Wisdom and the Rose-Apple Tree

I have spent a considerable amount of time speculating about whether we get wiser as we get older, and – if so – can that wisdom be communicated?  But what if the end of learning, of trying, of experience, is to simply realize what we knew in the beginning?  Stay with me.

After the future Buddha had pursued years of ascetic training and sacrifice, he was still not enlightened. He asked himself whether there might not be a better way.  Immediately he had the memory of sitting as a child under the shade of a rose-apple tree watching a ploughing ceremony his father was participating in.  He remembered the relaxed joy and communion his younger self felt with the world around him and immediately knew that this was the way to Enlightenment – back to that simple childhood awareness.

I recently came across this quote from a Japanese Zen master (thank you Tim Miller) who was writing just a few days before his death about how he had finally come to faith and resolution about life:

One might ask if it wasn’t just an accident that I came to faith after engagement in strenuous study, but I would say it was not an accident. It was essential that I should do it this way. My faith has within it a conviction that all my self-power efforts are futile. But in order to be convinced of this futility of self-power, it was necessary to exhaust all my intellectual resources and get to the point where they would not reassert themselves. This was a most strenuous business. Before I reached the end of it there were quite a few times when I thought I had acquired a religious faith. Yet, time and again my conclusions were shattered. As long as one tries to build up a religion on the basis of logic and intellectual study, one cannot escape this difficulty.

This idea that one only understands by “giving up” or looking back to what one knew before one started comes up again and again in wisdom literature.  We could recall the motto of Socrates:  “I know only one thing–that I know nothing.” One might think of Job, who tried to figure God out, only to be struck down in simple awe at the end.  Or Saint Teresa of Avila who entered joyful trances as a child by twirling around with her brother chanting “Forever, ever, ever” – a level of contemplative ecstasy she only came back to in later life. But it would seem that we must go through the process of trying to get there.  But (and this is one of those big buts), then, we must step back.  I have often talked about the value of quiet and reflection in old age, and maybe that is the purpose of such reflection.

Then there is my friend Spinoza.  Spinoza wrote an entire book (Ethics) trying to use the geometric/logical method to figure out the nature of man and the best way to live.  It is full of axioms, propositions, and postulates.  It is a great book.  But in the end, we get this: “The greatest striving of the mind, and its greatest virtue is understanding things by the third kind of knowledge.”  And what is the third kind of knowledge?   It is intuitive knowledge.    And yet, the last paragraph of the Ethics cautions us: “If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found.  And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard.”  So it would seem that Spinoza agrees with my Japanese monk – study hard and then – step away?

One of my favorite pieces by Spinoza is the manifesto he wrote as he started out as a young man.  It delineates what he was looking for (“knowledge of the union existing between and mind and all of nature”) and how he is going to live and work as he gets there (great rules of life).  As far as I can tell (and I am no Spinoza scholar), he followed those rules and tried to find out how humankind fit into the scheme of things. He studied hard, thought much, and wrote it all down.  But he ends up by talking about intuition.

Here’s a story.  When I went back to piano lessons as an adult, I told my wonderful teacher that I loved to play but had no ear and was almost incapable of memorization.  After a few lessons, he told me I was mistaken – he had been watching me play and said I seldom looked at the music.  I did not believe him.  I believed – to some extent still believe – what I was told as a child.  You have no ear.  Maybe the trick is to clear away things we were told, not keep adding to the logjam of debris in our minds.  To let go.  Clear the decks.  Get back to the rose-apple tree.  It’s not easy though.

Fiction reading for this week is a new story, “Reflections,” which thinks about ways that our younger selves can (sometimes) pull us back to our centers.   It is about physical reflections and mental reflections. Enjoy.

Three Truth-Tellers

In this era of “fake news” and “truthiness,” I still like to think I know a real truth about life when I hear it.  I am, of course, particularly interested in the truths of old age.  (If you are an old age denier, I suggest you stop here!)  Three truth-tellers who come to mind are a motley group: the Buddha, Virginia Woolf, and Albert Camus.

