There is a Zen koan that poses this tricky situation: You are at the top of a 100-foot pole. How will you take a step further? The earliest Buddhist teachings don’t offer koans. But it turns out that the Eightfold Path, the ancient way the Buddha offered to end suffering, does include a leap. It turns out that attaining and perfecting each of these steps—wise view, wise intention, wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood, wise effort, wise mindfulness, wise concentration—is not enough. The attainment of the final step, concentration, makes the mind still and steady, unifying all our ways of sensing and knowing. It is said that fully developed concentration can open us to vast vistas of bliss, serenity, and power—there are descriptions of psychic powers in the suttas that surpass anything possessed by any the Avengers. But it turns out that attaining the vision of a Hubble Space Telescope is still not enough. In fact, such powers can leave one stranded on top of a very tall pole.
The next step off the top of that pole is wisdom, a penetrating view into the nature of life. It turns out that all the other skills we need to bring ourselves into alignment with our own inner lives and the outer world are just tools and skills, just practice for the main event. These skills are crucial—they help us transform or lesson the damage of what bubbles up in life—all the nasty or at least unskillful thoughts and words and deeds that knock us out of inner alignment and make us feel miserable. But only wisdom can release us from all that is unseen. Only wisdom can free us from the sleeping dragon of ignorance. he Buddhist scholar monk Bhikkhu Bodhi explains that ignorance is not just an absence of knowledge: “It is an insidious and volatile mental factor incessantly at work inserting itself into every compartment of our inner life. It distorts cognition, dominates volition, and determines the entire tone of our existence.”
Ignorance colors our experience, creating the claustrophobic and stressful delusion that the world is solid and stable, and that we ourselves are solid and self-contained from the world around us. Wisdom is a leap beyond all this—a leap into the heart of our own lives. It is not a brilliant or philosophical thought but a moment of deep seeing—of seeing into or insight (vipasssana) into the deepest truth of our existence. Normally we are so identified with our experience that we don’t see or feel it for what it is. But sometimes we do.
Last week, I was standing in a shiny new Shell station-7-11 complex in Westchester, New York. As I watched my dirty little Prius move through a sudsy car wash, I was thinking about what I would eat for dinner (one of my favorite reflections). My cell phone rang. I learned that my 93-year-old father was once again in the ER, that his days are numbered, and he knows it. I was invited to come visit as soon as possible, to talk with him about his death, his life, our life. Right there, facing a Slurpee machine and a magazine rack bristling with celebrity news, I had a cosmic moment. There was a quiet moment of abdicating my position at the center of the world. Even though I wasn’t bare foot in the forest, I remembered that I was standing on the earth. I was aware that I am made of different parts, that I am more a buzzing mind, a mental iPhone. I was aware of coming from somewhere–that this life has come to me from my father and my father’s father and from the earth and stars—and that I am also made for a purpose I may never imagine.
This moment passed. But something lingers, a wish to be present with my father, to show up—not with a head full of ideas, but with an open heart, a willingness to accompany, to bear witness. I was sharing this at our Sunday night sangha (at Yoga Shivaya in Tarrytown, New York– each and every one of you is invited). A friend said: Isn’t it interesting that everywhere and in all times wisdom is the same? Isn’t that interesting to reflect on? Wisdom doesn’t depend on knowledge, which can change but on our unchanging common human situation, and on the ability of the heart and mind to hold it.
One thought on “Leap of Wisdom”
Hi Tracy, you wrote:
“The next step off the top of that pole is wisdom, a penetrating view into the nature of life. It turns out that all the other skills we need to bring ourselves into alignment with our own inner lives and the outer world are just tools and skills, just practice for the main event.”
I think it is also valuable to see how far we are from wisdom. The very fact that we exist as a plurality of opposing fragments associated with our higher and lower nature indicates how far we are from the experience of wisdom
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Socrates
I also believe that a person feels nothing in comparison to the potential for human emotion. That is why I am not attracted to the defense of self justifying emoting
Metropolitan Anthony tells Jacob Needleman as recorded in his book “Lost Christianity:”
Metropolitan Anthony,” I began, “five years ago when I visited you I attended services which you yourself conducted and I remarked to you how struck I was by the absence of emotion in your voice. Today, in the same way where it was not you but the choir, I was struck by the same thing, the almost complete lack of emotion in the voices of the singers.”
Yes he said, “this is quite true, it has taken years for that, but they are finally beginning to understand….”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I knew what he meant but I wanted to hear him speak about this – this most unexpected aspect of the Christianity I never knew, and perhaps very few modern people ever knew. I put the question further: “The average person hearing this service – and of course the average Westerner having to stand up for several hours it took – might not be able to distinguish it from the mechanical routine that has become so predominant in the performance of the Christian liturgy in the West. He might come wanting to be lifted, inspired,moved to joy or sadness – and this the churches in the West are trying to produce because many leaders of the Church are turning away from the mechanical, the routine..”
He gently waved aside what I was saying and I stopped in mid sentence. “There was a pause, then he said: “No. Emotion must be destroyed.”
He stopped, reflected, and started again, speaking in his husky Russian accent: “We have to get rid of emotions….in order to reach…..feeling.”
Again he paused, looking at me, weighing the effect his words were having. I said nothing. but inside I was alive with expectancy. I waited.
Very tentatively, I nodded my head.
He continued: “You ask about the liturgy in the West and in the East. it is precisely the same issue. the sermons, the Holy Days – you don’t know why one comes after the other. or why this one now and the other one later. Even if you read everything about it you still wouldn’t know, believe me.
“And yet . . . there is a profound logic in them, in the sequence of the Holy Days. And this sequence leads people somewhere – without their knowing it intellectually. Actually, it is impossible for anyone to understand the sequence of rituals and Holy Days intellectually. it is not meant for that. It is meant for something else, something higher.
For this you have to be in a state of prayer, otherwise it passes you by-”
“What is prayer?” I asked.
He did not seem to mind my interrupting with this question. Quite the contrary. “In a state of prayer one is vulnerable.” He emphasized the last word and then waited until he was sure I had not taken it in an ordinary way.
“In prayer one is vulnerable, not enthusiastic. and then these rituals have such force. they hit you like a locomotive. You must be not enthusiastic, nor rejecting – but only open. This is the whole idea of asceticism: to become open.”
The experience of wisdom IMO requires the emotional ability to become open rather than justifying negative emotions even if they have impressive names.
Perhaps this tendency to emote superficially is part of what Bhikkhu Bodhi describes as ignorance.