Wisdom and Right Intention – Nagasena Answers King Milinda


The Eightfold Path is characterized as a path of wisdom, virtue, and concentration. Within the Dhamma an emphasis is placed on developing heightened levels of these three characteristics in thought, word, and deed. An awakened human being abides with a mind settled in wisdom. Wisdom is a quality of mind that is developed through all eight factors of Eightfold Path. Wisdom is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight.

It is important when referring to the Dhamma to not confuse the teachings by attempting to apply the Dhamma to all ideas. Wisdom in the context of the Eightfold Path is a quality of mind that is developed through the Dhamma.

In the Milindapanha, the eighteenth book in the Khudakka Nikaya, King Milinda questions one of the senior monks, Nagasena.

King Milinda: “Venerable Nagasena, what is the distinguishing characteristic of attention and of wisdom?”

Nagasena: “Examination of the Dhamma is the distinguishing characteristic of attention and severing is the distinguishing characteristic of wisdom.”

King Milinda: “ How is examination and severing the defining characteristics of attention and wisdom.”

Nagasena: “How do barley-reapers harvest barley?”

King Milinda: “They take a sheaf of barley in one hand and cut the sheaf with a sickle in their other hand.”

Nagasena: “In the same way that a barley-reaper takes a sheaf in one hand and with the other hand a sickle and cuts the barley so does a Dhamma practitioner develop concentration and refined mindfulness so as to take hold of the mind with attention and then sever clinging to the defilements with wise intention. It is in this way that examination and severing are the distinguishing characteristics of attention and wisdom.”

King Milinda: “ You are wise, Venerable Nagasena.”

Nagasena here is emphasizing the concentration developed in Shamatha-Vipassana meditation to support the refined mindfulness necessary to hold in mind, to be attentive, of the Eightfold Path, in order to sever the bond of clinging to wrong views rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths.

The Buddha repeatedly described the purpose of his teachings to develop an understanding of the distraction of dukkha, and to develop the experience of the end of dukkha by ending all clinging. The cessation of clinging is to all clinging (or attachment) to objects, events, views, and ideas.

What is commonly referred to as intelligence can be an aspect of wisdom but it can also be a hindrance to awakening. Wisdom in a general sense is helpful in navigating the difficulties of the phenomenal world. The “acquisition” of wisdom is often clinging to a view of self as wise and somehow special. This will only lead to more disappointment and confusion.

Wisdom of the Dhamma arises from an investigation of the Dhamma. Some schools of Buddhism, seeking to reconcile the Dhamma to charismatic individual and cultural views misapply “intelligent” views with the Dhamma. Creating associations to the Dhamma with impermanent ideas will develop more confusion.

The Eightfold Path guides the application of intelligence in developing wisdom. Intelligence can be a way of developing how to think of certain subjects as well as what to place discerning thought on. As the first factor of the Eightfold Path, Right View, or Right Understanding, brings wisdom to the forefront of the Dhamma. The mundane wisdom gained initially through an intellectual encounter with the Dhamma then can lead to a deepening wisdom through experience arising from insight.

As wisdom and understanding develop, Right Intention is seen as the essence of the Dhamma, and of mindfulness. As the Dhamma’s purpose is to develop understanding of dukkha and experience the cessation of the origination of dukkha, clinging, Right Intention is the intention to abandon all forms of clinging. Right Intention also guides the proper application of intelligence and developing wisdom.

Rather than broadly apply the factors of awakening that the Buddha taught to all outward experiences, intelligence, Dhamma experience, insight and common sense develops the wisdom to bring all of life’s experience into the Eightfold Path. This can avoid the ego-personalities need to reconcile the Dhamma with hardened views of how the world, and the dhamma, should be.

This type of wisdom, grounded in Right View and Right Intention, does not lead to a dissolution of the Dhamma due to the needs of a clinging ego-self. This type of wisdom does not insist that the Dhamma be reconciled with impermanent objects and ideas. The wisdom arising from the Dhamma becomes the framework for a life of meaning and lasting peace.

Wisdom in this sense is knowing how to apply the Dhamma in relation to the phenomenal world. Understanding dukkha, awakened human beings do not attempt to manipulate or avoid dukkha. Understanding the origination of dukkha, awakened human beings have abandoned all clinging. Understanding that cessation of dukkha is possible through the Eightfold Path, awakened human beings have wisely engaged with the Eightfold Path.

Being mindful of Right Intention then develops the wisdom of true vipassana, insight into the ego-self’s self-referential attachments to impermanent objects, events, views,  and ideas. Being mindful of Right Intention avoids the thirst for intellectual knowledge and conceptual application of the Dhamma outside of the framework of the Eightfold Path. Another aspect of wisdom developed within the Dhamma is mindfulness or the ability to recollect and hold in mind the Dhamma.

Holding in mind the Dhamma is how wise discernment is developed. The distractions of the phenomenal world are put aside by generating the Right Intention to abandon all clinging. The remaining 6 factors of the Eightfold Path develop heightened virtue and heightened concentration further developing the wisdom of the Dhamma.

The wisdom of the Dhamma shines a clear and luminous light on the lack of understanding leading to all greed, aversion and delusional thinking. The wisdom of the Dhamma is nothing special as an aspect of the Dhamma and extraordinary in relation to a mind rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths. An awakened human being is a wise human being whose thoughts, words and deeds remain virtuous and arise from a mind settled in equanimity.

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