The 3 Qualities of the Awakened Mind: 2. Wisdom

April 25, 2012   |   15 Comments

manjushri wisdom
Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom
(Detail from a thangka painting by Greg Smith)

As mentioned in the last post, according to Buddhist thought, the awakened mind has three qualities. The first is compassion. The second quality, wisdom, is the topic of today’s post.

When it comes to what it really means to be wise, it’s easy to posit all sorts of definitions: from really, really smart to deeply insightful to maybe simply being old and thus knowledgeable from experience.

Buddhism certainly has many definitions of wisdom and one of them is this: the ability to see beyond concept to the way things really are. Moment by moment, perception by perception, we let go of our judgments, opinions, and projections. Which seems impossible, I know. Still, we have each had moments where we have been able to grasp the clear, empty, luminous, still, vast space that lies beyond our conventional minds.

One such glimpse came to me after I first moved to Manhattan some years ago. I moved to NYC for a job and found a totally cute and very tiny apartment near Union Square. I loved my job, loved, loved, loved NYC, and my apartment felt snug and safe. One problem: I couldn’t sleep. Every time I lay myself down, I tuned into the constant buzz that is almost inescapable in Manhattan: the hum of traffic, the blare of sirens, the beep-beep-beep of trash trucks, and on and on. I tossed. I turned. I wondered how anyone could possibly sleep through this. Friends assured me that you get used to it, but after 7 or 8 nearly sleepless nights, I was pretty doubtful. One night, totally exhausted, I lay in bed, restless and teary. As anyone with insomnia knows, sleep doesn’t come from pleading and freaking out. I tried to lie still. Instead of attempting to block out the sound, I just gave up and let it wash over me. In that moment, I noticed that there was something going on besides noise and that was silence. Underlying the noise was an unchanging bed of silence. In my bed in NYC, I trained my ear on the silence rather than the noise—and fell asleep.

Now, I don’t know much about absolute wisdom, but my hunch is that it has something to do with tuning into the space and silence around your thoughts and concepts rather than perfecting your thoughts and concepts. Something to think about, anyway.

Wisdom and compassion are inseparable. They are actually twin manifestations of the same thing. On a relative level, this means that wisdom is not wisdom when compassion is not also present (it is simply moralism) and compassion is not compassion when wisdom is not also present (it is some kind of foolishness). On an absolute level, the union of wisdom and compassion is nothing more or less than our true nature, the silence that gives rise to all sound and the space that exists between all thought.

Of course our meditation practice is the way we cultivate a connection to this profound wisdom. As we sit, we practice letting go, over and over, thought by thought. When we space out, something comes from somewhere, completely fresh and utterly spontaneous, to say, “hey, come back.”

We can trust our practice, implicitly and completely. Wisdom is as omnipresent as space itself. To see it, all we have to do is relax.

If you’d like to learn and/or receive support for your meditation practice, please sign up for The Open Heart Project.

As an indication of how much I love Manjushri, allow me to share with you my badass tattoo which is Manjushri’s seed syllable, “DHIH”:


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  • Posted by:  Kathy Willard

    Susan: Love your tattoo!! Somebody help me please. I think I need a tattoo that says, Good Intentions Can go wrong, smack in the middle of my forehead, so people will say what is that? And I can be reminded each day that best intentions can even get me in doo doo. i.e. I sent a group email that expressed compassion and (sorrow too), for mothers and grandmothers who are starving and can’t feed their children, not so good a combo, for it was missing the wisdom, and my email was taken the wrong way by someone I care about but am not really close to. This person thought I was suggesting they were not compassionate!! Oh, Oh. I know some days are pretty pretty touchy, and yup, I too have felt the same way at times. Any suggestions. Do I just let it go, or do I apologize??? This is one of those days. Your input or anyone’s would be gratefully received.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Now that would be one wacky tattoo.

      I’m sorry you were misunderstood. It is awful to be misinterpreted and, yes, email can be a mine field. Please do what will make you feel better without putting yourself down. Misunderstandings happen to everyone!! We’re only human!! Reconnect with your good intention and the next right action will follow. Don’t lose trust in yourself. xxoo S

  • Posted by:  Tammy

    I love love love the concept of embracing the silence between the thoughts. It reminds me of a piece I read about the bardo some years ago. I’ve never forgotten to embrace the in between, the present journey rather than the seeking of a future goal. I think your piece on this in between silence will stick with me in the same way.

    Today for the first time, I am noticing a different kind of awareness of my emotions. Rather then distracting myself, I am simply noticing the discomfort. It is a result of my practice; it is that same letting go. I’m observing and feeling without reacting, and through that experience I am beginning to comprehend what it means to take refuge.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      This sounds wonderful, Tammy.

      • Posted by:  Tammy

        Well, turns out that newfound awareness of emotion is fleeting. I am at least getting better at just being with emotion, even when really uncomfortable, rather than always looking for distractions.

        I’ve been reading “Shambhala” and just read the part about synchronizing mind and body, seeing and perceiving without language. It made me think of your silence between thoughts. Maybe there is also silence beneath thought?

        • Posted by:  Susan

          I think so!

          So glad you’re reading that book. It is the primer for, well, everything.

  • Posted by:  Christine

    Susan, I am new here and I am so enjoying this series, as well as your videos on Vimeo.

