Articles and Opinion
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WISDOM AND NIRVANA
Jose Antonio Cangco
Have you thought of what you are going to give to your relatives and friends this Christmas? I’m sure you did. But what about yourself? Have you considered buying a new shirt, shoes or the latest gizmo? Why don’t you give yourself something that is more lasting and which you can use everyday? Why not give yourself the gift of wisdom? It’s free and what’s more, it’s yours forever. If you share it, it can never be lost or halved.
What is wisdom? The common and widespread definition of wisdom is synonymous with good judgment. It is the ability to discern what is true and right; it is insight into the correct and lasting things in life.
Wisdom may also be defined in another way. Here, the definition of wisdom is different, esoteric, and interesting because it deals more with the mental process -- how wisdom is related to thinking. It is esoteric because not many people know that being a mental activity we can have conscious control of the whole process. Moreover we can choose the situations when and where to apply it. It is interesting to note, too, that this perception of wisdom helps us in understanding the inner workings of the mind so that having a good sense of judgment is one refreshing result.
Like other early manuscripts with their origins lost in antiquity, The Questions of King Milinda was written in India around the 1st century A.D. Written in Sanskrit which might not have even been the original language used in the discourse, it was lost from its exotic land of origin and survived only as the Pali and Sinhalese translations in Sri Lanka. The book is considered by many scholars as a trove of esoteric knowledge and comparable to the great philosophies of the world. Composed of a substantial number of questions covering more than 600 pages, the discourse on wisdom surprisingly takes only a few passages but the truth, as always, stands out.
The book introduces King Milinda as a learned and just ruler, In his quest for knowledge and wisdom, he had beaten all other learned men and teachers with his deep and profound questions. So, when he heard that the great sage Nagasena was in town, the king immediately wanted an audience with him.
Meanwhile, Nagasena was staying in town because he had offended his teacher. Nagasena had asked forgiveness from his teacher but he replied, "There is a city called Sâgala, where a king rules whose name is Milinda, and he harasses the brethren by putting puzzles to them of heretical tendency. You will have earned your pardon, Nâgasena, when you shall have gone there, and overcome that king in argument, and brought him to take delight in the truth.”
When Nagasena and King Milinda met after much preliminaries, the king started to ask his questions. One of the questions he asked was, "What is the characteristic mark of wisdom?" Nagasena's answer was very short and direct to the point. According to him wisdom is the "cutting-off" of any useless thinking processes. His reply could not have been more basic and more accurate than this, although wisdom may also be referred to simply as stopping, severing, or cutting.
How is this possible and what is the meaning of all of this? For any one to understand wisdom let him recognize it in himself first. Assume the following scenario: One Saturday afternoon Mr. Eleuterio, employed in one of the high-rise buildings in Makati, goes back to his office to get some papers. While he is waiting in the deserted lobby for the elevator to bring him up the 30th floor where his offices are, an acquaintance whom he only slightly knows arrives and waits beside him. They share the same floor. Mr. Eleuterio is a bit surprised when Mr. Drakon starts a conversation. Mr. Eleuterio notices that Mr. Drakon monopolizes it. He talks only about his new car, the six-figure salary he is receiving, the designer clothes and shoes that he buys in Hong Kong, and the multi-million peso mansion he is building yet Mr. Eleuterio has never asked about them.
After listening politely to him for a minute or two, Mr. Eleuterio decides that the gibberish must stop so he tunes-off mentally. That mental faculty which he uses to switch-off or cut-off the prattle in his brain is wisdom. In fact, when we are thinking or reflecting or are engaged in any serious introspection, we always use some “cutting-off” or “stopping” of undesirable thoughts, ideas and notions for us to be able to think forward.
Wisdom is the gift or mental faculty a baby is born with. Because of it he gets to understand things and learns to use reasoning. Later on, depending on how he is nurtured, his experiences, and the environment where he is raised he starts to develop his other mental faculties, talents and skills, too.
The question that parents, teachers and educators may have on their minds now is can a person gain more wisdom? Going by the definition of wisdom as the cutting-off or severing of mental processes leading to harmful ideas and wrong notions, the gift of wisdom which all babies start with is the same. It is from countless experiences, long practice and opportune time devoted to its study, however, that in some people wisdom seems to be more advanced and developed. It can be compared to muscles where exercises develop bulk and mass.
