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
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
Buddhism and Philosophy Part IV - Practices of Attention: Friday December 30, 2005
Philosophy, language and the practice of attention.
Politics: Friday May 5, 2006
The relationship between Buddhism and politics
On Going Without Food.: Saturday November 26, 2005
Ram Bomjon, the Buddha and the virtues of a good, hearty breakfast.
On Advertising: Wednesday January 14, 2009
“There are a lot of things in this world / You are going to have no use for…” Tom Waits.
Putting Shantideva to the Test: Thursday March 27, 2008
Happiness and ethics – a simple experiment.
Life Without Free Will: Friday September 1, 2006
The lights are on, but there’s nobody at home…
Religion, Violence and Dualism: Friday September 21, 2007
Is the problem religion, or is it something more subtle?
Blogging Philosophy Part II: Hanging Out with the Peasants: Friday January 30, 2009
Blogging, the Gutenberg parenthesis, and how to establish the colour of a bear.
Religious Offences: Thursday December 21, 2006
Religion, offence and public life.
The Hard Truths of Science?: Saturday February 23, 2008
Rebelling robots, gene machines, and the utter, hideous meaninglessness of everything.
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.