Learning comes into being when appropriately expressed

Detail of the Rose Garden of Sa’di, from a manuscript of the Gulistan. Mughal Empire, c1645. Courtesy Wikipedia

At a time when Muslim culture is being so often treated in ugly, xenophobic, racist, ignorant ways, how refreshing to read Mana Kia’s article on “adab” in the Psyche newsletter and gain a brief glimpse of the values that informed Persianate culture and its lifeworlds:

From the 13th to the mid-19th century, Persian was the language of learning, culture and power for hundreds of millions of diverse peoples in various empires and regional polities across Central, South and West Asia. Persian was not the language of a place called Persia – this place name is used only in European languages (otherwise, the place is known as Iran), and using it as an adjective to describe its people obscures the fact that Persian-speakers lived in many other lands. Increasingly, scholars use ‘Persianate’ as the cultural descriptor of Persian as a transregional lingua franca. For six centuries, Persianate adab – the proper aesthetic and social forms – lived in this language through its widely circulated texts, stories, poetry: the corpus of a basic education. To learn adab, these particular forms of writing, expression, gesture and deed, to identify their appropriate moments, and to embody them convincingly, was to be an accomplished Persian.

Mana Kia, Persianate ‘adab’ involves far more than elegant manners, Psyche

I particularly love this about how the author describes adab:

For certain things to come into being, they had to be enacted in the world. Here, for learning to truly exist, you needed to act according to it, to show it in the appropriate way. Otherwise, as Sa‘di explains, you were in fact ignorant, and your learning in vain. Learning didn’t exist separately from its expression. This was a matter of ontological being, before its moral and aesthetic status.


It reminds me of the story the secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor recounts about how, when asked what the highest Buddhist teaching is, an ancient Chan Buddhist teacher responded, “An appropriate statement.”

How many people and different traditions have already been studying and enacting this embodied, situated, creative, friendly appropriateness that I am just cottoning on to? I am finding it helps me to remember that humbling value, humility. How it helps to ground me in earthy friendly spaciousness, the good earth of our feeling body that opens us to a smiling lifeworld and others who smile back. How it helps me remember to recognize when I do not know what I am feeling and am not really listening let alone responding to someone with my whole being. Opening to learning from my own felt sense and from others and situations and how deeply interconnected these are!

It reminds me as well how Evan Thompson, a leader of the early Mind and Life Institute conferences that included the Dalai Lama and scientists, in his book, Why I am Not a Buddhist, values the diverse richness of our global philosophical, religious and cultural heritage including the diverse forms of Buddhism rather than assuming he is supposed to identify with a single historical strand (as if such isolated strands existed!). Such a wonder to discover how this rich diversity has already shaped us through intercultural exchanges over thousands of years, exchanges that transformed our cultures in ways official worlds — so invested in controlling others — continually deny. How coming alive to all this is an essential part of exploring the implicit assumptions that shape our own lifeworld, so we can better inhabit and soften into transforming it oriented to our deepest values.