Category Archives: Love of Wisdom

Parsing the Paradise Haiku


don’t dare to listen

a snake whispers in the trees

mocking paradise

Two readers of Love of Wisdom caught the ironic intention of this haiku.  The first is a good friend in Japan named John Dougill whose blog is a treasure trove of insight and information on Japanese culture, especially Shinto and its relationship to the western pagan traditions.  John wrote:

“Here in Japan snakes are worshiped as an ancient symbol of regeneration.  The mocking snake above is a biblical allusion, but is the snake acting as a symbol of truth or the deceptive evil creature as demonized in Christianity?  The word ‘dare’ in the first line prompts a pagan reading of the verse…”

And Jen Rosenberry, one of my very favorite haiku poets who writes on wrote:

“I was busy flip-flopping this haiku, too–don’t dare listen to whom? is the snake doing the mocking–or is a false version of “paradise” doing the mocking?  Very interesting.  Very, very interesting.”

I am so pleased that these two comments captured the spirit in which I wrote the poem.  I have long preferred the oriental view of the molting snake (or in Maine, the molting lobster) as a positive symbol of transformation and rebirth, and as John notes, it takes great courage–great daring– to heed the promptings toward growth and change in one’s own heart.

It seems to me that the snake in the garden of Eden was urging Adam and Eve to grow up. Their “sin” after all was eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  This means that before eating this fruit, they did not know the difference between  good and evil or right and wrong–which is the essence of innocence and also the legal definition of insanity.  Without this moral sense, they were reduced to simply following a command,  like a dog being told not to mess on the carpet.  How odd to think that becoming a moral agent would create a rift between the divine and the human.  I would think it would be just the opposite.

In the movie “Oh God” George Burns (God) was asked by some serious theologians if Adam and Eve had really sinned.  “Heck, no,” he answered.  “They were only kids, and kids can’t sin.”  Thus, the Eden myth seems to me to infantilize Adam and Eve, and to cast the soul’s longing, as voiced by the snake, for mature autonomy and responsibility as sinful. I therefore agree here with John that we must dare to heed the call for transformation in our own hearts, and to cherish whatever symbol embraces that ideal.  For millions of people, it is the snake.

The Eden myth also seems to reduce the notion of paradise to a hedonistic utopia (which literally means “nowhere”).  The notion of paradise originally referred to a walled garden, and the word  is not used in the Hebrew version of the Garden of Eden.  But the Vulgate Latin version (4th Century C.E.) not only uses the word paradise, but calls it a paradise of pleasure.  Here is a literal translation of the two relevant verses from Genesis 2:

Therefore God made man from the slime of the earth, and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man was made a living soul.  And the Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning, into which He placed the man he had formed.

A paradise of pleasure.  By the 13th century, this version had become the official view of the Catholic Church, and had been applied both to the state of innocence before the Fall, and to the eternal  bliss awaiting the righteous in Heaven (the same translation sees Jesus promising one of the thieves on the cross that “today you will be with me in Paradise..”)

So I will go with one side of Jen’s options: I believe that a vapid notion of paradise deserves to be mocked, and that the snake was doing us a favor.  Just as Mary Oliver reminds us that we “don’t have to be perfect, ” I find the idea that a perfect human life should be free of challenge and pain and growth and loss to be unattractive and boring.  The Garden of Eden must have been rather uneventful, to say the least, and even as a child, I found the pictures of Heaven not at all compelling. Hell, on the other hand, was a vivid and exciting place, albeit one to avoid.   A care-free, growth-free existence seems an unworthy one to which to aspire. Stay innocent, follow the rules, and you will be rewarded by an eternity of bliss–or negatively, stay innocent, follow the rules, and you will not be damned to eternal punishment.  I believe that whatever Divinity there is , she wishes much more for us than that.  And so:

Dare to heed the call

A snake whispers in your heart

why are you not you?

Songs Old and New

“When old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart”
Rabindranath Tagore

This blog has taken me in directions I could not have envisioned, and now it is asking for a new name. After much thought, I have settled on “Songs of Wisdom.”

Over the years, my teaching became less lecture, and more a creative dialogue between my students and me. It felt as though we were collaborating on a variation of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, where we entered a field beyond time and fixed ideas. Together we would trace the tracks and hints of our ancestors, and sing a world into being. We were in fact following the songlines sung by fellow travelers from Thales, through Lao Tzu, to Camus. We would embrace some touchstone ideas from a common reading, and follow the path they suggested in order to create a vision that was highly individual to each class, yet universal in the light it cast upon the human condition.

