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.