How an ancient Buddhist teaching can help us navigate 21st century leadership.
Most people would agree that we are living in a time of unprecedented change and complexity. Baby Boomers have told me that even though they’ve seen tremendous change in their lifetimes, the accelerated pace and intensity of change today feels uncharted. The Covid pandemic, the increasing polarization of the political climate, the disparity of wealth and rapid change in technology- all create a context of increasing uncertainty and anxiety that even the most seasoned among us are finding it difficult to navigate. In these challenging and shifty times, what can we rely on?
As it turns out, a Buddhist teaching from over 2500 years ago has something to say about this. The Pranjnaparamita Sutra tells us that even though everything is shifty, complex, challenging, and strange-there is something we can rely on. The Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras are a collection of about forty texts composed somewhere on the Indian Subcontinent between approximately 100 BC and AD 600. There is an overwhelming amount of scholarly information on the Prajnaparamita, my intention is not to provide an overview of the scholarly breadth of these profound sutras; rather my intention is to share my experience of making these teachings relevant after 20 years of chanting and practicing a condensed form of the sutra in my daily practice and bringing my understanding of these simple yet profound teachings into my life.
I learned a condensed form of the Prajnaparamita Sutra many years ago at the beautiful Stupa of Dharmakaya. Enter this majestic Stupa and you’ll find a 20ft golden statue of the Buddha sitting in meditation posture touching the earth. As I sat in silence at the Buddha’s feet and heard the resonance of the morning gong signaling meditation practice, we chanted the sutra, which in it’s condensed form takes about 5 minutes to chant. Even translated into English I had no idea what the sutra was telling me or what secrets were contained in its lines. The central mantra of the sutra, Om gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate bodhi svaha seemed strange and abstract to me. Rough translation: Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone way beyond, awake, so be it. Several years later, I sat in the same stupa with my teacher who had us chant the Prajnaparamita for over an hour. I wondered why he was placing so much weight and importance on these teachings which still felt unknowable to me.
The Prajanaparamita Sutra is the fundamental teaching of the Mahayana school and turning of the Buddhist teachings and lays the ground for an understanding of the empty nature of all phenomena. Prajna (wisdom) and paramita (perfection or transcendent action) is one of the six paramitas (the others are generosity, morality, patience, vigor, concentration, and wisdom) and refer to the way in which we conduct our lives and perceive the world in a non-egocentric way. So the prajna paramita teachings are essentially how to perceive and conduct ourselves beyond ego based with the understanding and insight that we fundamentally don’t exist.
When Shariputra, a disciple of the Buddha, asks how he might train the Buddha, in the form of Avolokitesvara the bodhisattva of compassion, goes on to tell him that nothing exists. All this stuff we take to be so real? Gone. These identities we hold so tightly? Gone. No eyes, no ears, no body, no mind, no suffering, no origin of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment and no non-attainment… in fact the bulk of the sutra is this negation that there is anything solid to land on. As I practiced and contemplated these lines in my life I began to find a certain refuge in the idea that nothing is certain. All the angst and fixation, all the people and situations that seem so real-are actually empty and ever-changing.
Much of our suffering comes from thinking people and phenomena are solid and fixed. When we’re dealing with a difficult person it’s easy to see our view as the right one and hold tightly to our ideas. We get stuck in how we see the world and become convinced this is how things are. Change becomes difficult. Even though things around us are changing all the time, we try to control change and become fixated on our plans and strategies of how things should be. According to the Prajnaparamita, this is futile since the nature of all phenomena is empty and therefore not fixed, it’s ever moving and fluid. The Covid pandemic has been a great teacher for many leaders in this way. I talked to several leaders who began to realize that the more tightly they hung on to their strategies and plans the worse things became, but as soon as they were able to surrender more to the fluidity of the situation, it allowed them to be awake to the change and to move with it.
At the same time, how do we ourselves not become shifty and uncertain when everything around us is changing? How do we keep our backbone and not bend and crumble every time the wind shifts? In the text, Shariputra is basically asking Avalokiteshvara, given that everything is empty, how do we abide? Given the context of this world which is full of suffering and challenge- how do we actually live a meaningful life with the understanding that everything is empty, nothing exists? Does that mean nothing matters? I could see Shariputra being any one of us today, grappling with how we make meaning in a world full of contradiction and uncertainty. We tend to vacillate between ideas that everything matters or that nothing matters. We get caught in the trap of nihilism and eternalism. Many people lose heart in today’s world, thinking nothing matters and they shut down and disconnect; or they build themselves up and try to become more solid and permanent by accumulating more stuff.
The Prajnaparamita sutra is not telling us everything is empty so that we throw up our hands into one of these extremes, ok, everything is empty so let’s just do whatever the heck we want; rather, the teaching is showing us that since there is no where to land, the only thing we have to rely on is our wisdom. That’s where we abide.
Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita.
When we get beyond the idea that things are solid and fixed and enduring, we can actually let go and learn to rely on our own wisdom. It would be a scary world if we just said everything is empty, nothing exists, good luck. Rather, we have some internal consistency in our own sense of how things are and what to do, we can strengthen this by learning to rely on it. Prajna is wisdom, or insight, and it’s our ability to see clearly even when things are murky and shifty around us. It’s the inherent intelligence we’re born with-the knowing and clarity that comes when we allow our minds to settle enough so that we’re not thinking from a habitual egoic place, but rather from a deep knowing found in our heart and body.
Prajna is depicted as a sword, our ability to cut through the noise, our limited thinking, biases and assumptions- to something true and clear and whole and to from that. We can not grasp that deep wisdom and intelligence, it’s not solid, but we can rely on it. I still chant the Prajnaparamita often as a way to remind myself of the mystery of life. Thank goodness things are always changing and nothing is fixed or solid, it allows me choice and freedom, it helps me to relax and let go when I’m taking life too seriously. At the same time, it reminds me of my own inherent wisdom-that I can rely on this inner jewel to guide me and reach the other shore.