Every human being, I believe, sings A world, not The world, into being. In this regard, Robert Pirsig offers an illuminating analogy. In every instant, we are bombarded by myriad things vying for our awareness, and we simply cannot give our attention to everything. It is as though we are standing on a beach composed of millions of grains of sand. We reach down into that beach and pick up a handful of sand, and call that handful “the world.” The handful we choose is often determined by the cultural, familial, and religious conditioning of our early lives.

Here is where Philosophy comes in. Ben Zander says “It’s all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.” Violence and loss, sickness and death are inevitable, but by following the songlines of visionary women and men down through the ages, we have the possibility of clicking the kaleidoscope of our minds, and creating more ample and generous templates that frame an increasingly kind and compassionate world. These are songs of wisdom, living words given soul by the melodies of the heart.

The Dappled Road Toward Wisdom

The inspiring thoughts of theoretical philosophy strike me as wonderfully bright, hopeful, and inspiring, but the journey toward maturity and wisdom also has a darker side. In order to understand this reality, I think we need to look squarely at the shadowy depths from which Wisdom emerges. “Bonno wa satori” says a Japanese Zen aphorism: enlightenment abides in our imperfections. Talk of the magnificence of Wisdom seems disingenuous when we look through the window of the lecture hall at the world outside, filled with real—and suffering–humanity. “Today, like every day,” says Rumi, “we wake up empty and frightened.”

From one perspective, I feel as though I have been living life in a series of interior rooms. I (my ego) began as a pinched little room. Now my interior room feels more ample, and its walls are often translucent and permeable, allowing the breath of life, sometimes at least, to have its say through me. After innumerable transitions–some harsh, some gentle—my inner and outer worlds are coming into alignment, opening onto vistas of a sacred world. How I got from there to here is the story I want to share.

Looking back over seven decades of life, I say gratefully that it has been quite a ride. I have a beautiful family and dear friends, and I am in the third decade of a loving marriage that daily exceeds my expectations. Over the years, however, I have made countless mistakes, but I have learned many helpful things from them. The famous Buddhist image resonates. Like all of us, I am a lotus flower growing ever so slowly in the mud.

The Executive Ego: a Room Without a View
I sometimes ask my students to imagine that their interior reality is like a secret room, and to envision what it looks like. Does it have bare concrete walls with no windows, and a toilet over in the corner? If there is a window, does it have bars? Are those bars meant to keep people out, or to lock oneself in—or both? On the other hand, might one’s interior room be like Andrew Wyeth’s Sea Breeze, light and airy, with the curtains billowing with fresh ocean air? Many people live in a version of the former, I am afraid, and they spend their lives trying to make that little room more comfortable, with expensive furniture and the latest gadgets. They think a bigger house gives them more interior space, but just the reverse is true. Often, the more money, position, or power one has, the smaller and more protective is the room of the soul. Many people know this at some level, but relatively few believe it enough to alter their lives. I don’t think it is our birthright, though, to spend our lives in a small protected corner of our selves. The creation of the solid walls of ego usually happens when we are very young, and then this room solidifies into an internal control center, whose beliefs, knowledge, values, thoughts and feelings, do their level best to run the show. When it is successful, as it often is, the result is a parody of what Georgia O’Keeffe calls “the livingness of life.”

During my first few decades of life I created a small, safe room, a tiny protected ego that was furnished with the religious certainties of the Catholic Church, American middle class morality, and ultimately a Ph.D. To use Plato’s analogy, I wore the chains of 1950’s conventionality, whose links were forged in the fear of abandonment, shame, and disapproval. These chains were of my own making in response to cultural and familial conditioning, and they most likely made perfect sense at the time. They had no locks, so I had to hold onto them with all the force of my young psyche in order to maintain their protective shield.

When the time was right, I married, found a secure teaching job at a fine college in Vermont, fathered two boys, and bought a house. Complacent and secure in the American Dream, I was convinced I was walking a wide paved road to promotion, tenure, fame and fortune. I was following the blueprint I had been given for a happy and successful life.

And then the bottom fell out.

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Living the Love of Wisdom #1

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE)

The URL of this blog is “Love of Wisdom,” and in a previous essay, I lamented the fact that not many university professors live lives of wisdom lovers. But just what is this “wisdom” we philosophers are supposed to love? And what difference would this love make in the perspectives, attitudes and behavior a person realizes in each moment of every day? What does it mean to live a wise life?

I find these questions essential to the calling of Teacher of the Love of Wisdom. As with most seemingly simple and obvious questions, however, they open a doorway to a lifetime of wonder—and this, I think, is a beautiful thing. In this essay I would like to offer a provisional reflection on the nature of Wisdom and the implications it has for the character of one’s life, with the hope that we might gain some insight into the fascinating challenge of living a pleasant, honorable, and just life.

