What is Wisdom, and where do I find it?

These are all my personal opinions and do not reflect that of Woodenfish.

I’m sure we’ve run into many smart people, but can we call them all wise?

I’ve had the opportunity this past weekend to organize a conference in Shenzhen, China called Buddhism, Science, and Future: Brain Science and Mental Well-Being. I, working with the Woodenfish foundation, invited neuroscientists, psychologists, Buddhists, and entrepreneurs from all around the world to talk about how Buddhism and science have clashed, interacted, and can work towards the same goal of learning something about our humanity. While listening to the presentations and discussions, I kept thinking about that ultimate wisdom of our humanity.

Many scientists and entrepreneurs are utilizing new tech to make the mindfulness and wisdom landmark in Buddhism more accessible. For example, neuroscientists used EEGs to monitor brain activity of lifelong meditators, and when compared to that of a lay person, the results were vastly different. A speaker developed E-Meditation retreats that combine electrical or audial signals to stimulate the brain in specific regions to increase effectivity of meditation. These are all used to grasp the feeling of inner peace, equanimity, and clear-headedness that has become the prized fruit of Buddhism and meditation. On some extreme cases, there are some who expose themselves to excruciating pain (wearing gloves with biting insects inside) to tap into some higher state of consciousness. These were new ideas that were being discussed in relation to Buddhism, and one monk objected that these practices were “sacrilegious”.

I could understand why he felt that way. Having grown up in a Buddhist environment, I do hold onto more traditional views of Buddhism. Is altering and stimulating your mind with electricity to help meditation and attain “enlightenment” blasphemous? I sure felt that way before. But I was learning to be more open-minded, as a theme of the conference was thinking about how Buddhism and science can be evolving together. I’ve studied religion (particularly Buddhism) in college, and have learned that the religion has been packaged in different ways throughout time and space to mold into different cultures. Buddhism brought from India to China went through a transformation incorporating rhetoric and ideas from Daoism and Confucianism. Perhaps the way Buddhism is accessible now to the future generations is through the lens of science. *I am intrigued with this idea and have many thoughts, I plan to write more on this in the future!*

I appreciate Venerable Yifa’s quote:

“When the Buddha went down to sit under that bodhi tree, he wasn’t thinking ‘I want to create one of the world’s largest organized religions.’ He just wanted to understand and end his suffering.” (paraphrased)

What this quote means for me, is that maybe the importance of Buddhism isn’t following everything that the Buddha did down to the T. I know I’ve gotten caught up in the small details – sitting in full lotus position while meditating is more important than noting and mindfulness, memorizing chants and sutras word for word, having to meditate while sitting still, etc. After all, his original goal was to just see the nature of suffering and overcome it. And that is accessible through different means, especially in different cultures throughout the world.

Throughout the conference, speakers were describing their “higher-consciousness” experiences and lessons through different words and practices – trans-personal psychology, feeling one with the universe, shamanism, universal empathy, etc. One speaker expressed very respectably to the objecting monk that perhaps people are just trying to climb the same mountain to reach this same “wisdom”, albeit through different methods. That sounded all nice and inclusive, but I found myself unable to accept that wisdom was on top of some mountain. I think the metaphor of wisdom being on a high mountain is very attractive yet misleading – if we work hard and climb high enough, we’ll attain a higher wisdom and be happy. Through my personal experience in meditation, I found that wisdom wasn’t in any high up place, but that it was with me all along.

I recall my meditation practice in Japan/China 4 years ago in 2015, I struggled the most with my leg pain when meditating. I always got frustrated that I couldn’t stay still and sit without my leg starting to get painful. I wrote about this in a previous post, but to make a long story short – I realized that it wasn’t the pain that was causing my suffering but my anger towards the pain. Here’s a metaphor: When I’m in a cafe writing or working, I notice the cafe-chatter in the background, but it doesn’t anger me or hinder my focus. And that’s how I treated the pain in my leg – like noise in the background of my main focus of breathing and meditating. And when I didn’t attach any dislike to the pressure on my leg,  thoughts of anger and frustration vanished. I feel that this “wisdom” of un-attachment and impermanence is similar (if not identical) to the wisdom taught in Buddhism. And this wisdom wasn’t somewhere high up on the mountain that would take years of struggle and meditation to reach.

Meditation was a tool to peel back the layers of illusion and junk that clouded the mind. I’m not an expert, but I feel that this matches the Buddhist metaphors of “calming the monkey mind” or “purifying the mind.” So I think that thinking of meditation as a struggle up a mountain to attain enlightenment and wisdom can be fallacious, because the “wisdom” is in fact everywhere. Paralleling Japanese Zen Buddhist teachings, everything has Buddha nature. When the Zen master draws the Zen Enso (circle), it embodies the ultimate nature of reality as flawed yet perfect, and impermanent thus beautiful. When a dog barks, it embodies Buddha nature as it is acting without a polluted mind in its true nature. The wisdom I gained about impermanence was everywhere all along, as long as I just sat down and looked.

