The Seminar and the Meditation Room

The Seminar and the Meditation Room:
Two Approaches to Wisdom

by Gerald Grow

Abstract: The article contrasts a lively seminar on Western philosophy with the meditation practice, based on Tibetan Buddhism, that is taking place a half block away at the Nyingma Institute, looking for ways to identify and honor their differences.

History: This piece was originally accepted for publication in the book based on the seminar, along with my cartoons. Unfortunately, when the manuscript was shortened by a new editor, my works were removed. I offer them online.

When I attended the National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on “Knowledge, Teaching, and Wisdom”– which met on the UC Berkeley campus a half-block from the Nyingma Institute–2500 years of tradition from the East and the West presented themselves to me daily for six weeks.

A journalism teacher — and hence not a philosopher — I sat in the seminar as a guest as three dozen philosophy teachers probed the foundations of Western thought. Not a Buddhist, I listened, watched, stood before the whirling prayer-wheel in the hillside garden, and joined a dozen others in the silence of early morning for meditation.

The philosophy seminar was noisy. If there is any one thing philosophers do, it is talk. They argue. They debate. They discuss. They question and challenge. Though some are quiet by nature, they are, to a person, intensely verbal and highly articulate. Passions often run high; philosophers sometimes express their views with so much emotional intensity that you are relieved that a fight did not break out. Intense intellectuals face one another vigorously in a room flooded with light from floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the rooftops of Berkeley to the west.

The daily meditation at the Tibetan Buddhist center begins with a single strike on a single bell. People sit on cushions or on low, slanted stools, erect, still, silent. The room is dark. A faint curl of incense diffuses into the dusky air. You hear breathing. You feel your heart beating. You hear the last faint overtones of the fading bell. All the meditators half or fully close their eyes.

Both groups pursue wisdom. And what different pursuits they are! Perhaps, even, they pursue different wisdoms.

Talk and Silence

At the philosophy seminar, participants talk in a specialized way. When words are spoken, they do not disappear. Words have an almost tangible presence in the room. Ideas are as real as people, as immediate as the tables we thump for emphasis. Others call words back and repeat them, challenge them, or insist on alternative words. Participants listen with skill and speak with precision. They hear what others say with a deeply practiced skill of hearing exactly what is said, how it is said, what terms are used, what the words mean, how one idea leads to another.

One participant shows the way Plato used a single word to mean different things at different times. Then he shows how translators use a single English word to stand for several words Plato used. Participants ponder the meanings brought to life by these shades of difference. Not ponder: That is too slow a term for the minds in this room. They flash words past one another like samurai in a room filled with a master’s swords, picking up now one, now another, trying one, now another against the gleaming words of another — words that have been folded and pounded for century after century till they have become permanently sharp, flexible, layered, and shining — words like “truth,” “justice,” “knowledge,” “beauty,” and “good.”

These are warriors of the word. Their path to wisdom is paved with a deep, respectful, penetrating way of using words like things that have the power to kill and heal, to build and destroy, to gather up meaning and to scatter meaning into nothingness.

The meditators sit in silence. The leader speaks a brief induction. Spoken for the benefit of newcomers, these words are no longer necessary for those who have meditated here before. The words are simple. They name little. They claim little. They point the direction in which meditation lies. They tell the meditators to feel the floor beneath them. Sit with the spine erect. Let surface tension drop away. Let breath happen. Let thoughts happen. Be aware without holding onto anything.

The words soon stop. And there begins a long, deep silence, deepened by the gentle cross-rhythms of wordless breath.

Written and Oral

For the philosophers, nearly every statement made by anyone is an implicit dialogue with something someone has written. The speakers know that their words are part of a long, ongoing conversation that includes the likes of Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, and Kant. Every key word bears the imprint of a dozen great minds. We pick up the questions Socrates handled and admire them like rare works of art. Twenty-five hundred years of geniuses stride through the room unseen, present through ideas that are as real as the walls around us.

Nearly anything anyone can think has been written about by some great philosopher. But this is a conversation anyone can join. The only requirement is a devotion to seeking truth and avoiding error — using the thought-tools of philosophic tradition, learning how your own thought fits into what others before you have written. These philosophers are the present members of an ancient brotherhood of those who give themselves shamelessly in pursuit of knowledge. For all the feistiness and verbal sparring, everyone — as the weeks go on — becomes slightly translucent.

