Defining Wisdom from a Buddhist Perspective


An excerpt from our upcoming book Wisdom in Buddhism

Wisdom, a Practical Definition from a Buddhist Perspective

... when we take into consideration everything that we’ve looked at so far, we can begin to synthesize a working, practical definition of wisdom – at least from a Buddhist perspective

Common Good

First we need to understand the concept of “common

good.” Our definition for the purposes of this book, is that of an end state or condition which benefits all or a significant majority of the community but is attainable only through the collective efforts and/or contributions of the community, and accrues to all members of the community, balanced against the rights of the individual.

In Canada, we might refer to the universal health care system we enjoy as a “common good,” in so far as its benefits accrue to all citizens of Canada and can only be attained and sustained when all members of the citizenry contribute to its upkeep/funding.

Another Canadian example might be Employment Insurance benefits or even the

Canadian Pension Plan, both of which benefit any qualifying Canadian citizen, but can only be funded and sustained when all Canadian citizens contribute.

Positive Values Reference

Secondly, we need to avoid thinking, speaking and acting in absolutes. Going to one extreme or another is not a balanced, middle way of looking at the world and is almost a sure way of excluding at least half the people from any common good that we have imagined.

We need to use our intelligence, common sense, experience and knowledge to examine questions, referencing some list of shared, positive ethical values in order to achieve our common good. In the next chapter and beyond, we will look at and examine such a list of Buddhist inspired values.

We need to consider our personal interests, the interests of those around us, short term and long term goals while adapting to existing and where possible shifting, future conditions. We need to consider aspirations for ourselves, our aspirations with interpersonal relationships and even the relationship we enjoy with our community, for any common good cannot operate outside the community which it serves.

Intelligence

Wisdom does not necessarily require high intellect or specialized knowledge, although some intelligence is required to assimilate and assess complex data and specialized knowledge is an asset for decisions around such matters as economic policy.

I make no claim to being particularly smart. I honour myself, imagining that my IQ hovers around “normal.” I don’t know much about the specific workings of artificial intelligence (AI) but I think society needs to be very careful about how to adopt its use in the workplace and I’d be prepared to give any reader a solid ten reasons why I think that’s so. Alternatively, I could give a good ten reasons why AI integration with humanity is almost a certain lock and will bring tremendous benefits to many, while profoundly disadvantaging others. Depending upon how it's handled, locally, regionally, nationally and globally, a lot of people would be relieved of dreary jobs.

Completely understanding both sides of an argument - even to the point of being able to take up and argue the opponents view is an important element of understanding and a plank in the platform upon which wisdom can arise.

Our contemporary society - at least in the west - seems to put a lot of stock in measuring and assessing ‘intellect,’ it’s forms, variations and application. Yet, when we look at the major failures of citizens as individuals or citizens as leaders, it’s never about their intelligence. It’s almost always about wisdom, or, more to the point, failure to apply wisdom, or even recognize it if it were to hit them in the face.

Looking back on failed American leaders through my own lens, I see Bush, Clinton, Nixon and now Trump. They appear or appeared foolish, out of touch with reality, overly confident, egocentric, false, overly optimistic about their abilities, in denial, deflecting, deceitful and ethically disengaged when it comes to reasoning and their ability to make decisions and conduct their personal or office affairs. I don’t necessarily see them as failed individuals (although Trump is really trying my patience), but as failed leaders. They failed, or are failing, not due to lack of intellect but due to lack of wisdom.

Weighting Criteria

We need to recognize that not every criteria that we take into account needs to be weighted evenly. In fact, it would be unwise to weight everything equally. When it comes to the common good, we need to consider the rights of the individual, but we do not need to weight both the common good and the individuals rights equally. For example, the right of the individual to listen to their own preferred music after 11pm might not have the same weight as the common good of, ‘reasonable right to peace and quiet’ for the community in which the individual resides.

Another example of unbalanced weighting might include the common good that citizens have clean air to breath against the rights of the coal-burning electricity plant to pollute said air with carbon dioxide, soot, sulphur or dioxin. In this case we also need to include the common good provided by the electricity plant producing power that the clean air breathing citizens are using to light and power their homes.

It’s all about finding the common good and convincing others that getting there is a good idea, not only for us, but also for them and most others. Relative weighting of the criteria can be determined by their potential to bring a positive result to the articulated common good.

Mordor

When we talk about common good, we need to remember that a common good for one community may not be a common good for another. Referencing J.R.R. Tolkein’s, Lord of the Rings, we would quickly recognize a common good for Middle Earth, the hobbits, dwarves, humans and elves would be far different than a common good devised by Sauron for his evil minions and the dark land of Mordor.

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