Paññā/慧 (and other terms)

Greetings to All:

I had to give a report on Early Buddhist meditation for school and I chose to share with my Chinese audience some of the evolution of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta(s) viz. the shift from tranquility and insight as per (my take on) A History of Mindfulness, Prof. Gombrich’s work, and the Wynne-Anālayo TPT debates. It was fairly well-received–mostly, I think, because the idea of such an historical shift was a new concept they had not heard or thought of. They had to make great efforts to try and understand what I was talking about because early and late Buddhism really occupy very distinct and different doctrinal worlds. Their biggest trouble in grasping my meaning, was restricting the definitions certain key terms and concepts to how they’re defined in the discourses. Their understanding of Buddhist doctrine is all based on an Abhidhammic understanding of Buddhism or, in the case of the Mahāyāna, a reaction thereto. At best, there may be a very, very few of them which actually study the Āgamas or Nikāyas, but they see them through an Abhidhammic exegetical lens.

So, I was asked if 慧 (paññā) in the EBT’s was a “method” or a “result” (which was the best I could get from him after forcing him to decipher all the Abhidhamma terminology he was using, and which is wholly unintelligible to me). He maintained that in whatever medieval texts he was citing (I don’t know) it was a methodology, while the conclusion we reached was that it was more of a result in the EBTs. But, as I told him, his question really brought home to me the extent to which terminology and concepts are not always so well-defined in the EBTs (at least, nowhere near as well-defined as they are in the Abhidhamma); that sometimes there are a number of (perhaps conflicting) definitions; and that, often, what serves as a definition may not fully cover all possibilities (hence, the commentarial tradition) and that, in order to be functional, inevitably the reader must supply some degree of personal interpretation. (Lastly, 慧 is a Chinese word in the Chinese cultural context which, while known to all to be of Buddhist origin, when used colloquially [as I may have used it at times throughout the course of my report], may not fully tally with the Pāli paññā.) And, so, that being said, I told him that I couldn’t say for sure if what I was telling him was 100% accurate, mostly because no one ever asked me anything like that. (My classmates keep stumping with EBT questions that EBTers don’t usually ask.)

The main point of contention, among several, (and for which my own inexactitude may be partially to blame) was probably my conflation of the apposition between paññā/vipassanā and samādhi/samatha (as per the definitions given in AN 2.31: with that of the dhammayoga and jhāyi bhikkhus of AN 6.46 (
That paññā should be defined as simply (albeit deep) understanding of Buddhist doctrine was unacceptable. According to one classmate of mine who eats, sleeps, and breathes Sarvastivāda Abhidharma, according to that definition, there is no mental state which doesn’t partake of paññā/慧.

So, I am asking, in Pāli and/or Chinese, where do we draw the lines between samādhi/定; samatha/止/奢摩他; paññā/慧 and vipassanā/觀/毗婆舍那 as far as “method” and “result” (path and fruit)? And how do I explain to them the differences in specificity between discourse terminology and Abhidhammic terminology?

Thank you


Not really , its origin was Tao but made popular thru buddhism .

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Really? Interesting. I didn’t know that. (Obviously!) Do you have a source?

Looking at AN8.2, panna (wisdom) seems to be a result of practice, including vipassana.

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"These two qualities have a share in clear knowing. Which two? Tranquillity (samatha) & insight (vipassana).

"When tranquillity is developed, what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And when the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned.

"When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned.

“Defiled by passion, the mind is not released. Defiled by ignorance, discernment does not develop. Thus from the fading of passion is there awareness-release. From the fading of ignorance is there discernment-release.”—AN 2.30

“A passage from the Aúguttara Nikãya does indeed relate the practice of samatha to the destruction of passion and the practice of vipassanã to the destruction of ignorance. The distinction between the two is expressed by the expressions “freedom of the mind” (cetovimutti) and “freedom by wisdom” (paññãvimutti) respectively. However, these two expressions are not simply equivalent in value relative to realization. While “freedom by wisdom” (paññãvimutti) refers to the realization of Nibbãna, “freedom of the mind” (cetovimutti), unless further specified as “unshakeable” (akuppa), does not imply the same. “Freedom of the mind” can also connote temporary experiences of mental freedom, such as the attainment of the fourth absorption, or the development of the divine abodes (brahmavihãra). Thus this passage is presenting not two different approaches to realization but two aspects of the meditative path, one of which is not sufficient by itself to bring realization.”—“Satipatthana,” Analayo


The 8FP can just as easily be pañña-sila-samadhi, whilst sammā-diṭṭhi is said to be in the category of pañña & is the harbinger for the other ‘aṅgas,’ I think it is both a method and result. You have to have a clear concept of the kusl’akusala, essential/non essential, to be able to progress, not like the Abhidhamma ‘magga-phala’ mind moment - four pairs eight kinds of people’s - polemic. But more in the sense of the suttic cinta -suta -and bhāvanā maya pañña, theory practice and realization (pariyatti-patipatti-pativeda) are all interelated, and hence are both a method that when applied produces a result. No need to obsessively categorise, but just apply? So as to get a result…? Bye


Right view has two modes, what has been established and building on that, what is transcendent. So the right view that is already known forms a foundation for the new right view realized through insight, and that insight requires the interaction between sila-samadhi-panna.
That is what is meant by the MN 117 statement:

"One makes an effort for the abandoning of wrong view (previously held) & for entering into right view: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness.Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right view."

