The Wisdom of Proverbs


[Simple proverbs, always at the risk of becoming cliches of course, nevertheless seem to often embody a lot of wisdom. I wonder if they are dying out? Took the photo on the south coast last year, basalt rocks by the sea: depending on the light, beautiful Henri Moore-type sculptural effects.]

Commentaries on the Wisdom of Common Proverbs

Can’t see the forest for the trees.

Comment: Too much focus on empirical detail obscures the larger pattern or whole (or ‘holon’: a whole that is a part of another whole etc.). Just feeling the abnormal heat of the day won’t ever give you a notion of climate change. Just seeing that homeless beggar or the underpaid worker won’t ever give you a notion of capitalism. Step back and up. You cannot see a forest, a society, a planet, a system, a structure, you can only imagine or think it. Conceptual thinking includes seeing and sensing like a forest includes trees, but it is a higher and deeper faculty, a more evolved whole or holon. And conceptual thinking, necessarily dual in nature, in turn is included and transcended by a higher and deeper faculty, that of non-dual cognition or contemplation/meditation.

Can’t see for looking.

Comment: Who is looking? Why the strain? Can the eye see itself? You only really ‘see’ when you don’t look too hard, with strained, egoic intention, the look of potential domination, instrumentalisation, manipulation. Analysis of parts has its very necessary place, but as in contemplating a painting or landscape, in order to see the whole pattern, relax the eye, soft-focus, allow and receive rather than seek and pierce.

You can’t step in the same river twice. (Heraclitus, c. 500 BCE)

Comment: All is flow (anatta, panta rhei). But who is doing the stepping? A river stepping into a river? Can ‘you’ even step into a river once? And does a wave need to do anything to realize it is water?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Comment: All is change and flow, and flow is apparent or ‘empty’: it depends on something stable and fixed to flow past, and the apparently stable and fixed is in fact also changing and flowing. Although the current and river constantly change, the current and river also stay Current and River, ‘watercourse way’, Tao. This flow is the furious action of appearing/disappearing and of non-action (wu wei). On a social level: the more capitalist society changes, the more it furiously creates and destroys things and relationships in search of profit, the more it stays capitalism (self-accumulating money, domination, heteronomy, elite power). Many revolutions have ended up the same way.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Comment: Instrumental, ego-centred intention and goal, egoic cause and effect, just set up more unintended causes and effects, and so on. Vicious circles ad infinitum, samsara, karma. Like bad intentions, good intentions get in the spontaneous way of The Way (Tao). Rather than willing the good, simply get out of your own Way, and all will be Good (if not always good).

If you meet a Buddha on the path, kill him.

Comment: Every Ism means schism. Even the dogma of no-dogma can be a dogma preventing self-realization. ‘No more grand narratives’ is itself a grand narrative. Use Wittgenstein’s ladder to meaning, then kick it away. Use the raft of words, then leave them at the shore. All else is word idolatry, word magic that entrances minds, that people often even kill for, and the core reason for existential human suffering.

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Comment: No attachment, no-mind rolling with the Flow of Tao gathers no fixations, opinions, dogmas. Keep mentally on the move, nomadic, flexible. Yet ‘rolling’, loosely held opinions can also be necessary, can be pretty little green growths after the rains of thinking, helping to fix and build soil on which forests of wisdom may grow, each idea-tree singing a different tune in the wind that blows where it will. So:

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Comment: Don’t totally reject the old or bad, rather sift through its self-contradictions and partial truths, lift up and integrate them into the new and better. This latter process is Hegel’s ‘Aufhebung’ or supercession: negate, preserve, lift up. This three-step waltz also defines human growth: differentiate, dis-identify, integrate. Then do the same for the new integration all over again. Never-ending development to ever higher levels. Never let thought stand still in some static position, some binary, cocksure of itself, dogmatic, complacent, stagnant, dead.

Jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Comment: This often happens when the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater, and then the more things change, the more they stay the same. This may describe the trajectory of many failed political revolutions. The usual solution to this danger of the binary non-alternative is: a pox on both your houses, choose neither frying pan nor fire but a qualitative leap upwards from both into a completely new field of perception, enquiry and action.

To understand everything is to forgive everything.(Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner)

Comment: This blows open everyday mind. Against our habitual narrow moralizing and hasty judgementalism, this is the proverb both of all great art and of the Buddhist Boddhisattva: compassion (karuna) comes from standing back and seeing sub specie aeternitatis all the infinite web of causes-and-effects that form deeds and behaviour we might not like, i.e. seeing everything from the perspective of eternity, of awareness, insight, wisdom, enlightenment (prajna), and from the heart.

Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.

Comment: Chanting this one, even children here realise the essence of both nominalism and Buddhism. Names, insults, are, objectively, just hot air, word magic, voodoo. Words can only hurt the other-directed, i.e. those who live by them, take them in, identify with them, are dependent on, and see themselves as no more than functions of, other people’s words and opinions. When there is no such heteronomous, crowd- and other-directed self, there is nothing to be hurt.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on July 9, 2016.

6 Responses to “The Wisdom of Proverbs”

  1. Appropriate in these dark days as a source of wisdom that opens rather than closes question/answer dichotomy. The tao that can be expressed… The enquiring mind seeks to grow but how to feed it and how to keep it open when everyone seeks to close it down with answers and solutions.

    Many are called and few chosen, seems anti democratic but there’s the existential choice facing every human; to be or not to be… dasein or ….it’s up to oneself alone in the end. No one else. Stimulating Peter thanks

    • Thank you Nick, very kind. Yes, it ain’t easy, but then maybe it is, I don’t know. But I find these proverbs sometimes help me to remember some truisms. Hope your summer ain’t too bad in Scotland.

  2. What wonderful words to wake up to Peter…

  3. Of course, Kentucky, not Virginia, my mistake. Glad to hear you’re mostly out of it anyway, Kristi.

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