In The Republic Socrates is famously asked:
What nonsense have you prize idiots been spouting? And why do the both of you give way, ridiculously, to what the other says? I say that if you really want to know, you should not only ask the question. It’s easier when you ask than when you answer.
It’s a common complaint.
Socrates himself admitted it, at least according to Aristotle. To his contemporaries, Socrates simply “did not know.” So what does it mean when Socrates, the corrupter of Athens and father of Western philosophy, tells Meno: “I only know that I know nothing”?
At about the same time, give or take a few hundred years, Maha Maya, princess to a small tribe in modern day India, gave birth to a child in the foothills of the Himalayas. Years later, after Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment, his followers would sometimes teach the Parable of the Empty Cup:
A scholar, noted for his knowledge of Buddhism, determined one day to seek out a certain Zen master, a fellow traveler on the Noble Eightfold Path. The scholar set forth, and after a time, found who he was seeking. Overjoyed, he approached the master, and after introductions, began expounding on his life’s work. So satisfied was he, that even as he spoke, the scholar scarcely noticed the setting of the sun, nor hours later, the frost settling on the morning grass.
The master, attentive to his guest, offered him a cup of warm tea. Slowly the master poured, filling the cup half way, and then completely, so that the tea poured over, first onto the table, and then to the ground below. And still the master poured.
“Stop!” cried the scholar, as he pushed himself away. “Can’t you see that my cup is full?”
“Yes,” replied the master. “You have come to me already knowing all there is. Can’t you see that your cup must be empty?”
And the scholar, being a fellow traveler, knew that it was so.
Half a world away and the same idea: From ignorance comes wisdom.
If this idea, the idea of the beginner’s mind, is in fact the beginning of wisdom, count me in with the Philosophers.
I know someone, a gifted martial artist in her own right, with a somewhat different perspective. In her world, wisdom is a top down affair. For her, there is no path to wisdom from reason, no bridge between natural and supernatural revelation. The source of all reason is inspiration, and all reasons are ultimately His.
Let’s call her the Theologian.
I can already hear some of you: “She’s wrong, of course. In Aikido, we’re told to keep a beginner’s mind. I’m supposed to keep my prejudices off the mat. Right?”
Here’s how he later described what happened:
I felt the universe suddenly quake, and that a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one. At the same time my body became light. I was able to understand the whispering of the birds, and was clearly aware of the mind of God, the creator of the universe.
And Aikido came to be. O-Sensei here is not speaking the dry language of philosophy. On the contrary — this is revelation.
“Aha!” my young friend might say, as she moves irimi, “How can you practice honestly, when you can’t honestly acknowledge the Founder’s own experience?”
Is my friend, in fact, correct? Has my skeptic’s eye turned against me, keeping me off the Path?
Honestly, I don’t know.