Knowing or living?

The wise mind will know the time and way. -Ecclesiastes 8:5

Dear members and friends of the SF Swedenborgian Church,

Being wise has been praised as the ultimate goal of both Eastern and Western philosophical pursuit. Yet, there is a significance difference in defining what it means to be wise between the West and the East. The Western tradition seems to focus on the acquisition of knowledge, while the Eastern tradition focuses on the execution of knowledge. Both Socrates (the father of ancient Western philosophy) and René Descartes (modern Western philosophy) emphasized knowing the truth through a more deductive method, while Confucius, Buddha and Laozi (Eastern philosophy) emphasize a holistic approach to discover how to live properly with the acquired truth. Knowing and living should be the same thing, ideologically, but we all know that practically they can be as far away from each other as the earth is from the sun.

If we were to really choose between knowing and living, which one should be more important? The Western philosophical and scientific tradition says it should definitely be “knowing,” because without knowing there cannot be any living. Yet, the Eastern philosophical tradition would argue that it should be “living,” because with or without knowing we would still be living. The most important question to ask is if knowledge is an absolute necessity for a human to be wise. The answer to this question will vary depending on what you believe it means to be wise in the first place. If your definition of wisdom is to be knowledgeable and intelligent, then it would be obvious that acquiring knowledge has to be prerequisite for wisdom. But if your definition of wisdom is to be able to understand, sympathize, and empathize with the condition and situation of another human being, then even the most uneducated person could possess amazing wisdom.

What I learned from Confucius, Buddha and Laozi was and is that I should be able to restrain and control myself by myself in order to obtain wisdom. Acquiring knowledge is emphasized by these great Eastern teachers. However, the knowledge they commanded us to acquire and obtain is not about areas of studies about the world, but about the status and conditions of one’s own mind. All other studies, according to those Eastern teachers, are supportive to the study of oneself, because wise living can only be possible when one is capable of wisely managing oneself. This is expressed by King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, “The wise mind will know the time and way.”

Blessings, Rev. Junchol Lee