The meditators are also members of an ancient family. For them, this morning is the latest birth of a long lineage of meditators, all of whom trace their knowledge back directly to Siddhartha Gautama, who, on the northern border of India, set out to find the cause and cure of suffering. He came back in 563 B.C. with a few key ideas and a few key exercises for putting those ideas into practice. He came back the shining, charismatic, crisp but kindly man they called the Buddha. When awe-struck followers wanted to know if he was a god, he would patiently say, “I am one who is awake.” Even though there are many Buddhist writings, everything is based on something that cannot be written down, something that can be passed on only from teacher to student, by direct instruction, and by direct transmission of the experience sought. In the meditation room, you touch the truth of this. It is remarkable how much easier and deeper meditation tends to be in a group.

The Philosophical Quest

For every certainty in one philosopher’s system of thought, there is a challenge from another system. To one philosopher, the world is before us to be experienced directly with the senses, and everyone experiences it alike. To another, the senses produce abstract constructs that differ from one person to the next. To one, we know some things with complete certainty. To another, nothing can be known with certainty. To one, truth is established by the internal consistency among our ideas. To another, truth is a flexible system of accounting that aligns our knowledge with events in the world. To another, truth is what we can make use of in the world.

To an onlooker at this enterprise, the philosophers rarely arrive at “truth” in the unexamined sense of the word. Lay people think of truth as something definite that everyone agrees on. People come together, state their different views, discuss those views, and arrive at a mutual understanding of what the truth of the matter is.

Not here. A single, universal understanding of truth is absent from the room of philosophers. They cannot agree on how we know what we know, whether there is an external world outside each individual’s construction of that world, or whether other people are real. For each clear and certain claim, there are questions that cannot be completely answered, challenges that make each certainty tremble. For a while, this seems strange; you would expect a group dedicated to the pursuit of truth to agree more about what those truths are. But as the seminar goes on, the lack of answers emerges as a key to the philosophical enterprise.

It is not the disagreements that matter, though they are what you see and hear. What matters is the commitment philosophers have to subjecting their thoughts to inspection. Though philosophers use persuasion, it is incidental — for philosophers would not respect anyone they could persuade to accept an unexamined truth. Anyone who speaks or writes in the company of philosophers must be willing to pursue any question, answer any challenge, define any term, explain any reason, restate any conclusion. Nothing is a given. Everything is available for question. This is a world of utter intellectual nakedness. And though the discussion often has the vigor and violence and joy of mud-wrestling, at the end of a good day, every surface is washed clear and clean in the sunlight. If anything remains ambiguous, the ambiguity has been pursued until its very uncertainty is clear.

In the discussion of these philosophers, people agree to give up some of the deepest human tendencies to protect themselves. They agree to expose to others the full reality of what they know, what they say, what their words mean, what their worlds mean. The result is a room full of people at once merciless but kind, unrelenting but forgiving, confident but vulnerable, arrogant but humble, exhaustively well-informed but constantly curious, totally serious yet, to a person, gifted with humor. Here, steel sharpens steel, but there is no slaughter. Mind sharpens mind, but agreement is rare. At the end of a day’s discussions, words fill the blackboard and ideas slice the air. Broad fairways of mutual understanding stretch into the distance. Disagreements loom in the room like architectural models. On a good day, participants leave invigorated, joyful, like people who have met their match in racquetball and eagerly anticipate the next day’s game.

The Buddhist Quest

To the philosophers, ideas have consequences. Knowingly or not, people live by ideas. We are all the practitioners (or victims) of philosophies that we embody. What we call “reality” is the consequence of the philosophical assumptions we — probably unknowingly — have adopted. Because ideas are so powerful, philosophers work to uncover them, clean them up, fit them one into the other, take out those that are broken and develop ideas that work well in a mind that is open and supple and truthful.

The Buddhists are less optimistic about ideas. To the Buddhists, life is suffering. No one gets out alive: All living beings experience pain, sickness, decay, disappointment, frustration, and death. Yet we expend enormous amounts of energy to deny that suffering.

“Suffering” in Buddhism also refers to something more pervasive than life’s vicissitudes. Instead of experiencing life directly, we create a worldview and experience it. That worldview serves to protect us through a system of explanations; but it also separates us from nature, from real experience, and from one another. We project the hopes and fears of past experience upon each new moment, blocking it with aversion, clinging to it with desire. No matter how good that worldview is, no matter how refined the ideas are, all experience mediated in this manner comes to be something other than what it is — distorted, filtered, selected, projected, interpreted — “out of joint” — and we suffer from living at one remove from life. We become outsiders to the world and to our experience.

