2020-04-16: Paññā (4 of 5) Revelatory Wisdom
3:54AM May 19, 2020
To continue with the theme of wisdom, Buddhism is often considered to be a wisdom tradition. To some degree, wisdom is seen as the gateway to liberation and living a liberated life. So what is wisdom? One thing that is good to know is that it's a faculty we have - the discerning faculty, the distinguishing faculty, the faculty of seeing and understanding clearly. It's a capacity we have. It doesn't involve a lot of book learning, study, and learning all the lists of Buddhism - but rather it's developing our native and natural capacity to see clearly.
A lot of it has to do with becoming clearer in our capacity to be aware. That eventually leads to what I'm going to talk about today as revelatory wisdom. This is kind of an idiosyncratic term that I've come up with. I like it because it implies to me that things are revealed to us as we practice, rather than us figuring it out, or probing deeply, or trying so hard to understand what's there. We bring ourselves to a place where we allow experience to show its nature, its characteristics to us. So that we are preparing ourselves for this revelation of the deeper building blocks of experience for the purpose of liberation, for the purpose of no longer clinging to things.
This earlier form of wisdom - the wisdom that distinguishes things - helps us to distinguish and make choices that move us towards greater clarity. A lot of that has to do with becoming calmer and more still. Not because calmness and stillness per se are the point, though it can be quite nice and enlivening in a wonderful way to have a certain kind of stillness, calmness of the mind. It's calmness of mind that allows us to see more clearly. To then to see more clearly, we can make better choices that can support the continued deepening of that clarity, that stillness.
The analogy that I like to give for this is that many places apparently now in the world, because of the shelter in place, things have slowed down. There's a lot less traffic, a lot less traffic noise in some urban areas, and people are surprised to hear the sounds of birds. They didn't know there were so many birds living in these urban areas, because they couldn't hear them. Now they hear them.
In the canals of Venice, they're discovering - they probably always knew this some degree - but the mud was so churned up that the water was brown, and you couldn't see into it. People weren't aware of the fish swimming in those canals. Now that there's less traffic in the canals, the water has settled, and people see dolphins and fish swimming in the canals.
Here in the Bay Area, I forget that there are mountains on the edges of the Bay Area - Mount Diablo, Mount Hamilton. Every once in a while, when the air is clear of smog, I can see with crystal clarity the mountains across the Bay. It's a revelation: "Wow, look at that! They seem so close by."
All those are examples of something disappearing to create clarity, so that we can see much more clearly something that was missing, or something that was covered over at other times. Same thing with our mind. The calmness and clarity we're cultivating is to settle the things that obscure our ability to see the underlying nature of the moment-to-moment experience we have. One of the things we're settling is our conceptual mind, the mind that make stories, interpretations, predictions - the mind that lives in memories, in the future - and even the quieter mind that has simple concepts of things.
Some of them are quite innocent. Some of them are quite useful. But to always be thinking these concepts keeps us in a more active part of the mind. It keeps little things obscured. So for example, I'm sitting here in what's usually been called the meditation hall. If I am thinking in meditation, "I'm sitting in a meditation hall. This is a meditation hall." It's true in a certain degree, but it's keeping the mind busy. I could let go of the concept of meditation hall and just be aware of the walls, carpet, ceilings, lights, and just see them. I don't have to even have names for them - light and carpets. I just become aware and see.
The advantage of this quieting of the conceptual mind is that with greater clarity, something gets revealed. We see something. We start seeing what I call the underlying building blocks through which we build the conventional world we live in - the conventional sense of self, and ideas of who I am. The value of going to those building blocks, the underlying nature of things, is we have a much better vantage point to see how we make concepts, how we're adding things on top of things, how we complicate it more than it needs to be.
