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The Beginning of Wisdom Is...


The Beginning of Wisdom Is...

By Paul Chaffee

Do you know anyone you truly would call “wise”?

What about that particular person leads you to deem her or him a wise person?

Then to complicate the process, setting aside our examples, what do we mean when we talk about “wisdom”?

Cambridge and Oxford University dictionaries agree that wisdom is experience and knowledge leading to good judgment. But then – how do we define “good”?

Some of the classic wisdom sayings further complicate the quest. In Proverbs, Judaism’s ancient wisdom collection, we read: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (9:10) That needs unpacking!

Socrates is often credited with saying “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” The words may not be his, but the unparalleled rigor this philosopher brought to reflection is captured well by the phrase. If we sat at table with Socrates and could ask him if he actually said it, we’d certainly want to go on and ask him, What is the end, the goal, of wisdom?

Shakespeare didn’t make this any easier by observing that “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (As You Like It) Yet any number of religious traditions might endorse the playwright’s judgment. Or as a Buddhist might say, it is critical to start out with beginner’s mind. And there is a lot to chew on when you start to explore. Wikipedia’s discussion of “wisdom” draws on more than a dozen different religious traditions, along with various perspectives on wisdom from psychology, philosophy, and education.

An Issue about Wisdom

It seems reasonable to devote a whole issue of TIO to wisdom in a time when there is so much folly and suffering in the world. In the middle of the darkness, where do we find the light? This is the season and celebration of light in many traditions, so lighting a candle for wisdom seems appropriate.

First – three reflective essays on wisdom. Vicki Garlock beautifully captures the importance as well as the elusiveness of wisdom, particularly for parents and teachers. Then a profile of Guru Nanak, a religious leader who by any standard imaginable was a deeply wise person. And Joseph Prahbu makes a strong case that genuine wisdom is a synthesis of reflection and action – and that without both, we’ll never get there.

Then we have three stories which indeed seem to bring together reflection and action to forge their own kinds of wisdom. From Standing Rock we hear about the spiritual ritual shared by thousands of protesters, including hundreds of faith leaders from different traditions. From Jerusalem, we discover new levels of courage from those who share the road in spite of fierce enmities. From a train to St. Petersburg in Russia we hear how music can bond us at a deeper level than words can express, in what can be called wise action.

Teachers of Wisdom

The idea to do an issue focused on wisdom surfaced in conversations last spring with Ed Bastian, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar, filmmaker, interfaith activist, and old friend. Over the years, Dr. Bastian has been specially gifted in bringing together distinguished teachers from a variety of traditions to focus on spirituality, creating in the process an interspiritual context.

Ed agreed to co-edit this issue and to invite five of his colleagues to join him in putting down their personal thoughts about wisdom. They come from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Sufi traditions, and each of them is focused on spiritual practice. Each takes a deep dive into his or her own tradition in ways which many will find wise and supportive, regardless of your background. Additionally Ed tells his own story about exploring wisdom through interspirituality. Everyone at TIO is grateful for this remarkable group of contributors and the gifts they bring.

No one is ever going to box up wisdom and claim title. It is part of the mystery of human life and is glorious in its diversity. It can seem almost unknowable, and it can be absolutely clear. In Taoism, the path to wisdom is adhering to the Three Treasures – charity, simplicity, and humility. And in the Tao Te Ching, we read, “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.” (Trans. S Mitchell)