The inescapable fact of suffering, the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, influences everything in the meditation room, but not in an obvious way. Meditation has the popular reputation as an escape from life; on the contrary, it is in large part the act of looking life straight in the face, feeling the reality of one’s condition in all its details. In the silence of this summer dawn, these meditators sense and feel realities of their lives that are normally drowned out by the flurry of daily business. What each experiences is unique and personal: the pieces from which a life is made; the broken pieces that fell onto the rug; the rug itself, and, sometimes, the silent patterns by which one creates what one knows as real.

Sitting still is hard work. In the kind of irony Buddhists delight in, Chogyam Trungpa had a puckish word for the frenetic pace of the West — with its amplified pleasures, breathless motion, workaholic devotion to tasks, and 500-channel choice of diversions. He called this frenzy the “laziness” of people afraid to look at the reality of their own lives.

In an earlier decade, I once attended a weekend retreat led by a Thai Buddhist monk (more austere than the inventive Tibetans). As we were coached in ways to tune deeply into our bodies, sensations, and feelings, the long hours of quiet breathing occasionally erupted with heart-rending sobs, a searing flame of anger, the terror-edged-trembling of someone peering over the edge of nothingness — and many sighs of delight.

Sitting still and being just where you are, just experiencing — without thinking about it, without analyzing it, without spinning off on the web of words that intersect this moment — is hard work. Buddhists also consider the examined life more worth living — but they examine life in a different manner than the philosophers do.

The Buddhist insistence on the awareness of suffering has earned it, in the West, the mis-label of “fatalism.” Strangely, the constant awareness of the transitory nature of all things brings a kind of joy that outsiders find surprising.

The Examined Life

In a position the philosophers would approve, Buddha asked that no one believe him without testing his claims. The meditators in this room are testing for themselves Buddha’s claim that suffering is caused by craving. In Buddhism, craving or attachment extends beyond the sense of “greed” or “possessiveness” or “clinging” to something closer to what the Christian tradition would call “pride” — a tendency to imagine one’s self as separate from others and from the universe — “ego” in the bad sense. This selfhood acts upon others and the world as if they were forever separate from oneself, generating what Charlene Spretnak described as “the continuous chain reaction of craving, jealousy, ill will, indifference, fear, and anxiety that fills the mind.” This is a deep, pervasive, but normal kind of alienation — an almost inevitable consequence of the way the human mind functions.

The most significant form of self-centered suffering takes place as we project upon everyday experience a huge burden of extraneous interpretations, associations, fantasies, emotions, painful memories, and diversions. Instead of seeing each moment as it is, we react to each moment from our past pain and frustration; then we react to the pain and frustration; then we react to that reaction; and so on and on. In this way a special form of mental torment is created that consists of seemingly endless layers of pain, negative emotion, self-doubt and self-justification — known in Buddhism as “samsara.” It is what, in honest moments, many people might call “normality.”

The philosophers also recognize a kind of “samsara.” They struggle against a world of illusion that is made up of the unexamined and contradictory belief systems people so widely hold, and which so often lead to illusions, errors, contradictions, confusion, and violence. The philosopher’s “samsara” is also an almost inevitable creation of the ordinary, unexamined activities of the mind. Only the most rigorous approach to thought can save us from thought’s excesses.

Consistency and Paradox

The philosophers in this group seem, more than anything, to fear that their thoughts will be contradictory. Profligate with categories, the mind not only creates meaning, it continues to create beyond all meaningfulness — category upon contradictory category. We think our way into trouble; philosophers would coach us to think our way out again, using reason, logic, method, and consistency. Contradictions and paradoxes tell us we have either failed, or we have not yet reasoned deeply enough to solve the puzzle.

Paradox holds a different place in Buddhism — almost a place of honor. In Zen — with its amplification of some of Buddhism’s central tenets — paradoxical thinking has been developed as a tool for meditation. Students are assigned to apply the full power of their thinking minds to koans — puzzling statements like:

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

“What was your original face — the one you had before your parents gave birth to you?”

“A certain monk asked Hyakujo, “What is truth?” Hyakujo said, “Here I sit on Daiyu Peak.”

This is certainly a different approach to the meaning of “truth” than the one passed down in 2500 years of Western philosophical tradition. In Buddhism, the mind is not so much an instrument for understanding as an instrument for perception. The task is to cleanse the windows of perception. To open them. To climb through and walk out.

In Buddhism, Zen, and Taoism, one finds a non-Aristotelian logic in which something might at once be and not be, at once be “A” and “not-A.” In these ways of thinking, “A” can hardly be said to be “A”: That which is, barely is, for it is changing faster than you can know it. And we cannot really know “A,” for we know one thing only in terms of another: There is no “A” without the “not-A” that it is not. This process-approach is epitomized by the I Ching:

“Whenever any action reaches its extreme, it begins to change into its opposite.”

