A fool conscious of her foolishness
Is to that extent wise.
But a fool who considers himself wise
Is the one to be called a fool.
Dhammapada v. 63, translated by Gil Frondsdal
The beginning of wisdom is self-knowledge. Not sure who said that (if anyone), but this verse makes the point.
Someone dear to me is trapped in a delusion so strong and rigid that he cannot tolerate any contradiction to it, which makes his life very difficult and painful. And yet, he is quite sure that he is right and everyone else is wrong. In this verse, the Buddha suggests that we don’t understand as much as we (often) think we do. Until we are fully awakened, we can’t know everything, so a healthy dose of humility is in order.
If we know that we don’t understand everything, then we will bring an inquiring attitude to any situation we happen upon. If we think are in possession of all the information we need, but aren’t, we are likely to act in ways that are unproductive at best, and harmful at worst – and not even notice the damage.
One experiment we can do to test our wisdom is to put ourselves in the shoes of the opponent of the moment. I remember once sitting in an airport lounge and becoming aware of the incessant whining of a child. Initially I was annoyed and concerned that this would continue all through the flight (inconveniencing me and others). After I listened more closely, it became apparent that the traveling child had some sort of handicap that put her out of control, her own and her parents’. The parents were awfully distressed, and seeing that, my annoyance was replaced with compassion.
What can we know? That wholesome actions bring wholesome results, and unwholesome actions bring unwholesome results. We can collect evidence over the long term that will prove this thesis beyond a doubt. But we have to be paying attention to this level of experience – actions and results – rather than filling our days with empty noise.