The Wisdom of the Ancients?

Friday May 29, 2009

Buddhist Monk

The New Scientist dropped onto my doormat this morning, and – now that all my marking is done and I have a bit of free time – I settled down with the cat on my lap and a coffee in my hand, and decided to spend an hour or so reading. On the contents page, the following caught my eye: “Messages from the Dead: Recovering the Wisdom of the Ancients.”

The article, unfortunately, said nothing about wisdom, whether ancient or otherwise, and was instead an whirlwind tour of various undeciphered scripts: the Indus valley script, Linear A, and so on. It was an interesting enough article (I’ve been interested in the Indus Valley ever since, almost twenty years ago, I shared an evening meal in the Salt Range of Pakistan with a scholar who worked on the Indus Valley civilization), but what took my attention was something rather more peripheral: the question of why the copy writer for the New Scientist decided to talk about ancient wisdom. Why not ancient foolishness? Or – given that the content of all these various bits and pieces of texts is still unknown, and thus it is far too early to tell if what we are dealing with is wisdom or with foolishness – simply ancient writing.

Here there is something interesting. Why – almost without being able to help ourselves – do we locate wisdom in the past like this? Why do we assume that there is a connection between the deep past and deep wisdom?

The idea that we live in an age of decline is such a common complaint that we almost take it for granted. And the evidence seems to be that people have repeatedly succumbed to this idea in very different times and in very different places. Two and a half thousand years ago, over in China, Confucius looked back to the past and the great sage-kings Yao, Shun, and Yu, and – wondering what had gone wrong – thought “My, wouldn’t it be good if rulers today could be like them?” These days, now that Confucius is himself an ancient, we look back at him and think, “My, wouldn’t it be good if sages today could be like him.” Meanwhile, in India, certain early Buddhist texts make the same complaint: things aren’t what they used to be. The world is already in a state of decline. And today Buddhists look back and say to themselves, “Well, folks back then were really pretty splendid… We’re just not up to it.”

It appears that the ancients are much more magnificent figures than we ourselves are or ever could be. Such dreams of magnificent ages of wisdom located in the deep past are seductive. When we succumb to them, we might even allow ourselves to think (but perhaps not to admit too freely) that back then, if we had been around, we’d probably have been magnificent too. But then we shrug. What can we do? We are necessarily the children of our age.

Whilst I think that this tendency to overestimate our forebears is largely unhelpful, I do however think that there is a connection between wisdom and the past, although it is not necessarily the connection that we might think it is. Wisdom – or the kind of everyday wisdom that is worth wanting – may not have been any more prevalent in the past; but wisdom may turn out to depend upon some sense of the past. Here I’m thinking of Walter Benjamin’s definition of wisdom: counsel woven into the fabric of everyday life. Stories, accumulated experiences, attention to the world… these are the things that we weave together into the fabric of our lives to find counsel. The forgetting of the past does us no favours if we cherish wisdom (as philosophers claim they do); but this does not mean that folks in the past were in general any more or less wise than we are now. And if they seem so, the reason is probably that they are, in a very real sense, fictional characters. Failing to see this leads us into the trap of thinking that way back then, everything was somehow suffused in a holy and unworldly glow. This, in turn, can lead on the one hand to a kind of dismal perspective on the present, and on the other hand to unreasonable expectations of what the limits of human possibility might be.

Let me suggest a corrective to this nostalgia for the wisdom of the ancients. Whilst the stories are full of such starry-eyed stuff, if we turn to more mundane documents, we find that the picture looks rather different. In terms of the traditions of Buddhism, the Vinaya texts – texts that relate to the monastic code of conduct – act as an invigorating corrective to such dreams of golden ages long gone. Take, for example, the Vinaya’s accounts of sexual practices amongst the monastic community. Here we find that, far from being paragons of wisdom and virtue, some of the ancient Buddhist sangha were up to all kinds of things: from masturbation, to sex between monks and nuns, to sex between monks and monks and nuns and nuns, to rather more inventive behaviours, such as copulation with monkeys, corpses and decapitated heads.

