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No Lesser Wing

I was taught that the dharma is like a bird that flies on two wings – wisdom and compassion. No one told me that compassion was the lesser wing, but I came to believe that’s what they meant. Compassion and the other Brahmaviharas were presented as healing practices, as practices that could bring about concentration, purification, and protection, but not as practices that could lead to actual awakening.

The schedules of the meditation retreats I attended in my early years of practice reinforced this impression. Vipassana in silence all day long, with a half hour of lovingkindness meditation slipped in somewhere in the afternoon – a sweet side dish to the main course of insight meditation. I imagined this great two-winged bird of the dharma with one broad eagle wing, powerfully soaring on the wisdom teachings, and one hummingbird wing of love, almost decorative, hitching a ride, fluttering delicately in the breeze.

I know what the analogy is meant to say – that we need both wisdom and compassion in our practice. That the dharma can’t fly without them. This is true, and it is also true in my experience that the image of a two winged bird implies a bifurcation, a binary, and that all the problematic polarities associated with binaries – masculine/feminine, greater/lesser, etc – get downloaded into that framework.

In practice, wisdom and compassion are not separate. Compassion is wisdom. Wisdom is compassion. Whichever door we enter, we end up on the other side.

All this to say – go ahead and choose love. Metta until the boundaries between you and all beings dissolve. Compassion until your heart covers the whole world. Joy to remember why this life is worth living. Equanimity to see the long arc of history that bends towards justice.

There is no lesser wing.

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