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The Love of Wisdom

Text by: Paul O. Ingram, Professor of Religion (Emeritus)
Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington

No one who has lived through the past few years can avoid being disturbed by questions that are essentially philosophical. War abounds, a radical contradiction to what most of us believe—human beings killing in order to reassert, somehow, the inviolable sanctity of human life; we read about people suffering everywhere and in vain; force seems everywhere triumphant, and against it, human justice and justice for Planet Earth seem to disappear. Only someone not aware of current conditions can fail to question the meaning of existence. The moment you do, you become a philosopher.

Two classical Greek words combine to create the word "philosophy." Philios is one of three Greek words for "love," and logos can be translated as "wisdom." So "philosophy" is the "love of wisdom." For Plato and Aristotle, logos pointed to the rational interconnectedness of the world's structure, and it is the philosopher's task to rationally comprehend this structure in all its interconnected expressions. This means that philosophers (lovers of wisdom) must focus on the big questions about the ultimate value and meaning of life. Classical Western philosophy evolved into several interconnected ways of seeking wisdom: metaphysics (the nature of reality, the way things really are), ethics (how ought I live in community with others that reflects the way things really are?), epistemology (the nature of knowledge and the rational means of obtaining knowledge known as logic), aesthetics (the nature of beauty), and mathematics.

So, according to Western tradition, philosophy is a rational quest for wisdom. It entails disciplined questioning of the structures of human experience, since experience itself proves nothing other than the fact that one is having an experience. Most experience is unconsciousness. Philosophy seeks rational explanation of what human experiences mean. So a good philosophy is not merely a set of unrelated propositions, each independent from the other; what we believe must be free from contradictions and inconsistency, at least as far as possible. A set of philosophical propositions must also be coherently interrelated, as are the events of a good novel, the characters of a play, or the organs of the human body.

But classical Greece was not the only culture developing philosophy. In India, the word for "philosophy" is a Sanskrit word, darsana, which comes from the word darsan or "to see." In a memorable episode in Indian mythology, the god Siva and the goddess Pārvati were once sporting in their high Himalayan home when Parvati, in play, covered Siva's eyes with her hand. The whole universe was plunged into darkness. For when Siva's eyes are closed there is no light anywhere, except in the fire of his third eye, which threatens destruction. The all-seeing gods are said never to close their eyes, and from the near-disaster of Siva's and Parvati's play, it is clearly a good thing they do not because the well-being of the world is dependent upon the open eyes of the Lord. This account of Siva's and Parvati's play provides an important clue: it is not only the gods who must keep their eyes open; so must we, in order to make contact with them and our deepest selves. Keeping our eyes open is called darsan, "seeing." The religious traditions of South and East Asia are about learning how to see the Sacred as it sees us. But seeing the Sacred is never easy, and it takes training in the disciplines of philosophy, plus courage—and grace.

Seeing can be very tricky, because conscious experience of anything is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't affair. A fish flashes in the creek that runs in front of my house, then dissolves in water like salt before my eyes. I have seen elk and mountain lion ascend bodily into the heavens, and great blue herons and bald eagles fade into leaves. These events stunned me into stillness and concentration; they say of experience that most of what exists nature conceals with stunning nonchalance, so when we do see, vision seems like a deliberate gift—like the revelation of a dancer who, for my eyes only, flings away the seventh veil. Nature conceals as well as reveals.

This does not mean that seeing is merely sense imprinting data on a tabula rasa, passive brain. Even at the level of physiology, seeing is an interpretative act, dare I say, a hermeneutical act. For human beings, seeing is also largely a matter of verbalization. Most of the time we need words to call attention to what passes before our eyes, or we simply will not see it. We have to have words for it, say them, think them, to describe what we are seeing as we see it, or chances are we will not see. Of course, some things are hard not to see and words seem beside the point: exploding volcanoes, storms, a beautiful spring day, the great blue heron gliding ghostly silent under the bridge that passes over the creek in front of my house before disappearing into early morning fog, or what Elijah is reported to have seen and heard while hiding for his life in a cave on Mount Horeb. But most of the time, if we want to notice anything, we have to maintain a running verbal description of the present. Otherwise, we never know what's happening.

When we see in this ordinary way—which is most of the time—we analyze, describe, theorize, sort, categorize, argue, debate, file, probe, and wrestle with the world, sometimes as seriously as Jacob wrestled with God. This is the task of philosophy; understanding what is seen becomes a function of questions asked, contexts embodied, methodologies followed, presuppositions consciously and unconsciously held.

But there is another kind of seeing, one that mystics everywhere you find them regard as primary. This form of seeing is also an interpretation of what is seen, but it is different from ordinary seeing because it requires letting go of the instruments through which we see—our theories, assumptions, theologies, our selves, our purposes. To the person who sees this way, in what the Lakota shaman Black Elk described as "seeing in a sacred manner," it is less like seeing than being seen for the first time, as if knocked breathless by a powerful glance. It is the seeing of non-dual unity underlying diversity, apart from which there is no diversity, before unity is split into diversity by the verbalizations of the first kind of seeing.

Mystics of all religious Ways have seen in this "sacred manner." But they have also interpreted the meaning of mystical seeing—before and after the experience of non-duality—verbally, according to the philosophical and religious traditions that trained them. Mystical seeing and ordinary seeing are interdependent, and saints and monastics of every order East and West have dedicated themselves to joining them together. It's a lifetime struggle marking the literature of the world's spiritual geniuses. Their literature shows that there are no hard and fast rules. They discovered that the mind's muddy river carries with it a ceaseless flow of ordinary trivial seeing, that it cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort. They discovered that we must allow the muddy river to flow unchecked in the channels of consciousness so that once in a while, we can raise our sights above trivia, look as we flow with it, mildly and with detachment, while gazing beyond it "to the realm where events act and react interdependently without utterance." But our first hints of this nonverbal unity originate in ordinary verbal seeing. The trick is learning how to let go of the verbal clues so that we can see over the channels bordering consciousness.