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.



Buddhism: Religion, Philosophy, or Spirituality?

When I visited New York a couple of months ago, a student at Columbia University asked me this question: Would you consider Buddhism a religion or philosophy? I don’t remember what I said, but I do recall it being a half-baked answer skirting on the edges of classifying Buddhism as a philosophy. After all, many young people in the West do consider Buddhism as a doctrine about cause and effect, seeing most rituals and chants as moot. I grew up in a Buddhist household, attended temple rituals and ceremonies, yet still found myself doubting that Buddhism should be considered a religion. For me, religion was connected with worshipping god(s), like Christianity or Islam. But in Buddhism, there was no god to praise or worship. I’m sure that many would agree that Buddhism is in fact a way of life.

However, my view has come to change on this during my stay here at a monastic program (Woodenfish) in the Longquan Monastery in Shanxi, China. Let’s begin with the term spirituality.

I think it’s a fairly modern concept, and most people I know would rather be aligned as spiritual rather than a radical religious. Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette, a professor at Woodenfish, opened his lecture about spirituality that spirituality had an attitude of “whatever.” It puts the individual at the center of the universe, makes people selfish and unhappy. It allows people to cherrypick whatever you like, but the dangerous part is that it can lead to dismissing what we don’t yet understand or what challenges us. If we are trying to learn, we need to relinquish our authority. For example, if we are learning how to make a chair, we would go to somebody who already knows how to make a chair. If we want to learn how to meditate, we should go to a monastery where they have established practices to teach meditation. This motivation behind cherrypicking in spirituality also translates over to the fractious nature of religions institutions and political parties. There is a loss of commitment to something greater, especially something that challenges us. And being our own authority can put a lot of stress on ourself to make the perfect decisions among a sea of options.

Philosophy, from Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally translates to “love of wisdom.” And refers to the study of things like knowledge, existence, what we should or should not do, language, reason, etc. And from my experience of studying philosophy in college, has a categorical/classifying nature that can seem cold.

Religion, from Latin religio, means “that which binds us together.” As opposed to philosophy, religion feels more warm and human, dealing with things like love, death, passion, birth, etc. And religion can ben seen as having 7 dimensions.

7 Dimensions of Religion

1. Practical and Ritual – In Buddhism, rituals are seen not as an end in itself. Sacrifices, baptism, etc.

2. Experiential and Emotional – Meditative jhanas, metta (loving kindness), desire to convert others

3. Narrative and Mythic – Religions have rich, emotional narratives or myths. While myths are generally looked down upon in the present because of their lack of proof, these stories motivate us to strive for things greater than us. They give us hope.

4. Doctrinal and Philosophical – I believe this is where many people would put Buddhism into, but Buddhism is much more than just a philosophy.

5. Ethical and Legal – 5 Precepts, 10 Commandments, etc.

6. Social and Institutional – monasteries, interactions between laymen and monks/nuns, interactions between people and priests.

7. Material – artwork, clothing, bowls.

And having these 7 dimensions implies that there are many different ways we can enter into religion. For me, my entrance into Buddhism came from the experiential and philosophical dimensions.

For me, this added a lot more depth to religion. Religions are in fact deeply rooted in history and culture. There are also many recurring themes among religions, for example, how the mythological monomyth (hero’s journey) is apparent in many religious narratives. Studying Buddhism academically in the Woodenfish program has been very interesting and challenging, making myself ask questions that I would have never asked myself before, which I will answer in future posts.

What if the Buddha never existed? Does it even matter?

What would be the advantage and disadvantage of believing in the narrative?