“Now at that time, a certain bhikkhu living in the Great Wood at Vesālī, having befriended a monkey with food, engaged in sexual intercourse with it. Then, dressing early in the morning and carrying his bowl and outer robe, the bhikkhu went into Vesālī for alms. A number of bhikkhus wandering on a tour of the lodgings, went to the bhikkhu’s dwelling. The monkey saw them coming from afar and, on seeing them, went up to them and wiggled its rear and wiggled its tail and offered its rear and made a sign. The thought occurred to the bhikkhus, ‘Undoubtedly this bhikkhu is engaging in sexual intercourse with this monkey.’ So they hid off to one side.
“Then the bhikkhu, having gone for alms in Vesālī, returned bringing almsfood. The monkey went up to him. The bhikkhu, having eaten a portion of the almsfood, gave a portion to the monkey. The monkey, having eaten the almsfood, offered its rear to the bhikkhu, and the bhikkhu engaged in sexual intercourse with it.

For those with an interest in the full details, the admirable Access to Insight translation project, from which the extract above comes, has the relevant passages (complete with illustrative stories and forensically detailed semi-legalistic analyses).

The above, needless to say, is not one of the stories that is read out to inspire the faithful in Buddhist centres across the world. But texts such as this are important because they act against any tendencies we might have towards romanticism. If things were really that great in the old days, one has to wonder why the compilers of these texts went to such trouble to document things such as this. The pious might protest – unconvincingly, I think – that the compilers were making up hypothetical cases to simply cover all bases and all possibilities. But the texts certainly present themselves as accounts of actual happenings and responses within the monastic community to such happenings; and whilst it is always wise not to approach texts too naively (are monkeys really that knowing?), and to be aware that there may be many things going on here other than just reportage, such accounts of bawdy behaviour certainly take the shine off the idea of the wisdom of the ancients just a little.

This, I think, is no bad thing. If we allow ourselves to be seduced by stories of incense-perfumed ancients who drift around soft smiles, beaming out rays of light that reflect their perfect virtue, then we are at risk of finding ourselves aspiring to a kind of wisdom that is – and never has been – possible. In aspiring to something that is essentially make-believe, we might find that we overlook those things that may help us to attain to a degree of actual wisdom, here in the world, the kind of wisdom that may make us, for example, refrain from doing things with monkeys that we ought not be doing or that we might later regret. In realising that the ancients, as we ourselves, were as often as not stumbling around, trying and often failing to make sense of things, frequently baffled and confused, often misguided, sometimes downright cruel, we might be able to re-read the past and, in this endeavour, find ways of going about the real work of weaving what counsel we can find, both in the past and in the present, into the fabric of our lives.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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#1 · barbara

30 May 2009

what do you think about wisdom of the future. I know we aren’t there yet, and we can only speculate, but if we in the Now remember that we are providing fodder for the people in the future to distill for wisdom (or foolishness) don’t you think that this will help us live more enlightened lives?

(and maybe to not have sex with monkeys?)



#2 · Barry Briggs

30 May 2009

What a spoil-sport! No make-believe – what!?!?

My teacher sometimes says, “There’s only one type of human being.”

By that he means that all human beings act from ignorance, anger, and desire.

This includes those alive in the past, those coming in the future (presumably), as well as all the current residents of our beautiful planet.

Kinda kills the “golden age” fantasy, no matter where we position it in time.

#3 · David Chapman

31 May 2009

These are excellent points.

The rhetoric of a golden age of past saints, and authentication through ancientness, obscures the fact that Buddhism has constantly innovated, adapting itself to changing cultural, social, and political conditions.

For Buddhism to survive the rapidly changing conditions of the 21st Century, it’s going to have to continue to adapt; and pretending that it has an ancient, unchanging essence will be unhelpful.

Reading objective Buddhist history helpful in dispelling many of my own misconceptions about the “wisdom of the ancients”.

Inspired by your post, I’ve written a piece about this here:…

Its theme is that understanding how different Buddhism has been at various times in the past, and accepting those past Buddhisms as legitimate, opens the possibility for the legitimacy of future, very different Buddhisms.

#4 · Stephen P

31 May 2009

I suspect that the reason people find it so easy to venerate the past is because it is so far removed from us — and is thus somehow easier to take seriously. We don’t trust ourselves, but we will trust ancient stories. I think this is because we know that we are subjective creatures and thus distrust making claims (“Who am I to say this?”) but we don’t remember that other people are subjective creatures as well. Thus we like meeting people who share our opinions, and we like finding our opinions in the mouths of ancient teachers even better. The more removed they are from us — and thus our subjectivity — the more seriously we can take them.

