Category Archives: wisdom

After Tragedy

What a sad and horrible week.

Feeling at a loss, I find myself again turning to a phrase from a poem by Torei Enji, a student of the 18th century Zen master Hakuin, the Zen master famous for, among other things, offering the koan of the sound of one hand. In Torei Enji’s poem, he remarks (in my loose translation) that all things in the world cannot help but shine with their boundlessness and potential for compassion. Then he says, “Realizing this, our ancestors gave reverent care to animals, birds, and all beings.”

The phrase I find myself returning to is “reverent care.” It seems like a good way to approach one’s fellow Americans this week. Someone is grieving? Show them reverent care. Someone is angry? Show them reverent care. Someone is espousing views I find hateful and bigoted? Show them reverent care, despite strong disagreement, which if it is expressed at all, should be carefully worded. Practice the compassion you wish were more prevalent in the world.

Reverent care is a higher standard than mere tolerance. Torei Enji isn’t suggesting that we merely tolerate the undesirable things in the world and the people we disagree with, as though grudgingly accepting the existence of others who are different from us would somehow lead to a more just and benevolent world, a world with less suffering. Rather, he’s suggesting that we revere everyone and everything, and find a way to live our lives with this compassion continually in our hearts.

Something I like about this approach is that it offers a small but readily available first step for moving forward after a week of gut-wrenching news. I can carry reverence in my heart now, and use it to guide my actions in every setting: at my desk, in the car, at the grocery store—everywhere. Anger can spur us on to effect change, but if we’re really going to solve the longstanding problems of race and violence in this country, we’re going to have to have something in our hearts besides anger. Perhaps reverence should be one of the things we always carry with us.

Be well.

Wisdom through Error

In Proust’s Within a Budding Grove, the painter Elstir tells Marcel:

“There is no man . . . however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived a life, the memory of which is so unpleasant to him that he would gladly expunge it. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous and unwholesome incarnations by which the ultimate stage must be preceded. . . . We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.” (pp. 605-606)