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.

More on Writing a Life Review, Spinoza, and the Blind Turtle

My last blog was about the “how-to” of writing a life review, a memoir, an autobiography. But I have a little more to say. First, let me reiterate that you must write such a memoir for yourself – if you have any other audience in mind, it will not work. It took me a while to realize this, but now I realize that everything I write (including fiction) is in order to teach myself something, to memorialize something for myself, to figure out something for myself – and mostly the latter. Even this blog. It makes “viewer” statistics less important (good thing), and it makes me more honest.

Second, I dealt very lightly with what we should do with the bad things that surface, memories and emotions we have tried hard not to think about for so many years. If you have ever gone on an extended silent meditation retreat, you know that long periods of silence bring these memories back with a vengeance – and so does writing about the period in which they happened. Bad things caused by natural events or other people are, on the whole, easier to deal with than disasters we prompted with our own actions. And the worst are situations we caused that harmed others. But let’s go back to my favorite philosopher Spinoza – the one who told us that cheerfulness (refer to earlier blog) was the highest good – and hear what he has to say on repentance or regret: repentance is not a virtue… instead, he who repents what he has done is twice wretched. This is not to say that we should not learn from our mistakes through “true reflection or reason.” It is only to say that we should not let it take away from our power to live. He says that it is bad enough that we made an error in judgment; the second error would be to let it impede us forever. It is akin to the Buddha’s “second arrow”:

The Blessed One said, “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. (Sallatha Sutta)

The point of a written life review is not to shoot the second arrow; it is to pull out the first arrow and become reconciled to the scar it leaves behind. I am not saying this is easy, but I think it is worthwhile. Again the object is to bring reason, words, to bear on the unbearable and to move on with Spinoza’s “cheerfulness” and power.

Writing a memoir, life review, should not be a chore. It should be a joy. In All Passion Spent, Lady Slane calls “looking back on the girl she had once been” as the “last, supreme luxury…. She could lie back against death and examine life.” Old age has many benefits (yes, it does), but among them is that “last, supreme luxury” of reflection. Putting the words on paper is necessary for me so that they do not just glide away among the jetsam of my wandering mind. I recommend it.

And one more very important thing. Don’t think for a minute that your life is not worth examination, not worth telling. In the Chiggala Sutta, the Buddha tells the parable of a blind turtle swimming around in an endless sea. On the sea floats a yoke or ring (think life preserver). The blind turtle surfaces once in a hundred years, totally randomly. What are the chances that he will poke his head through that ring as he surfaces? Those are the odds of existence as a human being on the earth – a precious and unique opportunity, according to the Buddha. Your life is to be valued. Your tale is worth telling. We have all made mistakes; it is part of life. And, as the manager of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel says, “Everything will be alright in the end so if it is not alright it is not the end.” It’s not over yet.

For a story about repentance, regrets, and the truth of the matter, you might try “The Iscariot.” Or you might look at your own life.