“Wisdom” is encountered frequently in Buddhism and during sports casts. “The quarterback hit the tight end instead of the wide receiver, a wise choice. That’s the wisdom that comes with experience.”
We often hear of Wisdom but the word is hard to define. In Buddhism, it refers primarily to:
1. Deep understanding, i.e., realization of The Four Noble Truths;
2. Deep understanding/realization of The Three Characteristics of Existence: anicca, anatta, and dukkha, i.e., impermanence, no-self, and suffering, respectively; and
3. Deep understanding/realization of the Twelve Nidanas, i.e., the Doctrine of Dependent Arising/Origination, both backwards and forwards.
This deep understanding is deeper than mere intellectual understanding.
Wisdom can also mean “not stupid.” The wise follow the precepts, the stupid do not. The wise study the sutras, the stupid do not. And so on for all of the other meditation and non-meditation practices found when we study Buddhism in all its fullness.
Many writers say that The First Noble Truth of dukkha is that life is suffering but the Buddha said life is out of whack like a wheel mounted on an eccentric/off center axle. And that enlightened people can suffer when hit by an arrow but they only suffer once; the unenlightened add the suffering of “why me?” to the physical suffering.
If the axle of a wheel is concentrically mounted, i.e., in the center of the wheel, any vehicle carried by such a wheel will proceed smoothly in a level plane.
Mount the axle away from the center and the vehicle will go up and down as it proceeds. The amplitude of the up and down motion increases as the distance from the center of the wheel to the axle increases.
No doubt the Buddha had seen ox-pulled carts in his day, 2500 years ago, where the axle was eccentrically mounted and the wagon rose and fell with each rotation of such a wheel. He saw that imperfection in his daily life.
After attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he searched for a way to communicate to others what he had realized and settled upon the Pali word “dukkha” when announcing The First Noble Truth that life is unacceptable, unsatisfactory, out of whack like an eccentrically-mounted wheel, a dukkha wheel.
If we can penetrate The First Noble Truth, we know the other three.
Right Understanding, also known as Right View, is the first fold of the eightfold path.
Right Understanding of what? Of the Four Noble Truths. Right Understanding is the cure for ignorance. In Buddhism, an ignorant person is a person who doesn’t know the Four Noble Truths. Or someone who intellectually knows it, but does not really know it.
Some teachers go further and say that Right View means samma dittthi, the right view of self, i.e., that the self is impermanent and can’t be nailed down from moment to moment and no self is independent of all that is.
The Second Noble Truth is often stated as “The suffering of The First Noble Truth is caused by desire, conditioned by ignorance.”
Desire for what? Desire for a separate, independent self. From ignorance there arises a desire to withdraw, to separate, to know good and evil.
Red Pine tells us that the Sarvastidians, one of the early Buddhist sects who were contemporaries of the Theravadans, realized that the Four Noble Truths applied only to the six worlds. There could be no desire in the four heavenly realms.
The Biblical story of Satan being kicked out of heaven because he wanted to be a king just like God has the ring of truth, or perhaps we should say it seems plausible.
Who is that nasty old Satan who wanted to have a separate self, who wanted a discriminating mind so that he (or it) could pick and choose between things it likes and things it doesn’t?
Do we know anyone who judges, who picks and chooses, who thinks he or she has a self that is independent of everything else?
When we judge, when we weigh, when we choose, when we like, when we dislike…that is the satanic mind.
We practice Zen to awaken to our original Buddha nature, thereby transforming our satanic nature which is so inbred in us that we don’t even realize how far our axle is from its central position. But no god or devil did it to us. We kicked ourselves out of paradise with our desire.
How successful we have been in creating the powerful illusion of a separate self. No one told us to be careful of what we wished, or if they did we ignored the advice. Can we click our heels three times and go home? There is no positive action we can take to propel us back into the Nirvana from which we emerged.
We can only practice Zen, thereby creating the conditions that allow us to awaken to our natural state.
Deeply understanding The Second Noble Truth is just another way of deeply understanding The First Noble Truth. They really are the same Noble Truth.
The Third Noble Truth is that dukkha can be brought to cessation and the Fourth Noble Truth is that the path to that cessation has eight folds.
When the desire for a separate self evaporates, the separate self is extinguished. Nirvana means blown out like a candle, gone. The separate self is gone and our true nature is revealed.
The Buddha simply said the same Noble Truth in three different ways, trying to communicate something that is not easy to communicate to stupid human beings, burning with desire.
So to lay it out in a step-by-step program, because he knew people were too dense to penetrate the Noble Truth expressed in three different ways, the Buddha produced a Fourth Noble Truth and called it the middle way or The Eightfold Path.
People who follow the Buddha’s eight step program will eventually understand the First, Second and Third Noble Truths.
This is another point of departure where Zen departs from classic (Theravada) Buddhism. The early Ch’an/Zen masters felt that the four noble truths and the eight steps were quite wordy and that some people would be mis-led by the words. “The Indians think too much” is a common comment of Chinese thinkers.
Zen wants to simplify, to cut through words, to get straight to the heart of the matter without thinking too much about following an eight-point plan. The early Zen masters felt that The Eightfold Path was somewhat discursive, too intellectual for their taste. So they stripped The Eightfold Path from classical Buddhism and said: Let’s just meditate like the Buddha did. Let’s not get bogged down in words.
We can listen to podcasts from Zen centers all over the U.S. and we may never hear a discourse on The Four Noble Truths or The Eightfold Path. Listen to Theravada podcasts and it’s The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path all the time.
This is one way the divide between Mahayana and Theravada manifests itself.