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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 questions and nothing improves one’s ability to concentrate like meditation, so we spend a bit of time looking at that practice as well, for Buddhism doesn’t treat meditation as some sideshow or a tangental aspect of a larger whole, but as one of the main tenets of the practice. While exhaustive explanations on how to meditate are beyond the scope of this book, we do take a look at the practice of meditation, for the benefit of focused attention, in Chapter 11.

There’s No Silver Arrow

It quickly becomes apparent that wisdom - whatever that may turn out to be - is not something you can address with a silver arrow. It turns out to be an elusive idea, that is shaped and massaged by numerous and constantly changing forces, some of which are within our control (largely operating within the confines of our mind) and others which are not.

For all the research, talking, reading and listening I’ve done about wisdom, it’s damned hard to nail down. I’m not even sure most people would recognize wisdom if it hit them in the head with a baguette. I make a brazen attempt at setting parameters for this book, for without them, I found myself wandering down some mighty long dead ends that would not have resulted in a book at all. At times, my trying to corral wisdom seemed to require more of it than I am ever likely to possess.

But even that glib observation itself, suggests a soupçon of wisdom. Knowing that in some circumstances there will be things that are unknown or maybe even unknowable is recognition of the need to place qualifications around conclusions. Humbling, to be sure, for who doesn’t like certainty?

In one of my earlier chapbooks, Certainty in Buddhism, I examined why we get so hung up on being right and how we can learn to live with uncertainty, once we recognize that change is the central theme of all our lives. Wisdom for one day, under specific circumstances, may seem like folly the next. Getting too attached to wisdom itself may not be particularly wise, for as I tried to come up with the ultimate and enduring definition, it kept slithering away, morphing into something else. More than once, I cursed this mental assemblage we call wisdom.

Another thing about trying to define wisdom is that we can take various approaches on the matter. The best book I read on the topic was written by Robert J. Stern’s Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins and Development. In this book Stern assembles about a dozen contributors who each take a run at defining wisdom, each from their own specific discipline. Each one seemed like a great definition, at least until I got to the next one. By the end I realized how difficult the task of defining wisdom was going to be. Thankfully, I tripped over Paul Baltes and the Berlin Wisdom Project.

Baltes is “credited with developing theories about lifespan and wisdom, the selective optimization with compensation theory, and theories about successful aging and developing.” I found his methods to be quite helpful, not because they resulted in some specific, unimpeachable definition of wisdom, but because he took a multi-pronged approach to the topic that provided a balance of; life experience, intellect, social/cultural context, procedural knowledge, factual knowledge, relativism and uncertainty. His team also interviewed people (mostly college students) and asked them questions that might reveal their views on wisdom.

For example;

“A 14 year old girl wants to move out of her parents house right away. What should be considered in this situation?”

A low-scoring response might be, “She’s only 14! She shouldn’t be out on her own under any circumstances. Think of the trouble she might run into.”

A high-scoring response might be, “She may be living in an abusive home and she recognizes a need to escape to safer surroundings, or her parents might not be able to afford food. While only 14, she may be in an ‘arranged marriage’ situation that has no future. Maybe she’s already of ‘of age’ for her culture and moving out is no big deal.”

In the first, low scoring, response, the answer indicates a limited path of thinking that suggests many biases.

In the second, high-scoring, response, the answer suggest a wide range of thinking, taking into account the fact that not everything is known about the situation.

In the end, Baltes’ definition of wisdom is;

"Expert Knowledge concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life"

But even Baltes falls short, in my opinion, for the definition, in its brevity, fails to recognize the need for interpretation, filtering and weighting of data, planning and application of this expert knowledge concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life. Simple “expert knowledge,” without the ability to articulate that expertise or put it into practice does not seem to complete the circle of wisdom. To be sure, he dug deep and ferreted out the material that could be used to create that definition, but failed to include it in the definition itself - but that’s just me.

Serene Monk Meditating Under A Tree

What has also become clear is that in our modern era, technology, science and knowledge have become something of a panacea for a lot of people. Our lives are essentially ruled by technology; we arise with the alarm clock, turn on the electric light, check our email using our smartphone at our bedside, brush our teeth with an electric toothbrush, listen to the FM radio or news podcast to hear what the day might be like. We might have an espresso at home using the Nespresso coffee machine, check what time the bus is due on our NextBus app and then make our way to work, where we spend the day staring at a screen analyzing data and making things happen remotely.