Though of Taoist origin, the yin-yang symbol echoes the Buddhist vision of a wisdom that lies beyond logical categories in a world made up of opposites that dance, weave, and hide, yet which ultimately interpenetrate to express the deep, wordless, imageless mirror from which all being arises. The mirror, Buddhists say, can be glimpsed only by those who entered the silence beyond thought.

In the meditation room, you sometimes hear the silence between thoughts. After a meditation session, if they talk at all, meditators rarely speak about insights or ideas they had, or what they thought about. If anything, they might remark on how vivid the flowers are, or that they notice an increase in peripheral vision. Yet their faces shine, and when they look at you, you feel seen.

Insight and Release

Those released from craving are released from suffering — so states the Third Noble Truth of Buddhism. When we fully face the self-amplified sufferings of our lives, when we begin to experience life beyond our delusions and confusions, beyond self, beyond culture, beyond knowledge — what we find is not a meaningless universe of alien forces, but our true home. Life is real. Reality is good. Goodness, gratitude, love and joy are the natural state of the awakened mind.

When people begin to feel released from their self-sustained sufferings, they experience life more fully, they become more cheerful and compassionate. The ultimate release into ultimate reality is referred to as a cosmic experience known as “nirvana,” glimpses of which, in Zen, are called “satori.” Those experiencing this mystical state have found few words to describe it. They may speak of seeing things as they really are, beyond thought — or of seeing the universe as the universe sees itself.
In the 6-week NEH seminar, subjects like this came up rarely and found little welcome. Some participants, for example, derided Plotinus’ illogical efforts to make language evoke the his mystical experiences, with little sympathy for the altered states he strives to portray.

The philosophers in this seminar turn away from contemplation to focus on analysis. They read and think and talk. And above all, they write. Writing is so central to what is happening in this seminar (no one could talk like this without reading and writing first), that Havelock’s odd hypothesis becomes more compelling: Perhaps there is something to his idea that philosophy as we know it is the working out of the powers of mind liberated when memory was set free by the technology of writing. Perhaps “pre-Socratic” philosophy is not so much marked by its position in history as by its lack of emphasis on the technology of writing and on the kinds of analytical thinking that writing encourages.

Philosophy as practiced in this seminar is not a path of song, dance, drama, poetry, myth, ritual, devotion, love, erotic energy, contemplation, service, community, or cultivation of mystical powers. It is a search for wisdom through the kind of thinking that is possible only to those with extensive experience reading and writing long works of thoughtful prose non-fiction. No one in the group draws attention to body-language, tone of voice, timing, or the emotional undertones of what is said. The philosophers speak as if they are writing; they listen as if reading one another’s words.

For these philosophers, the way to truth and a good life is through open discussion, analysis, definitions of terms, clarification, examining how we know what we know, uncovering assumptions, finding and removing fallacies, pushing our assumptions further and further to see what they commit us to and whether they become self-contradictory. The mental muscles developed by this olympian exercise — philosophers hope — lead to the understanding that will set us free.

In Buddhism, philosophy is but one part of a whole life. Wisdom itself is considered only one of the five spiritual faculties essential to the Buddhist goal of liberation. The others are faith, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. Wisdom is the capacity to see things as they are. And things as they are, in Buddhism, reveal a world of constant flux in which a changing self adds to its suffering by imposing concepts of stability and perfection that experience can never live up to. Attuning to the constancy of change allows all of experience to become one’s teacher, each moment unfolding more about the nature of reality beyond our concepts of it.


The philosophy seminar demonstrated the power of an approach to wisdom that was primarily cognitive — analytical, verbal, logical. Western philosophy has room, here and there, for the non-cognitive. In the Republic, Plato’s ideal training for leaders includes guiding them to have a direct perception of The Good, which will then infuse all their thoughts and decisions. Plotinus, Aquinas, Pascal, and certain other Western philosophers give a non-cognitive perception of spiritual reality a central place in their thought.

But such matters played little role in this philosophy seminar, and seemed significant to only a few participants. As one participant explained to me, this seminar was dominated by the rigorous mental discipline of analytical philosophy–the method developed by Bertrand Russell in the early years of the 20th century.

Outside the usual philosophy curriculum and the analytical approach, however, people continue to pursue a variety of wisdoms through a variety of means:

  • The wisdom of dreams and mythology (Campbell, 1968).
  • The wisdom of the body (Reich, 1942).
  • The wisdom of nature (Roads, 1987).
  • Women’s wisdom (Matthews, 1992).
  • The wisdom of tragedy.
  • The wisdom of Native Americans, African Americans, and Jews (Crenshaw, 1981).
  • The wisdom of elders everywhere (al-Shahi & Moore, 1978).

