A Buddha is characterized as a person of profound wisdom. The idea of wisdom is core to Buddhism. But wisdom can be a vague and elusive concept, hard to define and harder to find. How does one become wise? Is wisdom something that we can actively develop, or must we merely wait to grow wiser as we grow older? Perhaps it is because wisdom is such an indistinct concept that it has lost value as a relevant ideal in modern society, which has instead come to place great store in information and the attainment of knowledge.

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Josei Toda characterized the confusion between knowledge and wisdom as one of the major failings of modern society.

His critique is starkly demonstrated in the astonishing progress of technology in the last century. While scientific and technological development has shown only a mixed record of alleviating human suffering, it has triumphed remarkably in its ability and efficiency in unleashing death and destruction.

Toda likened the relationship between knowledge and wisdom to that between a pump and water. A pump that does not bring forth water (knowledge without wisdom) is of little use.

Wisdom is that which directs knowledge toward good—toward the creation of value.

This is not to deny the importance of knowledge. But knowledge can be utilized to generate both extreme destructiveness and profound good.

Wisdom is that which directs knowledge toward good—toward the creation of value.

Buddhist teachings, such as the concept of the five kinds of wisdom, describe and analyze in detail the dynamics of wisdom and how it manifests at different levels of our consciousness.

When wisdom is functioning in our life, it has the effect of enabling us to overcome the ingrained perspectives of our habitual thinking and arrive at a fresh and holistic view of a given situation. We are able to make a broad assessment of the facts, perceive the essence of an issue and steer a sure course toward happiness.

Buddhism also likens wisdom to a clear mirror that perfectly reflects reality as it is. What is reflected in this mirror of wisdom is the interrelatedness and interdependence of our life with all other life. This wisdom dispels our delusions of separateness and awakens in us a sense of empathetic equality with all living things.

The term “Buddha” describes a person who freely manifests this inherent wisdom. And what causes this wisdom to well forth in our lives is compassion.

Buddhism sees the universe, and life itself, as an embodiment of compassion—the interweaving of the “threads” of interdependent phenomena, giving rise to and nurturing life in all its wonderful and varied manifestations.

It teaches that the purpose of human life is to be an active participant in the compassionate workings of the universe, enriching and enhancing life’s creative dynamism.

Therefore, it is when we act with compassion that our life is brought into accord with the universal life force and we manifest our inherent wisdom. The action of encouraging and sharing hope with others awakens us to a larger, freer identity beyond the narrow confines of our ego. Wisdom and compassion are thus inseparable.

The more profoundly we strive to develop an altruistic spirit, the more the wisdom of the Buddha is aroused within us

Central to Buddhist practice is self-mastery, the effort to “become the master of one’s mind.” This idea implies that the more profoundly we strive to develop an altruistic spirit, the more the wisdom of the Buddha is aroused within us and the more powerfully we can, in turn, direct all things—our knowledge, our talents and the unique particularities of our character—to the end of creating happiness for ourselves and others.

Speaking at Tribhuvan University in Nepal in 1995, Daisaku Ikeda commented, “To be master of one’s mind means to cultivate the wisdom that resides in the inner recesses of our lives, and which wells forth in inexhaustible profusion only when we are moved by a compassionate determination to serve humankind, to serve people.”

If human history is to change and be redirected from division and conflict toward peace and an underlying ethic of respect for the sanctity of all life, it is human beings themselves who must change. The Buddhist understanding of compassionate wisdom can serve as a powerful basis for such a transformation.

Courtesy January 2003 issue of the SGI Quarterly.