Wisdom, and “Wise People”

The nature of wisdom is usually misunderstood. One urge is to attach it to a person. (She’s wise. They’re good. I don’t rate him so much. His guru nights are rubbish. On the other hand did you watch that TV program the other day? Oh my God! It was amazing.)

This is a mistake. A person can say wise things. The same person can say misleading nonsense. Having categorised a person as “wise” we’ll take their nonsense too. Then we’ll run with it, pretend it wasn’t said, or say it was misinterpreted—and we’ll do these things in preference to reevaluating our original assessments of them so that, even when it’s not ourselves we’re elevating, it’s still coming from ego. It is coming from ego, because there’s a self judging who is perfect and that has nothing to do with them, they didn’t ask for it, and it’s also not wisdom.

The person we’re attaching wisdom to could, of course, be ourselves: “Wow! I’ve just encountered true wisdom. OK, so how do I be that wise? I’ve every right. Others have had a go, so it’s my turn. A lot of people think I’m nice, I’m over my Jesus complex, I’ve worked on myself for years, I meditate. I know, I’ll use a combination of self-deception, mimicry, vocal musicality and bluffing. That ought to do it!”

But it doesn’t matter if I’m elevating others or myself I’ll run into trouble soon enough because wisdom is unlike any other form of knowledge. It can’t be repeated. It can be missed during years of study. Copying the words of others is also never it. To illustrate what I mean, I’ve decorated my own words over the top of a hardly-disguised quote from someone else (!):

Being educated, knowledgeable, intellectually accomplished, or even just intelligent requires addition. Acquisition of things. Taking.

For wisdom, instead, we need subtraction. Less and less every day until we’re at the still point. When you’ve stopped trying to do or be anything, everything unfolds and gets done. [1]

See what I mean? That sounded part sensible (just subtract), part riddle (how does everything get done the less we try to do?). It’s just a slightly abstract lump of words pointing out how to find what’s wise. I think it’s spot on the money, but I’m not coming over all gooey eyed like it’s the best social media meme, or the gold plated utterances of a glowing ascetic monk. Actually the original quote on which it’s based is from the Tao Te Ching: a book full of everyday words saying wisdom is everywhere but here in just these words.

In the Theravadin Kalama Sutta, learning by rote, ritual, text, pet philosophy, someone else’s wisdom or taking a teacher are all deemed to be a waste of time, while the real way to wisdom is instead knowing what’s true through your own self enquiry, then just using the actions of wise friends to check your outcomes are in the right ballpark. The sutta ends with a joke to drive home its message: Those hearing this were so impressed that they took Buddha as teacher, adored his wisdom, adopted his philosophy and copied his ritual. Ignoring this joke, people have been building temples and a religion for two and a half thousand years. I admit this isn’t stand-up comedy act material, but you have to admit, it is still pretty hilarious [2].

Other people. Me. You. Favourite books. Religions. Endless study. Endless meditation. Holiness. Being perfect. Being remembered. Being a wise sage. Leaving the world in a better state than the one we found it in. Toiling hard. Forget them, forget the insecurity that’s behind them, and look inside.

You already have within you all the wisdom you need for yourself to get through life. That means everyone else does too.

The wisdom isn’t going anywhere either, so we sit, and then we see. If we think we already see? Just look again. What is it? In the void there’s always been an everything. Isness. The nameless Tao. Buddhanature. The fizz the everyday chattering mind can never find.

The part of us that wants to be wise will never be.

The part of us that has always been wise will always be.


[1] Tao Te Ching. 48. Lao Tzu
[2] It feels like the implication in the sutta is that Buddha is the Buddha and wiser than any other sage for the reason that he says make your own enquiry then test your outputs–for the reason that he doesn’t elevate himself. Therefore, taking refuge in him is perfectly natural; especially if you just take that to mean accepting what the sutta proposes. Yet here’s Buddha allegedly saying ‘Don’t go by… traditions’! OK. So what should we do? Make a new one?