG in the old sense of Abhidharma as developed by Sariputra.36
This must be a relatively late development because the eightfold path
culminates in samiidhi, and not in prajii,-.
(c) Both traditions regard individuality as a sign of diminished reality,
and view the individual self as supremely unimportant.37

5. Their relation to Emptiness


(a) In Buddhism Emptiness is the true pasture of the wise. The
Western tradition has ample parallels to this. The Protrepticus says:
Therefore all men, insofar as they come within the reach of wisdom and
taste its savour, reckon other things as nothing,38 as a laugh and of no
worth.39 For to him who catches a glimpse of things eternal it seems
foolish to crave for these things,40 and in fact all other things seem to
be great nonsense and folly .41 The emptiness, i.e. worthlessness of this
world, and the need to turn away from sensory life, is indeed a constant
theme of all writings on wisdom.42
(b) At this point we may be tempted to dwell on what may, or may
not, be the one and only important difference between the two traditions.
Buddhism tends to derive wisdom from hate, as a kind of sublimation of
it,43 and it is inclined to stress the destructive side of wisdom.a4 The
Platonic tradition, on the other hand, connects wisdom with love.45
Nevertheless, in the Bodhisattva of the Mahayana love (as compassion)
is once more miraculously reunited with wisdom.

6. Their relation to samEdhi


(a) As for the definition of samcidhiJe , just one particularly striking
BUDDHIST PRAJj?J

formulation must s&lice: When he draws in on every side his senses


from their proper objects as a tortoise (might draw in) its limbs,-firm-
stablished is the wisdom of such a man.47 The Platonic description was
very similar. 48 People have sometimes doubted whether the Platonists
knew the actual technique,-but then how much may have been reserved
for oral and secret teaching, like that of the Mysteries?
(b) Samndhi alone can bring praj%a to full maturity. Wisdom has three
stages:4g the first relies on the authority of expert testimony, where one
is content to listen and to learn by heart; the second proceeds by inference
and logical reasoning; the third, born of samsdhi, is a matter of direct
experience, face to face (pra&zk;am). We cannot always quite follow what
Buddhists tell us about this last stage, but the same applies equally to
the direct intuitions of Western mystics and S&is.
(c) Not only is samcdhi the indispensable prerequisite of pra$&, but of
necessity leads to it. It is in the nature of things (dhammats) that a person
in the state of samcdhi knows and sees things as they are. Automatically
he then becomes disinterested and renounces all his belongings.50 Samddhi
gives a basis for cognition, for with concentrated thought one compre-
hends what really is.51 When one is in trance, i.e. single-minded and
concentrated, this provides the basis (Graya) on which one can auto-
matically and spontaneously contemplate the true marks of dharmas.52
(d) Samddhi, on the fourth of its eight stages (dhy&za), is the basis for
the superknowledges, forms of knowledge and activity which may be
described as supernormal, or paranormal.53 The Neoplatonists also
accepted wonderworking powers as real, and viewed them as more or
less essential for philosophers. 54

7. Personification as a female
(a) Both traditions see wisdom as a mother figure,55 a form of the old
World Mother of the Palaeolithic.
(b) Where they become antinomian, the practitioners of wisdom
advise ritual intercourse of siddhas and gnostics with females who are
known as pra.$i or vidyd, and in Gnosticism as sophia or ennoia.56

8. The benejitsto be expectedfrom wisdom


(a) Both traditions promise immortality. In the Upanishads vi&i leads
to amyta, and we may quote Samyutta Nkaya57 for the saying that the five
cardinal virtues, of which wisdom is the highest, plunge one into the
Deathless, have their end and culmination in the Deathless. Likewise
in the Protrepticus wisdom gives a share of immortality,58 and it is said
of nous and phron&is that this alone of our possessions seems to be
immortal, this alone to be divine.5g
(b) In addition they hold out a number of other benefits, such as
Srinti, serenity,60 detachment,61 and liberation (vimukti).
AND GREEK SOPHIA 65

