The Four Prajnas of Buddhahood – Also called the “Four Cognitions”, the “Four Knowledges”, the “Four Wisdoms”, and other similar terms.
An excerpt from The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing
…your mind contains and embraces all things. If you truly realized the vast and fathomless nature of your own mind, how could attachment or aversion persist?
Having pointed out the dangers of becoming attached to doctrines or failing to balance knowledge and practice, I will now expound upon the nature of prajna.
Good friends, one way of talking about Zen doctrine is to break it down into levels, ranks, positions, stages, or other similar forms. The Ten Ox-herding Pictures, the Five Ranks, and the Three Stages of Mountains and Rivers are well known examples of this in the West. Today I will use a formula that has been largely neglected in the West: the Four Prajnas of Buddhahood.
Prajna is usually translated as wisdom or knowledge; however, like the terms “buddha” and “dharma”, “prajna” connotes much more than the usual English translations. The term four prajnas appears in English translations as four cognitions, four wisdoms, and four knowledges. The Four Prajnas of Buddhahood is one of the classic doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism used to describe various aspects of the enlightened mind or Buddhahood.
The first prajna is the universal mirror prajna. In English translations it appears as ‘great, perfect mirror cognition’, ‘great mirror wisdom’, ‘mirror-like wisdom’, and other similar terms. The universal mirror prajna is the aspect of your mind that, like a mirror, perfectly reflects the world as it is. Through this prajna, the world is experienced in the immediate present, in its ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’. Unlike an ordinary mirror, however, this prajna is not only reflective, but also luminescent. Your initial realization of this inherent characteristic of mind actualizes enlightened wisdom confirming your entrance into Zen awakening.
The second prajna is the prajna of equality. It is translated as ‘equality wisdom’, ‘wisdom of inherent equality’, ‘universal wisdom’, ‘cognition of equality’, ‘knowledge of equality’, and the like. The prajna of equality is actualized as the experiential realization of the void or oneness of essential nature. Through this prajna, the Buddhist formula that asserts ‘form is emptiness’ is transformed from an abstract theory to a lived experience. Experiencing the emptiness of all things, you realize the equality of all things, that is to say, the oneness of all space and time.
The third prajna is the observing prajna. Also called ‘subtle analytic knowledge’, ‘profound, observing cognition’, ‘all-discerning wisdom’, and so forth. The observing prajna is the actualization or the function of the enlightened mind. By employing this prajna, enlightened wisdom is deepened and refined, and the spiritual methods and techniques or the ‘skillful means’ of Zen are cultivated and mastered. The observing prajna is the active buddha. Realizing the equal or empty nature of all things you should not turn away from the world of differentiation, but instead, apply your realization within it.
The fourth prajna is the practical prajna. Also called, ‘knowledge of accomplishing tasks’, ‘accomplishment of action wisdom’, ‘practical cognition’, ‘perfecting wisdom’, ‘all-performing wisdom’, and other similar terms. This is the perfect actualization of Buddhahood, eternal peace, nirvana, and complete, perfect enlightenment. It is the condition where enlightenment and practice are in perfect accord; realization and action are simultaneous and spontaneous.
Good friends, the Four Prajnas of Buddhahood, like the doctrines of the Five Ranks, the Ten Ox-herding Pictures, and others, are, of course, conceptual constructs; however, their reference is to the reality of your own true nature, which Buddhists refer to as buddha-nature. The division into four aspects is arbitrary, and you should understand that each one of these prajnas contains, and is contained by, the other three.
Many of the great Zen masters affirmed the profound insight of the doctrine of the Four Prajnas. Zen master Hakuin asserted that realization of the four prajnas was essential for all Zen students.
Learned audience, clear your minds and allow me to expound on each one of the four prajnas. If you learn to apply this teaching and master it in practice, it will lead you to accomplishing the task of a lifetime.
First is the universal mirror prajna. In rare instances, enlightenment or realization can occur before formal practice and study; however, most practitioners must begin with pre-realization practice based on the teachings of buddhas and Zen ancestors…
~The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing by Ted Biringer (pages 41-42)