    I resonate so deeply with entraining with (tuning into) the Silence underlying the noise, underlying the conceptual mind – the Sacred Silence that is always there – because that has also been my experience – that when I turn my awareness/attention to this space of Silent Awareness, Truth arises, I/we connect with our True Nature – compassion and wisdom.

    Once in meditation several years ago I also became acutely aware that OM *was/is* the underlying Silence – an alive Silence. And that every “noise” was also OM; the sound of airplane, the engine of a truck was heard as OM – the hum of the universe. Amazing…

    I appreciate so much being able to “sit” with you in this way. It is greatly enhancing my meditation practice. And am looking forward to the “deepening” series! Bows…

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Hi Christine. Nice to know you and very glad we’re practicing together. xo S

    • Posted by:  Jason

      Christine – that’s so cool that you mention the “noise” of engines, because I’ve always found a quiet relaxation in the patterned waves of mechanical engines. The most peaceful (and most insightful) times in my life have come when I’m on an airplane, a train, or long bus ride. In those moments I feel free and in harmony with the universe, meanwhile the other people on the vehicle are feeling trapped and claustrophobic. It is truly amazing, and I definitely think is one of those moments of clarity of which Susan speaks! Thanks Christine for reminding me of my connection to the universe in the “noise” of engines.

  • Posted by:  Jason


    I love this series of topics you are now – the 3 aspects of the Awakened Mind. I am curious to see what you have to say about power, because I feel I understand compassion and wisdom, but power has come to have a negative connotation in my mind.

    Anyhow, what I actually wanted to say, is that I love your example of finding the silence in the noise of NYC. Ironically enough, this reminded me that I have experienced the opposite here in the suburbs. I have awakened in the middle of the night to such extreme silence that it felt as if the universe was screaming at me! How could a world full of life come to such a screeching halt? Maybe it derives from my own fears, but such silence was deafening to me!

    This also leads me to another thought which is this: I’ve noticed that in your writing and your explanation of Buddhist thought that there seems to be truth in the oxymoronic nature of the universe – “something from nothing,” “quiet noise,” “love in heartbreak,” and so forth. It’s certainly a thought that I have entertained before I ever met you and your writings/teachings. I wonder if this is what wisdom looks like?

    Thank You,

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Hi Jason. I am looking forward to talking about power. It is an amazing topic.

      I know what you mean about the deafening silence. When I moved OUT of NYC, I had trouble reorienting to the noiselessness… Go figure. Everything is actually relative!

      I really think there is something to the truth-in-dichotomy theory. Definitely worth continued exploration in any case.

      Warmly, Susan

  • Posted by:  Michael

    Dear Susan, in my practice, I’ve always thought of the wise lawyer as one who has both knowledge of the law, as well as judgment. One can know the ins and outs of the matter at hand, but the lawyer with true wisdom is the one who can take a deep breath and steps back from the details in order to see what things are really important to his/her client to try and win. I’ve seen too many opposing lawyers who let their emotions get in the way of their clients’ interest. Their client may only really care about 3/20 issues, but the lawyer’s ego often takes over and the lawyer fights to the very end over all 20, which sometimes results in the lawyer not being able to secure the 3 matters that the client really cares about. Now for my question on your article: Heart of the Buddah talks about 3 elements of enlightenment, but the 3d is knowledge and not power? thanks again for indulging me with my “pain in the neck” questions. Michael

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Michael, sorry it took me so long to respond.

      And FWIW, I love these questions.

      I just reread that paragraph in Heart of the Buddha and in it Trungpa Rinpoche equates knowledge with prajna. Prajna has the quality of cutting through, of clear seeing–what I was interpreting (rightly or wrongly) as the letting go of concept to see what is.

      Wisdom, as I interpret his use in this section, is connected with omniscience or maha-intuition. In my thoughts on power, I suggested that it comes from synchronizing mind and body. I imagine that there is a third element that joins in the synchrony: space. When mind, body, and environment are synchronized then, I suppose, you would be omniscient. You would simply know on the spot whatever was there to be known.

      Of course there is no way to tell where one of these qualities begins and the other ends, but I guess I would say that my use of wisdom is probably more akin to his use of “knowledge” and my use of power more connected to his use of “wisdom.” Just to confuse everything a bunch.

      Of course, I could have just taken the easy way out and said “knowledge is power.” 😉

      Glad to keep the conversation going as you wish!

      Your clients are lucky to be represented by a lawyer who has a relationship to knowledge and wisdom…

      Warmly, S

  • Posted by:  Michael

    Susan, thanks for your response and no issues at all on timing! I thought you might find interesting this upcoming program at the NYC Bar Association: (Hopefully I pasted in the correct program.) BTW, the next time you are in NYC please let me know. I would love to introduce you to my colleagues that run our Women’s Initiative… they are always looking for interesting speakers. Michael

    • Posted by:  Susan

      That looks so interesting. And thanks for the offer of an introduction to your colleagues. Very kind. I hope you mean it because I’ll be in NYC June 6/7 and 26/27!! 😉 Use if you want to discuss further. In any and all cases, thanks again for your excellent questions. Please keep them coming!

      This might be of interest to you, in case you haven’t seen it.

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