Wisdom 2.0 & the two wings of freedom

The Wisdom 2.0 conference last week was one of the most amazing events I’d ever attended — over 1700 people under one roof, all with an interest in mindfulness and compassion, coming together to meet and talk to each other sincerely and with the intention of collaborating and sharing their unique embodiment of these concepts.

Everyone had their own personality, their own practice, and their own story about how they discovered their spirituality. There were lawyers who started bringing yoga into their law practice, Nasa employees using modern networking technologies to create meditation communities, TV producers who were interested in starting drop-in meditation studios (and those were just a few of the people I met on the very first night of the conference!)

The founder of the conference, Soren Gordhamer, manifested (and hopefully, will continue to manifest) a brilliant vision in putting all of this together. I can’t say enough about how great his karma must be for creating an environment where so much mindfulness and so many compassionate projects will cross-pollinate. Truly, this is a modern cauldron of spiritual practices — and the outcome will be both unpredictable and amazing (if the energy of the group is any indication of the future direction and results). Soren said it wasn’t so much a conference as it was a practice. I thought that was beautiful. The though occurred to me, however that Wisdom 2.0 was actually an “inside-out retreat”. Lots of talking about mindfulness and meeting like-minded people and just a little bit of formal sitting (there was a meditation area with zafus and zabutons)!

The one place where I saw a deficiency was, ironically, in the presentation and discussion of Wisdom itself. I felt that wisdom and compassion were treated not as equal and necessary “wings” of spiritual practice, but rather as a single entity — as if that which is compassionate and thoughtful is equivalent to “wisdom”. One speaker, who had a heart of gold and spoke passionately and brilliantly collapsed wisdom all the way into the knowing of “right from wrong”. Discernment and morality are important, but they shouldn’t be mistaken for wisdom. Allowing these concepts to be collapsed in this way, and for the discussion to focus primarily on compassion, undermined the very power of wisdom (as understood from a traditional Buddhist standpoint) and kept it from being articulated and shared. The function of wisdom is specific and I felt it needed to be brought into the discussion, to complement and inform the idea of compassion.

What is the Buddhist concept of Wisdom that was missing? How does it relate to Compassion? The answer is pretty simple and we’ve touched on it throughout this blog: Wisdom is the understanding and view, that when put into practice and perfected leads to the end of suffering. Wisdom is what the Buddha taught very succinctly in the Four Noble Truths (the first 3 provide the basis for Wise Understanding and the fourth, a broader and more inclusive path to guide us there). How would I sum it up? I would sum it up like this: All things that arise are conditioned, and have the nature to pass away. Clinging to anything that will pass away leads to suffering. Through mindfulness, we can come to see the impermanence of things, and the unreliability of phenomena to bring lasting happiness. Seeing this again and again with clarity, our innate nature, which is not a conditioned “thing”, begins to stop clinging to impermanent phenomena; stops identifying with that which is impermanent and limited. Allowing all things to arise and pass in awareness– without clinging or identifying any of it as ourselves– we find freedom. Dwelling in this state of freedom and experiencing the happiness that is not dependent upon conditions, we cease all clinging. As clinging is part of the chain of dependent origination, a link in that chain, a necessary element of that chain — without it, the chain of causation is broken. Becoming, Birth and Death are also part of the chain, which is why identifying with unbound awareness is called by names such as “the unborn” and “the deathless”. The understanding which leads to this practice and it’s fruition is properly understood as Wisdom.

The Buddha’s four noble truths start with the existence of Suffering, then explain the cause of Suffering, then the cessation of Suffering, then the path to the cessation of Suffering. I can understand that the conference didn’t want to (and probably shouldn’t) present wisdom in these terms exclusively. People already equate Buddhism with suffering and that’s a turn off for people.

Restating Wisdom as the Path to Absolute Freedom, as the Path leading to the end of Suffering, as the necessary understanding required to be free at last — that allows one to see that it’s this very idea of wisdom that is ultimately necessary for the practice of Compassion!  If compassion is seeing the suffering of others and doing what we can to help — isn’t it necessary to understand what leads to the end of suffering in the first place?

I wanted to bring this conversation to the conference. This year, 2013 in San Francisco, I tried to do just that. I offered a “Hosted Conversation” about The Buddha’s Wisdom — and nobody came. Maybe all I could do was plant the silent seed.. and who knows, maybe it will grow into a mighty Redwood in conferences yet to come.

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