g. The nature of the tradition


(a) It is not an ordinary knowledge which is acquired here, and there
is nothing either commonplace or commonsensical about it. In Buddhism
and the Bhagavad Gita it is constantly described as wonderful, astonishing,
a marvel, a prodigy, surprising, strange, supernatural and beyond
comprehension.62 For Aristotle also63 wisdom consists in the knowledge
of many things that excite wonder, and it is a source of happiness (hzdy)
because it means the knowledge of many wonderful things. And else-
where* the divine is identified with the marvellous (thaumaston).
(b) The tradition is not public, and open to all, but mysterious, hidden
and secret (guhya). Deep, hard to see, hard to comprehend, calm, sublime,
supra-rational (atakka-avacani) and subtle, it can be felt only by the wise
(pap&ta-vedaniya),65 It is not66 a matter of views, verbal expressions or
thinking in the ordinary sense of the term. The Void is a way of acting
or being, and should not be seized upon for intellectual speculation,
verbal disputes, and so on. Buddhist tradition seems to have devoted
more thought than the West to the problem of non-verbal communica-
tion,67 and to the distinction between provisional and final truth,Gs i.e.
between statements which are helpful (i.e. justified by skill in means)
and theoretical propositions which are factually true, or between state-
ments which are adjusted to the conventional habits of speech current
among ordinary people and those which express reality in the ultimate
sense.6g But, still, the mistrust of verbal formulations is common to both
traditions. As Plotinus once put it, to each word used one has to add
an as if.O
The similarities between the notions of pra@i and sophia thus seem to
be considerable. How can we account for them? Just now I have worked
my way through an extremely prolix dissertation submitted by a Ph-D-
candidate of an American university. This made me see that all the
usual arguments about East-West contact tacitly assume that the
perennial philosophy is an arbitrary invention. What is never considered
is that it may be a discovery,-of the actual modalities of the human
psyche as it operates on a certain level of its development, whether it be
in the East or the West, irrespective of clime or race. If on a wet February
day in Dorset you had a German, a Frenchman, a Chinaman, an
Indonesian, an American, a Hindu and a Negro all saying, It rains,
then this would not be due to cultural borrowings, or things of that
kind, but the simple fact that it does rain, as everyone knows who lives
in Dorset in February.

I. Philosophy and Psychology in the Abhidharma, 1957, p. 104; p. 329, discrimination.


2. See e.g. Har Dayal, 7he Bodhisattoa Doctrine, Igp, p. 236.
3. Buddhist Philosophy and its European Parallels, in: Thirty Tears of Buddhist Studies
(=TYBS), 1967, p. 214.
4. For the comparison between Buddhism and the Sceptics see Buddhism, 1951, 140-2
166 BUDDHIST PRAJ,&i

and TYBS 2r&zzo.-Chochma, etc. TYBS 220. Buddhism and Gnosis (=BG) in
Le origini dell0 Gnosticismo, Studies in the History of Religions, Supplements to
.&nen, xii, 1967, pp. 65x-67 (=Further Buddhist Studies, 1975, 32-3). Gnostics in
general in BG. Neoplatonists and PrajiXptpPramitZ in BG 39-40.
5. For the school of the Elders we have the Abhidharma books which culminate in
Buddhaghosas Visuddhimagga chapters 14 to 23. For the Mahayana we have a
monograph, though not a very good one, i.e. G. Bugault, La notion de @raj%i ou de
sapience selon les perspectives du Mahayana, 1969, 289 pp. Apart from some edifying
litanies and hymns (e.g. the stotra in Buddhist Scriptures, 1959, 168-171; Astasfihasrikci
vii, 170-1) we have many treatises on the six perfections or the IO stages of spiritual
progress (bhlimi); e.g. M~~~rajli~~ararn~t~-u~a~~a~ ch. 29-30, trsl. E. Lamotte, Le
traiti de la gram& vertue de sagesse, II, 1949, pp. 1058-1 I I 3; Asangas Mahtytinasaw,zgraha,
ch. 8; chapter g of the Bodhicary&atcira: as well as the sixth bh%ni in Dafabhlimika
and Madhyamakrivatira.
6. Throughout I follow Ingemar During, Aristotles Protrepficus, 1961 (=ID).
P. 9.
;: cf. Lamotte, Traiti, 1110.
9. on p. 211.
IO. K. N. Upadhyaya, Ear& Buddhism and the Bhagaavad Gita, I g7 I.
II. Milindapaiiha in Buddhist Scriptures, pp, 151-p.
12. See my The Way of Wisdom, p. 22.
3. ID 87,8g, rgr, 195-6, 201, 204, 206, 211, 223-6, 240 (nous), 256, 260!
4. i.e. fihronZsis from sofihia. Rhet. I, g, 13: phron?sis, prudence, is an intellectual virtue
which enables men to come to a wise decision in regard to good and evil things
which concern their happiness. I, 7, 21: Good is that which would be chosen by
those who have phron&s. About prudence see DeImChr, I, 4, 4.
15. i.e. the five senses, plus mind as the sixth.
16. cf. Lamotte, Le trait& p. I 110.
7. Garma C. C. Chang, T%e Buddhist Teaching of Totality, 1971, p. 87.
18. De anima. Festugibre, La r&lation dHermb Trismigiste III, 1953, 198.
9. According to Phaidon, 67a.
20. indriya: cr. to dynamis, a power by which we do as we do (Rep. v 477).
21. Rhet. I, g, 5. mm? de are&.
22. See my 7?ze Way of Wisdom, The Wheel Publication no. 65-66, Kandy, 1964.
23. A@hasalini, 123; cf. Abhidharmakofa I, 3, II, 154.
24. tattva, safya, yatluibhfitam.
25. xiv 7.-De.Im.Chr. ii, r, 31: Cui sapiunt omnia, prout sunt, non ut dicuntur aut
aestimantur: hit vere sapiens est et doctus magis a Deo quam ab hominibus.
26. ta onta =dbarmas. ID 75; also 89.
27. In more technical language, the Triqsika says that wisdom is the examination
(pravicaya) of an entity (z&u) which should be examined. It sorts out the general
and particular marks which have got mixed up in the presentation of commonsense
obiects. Eschewin the sicrn (nimittu) it knows the true marks (laksaaa) of dharmas,-
first the multiple &es, whether general or particular, and finally their single mark,
which is no mark.
28. ID 73, 771 249.
ag. ID 85; an echo of Plat. lilep. 586, filling with real reality their own essence (ID n52),
30. I, 7, 19-20.
31. TYBS, p. 214.
32. E. Conze, Buddhist Meditation, 1956, 16.
33. Upadhyaya, 208-212.
34. ID 252; Cf. 235.
35. ID 75; cf. 267.
36. See e.g. my Buddhism, rggr, go sq. and 105 sq.
37. e.g. De Im. Chr. I, 2, 17: De seipso nihil tenere et de aliis semper bene et alte sentire:
magna sapientia est et perfectio.
38. ID 87; ouden.
AND GREEK SOPHIA 167

