The Pursuit of Wisdom

Several months ago, I came across the book The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanely Robinson, and began reading it primarily because I was intrigued by its premise: an alternate history divering from our own during the 1300s CE, when instead of only killing off 1/3 of the European population, the Bubonic Plague kills off roughly 99%; though a few scattered, isolated populations of Europeans survive, their impact upon history is dramatically lessened, and the book covers the next 700-odd years looking at how the Chinese, the Muslims, and the Native Americans dominate the world stage. Now, one of conceits for the narrative is that all of the key characters in each time period are actually reincarnations of the same members of singular jati (a “family unit”, but in the book used in the sense of a group of souls vaguely karmically bound together), being born, living, dying, and then shuffled through the bardo back into physical existence once again.

My wife was intrigued by the concept of the book, as well, so when I finised it I passed it off to her. Which prompted her a week or two ago to – quite non sequitor-ly – ask me whether or not I believed in reincarnation.

After rambling down tangential paths – self vs. non-self, what exactly gets reincarnated, etc. – my answer boiled down to the fact that I subscribed to a fairly Neo-Platonic view of Existence: that while the natural trajectory/progression is to go from individuated, self-hood to union with the Ground of Being, I also believe that that union isn’t permanent or eternal. At some point – whether a few seconds or a few aeons later – one gets spit back out into the cycle of Existence as a finite, individuated self; rinse and repeat.

“So,” she asked me, “what’s the point of trying to re-unite with the Ground of Being?”

Well, my feeling is that union with the Ground of Being is preferable to being a finite, individuated self – but there’s nothing wrong with being a finite, individuated self. I’m no gnostic: I don’t see manifest existence as a prison, a punishment, or anything intrinsically evil. It has it’s ups and downs, its thrills and chills, its states of exalted fun and dark sorrow. But, much like being in a dream that has the potential to turn into a nightmare at any moment, it’s nice to wake up and realize that all of that existential angst and terror wasn’t real in any permanent, eternal sense. And that the fun was just that: fun, but nothing to linger on or to which you should become attached.

Manifest existence as a finite, individuated self should be enjoyed and delighted in as much as possible. But one should become no more attached to it than that awesome dream you had when you were sixteen and found yourself in a room with some scantily clad celebrities who were about to do naughty things to you that were illegal in forty-five states (or, you know, whatever you guys might have dreamed about that was really, really nice). In my view existence/life as we experience it is something to enjoyed and learned from, but one doesn’t need to flee it either to escape suffering or to receive some promised, eternal bliss.

To that end, I told my wife, I don’t believe in pursuing any spiritual practice for soteriological or salvationist ends. Those things, in my opinion, miss the point. Learn to cope with the suffering  and the addictive terrific-ness of life? Sure. But aim to extinguish suffering (whether it be one’s own suffering or cosmic suffering, in regards to the Bodhissatva Vow – which, in my opinion, is a pointless vow to make as all sentient beings will never all be enlightened at any one, single point in time) and desire? No, that way lies folly.

Instead, I find it smarter and more beneficial to pursue the accumulation of wisdom. Seeking wisdom instead of salvation allows to you learn how to live your life well, while you’re living it, not deny your life, not seek escape into some transmundane realm on the other side of death (or the apocalypse, depending on one’s flavor of escapism). Are you unhappy with your life? Seek to either change the circumstances of your life or to cope with said circumstances; whichever may be the wisest choice depending on the factors involved in your situation.

But, how does this tie back into reincarnation or union with the Ground of Being, etc? Well, if there’s no permanent escape from the Wheel of Existence, only a temporary reprieve when you unite with God/the Tao/the One/the Source/Xenu/the Ground of Being/whatever, then working hard to better yourself for some abstract reward (better karma, Heaven, etc.) becomes pointless. Working hard to better yourself because bettering yourself improves your lot NOW (whether by influencing external factors or by helping you to roll with the punches better when the World decides to beat up on you) – that right there is part of the pursuit of wisdom. To pursue wisdom is to keep learning – about the Cosmos, about living well, about one’s self, etc – and to apply that learning in beneficial ways (‘cuz learnin’ don’t mean jack-shite if you don’t find some way to apply that knowledge). Whether you’re doing it simply to improve you personal situation right now, to improve the situations of others around you, or to climb another rung on the Great Ladder of Being, it doesn’t matter.

The pursuit of wisdom is beneficial no matter what. That’s why the pursuit itself is wise.

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~ by crow365 on October 16, 2012.

One Response to “The Pursuit of Wisdom”

  1. You and I are of a nearly identical mind on this. Well said.

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