Knowledge, Wisdom and Ignorance

Friday June 22, 2007


In my last post, I wrote – perhaps somewhat flippantly – about ignorance and about how any kind of practice presupposes a degree of ignorance. It is probably necessary, however, to explore this claim a little more, because whilst I think that it is not at all unreasonable, at the same time it seems to me as if it could be easily misconstrued.

What is at stake here is the distinction between wisdom and knowledge. That these are not the same at all is evident to anybody who spends even a few hours wandering around a university department and watching how the knowledgeable behave. There may (although I’m not even sure about this) be more knowledge in university departments than elsewhere, but there is not a great deal of evidence that there is more wisdom to be found in such places.

When it comes to knowledge, there is very often a strong tendency to think that there is some kind of Big Secret hiding behind things, a Secret that can be reached only through long and painful asceticism. And Big Secrets – as Dan Brown knows – are endlessly marketable. But at the same time, and for this very reason, I remain sceptical about them, as I remain sceptical about those who claim to have uncovered them. In this connection, the following famous story is of some interest. The Buddha – towards the very end of his life – is rather wearily telling Ananda that he has very little more to say, that he too has no Big Secrets:

What more does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back.

The reason that the Buddha can say this, I think, is that there is no such thing as esoteric wisdom; and the Buddha saw himself less as a teacher of knowledge than as a teacher of wisdom. There is such a thing as esoteric knowledge, but the idea of esoteric wisdom makes no sense. Wisdom is not about Big Secrets, but about things that are evident to all, if only one pays a little attention. And one of the things that is evident, if one pays attention, is that the knowledge that we seem so secure in is a rather fragile and uncertain thing, that we don’t know nearly as much as we think that we know. Thus wisdom is one of the things that brings home to us the extent to which we do not know, it demonstrates how fragile and equivocal many of our certainties are; or – perhaps better put – it allows us to take the knowledge and the learning on which we pride ourselves rather more lightly. To be sure, much of our knowledge is good and useful, but at the same time, wisdom demands that we recognise that our knowledge is never absolute, that – as the Taoists say – the objects of knowledge are infinite, and that our store of knowledge is only finite, that we only know, after all, a very little.


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