Who would like to have “wisdom water”?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Panna (prajna in Sanskrit) is one of the key concepts in Buddhist thought. Usually translated as “wisdom”, panna is employed by the Buddha to describe how he came to discover and formulate the Dhamma: “Then, monks, through careful attention, there took place in me a breakthrough by wisdom: ‘When there is birth, aging-and-death comes to be; aging-and-death has birth as its condition.’ … ‘When there is consciousness, name-and-form comes to be; name-and-form has consciousness as its condition.’ … ” (Samyutta Nikaya 12) We are also reminded of the importance of panna when the Buddha recommends it as one of the four virtues for his lay followers: “Here, Visakha, a woman is accomplished in faith, moral discipline, generosity, and wisdom. … And how is a woman accomplished in wisdom? Here, Visakha, a woman possesses the wisdom that sees into the arising and passing away of phenomena, that is noble and penetrative and leads to the destruction of suffering.” (Anguttara Nikaya 8)

We can infer, from the above quotes, that panna is a key concept that leads us to important teachings of the Buddha such as “dependent origination” and “impermanence”. We also know, from the well-known Prajnaparamita, that panna leads us to another important teaching of the Buddha about sunyata, or “emptiness”. If panna is such an important concept in Buddhist thought, what does it really mean? What is it like? Does “wisdom” really capture what it really means?

The Buddha himself considers panna as something that one obtains as a result of sharpening one’s capacity called vipassna, or “insight”: “Two things, O monks, partake of true knowledge. What two? Serenity and insight. When serenity is developed, what benefit does one experience? The mind is developed … When insight is developed, what benefit does one experience? Wisdom is developed. …” (Anguttara Nikaya 2) Thus, panna is taught to be one part of the two things that lead to true knowledge, suggesting that panna is something beyond mere knowledge in Buddhist thought. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, “wisdom” does not quite capture the deep implications of panna, or prajinaparamita: “Perfect understanding is prajnaparamita. The word ‘wisdom’ is usually used to translate prajna, but I think that wisdom is somehow not able to convey the meaning. Understanding is like water flowing in a stream. Wisdom and knowledge are solid and can block our understanding. … Understanding, like water, can flow, can penetrate. Views, knowledge, and even wisdom are solid, and can block the way of understanding.” (The Heart of Understanding, Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1988, p.8)

While “wisdom” may not be a mistranslation, it is clear from these discussions that panna is something more than what the English word “wisdom” implies. Beyond “wisdom” or “knowledge”, panna implies “deep insight” to see things as they really are, beyond the world of appearances. It implies “understanding” that, like water, flows and penetrates from the world of conventional reality into the world of ultimate reality. As such, panna captures the essence of what the Buddhist practitioner needs to cultivate in order to reach enlightenment.

Given the crucial importance of panna in Buddhist thought, which is essential for that the Buddhist practitioner to cultivate, we would hardly expect panna to be employed to refer to something that clouds clarity in our thinking, or promotes forgetfulness in our deeds. But that seems to be the case when panna is combined with water as “般若湯” in Japanese, which means “wisdom water”. While it is tempting to infer that “wisdom water” refers to “deep insight” that comes from the cultivation of panna, it is not the case here. “Wisdom water” here is actually a word invented by Buddhist temples in Japan to refer to sake that they serve to their guests.

With the official statistics counting almost 75% of the population as Buddhists, and with some 75,000 temples scattered all over the land, there is no question that Japan is a major Buddhist country. But these numbers conceal the fact that most Japanese who profess to be Buddhists are not practitioners and that most temples which call themselves Buddhist temples do not serve as venues for Buddhist practice. In fact, some commentators go as far as using the somewhat derogatory term “Funeral Buddhism” to describe the reality of Japanese Buddhism today, as providing funeral services is the major source of income for most Buddhist temples. Some temples, especially those located in popular tourist destinations such as Kyoto, Nara, and Mt. Koya earn their income from tourists by providing lodging and meals for them.

When choosing to stay at Buddhist temples, tourists know that the meals served will be vegetarian meals, which is the case. At some temples, tourists are asked—not openly, but discreetly—whether they would like to have “般若湯”, or “wisdom water”, with their dinner. Thus, those tourists who are used to having sake with their evening meals at home can have “wisdom water” at Buddhist temples as well. But why do some Buddhist temples in Japan offer sake with dinner, when drinking intoxicants is clearly discouraged as one of the five precepts in Buddhism? Are not these Buddhist temples interested in disseminating the teachings of the Buddha to their guests?

A sympathetic interpretation of serving sake would be to say that these Buddhist temples are adapting their Buddhist practices to suit the cultural tradition of Japanese society. Ranked 70th in the world in terms of per capita consumption of alcohol, according to the 2011 WHO Report, the Japanese are not necessarily known as heavy drinkers like the people in such countries as Czech republic, Hungary, and Russia. Moreover, the overall consumption of alcohol has been steadily declining since 2000. However, the Japanese have been known to be lovers of liquor from the earliest times of the nation’s history, judging from the statement that “they are fond of liquor” appears in History of Kingdom of Wei, written around 297. Japan is still regarded today as a society with its permissive attitude towards drinking. While the overall consumption has been declining, due perhaps to the stagnant national economy, business people in Japan still maintain the custom of drinking together after work. And at home, Japanese males, especially those who are over fifty, expect to have sake with their dinner, if not everyday but at least every other day. Drinking sake with meals may also have something to do with the characteristics of Japanese cooking, which goes well with sake, just as wine goes well with French cooking.

Whatever may be the reason behind it, Buddhist temples need to question the sagacity of continuing the custom of offering sake to their guests if they are serious about disseminating the teachings of the Buddha. Offering sake discreetly under the deceptive name of “wisdom water” is a clear violation of at least two of the five precepts, which Buddhist priests, of all people, should know very well. A message written in fine prints, “Please refrain from excessive drinking!” should be replaced by a clear message written in large prints, “Please refrain from drinking as doing so is one of the five precepts to be observed by Buddhist practitioners!”