Each religion presents paths to wisdom — from austere withdrawal into spiritual contemplation, to celebratory immersion in a life of praise, to disciplined and dedicated service to others, to loving your neighbor and doing good to those that persecute you, to the recurring rituals that realign one with the nature of the Infinite. The Sufi approach has proved particularly appealing to many Western intellectuals (Shah, 1970).

And deep within Western tradition, a parallel philosophy, derided as “the occult,” spins a vision of the universe as a place moved by spiritual beings, in which people occupy multiple, often mis-aligned forms and communicate through their unavoidable interconnections with one another. The literature of Rosecrucians, Masons, and Theosophists uses the analytical mind in such a radically different way (to work out the implications of non-rational insights) that it finds little place in the modern curriculum — even though it inspired centuries of bright individuals and moved in the quieter depths of the Age of Reason (Weed, 1968; Blavatasky, 1962).

Inside the philosophy seminar, it is easy to find people who hold that a cognitive, analytical, reasoned approach to philosophy is good and these other wisdoms are bad, inadequate, poorly thought through, unproveable, or unnecessary. Any large bookstore, on the other hand, provides works claiming that the “other” wisdoms are good and Western philosophy is hyper-analytical nit-picking.

The pursuit of meaning and wisdom and value and the good life today stands at a point of conflict and opportunity. Now is the time for a bold, new, open look at multifold paths toward multifold wisdoms. It is time to hear the muffled drums of the mystic dancers who lived next door to where Aristotle developed logic, and perhaps it is time for the dancers to reason out the assumptions their visions commit them to.

The view of the West–with its faith in reason and scientific method–has invaded the world. Meanwhile, the West has been invaded by the East and by indigenous worldviews. Centuries-old secrets of Taoist meditation are now openly taught.Native Americans have begun to teach outsiders their holistic perspective (Wall & Arden, 1990), as well as shamanistic practices (Harner, 1990). And the Chinese invasion of Tibet has released centuries of spiritual technology into an America hungry for knowledge its own culture and philosophy have neglected (Sogyal Rinpoche, 1994).

Meanwhile, in one building, the philosophers in the seminar are deeply engaged in thinking, writing, comparing, analyzing, weighing, and arguing to force ideas to reveal their uttermost power, frailty, and glory.

And in another building, silent meditators seek release from the power of categories, attune to the ceaseless arising and ceasing of all things, work to develop compassion for all beings, and dip perhaps into moments of indescribable union with reality.

Two paths, two wisdoms, a half-block — a world — apart.


al-Shahi, A., & Moore, F.C.T. (1978). Wisdom from the Nile: A collection of folk-stories from northern and central Sudan. Oxford: Clarendon.

Blavatsky, H. P. (1962). The secret doctrine: The synthesis of science, religion and philosophy. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Press.

Campbell, J. (1968). The Hero with a thousand faces, Princeton. First published 1949.

Chia, M., & Chia, M. (1993). Awaken healing light of the Tao. Huntington, NY: Healing Tao Books.

Crenshaw, J. L. (1981). Old Testament wisdom: An introduction. Atlanta: John Knox.

Goldstein, J. and Kornfield, J. (1987). Seeking the heart of wisdom: The path of insight meditation. Boston: Shambhala.

Harner, Michael (1990). The way of the shaman. San Francisco: Harper Collins.

Havelock E. A. (1963). Preface to Plato. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Havelock E. A. (1982). The literate revolution in Greece and its cultural consequences. Princeton University Press.

Matthews, C. (1992). Sophia, goddess of wisdom: The Divine feminine from black goddess to world-soul. London: Aquarian (HarperCollins).

Reich, W. (1942). The function of orgasm. New York: Farrar Straus.

Roads, M. J. (1987). Talking with nature: Sharing the energies and spirit of trees, plants, birds, and earth. Tiburon, CA: H.J. Kramer Inc.

Ross, N. W. (1966). Three ways of Asian wisdom: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zen and their significance for the West. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Shah, I. (1970). The dermis probe (1970). London: Octagon.

Sogyal Rinpoche. (1994). The Tibetan book of living and dying. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Spretnak, C. (1991). States of grace: The recovery of meaning in the postmodern age. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Trungpa, C. (1976). The myth of freedom and the way of meditation. Berkeley: Shambhala.

Wall. S., & Arden, H. (1990). Wisdom keepers: Meetings with Native American spiritual elders. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Pub.

Weed, Joseph J. (1968). Wisdom of the mystic masters. West Nyac, NY: Parker Publishing.

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