Dharma Q/A: How is Awe Connected to Wisdom?

Your question reminds me of my teacher’s oft quoted passage from the Prajna Paramita, the ancient teaching manual, if you will, describing how to rely not upon our usual feelings and opinions but instead rest in emptiness, or boundlessness, as the source of wisdom.

A bodhisattva does not stand in form, perception or in feeling, in will or consciousness, or any skandha whatsoever. In Dharma’s true nature alone is she standing. Then that is a  bodhisattva’s practice of wisdom, the highest perfection. Change or no change, suffering or ease, the self and the non-self, the lovely and repulsive — just one suchness in this emptiness they are.

There is a kind of awe in this passage, an apprehension of the groundless condition of our experience, with a holistic view that contains all paradox. What is awe but an experience that arrests and pierces this protective insulated self with an encounter that cannot be grasped, reduced to something else — a moment immediate, unequivocal, humbling and enlivening. From the pyramids to spring pansies, we can simply partake. I think our practice makes us more prone to awe, for we need to get out of our heads and in touch with the extraordinary happenings around us. Awe and wisdom share an edge of letting go of the limited self’s view and entering open handed into life for life’s sake. However, if we try to grab onto and make something special and private from awe or wisdom as owned experiences, they are immediately lost. “Postcards from emptiness” as Suzuki Roshi quipped. Both the sunset and the extended warm hand cannot belong to anyone, but simply invite our full participation in the form of surrender. Where awe points to an inner apprehension, wisdom takes awe and motivates a response in line with our true nature. So the next time awe emerges, we might ask the question, “How now?” What is the way? Taking a step from here is the spirit of Zen.

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