The Buddha started his teaching with the Four Noble Truths, of which the first is “all life is unsatisfactory.”  The is sometimes translated as “life is suffering,” but it is my understanding that the original Pali text connotes stress rather than suffering.  In any case, it was a relief to me that someone important acknowledged that life is not a breeze.  I no longer had to ask myself what on earth was the matter with me!  The Buddha came to this conclusion after escaping the royal palace (in which he had been raised in opulent isolation) and meeting the divine messengers – an old man, an ill man, a corpse, and a wandering yogi.  Note that the first of these divine messengers was an old person.  Such a shock for the young prince to realize he too would get old!  In fact, of the five daily recollections that the Buddha recommended, the second is to remind ourselves that our body is subject to aging and decay.  This would seem obvious, but I still seem to be spending a lot of psychological effort to deny it.

When I was a young woman, I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time.  There was much there to inspire me, but the passage I most remember is this:  “Life for both sexes – and I look at them shouldering along the pavement – is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle.  It calls for gigantic courage and strength.”  Why did no one ever tell me this?  It certainly wasn’t in the advice I got from my parents or the music I listened to.   As I was growing up, Madison Avenue led me to believe if I made the right choice between Coke and Pepsi, Covergirl or Maybelline, everything would come up roses.  In another essay, Woolf talks about the “great wars which the body wages with the mind” and goes on to warn us that “to look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer.”  Yes.  And somehow it was easier to summon up that courage once I knew it was not supposed to be easy.

And last there is Camus.  Camus tells us in The Myth of Sisyphus that life is absurd; that there will always be a gap between “the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”  Unreasonable because we are going to grow old and die and it would seem that the earth does not care.  If we are aware at all, we will suffer.  “To a conscious old man, old age and what it portends are not a surprise.  Indeed, he is conscious only in so far as he does not conceal its horror from himself.  There was a temple in Athens dedicated to old age.   Children were taken there…”  Old age is not punishment though:  “That is the rule of the game.  And indeed, it is typical of his [the conscious man’s] nobility to have accepted all the rules of the game.  Yet he knows he is right and that there can be no question of punishment.  A fate is not punishment.”  This is an important distinction.  Think about it.

OK – this all sounds somewhat dismal, doesn’t it?  True, but dismal.  How do these folks recommend that we handle the facts of life?  The Buddha said that we needed to loosen our attachments to the way we thought things should be because craving was the root of our suffering.  This, presumably, would include the wish to be young.  Woolf, you say, committed suicide.  Yes.  But until overtaken by depression, she lived the most creative of lives and even, in her suicide note, assured her husband: “I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.”  And she wrote her wonderful books out of an ecstatic appreciation of life set within the limits of biology and fate. She has one of her characters say, “the compensation of growing old… was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained–at last!–the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.” And so she did turn experience round and round.  Read the scenes where Mrs. Dalloway traverses London on a spring morning or the interludes in The Waves.

So, if Woolf  found happiness, it was through creativity. This is also Camus’s answer.  His solution to the absurdity of our life is to be creative and make our own meaning – knowing all the time the absurdity of it.  Having, as Simone de Beauvoir would put it, our projects.  Camus says that “in this [absurd] universe the work of art is then the sole chance of keeping his consciousness and of fixing its adventures.”  He quotes Nietzsche: “Art and nothing but art; we have art in order not to die of the truth.”  Or in another translation (Will to Power): “Art is with us in order that we may not perish through truth.”

Camus contends that art/creativity is the solution for the  writer, the artist, the dancer, the liver of life.  Living one’s own life is the ultimate creative art form.  Thoreau told us (and lived) this secret: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”  Yes.  I guess this is all by way of saying that living in ignorance might be easier, but it is not an art.  Living despite some hard truths is the highest kind of creation and the best solution.  True of life.  True of old age.  Blessed be the truth-tellers.

This week’s story is “The Mustard Seed.”  I have been told by someone who edited the piece for me that the ending was unsatisfactory.  Perhaps the Buddha would agree.  Perhaps the ending is always unsatisfactory in some way.  You decide.