39. ID 89; gel&: oudenos a&.


40. ID 91.
41. ID 93.
42. Meister E&hart: Denn dieses ist ein Zeichen dass ein Mensch den Geist der Weisheit
hat, dass er alle Dinge achtet als ein Nicbts,-nicht als einen Pfuhl, nicht als ein
Sandkorn, sondern ah ein lauteres Nichts (unum purum nihilum). De Im. Chr. I, I,
I 2: Ista est summa sapientia: per contempturn mundi tendere ad regna coelestia.
43. For the argument see TYBS, 185-7.
44. As lightning destroys even stone pillars, so wisdom smashes the defilements (Asl.)
Wisdom is like a thunderbolt (vu&) which shatters all ill and its bases.
45. Ignatius of Antioch says (Ad &hes. xiv, I) that the beginning (arc!@) is faith (pisbti),
and the end (telos) is Love (a&@), and when the two are joined together in unity
it is God (&OS e&n). A Buddhist would be inclined to replace love with wisdom.
46. I here preserve the Sanskrit term, because we have no proper English equivalent.
My own transit concentration is a clumsy makeshift.
47. Bhagavad Gita II, 58, trsl. E. Zaehner. Also the Buddhists use this simile in Samyutta
X&iya I, 7. The Sanskrit: yada samharate cayam kdrmo hgani va sarvakahl
indriyani indriy arthebhyas, tasya praj% pratisthitz.
48. See the two quotations from S. Gregory and Dionysius Areopagita in my Euddhist
Thought in India, 1962, 65-6.
49. Srmta-mayi, c&i-mayi, bhduati-mayi. The Way of Wisdom, pp. 21-22. Trimsik& p. 26.
50. Aliguttara Nikaya V, 3, 313.
51. Trim&k& p. 26. satihite citde yathdbhtita-#arij%imit.
52. Nagarjuna. Lamotte, Le t&e, etc., I 107. See note 27.
53. Buddhisf Scriptures, 1959, x21-133.
54. See BG 39.--R. T. Wallis, Neo-Platonism, 1972, S.V. Theurgy.-A. J. Festugiere,
Contemplation philosophique et art thturgique chez Proclus, in: Studi di storia
religiosa della tarda antichitli, 1968, 7-18.
55. For Buddhism see TYBS 2o7-og. For Sophia see E. Neumann, The Great Mother,
1972 (1955) (at plate 183 he mistakes the Java PrajiiiPp;iramitl for a White Tara).
56. BG 34.
57. v 232.
58. ID 23.
59. ID gr, 265.-More about it being god-like see at ID 59, 93, 196-7, 222, 251,
265-6. Aristotle, De an. 43oa22: only the nous poiZtikos is that part in us which
enjoys immortality and et&&y (athanbton kai a-id&n).
60. Lucr. II, 7-8, sapienbdm temfila serena.
61. Stoics, atarmia, etc.
62. Zcaryam adbhutam: o.cchar@am abbhufam in Pali.
63. Aristotle, Rhet. I, I I, 27: esti dZ sophia )olldn kai thaumaston epist&nZ.
64. ID 222.
65. Digha Nikciya I, 12.-Majhima flikcya I, 37: pauataq veditabbo mfiifuhi, each one by
himself. So it cannot really be communicated.
66. Lamotte, Le t&e, etc., rogo sq.
67. See e.g. R. Kloppenborg, The Paccekabuddha, 1974, pp. 40-42, and pp. 76-78, where
she corrects a statement I made on p. 168 of my Buddhist Thought in India.
68. neydrtka, nitirtha. See pp. 230-33 in Melanges dlndianisme a la mimoire de L. Renou, 1968.
69. vyaval&a or samqrti, vs. paramlirtha. The first to some extent correspond to the
myths of Platonism. For the position, as it appeared to Sarikara and Plotinus, see:
J. F. Staal, Advaita and Neoplatonism, 1961, pp. rrg-226.-Also: exoteric vs. esoteric;
appearance vs. reality, and so on
70. hoion. Enn. VI, 8.13.