May 21, 2008

Wisdom versus Knowledge

This is an essay I have written for my students at the school where I teach. I am trying to explain to them that wisdom is important and that we often misunderstand what true wisdom is. Here it is:

There are three things whose meaning people usually confuse. Knowledge, intelligence and wisdom. These three things are not the same. As civilized people we need all of them. We are born with some potential for knowledge, potential for intelligence and potential for wisdom.

There are all kinds of people – people of high intelligence and little knowledge, people of high knowledge and low intelligence, people who have plenty of both. There are people who are very wise and people who are little wise. But I believe that true wisdom is usually misunderstood or underestimated. Wisdom does not depend on knowledge or intelligence very much. But thanks to intelligence and knowledge, we can explain or argue what wisdom is. Here I will try to explain what wisdom is based on my studies and practice in recent years:

Wisdom is something you express before you think. Wisdom is something you express when you stop talking because you feel there is nothing to say any more. Wisdom is to say something when you feel the one you love is waiting for a word – you don’t know what to say, but you say it anyway and you say the right word. Wisdom is when you give something even when you know you’ll lose. Wisdom is when you lose and it is okay with you. Wisdom is when you let someone weaker win a fight. Wisdom is when you let go of something you want very much but it is trying to escape. Wisdom is when you don’t try to run away from a very difficult situation. Wisdom is when you do what you feel is good, although you have no idea how to explain it. Wisdom is to stop an argument even if you think you are right. Wisdom is when you don’t pretend you know something you actually don’t know. Wisdom is when you grab a hammer and use it properly. Wisdom is to try hard and give up when it is too much for you. Wisdom is to be what you are and not what you think or others think you are. Wisdom is to give up the idea “I am wise”.

School is a place where we use our intelligence to learn things – collect knowledge. But we also learn to act sincerely when people we like act sincerely. We naturally do what the ones we like do. When your best friends are brave, you try to be brave, too. When your best friends smoke cigarettes, you also want to smoke. But when your best friends show some wisdom, you naturally do the same thing. We all learn from each other – both good and bad things. But we can also choose who our role model will be and who will not.

There is a lot of pretence among people. There are a lot of arrogant people who act as if they were the only important people in the world, but when you end up in a ditch asking for help, they will pretend they can’t see you. We cannot rely on people who only pretend things. We are lucky when we can meet and learn from sincere people. But even if everyone around us is just great, none of these people can do what only we can do and be what we should be and do what we should do. People can help us a lot, but it is up to us how we use our life. If you can get something from others and use it positively, then great. If you don’t get what you need and what you need is necessary, if you feel it is absolutely necessary, keep looking for it until you find it. If you think someone cheats or is not good enough, imagine how lousy life such a person has. It must be hard to be a liar or a mad person or someone who abuses others. It is not necessary to run from such people. You can learn from them, too, because they provide something that is true part of the world and it is something we should study and try to learn what causes such unfortunate lives. We should observe how others act and try to understand why they act like that. Not only does such observation calm our anger, it also helps us understand others and the world. If you think someone is wise, learn from them how to do the same thing – how to act wisely. Try to find out what is the most important thing in the world. Don’t get satisfaction from cheap phrases or clich├ęs. Don’t believe these words unless you feel they are based on someone’s real experience – not fantasy or hatred. For example Hitler’s words were always based on his fantasy about the perfect world led by the perfect nation. And also based on his hatred towards Jews. Words can lead to wars and pain, some words can lead to peace and happiness. But our actions are even more important. Most people cannot speak to nations – but we can speak to the ones we work or live with. Anyway, our words are not as important as our behavior. The most important things are beyond words.

Look around – most problems in the world are caused by people who lack wisdom, people full of hatred, people who cheat, people who pretend and people who are greedy. They are everywhere around and their actions cause a lot of suffering. They are in us, too. There is potential in each of us, you, me, her, to go mad, hate, be greedy, kill, replace wisdom with stupidity.

