The Way of the One who Woke Up

“This existence of ours is as transient as Autumn clouds.

To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at

the movements of a dance.

A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky,

Rushing by, like a torrent down a deep mountain.”

“Buddhism” is a western term; on its own terms, this way of thought we’ll be studying for the rest of the semester is about as far from an “ism” as anything I can think of; and on its own terms is known as the Buddha Dharma, or the way of the Buddha.

And “buddha means” awakened one, or the one who woke up: Buddhism is most literally the Way of the One Who Woke Up! And it represents to me, for various reasons, the purest form of philosophy I have ever encountered; and it is so unlike a religion at its core that its almost shocking, if by religion you mean something involving belief in transcendental realities based on the authority of authors

You’ll recall I’ve said that in my view philosophy is something like an attempt to discover

*what is most real

*through all that reason is and can be

*in order to know how to live in the light of that discovered reality

We can call that metaphysics and ethics in the light of reason (with the proviso that reason is something more than a calculative thinking which only accepts a quantitative mode of reckoning: reason being richer than that, and including qualitative and non-discursive elements grasped in intuition [explain non-discursive!])

So the idea I’m getting at is that philosophy tries to discover reality with all that a human being qua human being can bring to bear–and only that! Just reason, in the richer sense of reason, in terms of pragmatic human experience

And the Way of the One Who Woke Up is at its core just that: the Buddha Dharma is radically philosophical in its appeal to nothing beyond you as you are now–you and you and you:all of you–it appeals to nothing but the direct experience you have of yourself, and how you can reason about that experience (and the accent is on reason, in the richer sense of reason I mentioned).

In this way it reminds me of the Way of Socrates, which was known as the way of argument and refutation [elenchos], a sort of negative dialectic which sought through dialogue and questioning to draw out of you what’s there–and what’s not there–in order to show you what you don’t know: remember Socrates said he was the wisest man alive because he knew what he did not know; and he would go around arguing with others, in order to show them what they did not know too!

Well, the Buddha Dharma is a kind of refutation of the ego, the Self, encouraged through active and radical questioning in which you seek above all to discover what you are NOT, and so to become free

In fact, the One Who Woke Up actively encouraged questioning and experimentation in a sort of pragmatic, existential challenge, in order to have direct, experiential insight into reality.

And his way to wake up into reality seems deceptively simple. Using my translation of the traditional terms, we need to:

Live with Discipline [shila]

Cultivate Stillness [samadhi]

Pay Attention [prajna]

And keep your eyes peeled for the Suchness of the Void. And that Suchness of the Void sounds mysterious, but it’s not; listen to a story:

One day a man of the people said to Zen Master Ikkyu: Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom? Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word “Attention.” Is that all? asked the man. Will you not add something more? Ikkyu then wrote twice running: “Attention. Attention.” Well, remarked the man rather irritably, I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written. Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: “Attention. Attention. Attention.” Half-angered, the man demanded: What does that word `Attention’ mean, anyway? And Ikkyu answered gently: Attention means Attention.

(Kapleau, Three Pillars of Zen)

Well, according to the Buddha Dharma, what you really first see, when you try to pay attention to yourself, here and now, is that simply paying attention seems almost impossible. Because what we are really preoccupied with is not reality but our conception of reality, expressed in words, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes given to us by other people: the names that we talked about when we discussed Taoism, that can name no lasting name–but we start out thinking that they can.

And see how easily we move from group to group, trading one group of names for another, in our desire to feel safe and secure: unhappy with society’s names, we reject society and form our own names in an endless mirror-house of sub-sub-sub counter-cultural enclaves on the left and the right. But names can name no lasting names, not even the names that reject society’s values.

And obsessed with names and the security they represent for our desires we end up with this strange whirl-wind we call our ego or our Self–but what we think is reality is usually just a perception of it; and just like in a dream, we mistake the fantasies of our desire for something really happening around us–whether in society with it’s fantasies, or outside of society, in some subgroup and its fantasies

Now the One Who Woke Up claimed to teach a way to cut through these fantasies: a way to come out of it, like waking up from a dream; and that to do that, all you needed was what is here and now in your life as a human being: no gods, no supernatural forces, no magic words or rituals, no gods in a spaceship, but simply the realization of your own life and mind through Discipline, Stillness, and Attention to the reality that is right there in front of us, but which is obscured by this obsession we have with permanence

So through this philosophy, it is claimed, you can be freed from bondage to all forms of thought, visions, objects, opinions, beliefs, imaginations–what some people call the real world–and be brought to a state of Absolute Emptiness which is simultaneously the Fullness of What Is! Emptiness is the Fullness of Suchness, because, when you become empty or void of the words and labels and concepts we paste over the world, you see for the first time: THIS! [LOOK AROUND WHEREVER YOU FIND YOURSELF TO BE!!!] THIS IS THE VOID, THE EMPTINESS, SO HARD TO SEE BECAUSE OF THE CONCEPTS WE LAY OVER IT. Are you looking for heaven’s gate? Here it is, just like we are now.

And what is the way to achieve this? What incredible feats must you do? What astonishing searches? What awful sacrifices and penances? How do you start? Must you leave your family? Give up all your money? Fast and meditate? Spend 7 years in Tibet?

Well, the One Who Woke Up said, sit down, where you are, and pay attention to who you are! Sit down and know yourself! YOU WANNA KNOW WHAT’S REAL? Take a seat! [sit on desk and look at them] What a joker! Only a philosopher would say that! And it’s a trick: philosophers are full of tricks; because it turns out to be the most amazingly hard thing in the world just to sit down and pay attention to who you are; it requires in fact all of your life and thought to do it: to sit down and ehi passika, to sit down and come and see who you are

And who are you, according to the Buddha Dharma? well, listen to Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, who points a finger at the moon for us; LISTEN! LISTEN TO THIS FINGER POINTED AT THE MOON BY CHOGYAM TRUNGPA. ATTENTION! ATTENTION! ATTENTION!

Fundamentally there is just open space, the basic ground, what we really are. Our most fundamental state of mind, before the creation of ego, is such that there is basic openness, basic freedom, a spacious quality; and we have now and have always had this openness. Take, for example, our everyday lives and thought patterns. When we see an object, in the first instant there is a sudden perception ;which has no logic or conceptualization to it at all; we just perceive the thing in the open ground. Then immediately we panic and begin to rush about to trying to add something to it, either trying to find a name for it or trying to categorize it or trying to find pigeon-holes in which we could locate and categorize it. Gradually things develop from there.

But the beginning point is that there is open space, belonging to no one. There is always primordial intelligence connected with the space, vidya–which means `intelligence’ in Sanskrit–precision, sharpness, sharpness with space, sharpness with room in which to put things, exchange things. It is like a spacious hall where there is room to dance about, where there is no danger of knocking things over or tripping over things, for there is completely open space. We are this space, we are one with it, with vidya, intelligence and openness.

This philosopher claims that you can pay attention, and as a human being, through reason and discipline, discover this experience of reality in a truly pragmatic sense: that you can step beyond the words that are appearance and that bewitch us into bland desire and mind-less egotism, and discover the reality that rolls all around us–what Lao Tzu called the Great Ordinary, as best as I can coordinate their two fingers pointing at the moon.

And the way he found seems to me to be what I would call radically existential and radically pragmatic in its approach to reality and life. Radically existential because, first of all, the Buddha only claimed to be a human being, and to have achieved what a human being can, unaided, through human effort and intelligence. What is most real, and how to live it out, depends on human intelligence and effort.

Radically existential, second, because it involves a life of truth involving how you, the individual, live: no one is responsible for you but you: and theory is totally unimportant except as it informs a life of truth

Consider  a quote from p. 12 of Rahula, What the Buddha Taught:

The Buddha was not interested in discussing unnecessary metaphysical questions which are purely speculative and which create imaginary problems. It seems that there were some among his own disciples who did not appreciate this attitude of his. For, we have the example of one of them, Malunkyaputta by name, who put to the Buddha ten well-known classical questions on metaphysical problems and demanded answers.

One day Malunkyaputta got up form his afternoon meditation, went to the Buddha, saluted him, sat on one side, and said:

Sir, when I was all alone meditating, this thought occurred to me: there are these problems unexplained, put aside and rejected by the Blessed One. Namely: Is the universe eternal or not? Finite or infinite? Is the soul the same as the body or is the soul one thing and the body another? Does the Tathagata [realized Buddha] exist after death, or not, or both exist and not exist? These problems the Blessed One does not explain to me. This attitude does not please me.

Malunkyaputta, the frustrated metaphysician, then goes on to say he will quit being a buddhist and leave if his curiosity on these ultimate concerns is not satisfied. The Buddha then replied with a story about a poisoned arrow (found in Rahula):

Malunkyaputta, if anyone says: `I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until he explains these questions,’ he may die with these questions unanswered by the Tathagata. Suppose a man is wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends and relatives bring him to a surgeon. Suppose the man should then say: `I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know who shot me: whether he is a warrior, a priest, a businessman, or a servant; what his name and family might be; whether he is tall, short, or of medium stature; from which village, town or city he comes from . . . until I know the type of bow . . .the type of arrow . . . and with what kind of material the point of the arrow was made.’ Malunkyaputta, that man would die without knowing any of these things. Even so, if anyone says: `I will not follow the Buddha until he answers questions like these, and so on,’ he would die with these questions unanswered by the Tathagata . . . Why have I now explained these things? Because it is not useful . . . not conducive to full realization, to Nirvana.

This makes the philosophy of the One Who Woke Up radically pragmatic. In a pragmatic theory of truth, the truth is simply how things work out in action; the truth of a word or concept is in its actual effect, and is nothing beyond that. So the meaning of the concept `hardness’, for example, is that it cannot be easily scratched, and the truth of hardness is found in that and not in some theory of atomic structure. Similarly the truth, the meaning of the words `believe in God’ when I was a child seemed to me to be: get up on Sunday, dress up, go to a place where people said a lot of things I didn’t understand, experience excruciating boredom, go home and eat my grandmother’s pot roast, get out of those damn clothes and get on with my life! How it works out in actual habits of life IS the truth in a pragmatic sense.

So in a famous example, the Buddha compared his teachings to a raft (in Rahula):

O bhikkhus, a man is on a journey. He comes to a vast stretch of water. On this side the shore is dangerous, but on the other side it is safe and without danger. No boat goes to the other shore which is safe and without danger, nor is there any bridge for crossing over . . . So that man . . . makes a raft, and with the help of the raft crosses over safely to the other side . . . Having crossed over . . . he thinks: `This raft was of great help to me . . . It would be good to carry this raft on my head or on my back wherever I go.’

What do you think, O bhikkhus, if he acted in this way would the man be acting properly with regard to the raft? [Wouldn’t he be acting properly if he thought:] `This raft was a great help to me . . . It would be good if I beached this raft on the shore, or moored it and left it afloat, and then went on my way . . .’ In the same manner I have taught a truth similar to a raft–it is for crossing over, and not for carrying.

This meant that what was essential for him is that someone experience the truth of his words, and that nothing be taken on faith. What is essential is experiencing a thing so as to understand it. This gives the way of the One Who Woke Up an experimental, pragmatic flavor: you are asked to come and see, not come and believe.

As Rahula puts it (in What the Buddha Taught): Suppose I told you I had a diamond in the palm of my clenched fist. You would have to believe me if you could not see it–but once you see it, there is no need for belief. If I unclench my fist and show you the diamond, you can experience it for yourself, and the question of belief on my authority never comes up. So the Buddha always talked about knowledge of his teachings gained through experience, and never about believing through faith.

So another story is told about the Buddha visiting a small town, where he was asked about how one religious teacher or philosophy professor after another would blow into town, give his views, claim they were the truth, and say the others who were there before them were wrong! You know how it is: I think they had cable! This is what the Buddha told them (quoted in Rahula):

Yes: it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look: do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Don’t be led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic and inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight of speculative opinions, no by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: `this is our teacher’. But when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and wrong and bad, then give them up . . . And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.

The Buddha went so far as to repeatedly tell his followers even to examine the Buddha himself: to try it out and see for themselves if what he way saying was true: if it truly resonated with their actual experience of the world.

So what did he say was true, that he asked others to verify for themselves? Well, that’s quite a story! All I can do here is hint at it. But we can make a little start. Come and see!

The Buddha thought that when you began to really pay attention to what is most real, to discipline yourself with stillness and attention, that the first thing you realize is the truth of impermanence: that nothing is permanent and unchanging; and that the source of all our confusion was to try to make the impermanent to be permanent, which can only lead to unsatisfactoriness.

Nothing is permanent! Not even and especially your body, which the Tibetans call “something you leave behind.” And your always leaving your body behind! More and more it comes to seem to be not yours at all, as it grows and matures, and declines, and changes, and you can’t really do anything about it! PUKING! I ALWAYS THINK OF THIS TRUTH WHEN I’M PUKING! MY BODY IS CHANGING AND I CAN DO NOTHING ABOUT IT! Or think about what we call our “self”: conception, 1, 2, 3, 4 to 9 month in the womb; birth,  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18: which one is your self? Can you find something permanent there anywhere?

And he said that if you thought–really thought, in a disciplined way–about your actual experience of life, you can see that there are three marks of what is real: three basic features of existence:

anicca: impermanence

dukkha: unsatisfactoriness

anatta: insubstantiality

This means that every thing undergoes change and has no permanent substance; and from the point of view of desiring permanence and substance, this is dukkha: unsatisfactory: that from the point of view of ego existence is pervaded by a kind of frustrating confusion, a sense of irritating incompleteness, as we try to stop the change and make what is impermanent substantial.

And even the moments of happiness and joy, that are real too, never last; every joy is impermanent and has no substance; and to try to hold on the happiness or joy and make it permanent simply makes things more unsatisfactory.

The Buddha was called the Knower of the World: and said we only can begin to know how to live when we realize the reality of these truths: not in theory, but in a radical confrontation with the experience of your life as you live it, resulting in insight wisdom.

To know the world is to see it in the light of these three marks of existence. And Impermanence, unsubstantially, and the unsatisfactoriness of trying to ignore the truth of these marks, becomes really clear in the face of death. The thought of death focuses the mind on these realities and makes life become clear. So paradoxically, in Buddhist philosophy, it is the thought of death that teaches you how to live.

This doesn’t mean that you become morbid, or try to kill yourself, which would be a strange confusion; for to think about death is to think about life, and how you should live. The longer you live in the face of death, the more you are set free to live fully; that physical death will come soon enough, all on its own, who knows when. As the Buddha is reported to have said:

This existence of ours is as transient as Autumn clouds.

To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at

     the movements of a dance.

A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky,

Rushing by, like a torrent down a deep mountain.

The truth of impermanence is only unsatisfactory, and the cause of suffering, to those who do not see that to live in the light of what is real is to be free from the suffering caused by unreal expectations. To begin to see that, the Buddha said, you need to sit down! Be still! And pay attention! attention! attention!


Myth and Metaphysics

Being human is being a maker.  We make ourselves, and in so doing we make our world; and we make our world, and in so doing we make ourselves.  There is a reciprocity between self and world, an interdependency rooted in the nature of the human being as a maker.  You cannot understand self without world, and you cannot understand world without self.  The key is always self-knowledge.

But by human being, I do not mean the individual per se; I do not mean the human being qua individual, but the human being as intertwined with humanity: both the ones who are dead, and the ones who are living.  We make ourselves, not “I make myself”; and in that distinction we can see what is distinctive about speculative philosophy, and how it is opposed to its alternative, the philosophy of reflection.

Reflection sets one off from the world; reflection isolates; reflection is rooted in the activity of the isolated subject in a world of objects.  Reflect comes from reflectare: a beam of light shot out bends back, reflects, from the surface.  Reflective philosophy sends out its thought-beams from the isolated subject, like a radar beam out into the darkness; it bounces off the outsides, and never reaches into the insides: it just bounces off, and returns its echo to the solitary thinker, who is a subject in a world of objects— a world of  surfaces with no depth.  And what’s oddest of all is that the subject itself becomes an object to itself: the beams flash inward, too, only to bounce off as well.  The self becomes another object to reflect on, in a kind of schizoid delusion that is taken to be the paradigm of normality. And that sums up for us the main division in modern philosophy.  Analytic, or Anglo-American philosophy shoots its beams outward, while Continental, or post-modern philosophy, shoots its beams of reflection inward: but the result is the same: a solitary subject in a world of objects: a spectator-consciousness.

Speculation comes from the Latin speculari, to reconnoiter, to spy out; so a speculator was a spy, one who spied out things, explored, reconnoitered, and moved around in the world to find things out; in speculation you go out into the world, out exploring the interconnections; speculation is also related to the Latin speculum, or mirror; but this is the mirror not of individual reflection, self-reflection, but of self-knowledge.  The self you know, then, is not that of an isolated subject in  a world of objects, but of the self formed in reciprocity and interdependence with all the other humans, living and dead, whose makings form the world and self.  And this means we need memory, imagination, and ingenuity, as we meditate the great commonalities of humanity, and narrate them to ourself and others with eloquence and prudence.  Some key topics: memory, imagination, ingenuity, eloquence, and prudence.

By memory I do not mean the psychological power of recall–recalling to mind the traces of past sense experience.  That is just a view of the human mind as a reflector: we recall the reflections of sense experience, etc. By memory I mean the power we have to re-make meaning: to remake past meaning, say, as present in our lives; through memory we re-collect, re-make the things that other humans have made in making themselves and their world, and in this way can learn what it means to be human now, through a return to the roots of our common humanity.  These roots are points of origin that structure the interdependent growth of humanity, and make us who we are.  Speculative philosophy returns to these origin points, spies them out, enters into them, and remakes them through the imaginative powers of the human mind.  And when you remake them, imagine them, in this way, you join yourself to these origins, you remake yourself as well.  And since the true is the made–you can only really know what you can make–you can have self-knowledge.  Memory in this  sense, then,  is an aspect of imagination, which is not the psychological  power to manipulate reflected and recalled images, but the very heart of the power to make: the maker’s imagination, which creates our world and ourself reciprocally. And this must be done with ingenuity, with the ingenious weaving together of past into present in a story of the whole.

To be eloquent is to talk about the whole of things, and not to get hung up reflecting on the parts.  And what you spy out is that there are no parts, really, but a play of opposites out of which a sense of the whole emerges.  Eloquence then avoids theory, which is a kind of bad story, a kind of unreal story that refuses to face the universe head on, but retreats into abstraction.

A prime aspect of what we can call  categorical thinking is that it longs for a single unreal story to tell about the world–a single, unambiguous story that is above all, consistent.  It is the consistency that makes the story unreal.  It is also the refusal of the story to acknowledge it is a story–the refusal to root itself in image and narration.

But in speculative philosophy, the universe is viewed as full of opposites that refuse to be made categorically consistent; in such a view,  the world cannot be made consistent: the world seems incredibly beautiful and incredibly ugly; made up all of wonder and all of terror; people seem all good and all bad–the world is both yes and no at the same time.  And a good story acknowledges this, says yes and no, seeks not consistency but balance in the play of light and shadow.  In reaching down, you have to reach up; in reaching up, you have to reach down.  No theory can cover this.

Categorical thinking fears this, though, and has a classic move to hide from the oppositional nature of reality: pick one side of the opposition, make it primary, and obliterate from consciousness the awareness of the opposite through a theory that explains away all the differences.  You might be a misanthrope: there is no love in the world–the world is loveless, then, and your theory explains away any apparent loving action (friend on parent and child); or, you might be one of these sentimentalists: any loveless action is really misguided love.  In both cases a theory gives us a bad story, a theory cursed by consistency.

But in speculative philosophy you do not seek a categorical synthesis, in which the difference of the opposites is made to disappear into the privileged category; instead you follow the play of the opposites and seek the point of view of balance.  Eloquence is the voice of this balance.  Prudence is the living out of the consequences of eloquence: it is to have the balance of wisdom, which is a kind of harmony with how things are, insofar as a human being can achieve such a thing. You imagine the whole, and you speak it out, and in doing so you make a life.  You achieve self-knowledge. We remember who we are. We do philosophy and myth. We must learn to do both myth and metaphysics.

Verstand and Vernunft (Kantian Thoughts)

“The great obstacle that reason (Vernunft) puts in its own way arises from the side of the intellect (Verstand) and the entirely justified criteria it has established for its own purposes, that is, for quenching our thirst, and meeting our need, for knowledge and cognition… The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same. The basic fallacy, taking precedence over all specific metaphysical fallacies, is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.”–Hannah Arendt

“What we see of the world is only a sliver of what’s “out there.” There is much that is invisible to the eye, even when we augment our sensorial perception with telescopes, microscopes, and other tools of exploration. Like our senses, every instrument has a range. Because much of Nature remains hidden from us, our view of the world is based only on the fraction of reality that we can measure and analyze. Science, as our narrative describing what we see and what we conjecture exists in the natural world, is thus necessarily limited, telling only part of the story… We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery… It is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.” –Marcello Gleiser


Sometimes you come across a statement that simply illuminates your self-understanding: it’s like finding a key that unlocks a central part of your life. Here is one of them I just came across in studying Noam Chomsky:

Anarchism is a tendency in the history of human thought and action which seeks to identify coercive, authoritarian, and hierarchic structures of all kinds and to challenge their legitimacy—and if they cannot justify their legitimacy, which is quite commonly the case, to work to undermine them and expand the scope of freedom. (Chomsky, On Anarchism)

I don’t mean to say that I am some sort of paradigm of this, but that as I look back at my life in my interactions with hierarchy and authority I find that this is the idea that drove me. By “idea” I mean something specific: an image of how things ought to be that you strive to realize. In a way, it’s like Plato’s concept of an idea (not the comic book Plato, mind you): In The Phaedo, for example, Socrates talks about how everything is striving to become what it ought to be—to realize the idea of it. In the midst of become we strive to BE what we are (=should be).

And so I think the pattern of my life can be seen in trying to BE but always only becoming. Or to use another metaphor and mix it up a bit: looking back at the pattern of my life I see it as a very crooked and trembling finger geturing wildly somewhere in the direction of the moon (and only on my best day, I suppose, if I’m lucky). I like Vico’s idea of “a metaphysics compatible with human frailty (See On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians). Or as Socrates nicely put it, an anthropinê sophia—a human kind of wisdom. (See The Apology).

Another Chomsky quote to amplify what he said above:

The basic principle . . . is the idea that every form of authority and domination and hierarchy, every authoritarian structure, has to prove that it’s justified—it has no prior justification. For instance, when you stop a five-year-old kid from trying to cross the street, there’s an authoritarian situation: it’s got to be justified. Well, in that case, I think you CAN give a justification. But the burden of proof for any exercise of authority is always on the person exercising it—invariably. And when you look, most of the time these authority structures have no justification: they have no moral justification, they have no justification in the interests of the person lower in the hierarchy, or in the interests of other people, or the environment, or the future, or the society, or anything else—they’re just there in order to preserve certain structures of power and domination, and the the people at the top. (Chomsky, On Anarchy)

Marvelous Words

A colleague posted this marvelous passage from the Stoic poet  Aulus Persius Flaccus. Beautiful words making true things clear shake the roots of my mind.

“So you think that Jupiter has forgiven you just because his lightening shatters the oak tree rather than you and your house? …O mortal souls that lie prone upon the earth, devoid of heavenly thoughts, how does it help you that you project your own morals upon the temples of the gods and that you think that you draw the gods’ blessings out of your own corrupt human nature?…Yes, mortal flesh sins and sins again, but nonetheless it manages to profit from its wrongdoing…Tell me, priests, why do we need gold in the sanctuary? …Why don’t we give the gods what the snot-nosed son of the great Messala can’t offer from his vast scale: Justice and what is right, well-regulated in the mind, and innermost thoughts that are pure, and a heart that has been steeped in noble honor?” Persius, 1.24-25, 61-63, 68-69, 71-74.

Socrates and Plato

Socrates and Plato always stand together in the imagination of those who think about the origins of Western thought. Together, more than any other two people, they seem to define what become known as philosophy—the love of wisdom. As you probably know, Socrates was Plato’s teacher, and Plato presented his thought as a development of what Socrates taught. Together they have haunted the minds of human beings in the Ancient world, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, down through the birth of Modernity and our time, and finally to me. Yes, Socrates and Plato haunt my mind, too—a good haunting by good spirits that sometimes bewitches me and take me right out of myself. I am haunted by their vision of what it means to think, and live, and be a human being—and I would like to explain to you why.

The first thing to understand is that Socrates was known as the ugliest man in Athens! He had a broad, flat, turned-up nose, protruding pop-eyes, thick fleshy lips, bandy legs, and a big pot belly he was always saying he planned to dance off! And this was not exactly the standard for physical beauty in classical Greece. In fact, he looked like a satyr, the mythical half-beast, half-human divinity that haunted the forest, playing the pan-pipes. But all kinds of people desired Socrates, loved him, were fascinated by him and wanted him; and no one loved him more than Plato did. In fact, for Plato he was clearly the most beautiful man in Athens. And why did they love him? What was it about this ugly old man that fascinated so many people? That fascinated me? I love him, too, you know; I’m one of Socrates’ lovers. Well, listen to something he once said, when he was on trial for his life on the charge of corrupting young people through leading them into philosophy (like he corrupted me, and like I’m trying to corrupt you, too). Speaking to his judges and jury, he says (in The Apology):

If you said to me, “Socrates, we acquit you, but only on condition that you do not practice philosophy, and if you are caught doing so you will die,” I would say to you: “Gentlemen of the jury, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you, and in my usual way to point out to any one of you whom I happen to meet: ‘You are an American . . . whoops, I mean Athenian, a citizen of the greatest place with the greatest reputation for both knowledge and power; are you not ashamed of you eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?’

The force of Socrates life was the force of a life devoted to truth and wisdom. Above all else, he loved wisdom. But what, exactly, does that mean?

Socrates is perhaps best known for his claim that he was the wisest man alive because he knew what he did not know—his famous claim of ignorance. Most everybody has heard of that in one form or another. But how many know that there is something he claimed TO KNOW? In a dialogue called The Symposium (and in several others as well) he claims to know only one thing: the truth about eros, about erotic love. And strangely enough, it is the idea of this that will take us to the heart what it means to be a lover of wisdom, and to the heart of Socratic/Platonic philosophy.

Once upon a time at a drinking party, Socrates was part of a group who decided to give speeches in praise of love. And everyone began to give their speeches, saying how beautiful love was, and how perfect, and how full of goodness and delight—love, they would say, was the most beautiful and perfect of all the gods, and endlessly captivating. But when it became time for Socrates to speak, he said something shocking. He said that the first thing he learned about love was that it is not beautiful or perfect! He learned that love was not a god, because gods are perfect and complete, and so they have desire or love for anything. But love is above all consists in the knowing you don’t have what you want and need. Have you ever been in love, and desired someone with that full-on kind of intoxicating desire? Then you know what Socrates means—that love wants what it desires, and that means that it lacks what it wants. But gods lack nothing.

So love is not a god. Instead, Socrates said, it is something stretched out in between the gods and humans. It is not a divinity, yet it is divine; not immortal, yet undying; always needy, yet always being satisfied. For to love is to love something which you need, desire, and want, so that love is always aiming for what it does not have.

Socrates also says that love is a particular kind of want or lack. It is a lack of and desire for good things. For no one, Socrates thought, knowingly wants something evil for themselves (which means: something that would make them less complete). We have an inborn desire for self-fulfillment and completion, and what draws us on in desire is what completes us and makes us whole. Love naturally desires what will make us more alive and fulfilled in being alive, and since everyone desires this, love is common to all living things. Every living thing is seeking completion.

Gods don’t have love, then; they lack nothing. But humans lack all kinds of good things—don’t you? And if we are wise, then we know it; if we’re wise, we know our lack, and this sets us free to pursue those things that will fill that lack and make us whole. To be human is to be a lover, and to have at the heart of who we are a terrible passion arising from an awareness of our need that nothing around us ever seems to ultimately satisfy.

And this is Socrates’ wisdom. It’s what he spent his life trying to get people to see. “Know yourself,” he said in effect to everyone he met—know what it means to be human. When Socrates claimed to know what he did not know, he was only claiming to know himself as a human being, to know that he was a lover. Socrates knew himself, was fully self-aware, and so was the wisest man alive. In being fully a lover, he was fully conscious of what he lacked, and so had a passion to pursue the truth he could never fully possess. Do you ever ACHE to know what is real and how you should live? Just as you would ache for a beloved? So that you’re not satisfied with what satisfied most people? If you ache for wisdom like that, Socrates would say, maybe you could follow that ache to the heart of what it means to be human.

According to Socrates, the existing individual—which mean you and me, here and now—WE are fundamentally incomplete, and we can only realize ourselves through developing an awareness of that incompleteness, with a corresponding passion to overcome that incompleteness and make ourselves whole. But if you don’t know you lack and your need—if you don’t know what you don’t know—well, then, there you’ll sit, poor lump, for the rest of your days; a poor lump who never knows who they are; never knowing that you are a lover.

And there is something curious about knowing what you don’t know, like Socrates did. How could you know you had no knowledge if you couldn’t recognize knowledge when you came across it? Think about it. You would have to in some sense know what knowledge is to know when you were lacking it! And Socrates thought that the possibility to recognize knowledge was in all of us, and devoted himself to waking people up to that recognition. But only the person involved can do this and recognize and knowledge—you have to know things for yourself. Think how ridiculous it would be for me to claim that I could know something for you! My children across the years often seemed to wish that I could do that form them, particularly in mathematics—know this for me, Dad! But I could just a well eat something for you. Here, let me eat your lunch for you! Let me know your math for you! And maybe you want me to kiss your girlfriend or boyfriend for you, too! Some things you just have to do for yourself.

So Socrates practiced what he called the elenchos—the examination—through question and answer trying to wake people up to the requirements of knowledge. And because a person can only have knowledge for themselves, Socrates couldn’t just give anyone the answers, because the only real answer is one you give yourself. So he would proceed in a way in which the truth claims of his interlocutors would be tested and refined, logical inconsistencies revealed, and to look for what he called the idea of a thing—its intelligible shape or form, pointed at in the verbal form of a definition. The Greek word idea, and also eidos, originally just meant the visible shape or form of a thing. So we could say that these sheets of paper (hold them up) have the idea—the shape or form—of a rectangle. And then we could talk about whatever had the same shape, form, idea or eidos. Socrates takes this to another level, and by it means what we find to be the same in terms of thought—the characteristic shape a thing has to the “eyes of the mind” by which we could always recognize it in whatever particular context we find it in. And he then says this is what something is: in Greek, literally ti esti—what it is. And this would be called the ousia—the beingness or reality of that thing. And the worst that can happen in practicing the elenchos is that you come to see that you have no idea—you do not know what something is. And in this way you gain a real sense of what it is you lack, and knowing your lack, your are free to look for it.

In Plato’s dialogues, then, Socrates is presented as going around engaging in the search for these ideas, trying to see who can or cannot put into words a rational account—a logo/v—of what it is. He would ask them to define (as we would put it) such key terms in his culture as courage, wisdom, piety, virtue, justice, and love. And consider: if you can show people they do not know what these things are—that they have no real idea of them—in the process you will also come to show them what it would mean to know them, or to know anything. Show people what they lack—show them their ignorance—and they just might begin to develop a real sense of what they lack and need. And here something is being developed that is absolutely amazing in terms of what it means to be human, but we take it so much for granted that we can’t even see it for what it is. We cover over the wonder of it by saying what Socrates was doing was looking for a definition. But just like with Helen Keller, if you know her story and how she came to understand what a word stands for and what it means, without this ability we are deaf and blind to what definition really means. Here, let’s read her story to see what I mean:
Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (Chapter IV)[1]

The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old.

On the afternoon of that eventful day, I stood on the porch, dumb, expectant. I guessed vaguely from my mother’s signs and from the hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps. The afternoon sun penetrated the mass of honeysuckle that covered the porch, and fell on my upturned face. My fingers lingered almost unconsciously on the familiar leaves and blossoms which had just come forth to greet the sweet southern spring. I did not know what the future held of marvel or surprise for me. Anger and bitterness had preyed upon me continually for weeks and a deep languor had succeeded this passionate struggle.

Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour was. “Light! give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.

I felt approaching footsteps, I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Someone took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.

The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word “d-o-l-l.” I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup and a few verbs like sit, stand and walk. But
my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.

One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled “d-o-l-l” and tried to make me understand that “d-o-l-l” applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r.” Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that “m-u-g” is mug and that “w-a-t-e-r” is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them–words that were to make the world blossom for me, “like Aaron’s rod, with flowers.” It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come. [1]

Helen shows us clearly what it means to enounter an idea! And to be able to know it through the words. And to look for a real definition in Socrates’ sense is to assume that there are certain general characteristics which make a thing what it is, and enable you to tell it apart from all other things—to assume that you will be able to tell what is the same and what is different in the things that you deal with. Think about your breakfast, for example, if you got up early enough to have one. All things we call food share the formal trait—the mental form, as it were—of being nourishing to some living creature or other; but no particular thing is food for all. There is breakfast for the sparrow, and breakfast for the crab, and breakfast for the earthworm, and breakfast for the college student, who in hundred years or so might become a worm’s breakfast. and what nourished the worm is very different from what nourished the student, and yet there is a common mark, a common form found in the fact that it nourishes.

And to lack this knowledge and to know that you lack it is the condition for the possibility of any knowledge at all. But this is something you can only do for yourself; though others can help you and try to lead you out through giving hints and so forth, ultimately you must do it for yourself for it be real knowledge. You must eat your food for yourself to be nourished, or make love to your own lover yourself, to fulfill your need. Otherwise, Socrates says, you only have an opinion, and not knowledge at all. Knowledge requires that you be able to grasp the eidos, the idea—its mental shape or form.

And this is true in all our daily lives. We are constantly operating in this realm as we act in relation to things in the world around us and speak to both ourselves and others about them; when we speak and are understood, or understand what others are saying. And even the fact—and especially the fact—that we can be mistaken (and maybe we’re mostly mistaken!) shows us that we must have some sense of what the thing really is. For how could else could we come to know we are mistaken if we did not have at least some sense of what it would mean to know the thing we are seeking to know? Socrates would love to put this in mythic terms, and say that when we learn something we must be remembering what we in some sense at least already know: that knowledge really comes to us by recollection (and like no one can remember something for us, so know on can know something for us—no one can teach you an idea!).

And this ability to really speak and be understood, and to understand what a thing is, what it means for it to be—to think it and put it into words—is an astonishing thing. In fact, it seems to me it is far more astonishing than if I could levitate off the floor right now and shoot beams of light out of my eyes! To speak and understand each other! Think of the wonder that reveals! Here we find a sort of everyday mysticism to which our contempt for the ordinary blinds us. The philosophers of Zen Buddhism are very good at pointing this reality of the wonder and mysticism of everyday life in just this way. Consider the old Zen story, attributed to Muju:
Chapter 80: The Real Miracle

When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through the repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.

Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared, but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.

“The founder of our sect,” boasted the priest, “had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air. Can you do such a wonderful thing?”

Bankei replied lightly: “Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.”

And the Zen Platonist says: “My miracle is that when I speak, you can understand.”

So if we reflect on our everyday experiences, and on the ways we talk about them, we might be able to clarify our experiences into an awareness that involves knowing things in their beingness—or as a Zen thinker might put it, in their suchness. Knowing what is real in the world around us, we could then begin to live and act in terms of what is real. This meant for Plato that our everyday words and deeds are like the bottom rungs of a mystical ladder that can lead us to the truth of the wonder and terror of the world around us. It doesn’t look very “mystical”, maybe, if you don’t understand what real mysticism means—which involves above all else coming to be aware of what the Taoist philosophers, in a beautiful phrase, call “The Great Ordinary.”

So in The Symposium, we see someone called Agathon in a discussion with Socrates, and through that discussion he comes to understand that he couldn’t have really meant by love what he said he did—that the knowledge hidden in the way he uses his words will force him to realize that love can’t be beautiful and divine, but must be a lack, a real need. We see how Socrates uses Agathon’s own words to show him both what he lacks, and in the process allows him, if he wished, to make some new truths of his own. Agathon can come to have knowledge for himself if he wants to, but this will only become possible when he realizes, as he puts it, that “I really didn’t know what I was talking about.”

This kind of knowledge is hidden in our everyday lives. It is a very practical kind of knowledge that we can only recognize for ourselves through employing (as Socrates puts it in the Republic) all that we are: through both our hearts and our minds, our reason as well as our imagination, cultivating (in the lovely words of Mencius) “the intelligence of the heart”. This is the truth that sets you free. For if truth is something that YOU have to do, then it will do you no good to just believe something or take somebody’s word for it. It is precisely BECAUSE no one can have a truth for you, that no one can know something for you, that knowledge sets you free. For if you are shown a truth and then come to know it you will become liberated in respect to that truth in the very process of coming to know it. Socrates and Plato liked to put this in a paradoxical kind of way that a practitioner of Zen would be pleased with. In The Meno the question is asked: Can human excellence be taught? And the conclusion is reached that there are no teachers and no learners of human excellence, but only those who remember it for themselves. All good teachers want to show you HOW to know, and once you know how to eat your lunch for yourself, well, then, you are free. If you can understand that, you can understand Socrates and Plato. You can understand what it means to be a lover of wisdom.

[1] Helen Keller, The Story of My Life. Archived at This text is in the public domain.