We need a new word, a
word for that indescribable awareness within – that dawning realization that
did not come second hand from another, or from a book, or at the end of a long line
of reasoning. It simply arrived – a lucidity, a clarity, a simple wordless
opening through which to see the world. “Understanding” doesn’t quite describe
it, because understanding is conceptual knowledge – the grasping of ideas. This
kind of knowing isn’t conceptual. It’s not made of ideas. It could never be described,
written down, or spoken. But there it is, as bright as the morning star, re-ordering
everything you know, think, feel, and are.
We were talking about this the other day in my Asian
philosophy class at Southwestern College. It’s bread and butter epistemological
stuff – discussions on the nature of knowledge. What is it? How do we get it? How
is knowledge different from opinion? What role does language, conceptual thought,
and empirical evidence play in its transmission, acquisition, and verification?
We’d begun the semester with a lively discussion of this
question: What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom? That took nearly
a whole session. Then we dove into a study of Hinduism, Vedanta philosophy in
particular, capping it off with a three and half week student-led seminar on
the Bhagavad Gita, India’s most
beloved wisdom text. Throughout this process we had to learn how to live every day
with the fact that here, as in every other wisdom tradition, ultimate reality remains
ineffable, that is, beyond words and concepts. And yet, as the Islamic prophet Muhammad
said, it is nearer than the jugular vein.
Then came Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, the Noble
Eightfold Path, the Three Marks of Existence, Nirvana, Shunyata, Interdependent
Origination, and all the rest, again having to confront and somehow make peace
with the fact that Nirvana or enlightenment is a state of consciousness beyond
conceptual grasping. In enlightenment one does not awaken into more accurate or
more sophisticated concepts – awakening takes us instead to a field of
awareness beyond concepts. Wisdom isn’t something you know, it’s something you
famous Zen story of the Flower Sermon sums it up best. One day the Buddha
gathered his company together to give a dharma talk, as he often did. But on
this day he simply held up a flower and didn’t say a word. Only one man, Kasyapa,
indicated with his eyes that he understood what was being said. For Zen
Buddhists, this is their origin story, the beginning of the wordless
transmission outside the teachings and scriptures. What Buddha conveyed that
day was far too vast for concepts and language.
is why in Hinduism and Buddhism the teacher-student relationship is so
important. The teacher does not and in fact cannot bestow wisdom onto the
student because wisdom is not something anyone owns. It is not a thing, it is
an event. The best teachers don’t teach, they co-create the conditions in which
students can move more intimately into their own authentic nature. Wisdom
arises in the spacious flow outside of thoughts and concepts, including the
concept of the separate ego-self. The ego knows nothing of wisdom – it happens
beyond the boundaries of that limited albeit useful construct. Therefore wisdom
is not something you possess, just as you cannot possess the sunrise, or music,
or love. In the depths of wisdom the separate self dissolves, or is
transcended. As contemporary teacher Adyashanti puts it, “There are no
enlightened persons. When enlightenment happens there is no one there to claim
In the Katha Upanishad this wisdom-transmission process
is metaphorically called “spiritual osmosis.” In cellular biology, osmosis
describes the transmission of the liquid substance within one cell through its
semi-permeable membrane and through the semi-permeable membrane of another
cell. This is how the substance of one cell literally becomes the substance of
another cell. So too, when we spend time in the presence of powerful others,
something of their wordless essence gets into us and changes us. We become ever
so slightly more like them, and they like us.
Maya Angelou sums it up beautifully, and let this be a
message for every teacher agonizing over the latest fads in pedagogy. Maybe
none of that matters. Maybe your students are simply waiting for you, the real
you – the vulnerable, courageous, and loving you – to finally show up. To
paraphrase Angelou: “People won’t remember what you said. They won’t remember
what you did. But they will never forget the way you made them feel.”
The other day in my Asian philosophy class, in the last
two weeks of the semester, we were studying Daoism, the Chinese wisdom
tradition that first found expression in Laozi’s immortal classic the Dao De Jing. No other tradition places
ineffability so front and center. The Dao
De Jing begins with this line: “The Dao that can be told is not the eternal
Dao.” Dao, the Ground of Being, is beyond all words and concepts. The concept
of Dao taking shape in your mind is not the real Dao. That partial concept
bears as much relationship to the real Dao as a map to a place, or a menu to
But that does not mean that we can never experience it.
In fact, we are it. And so is
everything else. Our experience of Dao or Brahman or God is not achieved with
cleverness or calculation. It is simply allowed.
And this is when Julian Rios raised his hand. I could tell
by the light in his eyes that he was getting this, all of this.
“My friends and I were talking about this the other day,”
he said. “We call it innerstanding.
Julian grinned. The room shifted.
“That is the greatest thing I have ever heard in my
life,” I said. “I am so stealing that.”
And we went on to have the most wonderful discussion
about this mysterious mode of knowing that defies definition or categorization.
The great Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi put it this way: “A
fish trap is for catching fish. When the fish is caught, the trap is forgotten.
A rabbit snare is for catching rabbits. When the rabbit is caught, the snare is
forgotten. Words are for capturing ideas. When the idea is caught, the words
are forgotten. Where can I find someone who teaches without words? That’s who I
want to study with.”
Language and conceptual thought are the rafts that carry
us across the river from the shore of ignorance to the shore of wisdom. But
they are merely vehicles, and can never contain wisdom themselves.
something is to stand outside of it and see it clearly. To innerstand is to embody a wordless knowing that defies description,
a knowing that transforms us body, mind, and soul. Understanding changes your
mind. Innerstanding changes everything.