The most important thing is to learn how to live a life that is based on purity. Our life will never be completely pure, there will always be mistakes and problems. But to give our life some meaning, wisdom, love, we have to go back to this original purity in our hearts and make use of it over and over again. I can see the original, essential purity of my students in their eyes every day. Some students are subtly aware of their own purity and it makes them happy. They don’t call it “purity”, but they feel something pure inside and outside and smile. Some people have lost this purity somewhere in distant corners of their hearts. They seem unhappy or depressed or full of hatred, but it is just that they don’t know where the purity is or they don’t believe there is any. All people in the world, no matter how evil or stupid, are originally good. There may be just a tiny little drop of goodness in their heart, but there is some. No matter if we are religious or not, scientists or artists, factory workers or politicians, when we cultivate this original purity, it brings to others and us a lot of peace and joy.

What happens in an English lesson or history lesson – academically - is secondary. The primary thing is that something important, something beyond knowledge and intelligence is going on all the time. You may like or dislike a lesson, a teacher, a classmate… but the most important thing is how you make best use of such a situation, how much wisdom you express when something is not the way you would like it to be. Sometimes it is necessary to be very critical. If we are never critical, although we firmly believe something is wrong, we may lose an opportunity to help the world. But it is easy to criticize, there is inflation of criticism in the world. We should be careful and consider things carefully and wisely, sincerely, before we criticize others. We should make a lot of observation and learn a lot before we seriously criticize something or someone.

Our life is precious and can mean a lot to others and we usually mean a lot to others. We should be aware of this all the time. Every single gesture, every word, every smile means something. Everything we do shows what we are and how we relate to the world. Sooner or later your true character will be revealed – there will be hard moments in your life when your character will undergo a test - so work on your character before it is too late!

These are things I have been studying and thinking about for several years. And teaching my students – although it is English what I teach – gives me the opportunity to test these things.

What use is a philosophy if it does not work in real life? I don’t have to ask my students if it works or not – your actions, your behavior, your attitude, your silence or smile, your words, your decisions and your feelings have proved that this philosophy is based on something very real.


Robert said...

My definition of wisdom is simple: wisdom is to know, what is right and what is wrong and be able to follow that knowledge in the daily life.

Additional comments:
1, Key point is the word "know". Often we believe, we "know", but is it just a belief or faith, not knowledge. To "know" requires 100% clarity. Critical point is to be able to distinguish between what you know and between what you just accepted because of "something" (someone told you for example).
2, If we really "know", what is "right", it will be probably for us very easy to do it. If we are sure, something is clearly wrong, why would we want to do it? That means, if we do wrong, we just don't really view this as wrong. (I'm not 100% sure about this point).
3, Everyone of us want to do the "right thing". To do what is meaningful. Most of our actions can be traced to this. If we do silly things, it's just because at the point of action, we see it as the best thing to do. I believe even Hitler wanted to do what is right, he just mistaken the “know” with faith/fantasy.
4, As you said, wisdom then means right action in the right time. For example: to be quiet, when it is right to be quiet and talk, when it is right to talk, escape, when it is right to escape, stay & fight, when it is right to stay, argue and criticize, when it is right, stop arguing, when it is right time for that.
5, If we really know, what is right, we may be very well be able to do it without thinking or "before thinking". "Left hand doesn't know what the right is doing." We just do it.
6, So I see wisdom as "knowledge" in the field of "right and wrong" and it's application. And it’s probably the most valuable thing to pursue ;) This is what philosophy should be about - “love of wisdom”.

Aspro Ftero said...

Hello friends

I only want to say that the beautiful thing with Zazen is that be doing and advancing in it, you go beyond Knowledge and Wisdom and you arrive in Prajna Paramita, where all these Wisdoms and Knowledges have no meaning. They are only games of the intellect.
(And of cause all these about right actions and right times)

Greetings from Greece

Skylar said...

YOUR SOOO RIGHT URS ARE KINDA BORING! but atleast ur a nice person oh btw this is skylar brads niece. and check out my blog again and click on i like bananas and i put a shout out for u on tht one! CHECK IT OUT!

Anonymous said...

Very good thinking!

Renee said...

Dear Mr. Valek,

You definition of wisdom is shows a great deal of insight and, dare I say, wisdom! :-) Beautifully put! Now, since there is really nothing left for me to say, I will wisely stop here!

Thank you!

Renee said...

Ok, maybe I'm not so wise after all! LOL In my previous post, I added an unnecessary, "is!" Doah!!

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