Technology touches so much of our lives that we begin to think that it, alone, is worth pursuit. We forget all the thinking and experimentation that went into its creation is knowledge and not necessarily wisdom. We seem confused between simply knowing something and being wise about something. For all the technological breakthroughs, there seems to be a bit of a spotty record when it comes to relieving human suffering and the relief of suffering, for oneself and for others, is a very large part of Buddhism, indeed.

"Who is wise? The one who learns from every person."

~ Talmud - Avot 4:1

Sure, we have flu vaccines and almost everyone has a smartphone, but we haven’t managed to provide clean drinking water for some 1.1 billion people or reliable sanitation facilities for 2.2 billion people or electricity to 1.3 billion. So, it seems fairly clear that our technology doesn’t serve everyone.

Another thing I’ve learned along the way is that we’ve become so obsessed with telling our own version of a story that we can no longer even tolerate hearing that of another. This behaviour is encouraged, when, for example, we are on Facebook or Twitter and click on a story, we get not only that one upon which we clicked, but also a few other stories that are related in temper and topic. The search algorithms recognize we might want to read or research material that is critical of a celebrity. It then finds more stories that criticize the particular luminary and suggests those articles. What the algorithms don’t do is run out and look for stories that are in support of the celebrity. Facebook and Google, to name only two, shape and reinforce our existing ideas by offering more of what we believe and rarely, if ever, offer contra opinion stories.

Of course, this is their business model. Twitter and Facebook want to keep you scrolling, scrolling, forever scrolling to the next story that will reinforce your opinions, views and beliefs. The more time you spend surfing their sites, the more they learn about you and that translates into valuable data that they can then use to sell very targeted advertising directed right back at you, in the hopes you’ll click on an ad and they get paid.

They also work the other end as well. When you post something on a Facebook page, often you’ll get a messages that reads something like, “Get this post noticed. For $25 you can get this post in front of 25,000 users who are interested in this topic.” They serve up your post to thousands of others who seem to have an interest in the topic you posted about in they hopes they’ll get those people to click and then the process repeats itself.

We can’t really blame them. They’re offering us only what we are asking for and need a way to make some money at it, otherwise why bother doing it at all? Still it does lead us to become further entrenched in our views, thinking or position.

Netflix is another example of our interests being use to feed us more of that interest. After we watch an episode of Walander on Netflix, “Episode 2 begins in 13 seconds” pops up on the screen, even before the credits have rolled. This gets you interested in the next episode … and the next … and the one after that. Next thing you know you’ve binged-watched the entire 13 episodes of season one .

Another thing Netflix does after you’ve watched a movie, is to serve up a message along the lines of, “If you liked Men in Back, try Men in Black II.” They detect that you are interested in science fiction comedies and start putting other ones in front of you to keep you watching. They even offer you selections on your account page with their “Recommended Just for You,” notice, in which they have a dozen or so films you are likely to be interest in watching. The scary thing is, they’re almost always right.

iTunes takes this predictive usage to a new height when they not only select other music that we might be interested in, based on what we’ve downloaded from their site, but also from what we’ve ripped from our personal CDs and loaded into the iTunes app on our personal computers, to offer us entire playlists that are actually pretty good. Who would have thought Nocturne, by Scott Hamilton would be a good follow up to Bob Dylan’s Master of War? We don’t even have to build our own lists anymore. They then go on to offer us their Apple Radio channels based on the music we have and/or listen to on our computer - for a charge, of course - all the while watching, noting and logging all the music and news we listen to in order to offer us more of their goods.

But this ‘selectivism’ isn’t limited to our Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and iTunes usage. It’s much more widely ingrained in our information and entertainment seeking activities.

Our news media has become politically fragmented, biased and self-serving … although to be fair, they’ve always been self-serving. Network news is all too often delivered with a specific point of view, be it Republican, Democrat in the US or Conservative, Liberal in Canada. Entire news networks and their related news gathering mechanism is geared towards collecting and relating the news with a not-at-all disguised partisan view point. CNN, The New Yorker, the Washing Post deliver us the news from a Democratic point of view, while Breitbart, Fox and NewsMax deliver the news from a conservative, establishment POV in the US. In Canada the National Post gives us the conservative, vested interest news and we rely on the Toronto Star (or usually just, The Star) to deliver and opine on all things liberal.