Foundational right view is passive and new right view is part of an active process. Samadhi is a passive element while right effort is active. That is shown in the division of two groups of three in the seven factors of awakening, and referred to here, where investigation (analysis of qualities) is the second factor of awakening:
“And what is the right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The discernment, the faculty of discernment, the strength of discernment, analysis of qualities as a factor for awakening, the path factor of right view[1] in one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. This is the right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.”


IMO, the EBTs use terms with a broader semantic range than the Abhidharma. The way I see it, paññā could refer to both a method or better yet a way of seeing things AND the result of such a way of seeing. I don 't really know that such a clear distinction is made in the EBTs.


Thank you to all for the very informative answers thus far; they have been very helpful.

By way of a follow-up question: on another thread, I asked about the etymology of dhamma and was directed to an archived thread discussing dhamma and dhammā; that was exactly what I was looking for, because, in my analysis of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta(s) in light of the tranquility vs. insight question, the issue of whether the fourth satipaṭṭhāna should be interpreted as dhamma (i.e., Budhhadhamma, “the teachings”, “the doctrine”) or as dhammā (that is, phenomena, mental phenomena, thought objects, etc.) and how either of those would fit into an interpretation of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta(s) as belonging to either a more samatha- or vipassanā-based practice. If what I’m asking is at all clear to anyone, any thoughts on this would also be appreciated.

Hope the definition given for paññā by Bhante Sariputta in Maha Vedalla Sutta would help.
"paññavā paññavā’ti, āvuso, vuccati. kittāvatā nu kho, āvuso, paññavāti vuccatī”ti?

“‘pajānāti pajānātī’ti kho, āvuso, tasmā paññavāti vuccati.

“kiñca pajānāti? ‘idaṃ dukkha’nti pajānāti, ‘ayaṃ dukkhasamudayo’ti pajānāti, ‘ayaṃ dukkhanirodho’ti pajānāti, ‘ayaṃ dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā’ti pajānāti. ‘pajānāti pajānātī’ti kho, āvuso, tasmā paññavāti vuccatī”ti."

  • mūlapaṇṇāsa, cūḷayamakavaggo, mahāvedallasuttaṃ -

So to achieve paññā, it is obvious we have to practice vipassanā.

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Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (in MN and DN) is not about vipassana “insight”, although it is linked to “insight” (e.g. the four truths). It is the expanded version of mindfulness practice. The early version is found in Satipatthana Samyutta and Anapana Samyutta of SN/SA, e.g. SN 47.2 (= SA 622), SN 54.1 (= SA 803) (see Choong Mun-keat, The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism, pp. 215-218, 225-227).

Vipassana, if according to SN/SA, is about janati “one knows” and passati “one sees” “things as they really are” (yathabhutam), which is sammaditthi “right view” for the development of paññā/慧 for the ending of dukkha (see The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism, pp. 34 ff., 52 ff., 60 ff.).

paññãvimutti is the same account of cetovimutti, according to SN 22.51 and SN 22.115-116.

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I assume dhamma in the fourth frame of satipatthana to mean phenomena generally, and I think you can relate this frame to dhamma-vicaya (investigation), the second factor of enlightenment.
Note that each frame of satipatthana has a section on insight, so Dhammic principles like anicca are applied throughout.

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Not ignoring the fact that you prefaced your post with the disclaimer of sorts, “I assume,” affirming that this is merely your interpretation, I’d like to ask why one couldn’t just as easily interpret these as “Dhamma” (i.e., the teachings of the Buddha).

While you neglected to do so in the above-quoted part of your post, I noticed you used a capital ‘D’ in your last sentence

may I ask, “Why?” Are you making the same distinction as I made between dhamma/dhammā (phenomenon/a) and Dhamma (the Buddha’s teachings)? If so, could you explain how, while apparently regarding those concepts like aniccā etc., which thread all through the sutta, as Buddhist teachings (Dhamma), you then interpret the whole of the fourth satipaṭṭhāna as referring phenomena (dhammā)?

Which brings me to a subsequent question I have for you (or anyone else interested in answering): how did the ancients get from Dhamma as a singular, overarching principle ordering and governing society or the universe to dhammā as individual phenomena? Additionally, what, if any, part did the concept you mention of “Dhammic principles” play in such a shift?

Thank you.

I’m not an expert on this stuff, and my opinions are mostly based on experience of practising satipatthana.
However, if you look at the fourth frame of satipatthana, it appears to consist of a selection of methods or models for observing phenomena generally. It’s basically a set of lists, eg 5 hindrances, 7 factors of enlightenment, 5 aggregates and 6 sense-bases.

As for the issue of Dhamma (teaching/principle/law) v. dhamma (phenomena), I haven’t come across the second meaning outside Buddhist texts. So I assume the second meaning of “phenomena” for dhamma is an exclusively Buddhist development. I’d speculate that it served the need for a neutral term which reflected the conditionality of experience in the suttas, ie dependent origination.

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