If you’ve read up to here, I sincerely thank you for reading my thoughts on this topic! It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Please comment and leave feedback for me on what you’d like me to talk about next, and I’d love to write about it.

 

Airplane Conversation between a Buddhist and a Christian

I was on a plane from JFK to Shanghai, and I asked the flight attendant if I could move to a free seat in front of for more room. After I got the thumbs up, I grabbed my backpack and moved to the next row, settling down in a seat next to somebody else. I felt a little guilty, he could’ve had a free seat next to him, but I took it so I could have more room. We exchanged glances, then introduced ourselves.

“You seem very happy and satisfied with your life.”

That took me by surprise, especially because I was thinking the exact same thing about him – that he was the one who looked content.

“Thank you, I’m pretty happy right now, I would say about 80% satisfied with my life.”
We talked more and I learned that he was from Korea and worked at a Christian church, he had been in Philadelphia to attend a Christian conference. That was a coincidence! Since I was heading to China to attend to a Buddhist conference. He had a calm aura around him, and I could tell that he himself had struggled a lot to get to where he was today. Having been conflicted with my faith in Christianity before, I asked him if he was always a Christian.

He went on and told me that no, he didn’t believe in any religion until he was in college. He had a powerful experience during a sermon with a professor, marking a turning point in his life when he was saved. I feel that the younger me would’ve dismissed a religious salvation story like this and arrogantly turned my head away, but I’ve had my share of transformations with faith during college, so I listened with an open heart.
He engaged in an empowering ritual everyday that I found relatable – confession. I thought it was empowering, the act of confiding in God to admit to sins you had committed that day. When I was younger, I couldn’t really relate to the necessity of absolving guilt. I hadn’t had the responsibility or authority to do anything important, especially to other people. But over the course of college, I’ve done things that have etched guilt in my conscience. I know that this guilt has not been a good influence in my life – making me think that I couldn’t believe in myself, making me believe that I was not a good person. Coming from my Buddhist point of view, I thought the act of confessing could really help someone live with themselves and move forward.
I told him that I was 80% satisfied with my life, and the 20% of dissatisfaction came from the frustrations I had with myself. I get frustrated when I say I want to exercise but end up staying home, frustrated when I want to be a certain way but end up doing the opposite.
He pulled out his mobile Bible and read me a verse from the book of Matthew 11:28-30

28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

He said something that was very similar to how I think Buddhists see the world. He told me that humanity is full of toil and suffering. We hurt ourselves when we can’t achieve what we want, or even when we do achieve what we want. He used to feel that way all the time – he had started a cosmetics business in Korea and was “successful”. However, he was still suffering because he kept wanting more. Later, he found refuge in this Bible verse. He told me that God is meek and lowly in heart, meaning that he didn’t have a high ego. So even if you fail – if you look ugly and feel shame, you can take refuge in God. I thought of this like ugly crying to a friend when you feel like you have failed. I feel that there are some parallels with how Buddhists and Christians (the Christianity described by him) deals with suffering and stress. The overlapping sentiment is to not dwell or attach to the suffering. The rhetoric each religion uses is different and in affect symbolize how we humans deal with our suffering. I am not saying that any one way is correct or incorrect. In my perspective, Buddhists place the emphasis on the individual to let go of fetters like greed, anger, ill-will. But Christians place the emphasis finding refuge through a higher being who carries no sins like greed or anger, in turn humbling themselves.

I believe that isn’t right to dismiss people if they don’t believe in the same things you do. I know it is easy to cultivate an “us vs them” mentality and draw boundaries, because I have been guilty of doing that many times myself. But I’ve learned a lot about my humanity talking to him.

It was very moving to hear how Christianity had saved him and changed his life for the better. When growing up, he hated his father for being an alcoholic who beat him. But, through his faith he has opened his heart to him and forgiven him, praying for him everyday. I think that kind of transformation through faith is amazing.
He had bullied his little brother during school because his brother was not as “smart” as him, and that had ruined their relationship since. The first thing he knew he had to do after being saved was to apologize – he knelt down in front of his younger brother and sincerely apologized for the hurt he had caused. And now, they are growing closer together, and I think that is really beautiful.

I do not believe in all the things that he does, but we share a common thread which is that we are both human. And I have learned a lot about our humanity and how faith can transform it.