It’s not like this partisan view by media is anything new. Party politics has been disseminated since Dutch Courante uyt Italien, Duytslandt, &c. published their first broadsheets in1618. What is new is the fine fragmentation, volume and velocity of the news being delivered. Everything a president or despot says in some far away corner of the world is amplified, retold, twisted and massaged to suit the agenda of any given news outlet, be it Liberal, Conservative, Alt Right, or something else.

The point of all this, of course, is that unless we agree with something, we’re not going to take it in. If one newspaper doesn’t agree with our conservative view on immigration, then we stop reading it and take up a newspaper or website that does agree with us. We become very self-selecting in what we read, much to our detriment. We begin to paint our world in the only colours we are interest in. In a way, we become colour blind - eschewing everything unless it’s of direct and immediate interest to us. We become less exposed to other opinions, interests, topics and people who may think differently from us. We become insular, isolated, intolerant, mono-toned and less able to assimilate new information. Our world becomes ever smaller, less diverse and less accepting. This breeds contempt for other ideas, other music, other news and those who do not share our view or share it with the same enthusiasm and verve as us. It breeds fear.

We have become contemptuous of each other and our differences. Our media consumption habits have made us so. We’ve become locked into points of view that may be based on nothing more than our our TV viewing habits.

I am fortunate that I had a father who was able to look beyond his relatively simple life to see things beyond his world, outside of his thinking and experience. He was a well read man who was able to apply new information to old problems. He taught me well. I was also able to get myself to a community college where I was exposed to peers with whom I was compelled to work with in order to complete projects. I heard from them, different views, learned about different cultures and diverse experiences. I was fortunate also to have had the benefit of teachers who encouraged diversity and diverse thinking. One formal logic teacher especially impressed me with his ability to hear and deeply listen to the opinions of others without losing his cool. Always he returned to the logic of any arguments and presented them in a calm and collected manner with poise and dignity.

Being able to hear and understand the experiences of others, even when they disagree with us, is a critical skill if we wish to ultimately give rise to wisdom.


We have entered a dark age of civility and an era of erosion of common courtesy, kind words and sympathy. It has become commonplace, for even leaders of countries, to hurl verbal and deeply personal insults at one another, via the internet and broadcast over the airwaves for the entire world to hear. Attacking, not the policies or politics, but the man himself. They tweet out scorn and vitriol on a vast scale, comparing, for example, the size of the buttons on their desk to start a nuclear war. Inconsiderate tweets and ill-conceived Facebook posts are d’rigour. They act as if their words are perfunctory. It’s a sad state of affairs that we’ve come to expect and even accept discourtesy, denial, deflection and deceit from our leaders. I’ve come to refer to these personality types as D4 disorder.

Sadly, reasoned thought, reasoned words, reasoned discussion and actions rarely seem to take place anymore, at least in the public/political space. We have become so unwise in our dealings with each other, indeed even in dealing with ourselves, that we no longer seem to recognize wisdom when we see it.

I don’t mean to paint everyone with the same brush. To be sure, there are exceptions - notable exceptions at that. The president of France, Emmanuel Macron has learned, to a large extent, that dividing, maligning and insulting people is not going to help his country. To a great extent, his message of unity, not speaking in extremes and at least acting reasonable, during the last French election, is what brought him to the Palais de l’Élysée. Then there’s John Hume, David Trimble, Barrack Obama, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker and of course, the late Mahatma Gandhi and even the poetess Enheduanna of ancient times, to name only a few more wise and considered individuals who have made a positive difference within their lifetimes.

These are people who have demonstrated deep thought before uttering their words and actions - at least when it matters - for we are all allowed our foibles, indiscretions and missteps. We are all allowed our humour and idiosyncrasies. However, when the rubber hits the road, it’s the ability to think deeply, over a wide ranging landscape, using the 12 pillars of Buddhist wisdom to synthesize meaningful, lasting solutions to problems that really counts. It’s this thinking, this wisdom, that we are sorely lacking in contemporary, public discourse and indeed, in our private lives.

That super-set of concentration, foresight, life experience, humility, compassion, emotional stability, learnedness, historian, disseminator of information and reasoned opinion, debater, orator and humanitarian has, historically, been rare in any society, but it seems all the more so today. Bringing together those qualities, in good quantity seems a Herculean task and it’s often left to random chance, but not always and this book will look at how that can be done.

#wisdom #buddhism #buddhistwisdom #decisionmaking #EdwardHorner

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