In particular, we can see that we are clinging to, reaching out to touch and hold, pulling back, resisting this whole world of clinging and grasping, which is so subtle. The deepest kinds of clinging we have are often invisible to us. Invisible doesn't mean insignificant. It's like the underlying roots. That's the metaphor the Buddha gave. There are these roots underground. And as long as the roots are there, they're going to keep sprouting plants. If there are the roots of suffering, then those roots are going to continue to make suffering. So we need to get clear and quiet enough to begin seeing what's under the surface. Because we're quiet, we see the roots of greed, hatred, and delusion, of clinging, grasping, pushing away.
Now this revelatory side of wisdom, what is particular is what's seen. In our tradition this is called the real Insight. Insight with a capital I is said to be that which is universal to all experiences we have. Everyone shares these things. It's not personal to us, to any individual, in the sense that it doesn't have to do with our biography, our history of our life, what happened to us in our life, how we were conditioned by society and life experiences. It has to do with what's always true at the underlying level of all experience. To really see that is called insight.
The three primary insights, the three things that are revealed, when the mind is clear and calm enough, is the degree to which things are inconstant. Often it's called impermanent in English - 'anicca.' In some ways, it's fine to call it impermanence. But for some people, that implies it's impermanent because eventually it's not going to be here. It's going to stop. 'Anicca' as a deep insight is that also, but the deeper moment-to-moment experience is that things are inconstant. They're flowing. They're moving. They're inconstant. They're coming here, and they're disappearing. Appearing and disappearing over and over again.
I don't want to convince you that that's the case. But as the mind gets quiet and still, we notice that the way we experience things, and that's an important term, the way that we experience things, whatever it might be, is not a constant stream, like it's there continuously. There's something about the way our senses, our mind, how we experience things, that appears and disappears, appears and disappears.
One of the first places that I discovered this was with pain in meditation, when I was instructed to bring very careful attention to the pain, almost like I put my attention right in the middle of it. Lo and behold, the idea I had that pain was a solid mass of burning. searing, stabbing turned out to be a little bit those sensations, but they were pulsing, appearing and disappearing, like little pinpricks coming and going, coming and going. In this dance in a little square centimeter of my knee, it was fascinating to watch it appear and disappear.
When I no longer imputed a solid mass of pain, but rather these inconstant, pinpricking sensations, I had a very different relationship to it. I started to see how I was resisting it, attacking it, building up a self, having self-pity, all kinds of other things that I didn't really see when it was just a solid mass.
But for all kinds of things - not just painful things - we start seeing the inconstant nature of how things are experienced. The value of that - the kind of clarity that is revealed - is that it highlights for us two things. It highlights to us our clinging, how we grasp and get attached. And it begins to show us there's an alternative. It begins to show us the futility, suffering, or the vacuous nature or value of clinging and attachment. There starts to be a transition where it becomes easier and easier. More and more, what the system does is begin to let go, to soften, to open up.
The second and third insights, our insights into 'dukkha' - suffering, the unsatisfactoriness, the subtle irritation that comes in our experience when we're for and against it. And then the not-selfness of the experience. That somehow the way that we construct our experience, the way that we participate in it, the way that experience occurs to us, that there is some kind of impersonal aspect of it. It's causes and conditions that come together, and there's a certain way in which it's a conceptual overlay - the idea of an agent or a self that's responsible for it all, or guilty for it all.
This is not to convince you that there is no self. That's not the idea. The idea is, as the mind gets quiet, still, and clear, there's no longer the overlay of self-concepts on the experience. The experiences in and of themselves can occur without any self imputed into them. It's very freeing to have that happen. It's a relief not to do the work of creating a self, assuming a self, living on this idea of self. It's like a vacation from these self ideas. It shows us the possibility of freedom.
And in the last of the five forms of wisdom for tomorrow, we'll talk about liberating wisdom.
So today, it's revelatory wisdom. As the mind gets clear, inconstancy is revealed. Then we just allow it to be revealed. That's why I did this meeting thing. Rather than meeting inconstancy, we allow it to just appear and show itself to us so thoroughly that there's no more meeting anymore. It's just the flow of inconstant phenomena in all directions, 360 degrees.
Thank you very much. I so much appreciate this chance to have this time with you, and I look forward to tomorrow.