According to Aristotle, Wisdom is a Virtue. The virtues are qualities of excellence (arête) that invigorate the mind (wisdom) and the heart (courage), and engender wholeness (temperance and justice). These qualities empower us to be the people we long to be, and to lead fulfilling lives.

I cannot claim to be an expert on the living a virtuous life, but I am very familiar with living a life inhibited by their opposite qualities, called “vices” by the Greeks. I have been foolish far more often than wise. Instead of dealing with life’s challenges with a thoughtful and conscious mind, I have often labored under the veil of illusion and irrational beliefs (see Albert Ellis). Instead of courageously moving through fear, I have allowed it to paralyze me or to act defensively (see Charlie Brown’s failure to ever kiss the little red-haired girl). The opposite of temperance (to be “in tune”) is a lack of integrity, or wholeness, that manifests in a dithering mind and an ambivalent heart. Finally, the unjust life is one of selfish egocentricity.

The virtues are mutually interdependent and complementary, existing together or not at all, and serve to form a mature human character. Wisdom tells us what is truly worthy of fear, while courage gives us the strength to break out of the prison of illusion. Similarly, integrity allows us to focus our energies wisely and courageously, while justice urges us to go beyond the protective walls of ego.

Aristotle goes on to say that “Happiness (eudaimonia) is activity in accord with virtue.” The capstone of human flourishing (eudaimonia) is not simply being virtuous, but acting virtuously. This means setting a firm intention to live life from the very best in oneself: from one’s highest wisdom and most loving heart, from one’s harmonious integrity and a sense of empathetic fairness.

Wisdom, then, might be placed in a nexus of qualities whose pursuit gives value and direction to an entire lifetime. It therefore seems best to think of the Love of Wisdom as a longing for perspective and compassion, balance and fairness, that evolves through an authentic commitment, renewed daily, to pursue and nurture the most empowering dimensions of one’s mind and heart. This evolution takes the form of a widening spiral of growth that leads toward ever deeper Wisdom and ever more effective loving in the world.

In tomorrow’s post, I will reflect upon the Dynamics of Transformation.

Living the Love of Wisdom # 2: Tao 38

In the previous post, I reflected on the nature of Wisdom as a classical virtue, relying mostly on the thought of Aristotle. Gaining an understanding of wisdom as a virtue, however, is only a small part of the art of living the love of wisdom. Let us turn to Eastern Wisdom today, and allow Lao Tzu to guide us on the path of the art of living. Verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching has been an inspiration for me for many years. Here is the translation by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng:
A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,
And is therefore good.
A foolish man tries to be good,
And is therefore not good.
A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done. When a truly kind man does something, he leaves nothing undone.
When a just man does something, he leaves a great deal to be done.
When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds,
He rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order.

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness (te, virtue).
When goodness is lost, there is kindness (jen, benevolence).
When kindness is lost, there is justice (ren, righteousness).
When justice is lost, there is ritual (li, propriety).

Therefore the truly great man dwells on what is real
and not what is on the surface.
On the fruit and not the flower.
Therefore accept one and reject the other.

The implications of this verse could easily fill several books, but I will do my best to restrain myself. I have already considered superior vs. inferior virtue in the blog post “Shoddy Virtues,” and written two essays on ritual (the Young Monk and A Sip of Tea).

For today, let us consider the evolution of consciousness outlined in another translation of verse 38:
“Hence when the way [Tao] was lost there was virtue [Te]; when virtue was lost there was benevolence [Jen]; when benevolence was lost there was rectitude [righteousness, Ren]; when rectitude was lost there were the rites [ritual, li ]. And, it is implied, when ritual fails, the disciplinarian uses force and fear.

The Way to Wisdom
We might see the unfolding of the art of living the love of wisdom as a reversal of the process in Tao 38: We often begin learning through fear, then develop rote behaviors (li), moving to “right” principles (ren), and perhaps on to benevolent, or at least beneficent, behavior (jen), finally becoming virtuous (te) by assimilating accumulated beliefs and values, actions and attitudes, into ourselves as a second nature (Aristotle). As Ken Wilber points out, each stage is both transcended and included in this process (including fear, although I think ultimately it would evaporate as a needless appendage). While becoming virtuous and acting from one’s virtue is the pinnacle of development for Aristotle, it is only the penultimate stage of development in the thought of Lao Tzu. For him, all the stages of the development of consciousness–ritual, principles, benevolence, and virtue–are dry and sterile without being vivified with the energy of Tao. Just as with Virtue, every stage can be “higher” or “lower.” Perhaps a tentative meaning of Tao and of this entire process will become more clear if I use my favorite musical analogy.

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