Introduction to Wisdom in Buddhism

An abridged introduction to the soon to be released book, Wisdom in Buddhism, from Canadian Outdoor Press.

Book Cover - Wisdom in Buddhism

One thing about writing a book, almost any book, is that once it nears completion, you almost always have to rewrite the intro-duction or preface. What you thought the book was going to address has altered, twisted and turned. The book takes on a life of its own and evolves as information and story unfold to become something not quite intended, but in its own way better, maybe larger or more inclusive. It’s also true that most authors learn a few things along the way and, like the book itself, are changed - often having to confront and hopefully come to terms with their own limitations on a topic. Sometimes they develop a different understanding of themselves. So it has been with this book … so it has been with me.

I’ve learned that I’m not an expert on wisdom. In fact, very few things I’ve done in my life, given hindsight, seem to have been anything resembling ‘wise’ at all. This realization and red-faced admission might, in some circles, disqualify me from even writing about wisdom - or at least having anything relevant to say about it. But, as I’ve learned over my 64 years of living on this crappy planet, my not knowing about something hasn’t stopped me from talking about it, as my wife and daughter can attest.

“Who is wise? One who discerns what is about to come to pass.”

~ Mesechet Tamid 32a

As I researched this book, wrote the original introduction, laid out the chapters and started talking with others and reading about wisdom, it became clear that no one is imbued with wisdom at birth. It’s not something that one is born with, like say, a high IQ, musical aptitude or a predilection to easily solving quadratic equations. In fact, I learned fairly quickly that wisdom and intellect, while related, are not at all one-and-the-same. Having some store of life experience seems to play a key role in the development wisdom, in fact, the more the better, as we will discuss in Chapter 5.

One of the main challenges I faced with this book was trying to define wisdom and, more specifically, wisdom from a Buddhist perspective. That of course is the crux of the matter; defining wisdom from one perspective really limits the discussion. What seems apparent and obvious from one POV, sounds false, even egregious, from another. Trying to define this mental construct we call wisdom is slippery, but with enough parameters and a well laid out point of view, we can at least get close enough - or close enough for something to work with.

It almost goes without saying that we all want to appear wise, to look like we have some insight into complicated matters that plague our world, our neighbourhood or even ourselves. We all want to stroke our beard or rub our chin, nod with confidence and let our wisdom show through. Sure, we all have something to say, but we want what is said to have pertinence, not necessarily all the time, but when it really matters. When your eight year old daughter, for example, asks about gay marriage, you want to have something to add to the discussion. You want to be able to add some important insight, some set of values and considered judgment, some process that shows you’re not just a dope with an opinion. You want to speak in a manner that shows you’ve looked into it, seen various aspects of the topic and synthesized a thoughtful reply. You want to show you are not simply a product of your upbringing by your own, inept, parents.

Wisdom, at least as a process, is important, not because it gives us the ‘right’ answer or the ‘deep’ answer, (although it helps) but because the process itself causes us to slow, centre, calm and be heedful of what we know, what we value and what common good we choose to address. In a way, it’s the confluence of three streams; what we’ve learned in our life, what we value and how we address a common good to maximize its benefits. It’s not easy, but in this book I offer some ways that wisdom can arise and be utilized, more-often-than-not from a Buddhist perspective.

At the core of all this wisdom talk is, of course, decision making and advice-giving. What information we bring into our decisions, how it’s processed, how it’s weighted and filtered all play a role in our decisions. That’s not all, for we will also spend a lot of time looking at our biases and how they influence our decision making in Chapter 8.

12 Pillars of Buddhist Wisdom

Wisdom making needs a set of values from which it can draw some sense of morality or rightness as it relates to a common good. From a Buddhist perspective, the widely used Five Precepts discussed in Chapter 3, (Values, Morality, Ethics and their role in Wisdom) fit the bill, but they do not exist in-and-of themselves, for, if we are to take anything from Buddhism, it’s the understanding that all things, including values and any sense of morality, arise from the community which they purport to serve or in which they exist.

We need to come to terms with the fact that everything, everything, changes, not always within our own lifetime, but they will change and our wisdom will be affected by that understanding. While no one can predict with complete certainty, what will unfold in the future, looking at the past and examining the present can give us valuable insights into the future. This is discussed, primarily, in Chapter 2.

Along the way we will need to develop or re-discover our sense of humour and some humility. Humility reminds us that we do not, in fact cannot, know everything that needs to be known for a particular set of circumstances. Humility is an antidote to the arrogance which may blind us to new facts and circumstances that, in turn, might limit our understanding of the world. This is discussed in some depth in Chapter 4 (Humility and Humour in Buddhist Wisdom).

How can we connect with others and know their suffering unless we, ourselves, have had direct, personal experience with such suffering? Not knowing suffering, our wisdom is hampered and limited, but, being human, we all know the pain of others, for we endure pain ourselves. Compassion for others is discussed in Chapter 7.

When we address major issues, we need a clear mind, as unaffected by emotions as is reasonable, given the circumstances. Our emotions might have set us on a course, but it’s the clear mind that is able to assess and make reasonable predictions about that course which is most wise. The value of emotional stability, what it might look like and how it might be obtained is discussed in Chapter 10.

We will need the ability to focus or concentrate on difficult