Wisdom as a Spiritual Faculty
Over the past weeks, we’ve discussed faith (saddha in Pali), energy (viriya) and concentration (samadhi) as three of the five spiritual faculties that support practitioners in freeing the mind from attachment and suffering. Tonight we’ll examine a fourth faculty: wisdom (pañña), which guides the other spiritual faculties.
Wisdom refers to discernment, understanding and seeing reality clearly. From a Buddhist standpoint, wisdom is not a scholarly pursuit but a pragmatic and experiential path. With ongoing practice, we discern which thoughts, words, and actions will lead to happiness and peace and which will perpetuate suffering. We learn to discriminate between wholesome and unwholesome activities.
Wisdom can be achieved by deeply understanding the Buddha’s teachings about the Four Noble Truths and the Three Characteristics of unsatisfactoriness (Dukkha), impermanence (Anicca) and no self (Anatta). We learn to see how suffering arises and ceases, how all things pass away, and how our solid sense of self is illusory. Wise practitioners perceive that things are unsatisfactory because of constant change and insecurity. Neither mind nor matter are totally dependable, and if we try to hold onto them as a refuge, we suffer. Acknowledging Dukkha motivates us to let go of grasping what’s ungraspable.
When we pay wise attention, we see impermanence (Anicca) in weather, seasons, relationships, meals, birth, aging, sickness, dying, moods, emotions, politics, religion, civilizations, etc. Knowing that all things change helps us deal with hardship and avoid clinging. Those who are wise are prepared for changes involved in loss or death.
What we call “self” is impermanent too. If we examine closely the shifting sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise and pass away as conditioned phenomena (as our habitual mode of reacting), we understand the truth of Anatta. There is no place to call “self” and no one to call “me.” “Self” is a conventional term—ultimately, it has no essence. As we practice seeing experiences as they are—attached to no underlying, solid self—we realize that we can’t possess or control them.
In our meditation practice, we face our conditioning and the unsatisfactory nature of the body and mind. Over and over, we practice abandoning craving, which the Buddha identified as the cause of suffering. We experience the peace and ease that come from letting go of clinging to sensory pleasure, security, success, or fame. By recognizing what leads to greed, hatred and delusion, we discover what leads to freedom.
Vipassana means insight, which entails the capacity to see reality clearly. As we meditate, we can pay attention not only to changes in the breath and bodily sensations, but also to how carefully we are observing them. We can notice what sensations precede and follow experiences of pain or fear, noting how fully we stay with difficult emotions. This kind of precise, inward observation leads to the insight that emotional reactions are conditioned phenomena instead of personal tribulations. That insight frees the mind from aversion to pain.
From time to time, it’s helpful to do an inner inventory and ask, “How am I cultivating wisdom in my daily life?” “Am I showing up as completely as possible for my life?” “Do I use speech that is timely, kind and useful?” “Is my livelihood beneficial to myself and others?” “Do I consider consequences before I act?” “Do I use wise effort—neither pushing too hard nor slacking off—in my activities?”
This past week Mark and I have had opportunities to practice applying the spiritual faculty of wisdom, as we deal with the worsening kidney disease of our eleven-year-old dog Marisol. Although, like most of you, we have dealt with the suffering or loss of dear people, this is what’s happening in our lives right now. A week ago, Marisol refused to eat her food, drank water insatiably, trembled all over, and vomited in the middle of the night. We felt sad and impotent, cleaning up after her, wrapping her warmly in a soft blanket, and hand-feeding her small quantities of scrambled eggs and rice. Even though our vet has been giving her anti-nausea shots and subcutaneous injections of fluids, Marisol has lost weight and seems very fragile.
In our parental role, Mark and I have tried to respond wisely when her stomach wouldn’t tolerate medications prescribed by the animal hospital. Up to a certain point, we’re willing to follow the advice of medically trained authorities, but we’re also listening to our intuitive wisdom. Disillusioned with the unpleasant side effects of traditional meds, I ordered special animal Flower Essences from Green Hope Farm in New Hampshire. It may be just a coincidence, but shortly after I added to her drinking water a few drops from bottles labeled “Digestive Woes” and “Senior Citizen,” Marisol perked up and ate her first meal in two days.
Right now Mark and I are acutely aware of the Buddha’s reminders that all beings age, sicken and die. As we confront the reality of impermanence, we are preparing for a day when we’ll live without Marisol’s sweet furry presence. The faculty of wisdom helps me move beyond asking, “Why must our dog suffer?” to see our personal trial in the context of universal suffering. When I do so, my heart opens to feel compassion for all people and animals with kidney failure and other chronic conditions that cause pain.
Buddhist teachings about the Three Refuges—the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha—are sustaining me in the midst of sorrow and sleep deprivation. I’m inspired by stories of the Buddha’s equanimity regardless of outer circumstances, and I feel relieved whenever I remember the wise Buddha nature at the core of all of us human beings. The Dharma lessons I’ve learned and transmitted over so many years strengthen me.
And the Sangha or spiritual community around me is an incalculable blessing. I feel deep gratitude for Mark’s presence as we support each other through this challenging time. Recently Barbara surprised me with a timely gift of Mary Oliver’s poems in a collection titled Dog Songs. When I reached out, asking friends and family to surround Marisol with loving prayers, their tender responses have been heartwarming. One friend visited to give our dog a soothing Reiki treatment. After I told my homeopathic doctor that I was experiencing physical sensations like nausea and fatigue that seemed to be resonating with Marisol’s symptoms, he treated me and then added, free of charge, a bottle of kidney core tablets for her.
The faculty of wisdom reminds me not to neglect self-care amidst tending to our dog, working, keeping up with household chores, and making multiple visits to the vet. Qigong, yoga, meditation, and warm baths help maintain my inner balance. Even so, my mind has been so full of concerns about our sick dog that I’m unusually distractible. The other day, I was navigating for a friend who was driving me to a meeting in the Montrose area of Houston. She followed my advice to turn left onto Taft and then waited for me to indicate which side street to take. We drove right past Bell, because I was looking for Taft, forgetting that we were already on that street! Understanding the reason for my lack of mindfulness, my companion was kind and patient. More than usual, my practice is to notice without self-judgment when my attention is elsewhere and to gently return to the task at hand.
Take a moment to reflect upon an experience that has deepened the faculty of wisdom in your own life.