#5 · Robert Ellis

31 May 2009

Idealisation of the past does seem to be one of the dogmas that afflicts Buddhism, but I think you need to ask some more probing questions. WHY do Buddhists idealise the past? I’d suggest that the answers are associated with the trend towards eternalism in the Buddhist tradition.

If it is assumed that there is a source of revelation of universal truths, to support such claims in the context of our merely relative experience requires an appeal to a source which is beyond any questioning based on experience. The remote past is one convenient place to situate such an appeal to revelation; the future (e.g. my potential for enlightenment) is another, and claims of absolute experience inaccessible to others is a third. Whichever form of eternalism you adopt, the problem is the metaphysical basis of the appeal, rather than exactly what you are appealing to.

#6 · Will

31 May 2009

One could take that explanatory route, but I think, Robert, that there are other questions as well. The book When they Severed Earth From Sky by Elizabeth and Paul Barber looks at a lot of myths from a lot of places, and makes the proposal that myths are “time capsules” that can encode information about the past. But, crucially, the Barbers say that the way that such capsules can be opened is by understanding the ways that cultures encode information through time, and this depends in turn upon the limitations of the human brain and the particular quirks of oral traditions of transmission. I don’t have the book to hand, because I’m up in Leeds and the book is down in Leicester, but I think that it has some interesting stuff to say on Buddhist myth-making. So this tendency to idealise the past may not stem from a philosophical error but from the way that our brains (or our brains-in-society) work as human animals.

Do we trust ancient stories more than we trust ourselves, Stephen? Only, I think, when it suits us. There are good reasons for our trust in both to be limited to a large degree. Neither we, nor our ancient stories, are particularly reliable.

Remembering that there is a future after us, Barbara, may conduce to wisdom, but not necessarily. To take a recent example, both Messrs. Bush and Blair seemed to have had a strong sense of their place in the history of the future, and of their historical mission; but this may have conduced more to unwisdom than to wisdom.

Thanks for the link to your post, David, which is very interesting. Buddhisms in the plural: I agree strongly here. What legitimacy means if we accept this idea is, however, another question.

And, finally, Barray… spoil-sport? Me?

#7 · Ted Bagley

31 May 2009

Maybe the monkey story is talking about the social structure of non-monastic sexual relations using bhikkus and a monkey as the backdrop. The story can also show how one with no self can be used as a thing, for sex or for food, instead of another self being violated.

#8 · Will

31 May 2009

I’m not sure I follow the suggestion, Ted; but the problem with interpreting the story in this fashion is that it is a story in the context of the monastic code, in a passage on proper and improper sexual relations. So it may just be about what it claims to be about: curious liaisons between monks and monkeys.

#9 · Peter Clothier

2 June 2009

A very thought-provoking piece. One of my own thoughts was this—well, it’s a question, really: do you think that what we think of as “ancient wisdom” had anything to do with the pace of life and the intensity of the lived experience? We speed past everything today, our minds so busy with the mass of information that comes our way, we hardly have the time and leisure to sort it all out, let alone reflect on its meaning. I don’t wish to fall into the fallacy of romanticizing those who lived in less compacted times, but I do suspect that they must simply have had more time to breathe and gaze at the stars. A great deal of wisdom, in my view, emanates from stillness and silence.

#10 · Ted Bagley

2 June 2009

The code has to do with self/other, no?

#11 · Robert Ellis

7 June 2009

I don’t see any necessary distinction between philosophical error and “the way that our brains (or our brains-in-society) work as human animals”. These may be apprehending the same problems but in different ways. You could investigate idealisation of the past in a philosophical, psychological or physiological way, and probably in many other ways too. However, the philosophical way of investigating it uses tools already there in the Buddhist tradition. Buddhists criticise eternalism, and yet are often eternalist themselves, therefore there is a major philosophical inconsistency in Buddhism as we know it.

#12 · Will

12 June 2009

Your comment, Robert, reminds me of something that Ernest Becker says in “The Denial of Death” about the sneaky double game that is played in relation to the notion of rebirth. Here’s the quote:

“Religions like Hinduism and Buddhism performed the ingenious trick of pretending not to want to be reborn, which is a sort of negative magic: claiming not to want what you really want most…”

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