Where is the wisdom we have

Lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have

lost in information?

T.S. Eliot

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s full! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “This is you,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.”

– Zen story

Roger Walsh observes that we are ‘inundated in information and drowning in data’, yet sorely lacking in wisdom. Walsh warns against the dangers of knowledge and technology without the capacity to use these powers wisely.

Robert Sternberg, former president of the American Psychological Association, noted, “If there is anything the world needs, it is wisdom. Without it, I exaggerate not at all in saying that very soon, there may be no world”. Given that our contemporary culture has only a superficial understanding of wisdom, and scientific research in the field is only at a nascent stage, Walsh makes the argument that the only place to go is to the world’s religions and philosophical systems. The world’s religions, Walsh notes, are a mix of ‘transcendence and nonsense, sagacity and stupidity’ but the quest for wisdom has always been one of their central goals.

Likewise, Philip Novak notes that not all aspects of the wisdom traditions are enduringly wise. Their cosmologies have been overtaken by modern science and their ‘social blueprints’ need updating in the continued quest for social justice. But ‘while jettisoning their chaff, we should continue to sift for the wheat’. ‘The telling question of a person’s life’, writes Carl Jung, ‘is whether or not he or she, is relate to something infinite’. It is, according to Novak, the great religions that provide the greatest resource and guide to the infinite.

The ‘contemplative core’ of the great religions contain methods for developing wisdom – meditation, yoga, prayer, reflections on the great mysteries of life and death. These practices constitute an art or science of wisdom. The great religions, at their best, both contain the accumulated wisdom of the ages as well as methods for how to develop wisdom in ourselves. To fully comprehend deep wisdom, the traditions agree, requires careful preparation and practice.


Reading great texts of the world’s wisdom traditions is one way to cultivate wisdom. But to do so we must not so much consume the text but meditate upon it by reading it slowly and re-reading it, allowing its wisdom to work on us. This is contemplative reading – slow, careful, precise, present.

It can be part of the adventure to seek out literature that speaks to you. The possibilities are endless, whether from the great traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism, or ancient authors like Homer, Rumi, Dante, or Shakespeare.

Here is a sample text from Taoism:

“Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings
but contemplate their return.

If you don’t realise the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kind-hearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
And when death comes, you are ready.”
― Chuang Tzu