Friday December 16, 2005
I’ve already blogged about Buddhism and Philosophy, and explored how these two disciplines could both be seen as practices of freedom. Here I want to turn my attention to how they might both be seen as practices of love and wisdom.
Buddhism, of course, speaks often of wisdom and compassion, seeing these two as being intimately linked: there is no stupid compassion just as there is no cruel wisdom. True wisdom implies a kind of gentleness. True kindness implies a kind of attentive knowledge. They are not so much two different things as two aspects of the same thing. When I am being unkind, harsh, belligerent, it is not just that I am lacking compassion, but I am also exhibiting stupidity. When I am suffering from delusion, I also risk unkindness. This is why in dharma practice you find that practices of wisdom – for example vipassana meditation – are often balanced with practices of love – for example metta practice or tonglen.
But what of philosophy? Often philosophy is considered to be a rather hard, cold endeavour, lacking heart. Indeed, I have had fellow Buddhists warn me off philosophy because, as the saying goes, “it is all in the head,” whatever that might mean. But after some years of study, I have come to the conclusion that philosophy is not “all in the head”. In fact, I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing at all that is “all in the head” – that all thoughts, all ideas, all propositions we hold about the world, have a kind of physical manifestation… the mental, that is to say, is bodily. And thinking is a matter for the body and the heart as much as the mind: the Pali term often translated as “mind” – citta – can equally well mean “heart”. What we think, how we think, how we use our thoughts – all of this has a huge impact upon how we act in the world. And love, in the end, is not an abstract feeling, a warm and fuzzy glow, but it is something that becomes apparent in action.
If we go back to the Greeks, we find philosophy defined as the love of wisdom. Conventionally understood, the “love of wisdom” is a simple matter. I love wisdom the way I love samosas, or my cat. There is an object, wisdom, and there is love that is directed towards this object. There need not be anything of love in the samosa or in the cat, love merely directs me towards it. If we understand philosophy as the “love of wisdom” in this straightforward fashion, then there need not be anything of love in the wisdom towards which philosophy aims itself. But I think that the love of wisdom can mean more than this. It can also mean the love that arises out of wisdom, or the love that wisdom bears. Read like this, it seems that wisdom itself, to be wise, must have something of love about it.
Michel Serres, who is at least as interested in love as he is in wisdom, reverses the two terms to give a new twist to our idea of philosophy:
The sages define philosophy as the love of wisdom. It must be that these learned people are ignoring language itself. In our composite words it is better to read the roots back to front: automobile, that which move itself; geology, science of the earth; tightrope walker, one who walks on a tightrope… In truth philosophy would then be the wisdom of love.’ (My own appallingly rough translation from En amour, sommes-nous des bêtes? – with apologies for any errors…)
The wisdom of love! I talked about this subject at a conference of philosophers at Liverpool University not long ago, and I said to them that, although they clearly loved wisdom, and although it was more or less clear to me how they went about their practice of this love of wisdom, I wasn’t quite so sure whether, or how, they went about the practice of the wisdom of love. “We may be good at the practice of wisdom,” I said to them, “or at least at the practice of knowledge; but what do we do to practise love?” The audience assumed the question was hypothetical and merely blinked a few times. The question, alas, remained unanswered. Whatever practices of love these philosophers may have had, they preferred to keep them to themselves, behind closed doors. This has not always been the case. Some of the ancient philosophers clearly had practices of love to support their practices of wisdom. The Epicureans, for example, were committed to the practice of friendship. But where, today, in the university departments of the world where the name of philosophy is adopted – that union of love and wisdom – are the practices of love?
If there is a union of love and wisdom in the term “philosophy”, this raises the question of what love might have to do with wisdom and what wisdom might have to do with love. I find a link in the idea of attentiveness. Both love and wisdom, I suggest, are born out of a close attentiveness to the world – an attentiveness to how things are, to the miseries and joys of existence, to the flux of becoming that we call “the world”; and a precondition for this attentiveness is freedom from our negative habitual, cyclical patterns of thought. A philosophy born from hate, or a philosophy born from indifference, is – in the end – an impoverished philosophy. Hatred only seeks its own justification and discards anything that doesn’t support its own ends. How, then, could it be attentive to things?
So I want to finish off this series of posts by considering Buddhism and philosophy as practices of attentiveness. But I’ve done enough blogging for one day, so I shall leave that task for some time in the next week or so…
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