Prajna (Sanskrit) is the sixth of the six paramitas (perfections) in the Buddhist concept in following the Bodhisattva path. It is referred as “wisdom” or “understanding”, that is able to extinguish afflictions and bring about enlightenment. Simply stated, it is the field of pure consciousness beyond concepts, beliefs and imaginations.
Prajna in Mahayana, Vajrayana and Theravada Traditions
In Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, Prajna means the realization of the emptiness of all phenomenal existence. At this stage (Bodhisattva path), the individual would have reached the stage of sainthood and could have entered Nirvana if he so wished. However, out of compassion, this entry is prolonged and deferred to a time when all suffering beings have already been led towards enlightenment. Prajna is therefore balanced by Karuna (compassion) which is the part and parcel of the conception of wisdom. This motivates the perfection of wisdom – which is the conceptualization of five qualities (giving, morality, patience, vigor, meditation).
The Prajna-paramita Sutras of the Mahayanas, such as the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, describes it as supreme, highest, incomparable, unequalled, and unsurpassed essence. Both traditions focuses a lot on “emptiness” while meditating.
For the Theravada Buddhists, Prajna means to gain an intuitive understanding of the Four Noble Truths, Dependent Origination and the Law of Karma. Insight or Vipassana (meditation), like the other traditions, is the means to attain such wisdom. Through diligent practice, the meditation reveals the inherent suffering, impermanence and absence of self in all phenomena thus leading one to see reality.
The Three Prajnas:
The Mahayanas are believed to be the first to effectively conceptualize the Prajna. There are three levels of Prajnas related to the practice of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness – contemplations of the body, feelings, minds, and mental objects. This Prajna of mindfulness is a three-stage process of development in the path of Buddhism – the Prajna of listening; the Prajna of contemplating; and the Prajna of meditation.
The first stage, the Prajna of listening or studying the Dharma is totally dependent on conceptual mind, on communication, language and form. In this stage of hearing, listening, or studying, one is believed to develop the Prajna of understanding.
The second stage, the Prajna of contemplating, is what a person goes through the process of internalizing that received knowledge and understanding. In this stage, one is believed to have completely absorbed and understood the Buddha's teachings that one becomes a living reference to the teachings.
The third stage, the Prajna of meditation is marked by the development of realization. Also known as the stage of "resting meditation", one is believed go beyond conceptual meditation and rest in the actual state of non-dual experience. This is considered as the realization of the genuine Prajna of realization which helps in the development of Mindfulness, and thus finally the development of the stage of awareness.
These according to the Sutta-Satipatthana are the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, for attaining purity, overcoming suffering, and the realization of Nirvana.