Can anyone explain the difference between the terms prajna and jnana and how they differ between schools? I learnt for several years with a chinese tradition, where we were taught that prajna is experiential wisdom as opposed to jnana being intellectual wisdom, a view which I am told by my friends who read pali is shared by the pali cannon, however my understanding is that in tibetan buddhism the useage often seems to be the opposite (see for example John Reynolds' "the golden letters")

Can anyone shed some light on this issue?

  • 2
    just for clarification, i believe this is the term being asked about en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jnana
    – Robin111
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 13:57
  • you can see here in this article linked above by robin111, In Tibetan Buddhism, it refers to pure awareness that is free of conceptual encumbrances, and is contrasted with vijnana, which is a moment of 'divided knowing'.
    – sean read
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 2:14
  • Also in the context of the ten Bhumis, the tenth being jnana paramita, or primordial wisdom, in which case it seems to me that primordial wisdom becomes somewhat synonymous with "nouminal wisdom" as suggested below by Andrei for Prajna. I am confused because I had also heard in my days of mahayana study of prajna as "supraconceptual" as opposed to jnana, which was more general, however It seems in that this is not always the case...
    – sean read
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 2:19
  • Hi Sean and welcome to Buddhism SE. We have put together a Guide and a Resource section for new users that you might find useful.
    – user2424
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 23:43

1 Answer 1


From Pali linguistics perspective, both words share the common root jna ("to know"). So jnana literally means "knowledge", while pra- in prajna means "before" and "super", making it into "super-knowledge" or perhaps "proto-knowledge" or even "meta-knowledge".

Traditionally in Buddhism (Tibetan or not), jnana is used to refer to various insights (realizations, recognitions) one gets along the way, while prajna is taken to mean the noumenal aspect of the Ultimate Realization (Enlightenment).

Unfortunately the schools disagree on what exactly it means to be enlightened, and therefore on the exact nature of prajna. Here I'll speak from Mahayana/Madhyamaka perspective, as I understand it.

Most Mahayana schools of Madhyamaka heritage equate prajna with either direct supraconceptual realization of Emptiness ("the ultimate reality") or, taking it a step further, with direct realization of inseparability of "the ultimate reality" and "the conventional reality" (the world as we know it in day-to-day living).

The Chan family of schools traditionally emphasizes the "supraconceptual" part of Realization, for them understanding is incomplete until your really "get it" deep in your guts, so to speak. So when they talk about prajna they mean not as much intellectual understanding of "the two truths", as realization of its practical implications to our life -- and the resulting modus-operandi.

From this realization comes certain skill in dealing with phenomena, now seen as lacking substantial existence. One can jungle alternative designations without getting stuck. This skill, in my understanding, is the prajna proper. At the same time the Realization comes with coemergent compassion towards sentient beings trying to organize their lives around the wrong assumption that reality they deal with is solid and reliable. As well as with clear understanding that a sentient being can't simply jump from its modus-operandi based on innate confusion, to the modus-operandi based on enlightenment. There is time and effort and the right conditions required. This drives even more compassion on the side of the ones acquainted with "the knowledge of the two truths", due to which they see the need to employ upaya or skillful means, to gradually take sentient begins from point A to point B.

This conglomerate of realizations, concerns, considerations, and the resulting behavior is known as "prajna-karuna", the unity of wisdom and compassion.

The reason some teachers may downplay prajna, is because without the water of compassion it is considered a dry understanding of emptiness, lacking life, therefore incomplete. I suppose their praise of jnana could refer specifically to "knowledge of the two truths", which is said to be the root of compassion.

As always in Buddhism, the words are used as designations to refer to some real stuff going on. As long as we know what we are talking about, we won't get confused as to what's what.

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