Food for Thought

By Laís Helena Teles


I imagine that many of you remember when about a decade ago, a movie with the unusual title Matrix was released. Unusual in its form, but principally in its content and message: That the concept of what we perceive as being real is simply what our limited mind can perceive, that we all are – even though it seems absurd – living an illusion. This movie, justly so, marked the life of many anxious seekers, these rebellious spirits to whom Nietzsche dedicated one of his books. What drove them, hidden under a thick litter of certainties borrowed from the real world, was a secret but constant question as in the second hand of a clock that never stops, even through party noise…. What, exactly, is Truth?

And this it is exactly the question that Pontius Pilate posed to Jesus Christ before condemning him, and which he answered with one profound form: With a deep silence. And how would a Buddhist monk respond? Perhaps with an intriguing story, essentially saying the same thing; that truth cannot be transmitted by words. It has to be lived; experienced.

A great sage once said: “Truth is the unknown from moment to moment.” And if we are honest with ourselves, we will come to the conclusion that in spite of many theories and concepts which we may have about our existence, truth continues to be pretty mysterious. As in the riddle the Sphinx presented to Oedipus: “Solve me, or I will consume you”! Not literally, of course, since she was a matter of symbolism, a cloth, so to speak, which covers practical spiritual education and transcends all of mythology? She wanted to teach Oedipus, representing us, that our existence has not given us many options: Either we resolve it, or it will consume us. To understand life; its profoundness; the reason for everything. This has always been the essence of philosophy.

But what, exactly, is philosophy? It comes from a Greek word meaning The Love of Wisdom. But what does that mean in practical terms? The first thing you have to understand is that wisdom is not information.

Information is what we get out of reading books, attending classes, surfing the Internet, watching television programs, having conversations, and the likes. These are concepts which we dissect for storage in our memory, for later use or to simply discard them, changing them into a more relevant theorem. The value attached to information can be measured by our society’s increasing quest for academic titles, as if when parents can’t wait for their children to get one, without understanding that real wisdom cannot be attained through diplomas. We know of illiterate or virtuosi men or women who were intellectually stupid or even rude. It’s all very relative.

Wisdom transcends beliefs which we sometimes cling to during our entire lives, maybe to overcome the fear of the unknown or to hide an even more inevitable and interesting condition: Ignorance. It is interesting to observe somebody arguing with somebody else simply to convince them of a theory, which they had never verified, but just because they had heard or read of it somewhere. This reminds us of S1m0ne, the excellent movie with Al Pacino. In it, the director creates a virtual actress who becomes a momentary celebrity, without anybody knowing that she is a fake. Everybody pretends to know her for her movies, interviews, and photos, and could not fathom that she is not real. Just as nobody in its days could accept the fact that the earth was round and rotated around the sun. Or putting it in 2010 terms, many people still cannot accept that in Da Vinci’s Last Supper, the person next to Jesus is a woman.

It’s rather ironic that in spite of so many technological advances, our heads are still full of dogmas and beliefs. Some of these, instead of being shed, are simply altered. For example: The concept of male chauvinism has simply been replaced by feminism, religious dogmas were replaced by scientific ones, and the blind faith of God’s existence has been superseded by a blind belief that he doesn’t. The aristocratic concept of the superiority by virtue of blood relationship has been replaced by concept of career status and money. Sexual repression has been replaced by sexual exaggeration.

Why, then, is it so difficult to reach a balance? Oriental philosophy teaches us that rather than to defend one side in a conflict and to reject the other one, one should strive to understand both sides. When we reject or accept something, it’s because we haven’t really understood it.

There is a story in Zen-Buddhism which more or less says this: Once upon a time, there was a wise man in some city. His disciples would go out to the streets and came across two men fighting over something. They brought them to their master in order for him to help them determine who was right. The first man entered and told his side of the story. And the wise man responded: “You’re right.” The disciple was content for having resolved the issue, but the wise man asked for him to bring in the other one. The other one entered and told his point of view, to which the wise man responded: “Good man, you’re completely right.” Once the second man left, completely content, the disciple, confused, said to the wise man: “But master: I brought you two men with different opinions in order to find out who was right and you told them they both were! To which the wise man responded in all serenity: “My dear disciple, you are completely right!”

This story illustrates that in order to live wisely and use philosophy in its practical form, we need to revolutionize our way of thinking by means of analyzing and reflecting the facts of life without schemes or prejudices.

Therefore, as a logical conclusion, real wisdom can only arise from the self-knowledge, from learning about one self. It is the profound and gradual understanding that humans emanate from themselves, their own existence, their defects and virtues, what exceeds or is lacking within them, in their proper state of awareness. “All I know is that I know nothing!” For that matter, the wisest human is always the most humble one, aware of his or her own limitations.

Once a human being understands their state of being and eliminates all subjective elements, distortions, or illusions, one reaches an immediate and objective understanding of reality. It is what the Buddhists call the enlightenment.

If we seriously study comparative mythology (we recommend reading the American historian Joseph Campbell) we realize, that self-knowledge and the idea of enlightenment are the essence or the foundation – practiced by secret or esoteric circles – of all the great philosophical and mystical currents that have existed in the history of mankind. We are speaking about Maya, Hindus, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Buddhists, Jews, Moslems, Early Christians, etc. All these currents had an open, superficial circle and a deeper, more limited circle, composed by the most advanced teachers. It is not by accident that a great number of geniuses we know of in history were members of these circles.

In closing, I leave you with some matter for reflection by means of a phrase inscribed in the portico of the temple at Delphi, Greece:

“Beware of wanting to know what you will be. Oh! You, who wants to explore nature’s mysteries, for if you do not find them inside yourself, you won’t find them on the outside. If you ignore your own outstanding features, how will you find them among others? It is within yourself that you find hidden the treasure of all treasures. Oh! Man, know yourself and you will know the Universe of Gods!”

Dominical Days“Reprinted with the expressed permission of Dominical Days. All rights reserved.”

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