Buddhism and Philosophy Part III - Practices of Wisdom and Love

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…

# · Bill Gardner

I agree. Science is similarly a practice of attention. During graduate school, I had a climbing partner who was a mathematician. “The more training I get,” he said, “the slower I read.”

# · Dh. Jayarava

I have struck similar prejudice. I’ve been getting interested in the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson however. They maintain that all thinking is embodied. All concepts are underlain by a series of interconnected metaphors, and these metaphors themselves are grounded in our physical experience of the world. The two books I’ve read so far are Metaphors We Live By, and Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. So yaboo sucks to all those people who distinguish ‘thinking’ from ‘experience’ – it is an arbitrary, artifical and ultimately meaningless distinction.

If we don’t know what we think about things, why we think that, or even where that thought comes from (since very few of our ideas are truely original) then how can we claim to know ourselves? And this leads me to reflect on something that Michel Foucault points out about the Greek maxim: Know Thyself. Foucault says that it was always coupled with a second maxim: Take Care of Thyself. One knows oneself in order to take care of oneself. Which is not so far removed from the Buddhist pairing of Wisdom and Compassion I think.



# · Nacho

Oh, Jayarava opens an interesting can of worms here! Cool! Thanks Jayarava. Unfortunately, I find myself with little time to comment, but… a few things that strike me right off the bat:

1. I agree wholeheartedly, embodiment is something we don’t always speak about much in the Zen circles I’ve visited, but so central to practice. I always remind people that following our breath is a practice of embodiment. Perhaps more on that a bit later. 2. Foucault indeed speaks about taking care of the self, and unfortunately he died before he could go into great depth there. But… his thinking there is not without some rough spots. His ethics of the self work is intriguing and provocative, I read it positively as a call to cultivate the self so as to experience “freedom” from subjectivation… (quite similar to Zen in my estimation, although with significant differences)— some of Foucault’s behaviors however left much to be desired regarding that goal.

3. Lakoff and Johnson… interesting work, both books, and other pieces. The work on conceptual metaphors, and the mapping they accomplish, is truly neat and relevant for how we live, enact, per(form) (embody) that which we think is only “mental.”

Cool. Will have to get back here. Will, thanks for a neat post. I have to re-read it and post a bit about it. Right now I have to go to Sangha!

Feliz Navidad!

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