Saturday December 20, 2008

It is probably fairly clear by now, even if you have only glanced in passing at this blog, that I am not particularly mystically inclined. As Stephen Batchelor writes, “The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendental truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.” Whilst I’m not sure that these days I would be quite as bold as Batchelor is about what the Buddha was or wasn’t like – the distances in time are too great, the records upon which we rely are too compromised – I’m in agreement with the spirit of this quote. Wisdom, as I have suggested before, is simply not the kind of thing that can be esoteric. There may be esoteric knowledge (for example, there are people who know a whole load about the social lives of naked mole rats, which by my standards, and by the standards of most people I know, seems pretty esoteric), but there is no esoteric wisdom.

But what do I mean by “wisdom”? The best definition of wisdom that I can find is that by Walter Benjamin, who talks in his essay The Storyteller about wisdom as “counsel woven into the fabric of real life”. Such counsel is, Benjamin writes, “less an answer
to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding.” I love the story that Benjamin tells about the unfolding of story (or, what I would prefer, the multiple stories) of our lives, about how wisdom is the ability to put proposals about how these stories might continue. Such wisdom is both pays attention to that which is unfolding, and then has the ability to ask “what if…?”

The question “what if…?” is one that can lead us in unexpected directions, because it is a question that is rooted in the acknowledgment that we do not have complete knowledge of things, rooted, in a sense, in mystery. But there are mysteries and mysteries. One of the things that often strikes me about many of those things that are claimed to be mysteries – from the “mystery of Christmas” to many of the so-called mysteries of the East such as people who claim to go without food for months (yes, I’m looking at you, Ram Bomjon), levitating monks and yogis, rebirth and all the other implausible things that I find myself writing about from time to time here at thinkBuddha – is how utterly unmysterious they seem to be to those who hold to them. When your local UFO society says that they have seen mysterious lights in the sky, you know that they don’t really believe them to be mysterious at all, but that they believe them to be lights from spacecraft piloted by beings of higher intelligence from a distant galaxy, and that they very likely believe these same aliens to be involved in a protracted and somewhat unseemly experiments on human abductees… which is all rather specific. Or when Reverend Brimstone, your neighbourhood evangelical preacher recovers from an illness and proclaims it a mystery, you know once again there are quite specific beliefs about what has happened – in this case, that the good Reverend has been singled out by God, on account of the Good Work that he is doing, and cured by means of divine agency, so that he can get on with the job.

One of the things that I dislike about such so-called mysteries is that those who talk about them are, in the end, too damned certain about what precisely is happening. So certain, in fact, that they will refuse to consider all other explanations, whatever the evidence. And so, in the end, such mysteries seem curiously unmysterious, even on their own terms. I prefer other kinds of mysteries: the mysteries of how naked mole rats go about organising their social lives; the mysteries of how the mind goes about its business; the mysteries of precisely what kinds of strange creatures swim in the dark depths of the seas; the mysteries of the bubbling, bafflingly paradoxical soup of the subatomic world. I am not a scientist, but I love the methods by means of which the sciences investigate the world. I love the tentativeness, the genuine perplexity, the wonder. I love the fact that, to find out all those astonishing, genuinely astonishing, facts about naked mole rats, termites, blue whales and periodical cicadas, facts about distant galaxies and exoplanets and nebulae, countless individuals have spent their days lying on their bellies on the plains, bobbing on small boats on the surface of the seas, sitting waiting in forests and jungles, peering through telescopes and making subtle calculations with the kind of patience that would put most self-proclaimed yogis to shame. For here there are genuine mysteries, mysteries that are not rooted on a prior claim to knowledge, but are rooted in a prior commitment to investigation. In this way, at their best the sciences offer us proposals about the stories that are unfolding, and how these stories might be interpreted and continued, how they might be joined with other stories into fragile webs of knowledge. There is, I think, the possibility of wisdom here, as we follow the threads of mysteries that are vast and wide-ranging enough for a whole lifetime: paying attention, advancing proposals about the unfolding of the stories in progress, coming to know the world ever more closely and, in this knowledge, coming to appreciate the wonder of things, just as they are.

Image: Vlastní Dílo – Creative Commons ShareAlike

# · Barry Briggs

Thank you for your clear-headed post. You might be interested to know that the Fall 2008 issue of Buddhadharma Magazine contains an extensive discussion on “miracles” in Buddhism. This isn’t the place to summarize the various points of view offered by the contributors, but the article certainly broadened my understanding of the function of these stories.

More importantly, the article reinforced for me the centrality of “don’t know” mind – the mind that approaches each moment without preconception – even conceptions based on scientific knowledge.

In the Ratnakuta Sutra, the Buddha said:

“The world may debate with me, but I will not debate with the world. Whatever is asserted to exist in the world, I will also assert to exist. Whatever is asserted not to exist in the world, I will also assert not to exist.”

Among other interpretations, this passage at least points out the equanimity associated with “don’t know” – and the spaciousness that can appear with acceptance of experience.

A naked mole rat might have seemed quite astonishing to the Buddha – but if someone asserted its existence, the Buddha would be okay with that.

My root teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, used to say to his students (say, when someone proposed going to a violent movie), “You like, I like.”

When we can sustain this kind of spaciousness in daily life, there will be no room for war in all its many forms.

# · Will

A naked mole rat, Barry, is pretty astonishing to anyone (except, perhaps, another naked mole rat…)

I’ll see if I can track down that article. But I also think that whilst the “don’t know” is important, so knowledge is also important, as long as it is knowledge that is aware of its own limitations.

All the best,


# · David Chapman

I am sympathetic with your point of view here, but I would like to quibble with your “no esoteric wisdom” line. (I am not sure whether we actually disagree; it may be merely terminological.)

Let me give a non-religious example. I read a bunch of evolutionary psychology some years ago. Since then I have found that I am startlingly better able to understand and predict what people will do — and therefore I am better able to act in relation to others. This would seem to count as “wisdom” according to your definition. It would also seem to be “esoteric” inasmuch as few people know evolutionary psychology, and it sounds weird, improbable, and morally unacceptable to many people when first encountered.

I do think there is esoteric wisdom, of this sort, in Buddhism as well. It is not the matter of miracles, but of psychology and ontology. For example, I believe that spiritual suffering and confusion can generally be resolved through proper understanding of the “four extremes” of eternalism, nihilism, monism, and dualism. This is esoteric inasmuch as it is not widely understood, and wisdom inasmuch as it leads to better life choices.

# · Will

You may be right, David. I’m not entirely sure whether I like the “there is no such thing as esoteric wisdom” thing because of its pleasing rhetorical force, or because I think it is true.

If I wanted to argue for this claim, I might do so by saying that whilst many kinds of esoteric knowledge may contribute to wisdom, they are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for wisdom, and that wisdom, once again, is a more ordinary and less abstruse thing than might be suspected by these kinds of knowledge… But, as I said, I’m not sure…


Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles