Lamps Unto Yourselves
Next Sunday I want to speak to you from the Buddhist Dhammapada, or "Path of the Dharma," is something
like the Buddhist equivalent of the proto-Christian Q document. It is a set of
sayings attributed to Gautama Buddha, but really
there is no way to know who said them. It is a collection of proverbs passed
down by generations of monks who were no doubt too humble to put their own
names on them. I want to consider with you this morning the nature of proverbs
and how we learn from them.
It is the nature of proverbs, of course, not to need the
crutch of a famous author. The truth conveyed by a proverb, an aphorism, is
supposed to be self-evident once you hear it. You need the proverb only because
you might not have thought of it yourself. And why mightn't you? Because a
proverb is a distillation of insight about experience, and it is only the wise,
whether King Solomon or Jerry Seinfeld, Goethe or Woody Allen, who can step
back long enough to see the sometimes absurd perspective on life that a proverb
So it doesn't matter who said them, whether the sayings
"of" Jesus or the Buddha or King Solomon. But I have noticed
something about the phenomenon of the attribution of wise sayings to this or
that historical figure. Since the significance is, as I have said, is
independent of who may have first said it, the sheer fact of it being
attributed is more of a statement about the person to whom it is attributed. It
is a piece of biography. It adds nothing to the beauty of a painting to know
that it was done by the great Ralph Meakin. But on
the other hand, we call Ralph Meakin great because we
know hit was he who painted such paintings!
To ascribe a particular proverb to someone is to say he noticed this or
that sort of thing about life. We would have a different picture of Jesus or
Diogenes if less sarcastic sayings were attributed to them.
Wisdom is not so much revelation as it is remediation.
It's catching up with what ought to be obvious. The difference between
revelation and wisdom, as I se it, is that after you hear wisdom, it clicks.
You see for yourself why it is wise. But an alleged revelation is different.
Even after you hear it and accept it, you are still forced to accept it by
faith. You are taking someone's word for it. It does not illuminate you as
wisdom does. You have just added it to the stock of things you arbitrarily
believe, whether mundane or fantastic. It makes no particular sense to me that
the speed of light is 186, 000 miles per second. It just is. At least that's
what they told me. And if it isn't, if I am wrong, I will not know it. I will
not sense something rotten in Denmark,
because I know it only by rote insofar as I know it at all. But with wisdom
there is a sense of deja vue,
a sense of recognition as well as cognition.
It may be revealed that there are three persons in the
Godhead. If so, what can your reaction be but, "Sure, whatever you
say." There's a new planet beyond Pluto, another moon of Jupiter. Sure,
okay. Truth maybe, but not wisdom, not something that could
resonate. Not something that can cause me to say, "Yes! Of course!"
Don't you see what this portends for religious education
or moral education? The Socratic method, the
philosophical method causes or at least invites minds to grow. It trains the
judgment, nourishes maturity. Virtue means skill. And you have to develop a
skill for yourself. You become a fisherman who knows where the fish are likely
to be biting, and what sort of bait to use.
But catechizing on the basis of supposed revelation has
the opposite effect. If we have a set of prepackaged dos and don'ts which we
ourselves merely take for granted out of an inspired book, and we teach these,
there is no other way to teach them or to learn them except by rote. And when
you have learned them, you are no different, fundamentally, from the traffic
cop who memorizes the traffic code. You have not grown morally, personally,
This is one of the reasons I think philosophy is superior
to religion. And sophisticated religion always borrows from philosophy, though
it may then claim the borrowed wisdom was first revealed and that the
philosophers stole it! How immature can you get?
And this is why a proverb needs no particular attribution
(though if you want the reputation of being a sage, you may need to get some
proverbs attributed to you!) as well as why a supposed revelation does need an
attribution. Since it is something you cannot verify, that cannot "ring
true" in the nature of the case, something you are just going to have to
take on faith, then the revelation had better have a trustworthy name brand on
it! The Venusians are going to invade by Labor Day? If Exidor
said it, I don't need to think twice about it. After all, who the hell is he?
But if Jesus said it, hmmm, maybe I'd better start learning Venusian!
Do you see why revelations are always attributed to big
names? It is to give them credibility that they would utterly lack otherwise.
This is why every single apocalypse, or revelation book, we have is
pseudonymous! They are all hiding behind a big name. If it's Kiebler, it has to be good. If it's Jesus, it has to be
Such pseudonymity attests the
weakness of faith. Faith means to cast down a gauntlet. It dares you to
believe. It requires a Kierkegaardian leap of faith
and makes no bones of the fact. It admits that it is divine wisdom disguised
convincingly as human foolishness. Thus the revealer, e.g., the founder of a
new religion does not stoop to the trick of claiming a big name to lend his
revelation credibility. The reliable name of an authority like Jesus or Moses
functions as a kind of second-hand evidence: "It sounds a bit odd, but if
Abe Lincoln said it, if the Buddha said it, then I guess it must be true. Okay,
sign me up! That is a cheat, and the real prophet, the one we can respect even
if he is a deluded fanatic, is the one who does not resort to such a trick. No,
there it is, the Revealed Truth, unverifiable. If it were verifiable it
wouldn't be a real revelation. If it is revealed, it must be something we
couldn't have arrived at on our own, something we therefore possess no criteria
to verify. A revelation must automatically, as soon as we accept it, become the
starting point for evaluating, "verifying" everything else. There is
no other way to get to it, epistemologically, than to leap to it, as
Kierkegaard said, over 50,000 fathoms of water.
Personally I am not so sure that is a good idea. More
often than not, that way lies fanaticism. But if one
lets the challenge of faith go unrequited, that does not mean one need look
favorably upon its degenerate, inflated counterpart. I have said that the
revealer is lowering the bar, making the challenge easier, if he falls back on
the trick of attributing a revelation to a big name. And this has definite
repercussions for the kind of followers he is going to attract. They will not
have the needful faith or daring to be disciples. They didn't need it to sign
up in the first place. The coin of faith is devalued. The "believers"
are not heroic fools, leapers in faith. They have taken no existential risk.
They are merely pew potatoes, intellectual cowards who are glad to abdicate
responsibility by mortgaging their beliefs to a big name.
You see, if your prophet really "had no comeliness
that you should desire him," then believing him would be an existential
leap. But if a big name said it, then believing the supposed revelation is
simply acquiescence. It is slothfulness, the very opposite of the courageous leaper
who decides to believe that this camel-driver named Muhammad has heard the
voice of the angel Gabriel. Contrast this with the Muslim jurists of later
centuries who have opinions of their own but dare not speak them without
smuggling them into phony hadith, bogus traditions
that the Prophet once said it!
Or think of the original hearers of Jesus who knew full
well that according to scripture no prophet comes from Galilee,
and yet felt "never a man spake like this
man!" And then think of the pew potatoes who
believe something, or pretend to, because Jesus said it and they are stuck with
it. If they don't like it they can always reinterpret it. The fanatic, the true
believer, at least has guts! The pew potato is a coward, a member of
Nietzsche's herd of cringing slaves, crowding under a single umbrella.
But what of the philosophical seekers which, I dare say,
we would fancy ourselves? Are we, as some would portray us, also without
courage? Are we afraid to believe? That is not the issue. I will admit it takes
great courage for the illiterate Appalachian Pentecostal to handle poisonous
rattlesnakes, but that doesn't mean it is the right thing to do! Playing
Russian Roulette takes a lot of guts, but it might be
better described as foolhardiness than as courage. In the same way, I admire
the fiery courage of the Islamic car-bomber more than I do the tepid
Presbyterian or Methodist, but we should emulate neither.
I think of the surprising oracle attributed to Jesus in
Revelation: "I would that you were hot or cold, but because you are lukewarm, I will
vomit you out." When it comes to faith in revelations we are not hot. Not
so hot on revelation. But neither are we lukewarm, pretending to have daring
faith when all we have is limp acquiescence. We are cold to faith, but, I dare
say, hot on something else--thinking for ourselves. Growing Socratically. We want to do the calisthenics of the
mind and the conscience. We want to develop virtue, which is skill and
excellence in moral choice and stolid integrity, proven character, by
understanding the choices that face us, and why we ought to do what we ought to
do in a situation, something only we can decide.
wisdom of the wise will help us.
I have spoken of degenerate faith. There is degenerate philosophy
as well. One can grow lazy wearing the philosopher's cloak, too. And there are
two signs of the malady. And they both have to do, again, with proverbs.
First, there is, again, the attribution of particular
proverbs to particular big names. As I have said, the proper function of such
attribution is to list a kind of resume: "If Churchill said this, if
said that, then he was truly wise. What a guy!" But suppose you get it
backwards. Suppose you start thinking the proverb must be true simply because
Plato or Mark Twain or Solomon said it. Well, you have treated a piece of
wisdom as an oracle of revelation. You are too lazy to see the truth of the
proverb for yourself. You are too lazy to evaluate the possible truth of the
proverb for yourself. You are abdicating as the believer in revelation does. If
what you wind up believing about life is true, if what you decide to do morally
is right, then you have lucked out! Your truth is second hand, you have learned
it by rote. If you are wrong, you will never be the wiser. And wisdom cannot be
learned by rote. Knowledge can be, data, opinions maybe, but wisdom must be
embraced, digested, known from the inside out.
The second symptom if decadent philosophy is this. Have
you ever heard someone paused puzzled between two maxims, wondering which one
to accept and apply? "Hmmm, 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,'
all right, but on the other hand, 'He who hesitates is lost'... Great! Now what
do I do?"
You need wisdom not only to coin a proverb, to distill an
insight. You need wisdom also in knowing how to apply proverbs. Because proverbs are often generalizations. Generally true,
not universally true. They do not cover all the ground. One leaves off and
another becomes relevant. And it is part of the process of intellectual, moral
growth, of cultivating virtue: to learn which one applies when. And you will
only have trouble doing this in so far as you do not see for yourself why each
proverb is true, if it is true, and in what sense. That is, if you see its
partial truth for yourself.
We will only lament the lack of an infallible,
all-purpose piece of wisdom, or an infallible scripture for that matter, if we
are too lazy or timid to trust our own growing judgment. But why be timid? Why
not, as Luther said, "sin boldly!"? We learn by making mistakes. We
learn by trial and error! The only way to get 100 out of 100 is to memorize the
answers beforehand, and that you cannot do, though it is what the legalism of
revelation tries to do. The one who despairs of a comprehensive rule to follow
is like the person who so fears getting into an accident that he refuses to
learn to drive and either never goes anywhere or is dependent on others for a
If we want an infallible rule book, we want something
external to ourselves, commands to obey. But this excludes wisdom, because
wisdom is always internal. If you don't see why, it isn't wisdom. And wisdom is
what you need because of the goal of morality. It's not just getting a job
done, getting the right answer all the time, doing the right thing all the
time. That's external to you. A robot could do a better job of it than you.
Your goal, I think, should be to grow in virtue, to grow as a moral person. And
this is a matter of seeing the world and yourself in wise perspective. It is a
transformation of the apprehending as well as the acting self.
And here is where the Parable of the Bridesmaids fits in.
I have a hermeneutical hobby that some of you know about. In my tales of Saint Iodasaph, I like to interpret Christian scripture texts in
Buddhist ways. Here's what I think Saint Iodasaph
would make of the Parable of the Bridesmaids. Notice that the five exemplary
women are characterized not as "righteous" or as "faithful"
or as "vigilant," though we might have expected any of those
epithets. No, they are the five wise virgins. And what is it that marks them as
different from their five foolish colleagues? In the end, the five wise women
are those with their own oil for their lamps. The other five are fools because
they lack any source of illumination in themselves. They foolishly imagine they
might be able to borrow some oil from the others. But that's just the trouble:
you can't borrow wisdom from another.
Even if you seem to do so by learning from their
proverbs, its really your own wisdom that is born.
Learning wisdom from proverbs is Socratic learning, because the proverb acts as
a catalyst, sparking insight to illumine you from within. Not surprisingly,
there is a Buddhist parable about this too, at least a similitude: that of one
candle lighting another. It is the same flame spreading? Or a second flame
ignited? Six of one, half a dozen of the other. The
point is, it is your wick now ignited. It has become
its own light. And thus the last words of the dying Buddha to his disciples.
They crowded around him to ask their questions. This was, after all, their last
chance to ask them. But his only answer was: "Be ye lamps unto
yourselves." You don't need to search in vain for light at the end of the tunnel
if you've got a lamp within yourself.
Robert M. Price
August 30, 1997
Copyright©2007 by Robert
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