Now what is nirvana? Nirvana has been explained in sweeping descriptions such as paradise, oblivion, state of nothingness, and even something as absurd as “the loss of identity upon union with the Great Spirit”. But it is really the state of mind after there shall have been no longer any selfish and wrong thoughts in the mind which in eastern teachings would include passion, hatred, and confusion. According to Buddhism, nirvana is the “extinction of passion, of aversion, and confusion.”
According to eastern eschatology, when we die we shall no longer be capable of thinking the wrong kind of thoughts we had on earth, and that any good or bad things that we had done will not cancel one another out into emptiness; rather, we shall be able to remember all of them. But any man worth his salt will ask why wait until the next life when we can stop and cut them off right now? In other words, if we are really in control of our thoughts and emotions, then we should be able to choose, if we have not already done so, which among our ideas, beliefs, and notions are correct, and which we therefore should retain and keep.
But can we, with so many different thoughts going inside our minds achieve an ideal state of mind? Some men have led a life honed by experience and knowledge. Wisdom, generally defined as correct judgment and now also as the cutting-off or severance of wrong and harmful thoughts, can help us live meaningful lives. It gives us an entirely new perception to our beliefs, ideas. and notions which we might have had in the past. Wisdom cleanses our minds of bad and selfish thoughts.
Fortunately, there are Four Basic Principles of Insight and Wisdom to help us in our search for wisdom. These back-to-back couplets are our guide which let us know truth from wrong. They teach us to become sensitive and to be able to listen and tune in to our inner thoughts. They are explained briefly as follows:
The first principle we should learn if we are to gain insight is that when we acknowledge a true idea as truth, the totality of our whole person will confirm it. For example, acknowledging the truism that all persons are created equal regardless of color and creed will not make us feel queasy and superior and act repulsively toward other people of different beliefs. Rather, this will give us the confidence and relationship skills needed to live harmoniously in a society of democratic and civilized people.
The second principle which we should understand in our search for wisdom is that when we reject any true idea or mistakenly believe it as false, it will not disappear into the deep recesses of our subconscious to become part of our whole being; rather it will always return very unpredictably in our consciousness. For example, an apostate who was a member of a violent religious cult where he had been denied freedom of speech and thought, will not just be able to sweep and hide his past under the rug hoping that it will go away. Skepticism and doubts will always continue to form and appear in his consciousness until he confronts his past honestly and completely, admitting to his mistakes.
The third principle which we should know about is that when we have confirmed a false idea as false, it will disappear completely from our consciousness and shall never obstruct any of our thought processes again. As an example, when children realize that the Tooth Fairy is purely a work of fiction, they will never repeatedly ask her to bring back their lost teeth again.
Finally, the fourth principle which we should be well aware of is that every time we entertain a false idea as being true, we are really making it stand out like a sore thumb. For example, if a child were to believe in the Tooth Fairy and continue to believe in her for many years to come, such misplaced fantasy will stand out like a splinter in the child’s mind, clouding his thinking processes.
It is clear that wisdom is what is behind all our mental processes in our choice of believing which is right and which is wrong. Wisdom is working behind the scenes, stopping and cutting off any unnecessary clutter in our consciousness to give us tranquility and peace of mind. This is the reason why in ancient knowledge wisdom is described as the severing and cutting off of bad thoughts.
In retrospect, if we were very unfortunate as to be continually bothered by wrong thoughts and notions, what we should do is to analyze them one by one. Are any of these in violation of principles two or four? If in any way we feel down and out and hopeless, then it is time to cut these notions clearly and cleanly.
What comes after wisdom? Wise men say nirvana follows after wisdom. If we live a monastic kind of life we shall fully understand these gifts, but for the majority of us who live in a hustle and bustle world, just learning how to stop and cut-off repulsive thoughts already makes our world more attractive.
There is a story of a sculptor who found a big slab of marble. Carefully he dragged it home and started working on it. After many days and weeks, he was able to make a very beautiful statue which many people praised and admired. When he was asked how he had made such a wonderful piece of art from stone, he said that the statue had been inside all the time. All he did was just to chisel away and remove the useless pieces. Wisdom is like the chisel a wise man uses to cut-off and severe away any bad thoughts and notions inside him to reveal his true nature.
In summary, the wise man uses wisdom to cut away the bad thoughts and keep only the good. When he shall have abolished the former, then he shall attain nirvana.