Three Mental Faculties:
Intellect, Intelligence and Intuition
By Dr Elizabeth Ashby
In Western Buddhist literature we often find intellect and intuition contrasted with one another, usually to the disadvantage of intellect. This is a very short-sighted view, for both are necessary for the understanding and practice of Dhamma.
The intellect is the reasoning faculty in man. It sees things in their right proportions. It investigates, analyses and discriminates. It accumulates knowledge, and is inclined to forget that “knowledge” isn’t “wisdom.” Too much stress on intellect produces mental dryness, harsh judgments, and a lack of mettā and compassion. Another danger is that investigation may become mere idle speculation. “Speculative views” about the subjects that the Buddha refused to define will lead us into the wilds of sceptical doubt, with all the mental suffering that involves. Another danger is opinionatedness—the canker of clinging to views as in the case of certain Brahmins of old who declared: “This alone is the truth; all else is falsehood!”
Therefore one of the early Zen Patriarchs went so far as to say:
Do not seek after the true;Only cease to cherish opinions.
The cherishing of opinions leads to disputes and to vexation, for we wound one another “with the weapon of the tongue.”
Intuition is the faculty that perceives truth without having it demonstrated or explained. It feels the truth before the intellect can grasp it and turn it into concepts. Hence intuition is closely allied to the emotions, and this constitutes a danger because the emotions go hand-in-hand with the imagination, and an imagined “truth” may be mistaken for “real truth.” This happens because intuition functions on both the mundane and the transcendental plane (lokuttara). Our intuitions—our instinctive feelings for and against people or ideas, and our useful “hunches”—do not mean that we already possess Bodhi, the transcendental intuition that “knows according to reality.” This mundane intuition can be extremely deceptive, and may lead to all kinds of trouble. It has to be examined in the light of a third mental faculty: intelligence. Intelligence is the ability to make skilful (kusala) use of the intellect. Lacking this, both intellect and intuition go astray.
All Buddhist schools recognise the part intuition must play in the attainment of gnosis—that sure certain knowing that “done is what had to be done.” The winning of Enlightenment by intellectual means, “the way of the head,” is very, very rare, though some of the Great Disciples are known to have done so.
The Zen School in particular stresses the importance of intuition. A great feature of Zen is to accept life as it comes, and to make the appropriate response. Note, the appropriate or right response. This does not mean acting on the first impulse that comes into one’s head. Most human impulses arise from greed, hate or delusion, and it is only the trained disciple who can act both spontaneously and rightly every time. Impulsive action frequently ends in disaster, as in the case of Don Quixote.
A Western writer has said that Don Quixote was “Zen incarnate.” This is a sad travesty of the facts as recorded in that glorious fiction. Cervantes has drawn the picture of a very courageous and idealistic gentleman (hidalgo, a man of good family), whose intellect had been vitiated by a prolonged course of sensational fiction. He believed the romances of chivalry to be true histories, and thought it was his destiny to sally forth as a knight-errant, in order to right wrongs and relieve the oppressed. No one doubts his high motives, but as he was completely lacking in judgement he committed innumerable follies, whereby he not only suffered himself, but also brought trouble on other people. He believed that in the practice of his calling a knight-errant was above good and evil. Hence he bilked an inn-keeper and, in order to obtain the supposed “helmet of Mambrino,” committed a bare-faced highway robbery.
On another occasion he imagined that a flock of sheep was a hostile army, and dashing into the middle of it, he killed seven of the creatures before the shepherd could beat him off. He was then severely cudgelled, and Sancho Panza, the loyal peasant who served him as squire, was also badly mauled. This unbalanced behaviour was typical of the poor deluded man; when he scented adventure he never waited to ascertain the facts but at once issued an arrogant challenge to the supposed aggressor, with the result that he was at once attacked and beaten up.
The pitiful thing was that the knight really had a very good intellect. Judged by the standards of his time, he was a man of considerable culture; he could read and speak Italian, and also knew some Arabic. He could converse sensibly and even eloquently upon most subjects; it was only when chivalry was mentioned that he “slid off into madness.” His monomania was such that he never attributed his misfortune to his own stupidity, but believed they were the work of a malign enchanter who had a grudge against all knights errant. If anybody questioned the validity of his opinions he fell into a fury, drew his sword, and at once became the centre of an unseemly brawl. This may be “living by Zen” (which is open to doubt); it is certainly shockingly bad Buddhism.
If, as postulated, Don Quixote was “Zen incarnate,” why does not the story end with some kind of apotheosis equivalent to satori? Instead the knight—we call him so though even his knighthood was spurious, having been conferred upon him for a joke by a village inn-keeper—is overthrown by a bogus knight-errant, a young man from his own village, a graduate of Salamanca, newly down from the University, who with the connivance of Don Quixote’s good friends, the priest and the barber, had gone out to bring the wanderer home The knight creeps back to die of a broken heart, first making a pathetic recantation of his follies.
It is begging the question to say that Cervantes did not know his business. His object was to ridicule the books of chivalry, because they were silly in content and usually bad as literature. He did this supremely well, and incidentally produced one of the most tragic stories ever penned—the ruin of a noble mind.
It is a commonplace that intellect can be strengthened by use. Some of its dangers have already been pointed out; another danger is that it enjoys diversity. It is always playing with ideas and forming concepts. It therefore encourages dualism and is obsessed with “the ten thousand things,” so that it never sees them in their “such-ness.” It is the function of intuitive wisdom to actually experience “suchness.”…………………………..