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From Ancient China, India

Greece, the Middle East, and Rome


by Sanderson Beck

Everyone would like more wisdom and could benefit from becoming wiser, which is supposed to come with age and experience. Yet we can enhance and awaken our inner spiritual wisdom by studying and learning from the wisdom of others. In fact the wise are able to avoid mistakes and find a more direct path to enlightenment by learning from the experiences of others as well as their own. Only fools burn their fingers on a hot stove after having been warned.

Today there seems to be less understanding of wisdom than in the ancient times and with all our modern complexities an even greater need for it. T. S. Eliot lamented, "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

Wisdom transcends the knowledge of science, because it concerns not only knowledge but also spiritual and human values. Knowledge and science alone cannot tell us what to do but only how to do something. All our choices are based on values; our values are what we love. We may conceptualize these as good and bad, loving what we consider good and avoiding what we consider bad. Wisdom helps us to understand what is truly good, giving us the ability to love well.

Ancient philosophy often placed great importance on knowing what is good and how we can learn to choose what is good. The ancients endeavored to discover and realize human virtues in order to avoid the pain and misery which come from vices. They also sought the higher spiritual truths found in the enlightenment which comes from experiencing the divine or the soul or the source of truth and goodness. In many of these texts realization of eternal spiritual reality obviates the fear of death.

The Wisdom Bible combines together some of the greatest wisdom ever put in literary form from the great philosophical and religious traditions of ancient China, India, Greece, the Middle East, and Rome. Having examined the recorded history of human civilization I would say that five great philosophical traditions stand out for the depth, power, and spirituality of their knowledge: from the ancient times China, India, Greco-Roman, and the Middle East, and in recent centuries Europe and America.

This collection brings together under one cover the greatest texts of spiritual wisdom from the four ancient traditions so that their lasting value can contribute to our modern world. They are drawn from the richest period of philosophy and extend from the eighth century BC to 632 CE. Their influence and ideas have continued to this day.

These texts are some of the best writings from Daoism (Taoism), Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Platonism, Epicureanism, Judaism, Christianity, Stoicism, and Islam. They contain wisdom from such great philosophers and spiritual teachers as Lao-zi, Confucius, Krishna, Buddha, Socrates, Epicurus, Solomon, Jesus, Epictetus, Boethius, and Muhammad.

In most cases I have included whole texts. I have selected the brief portion by Confucius from the Da Xue, usually titled The Great Learning and which I call Higher Education, and have not included the bulk of the text which is a commentary on the words of Confucius by Zeng-zi. Included complete are seven of the shorter principal Upanishads. I did select the first sermon of the Buddha, because I think it encapsulates his main teachings. The selections from Epicurus focus on his ethical teachings. I have taken selections from the Qur'an, because it is very long and repetitive.

The main exception is what I call The Good Message of Jesus the Christ. This is a synthesis of the four traditional Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, with some highlights from the recently discovered Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Of course the four Gospels have been widely available for a long time in the New Testament. However, this synthesis combines together the various elements from the four different versions into one continuous narrative so that readers can get the whole story as we have it from these sources in a unified comprehensive account. I hope this will make the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in the Gospels even more available to people who seek this wisdom in a single, clear and readable narrative.

The Wisdm Bible is not an attempt to replace the Holy Bible of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but I do hope that it will supplement that collection of ancient texts with a wider collection of the spiritual wisdom of humanity. The Wisdom Bible does not duplicate the Bible, because The Good Message of Jesus the Christ synthesis is a new contribution beyond the four Gospels, and the one text from the tradition of Judaism, the Wisdom of Solomon, is taken from the Old Testament Apocrypha, which is not included in most Bibles.

The Wisdom Bible also supplements the Great Books of the Western World which were gathered together and published in 1952. In 1976 I asked Mortimer Adler when they were going to put out a collection of the Great Books of the Eastern World, but he said that it was very far off in the future. The Wisdom Bible gathers a few of the greatest texts from Eastern civilization along with some of the best spiritual wisdom of Western culture. The only overlap with the Great Books of the Western World is in Plato. I have included Defense of Socrates (Apology), Crito, and Phaedo because of their great importance and concise wisdom. In addition I have selected the first Alcibiades, which is not included in the Great Books edition of Plato, because I believe it offers a marvelous introduction to Socratic method and wisdom on the important theme of self-knowledge.

As we move into a global age in which we encounter many more peoples and cultures than ever before, I believe that a good liberal education will expose individuals to a wide variety of spiritual teachings such as are contained in this book. As our understanding evolves and our spiritual wisdom awakens we will begin to see the universal principles of human life which can be found in various traditions.

I believe the age of parochial religion will be passing away as we grow and expand our awareness of universal truths and delight in the diverse cultural history of our world civilization. Instead of the closed and dogmatic attitude that "my religion" is the only one that is any good, we can learn from many different philosophies and wise teachers who have lived and shared their insights. This does not mean that we must give up our own tradition, whether it is the religion we were born into and brought up in by our family or whether it is the set of teachings we have chosen to follow as our personal path of enlightenment or salvation. Nevertheless we can gain knowledge and insight into other cultures and wisdom for our own lives through the study of great teachings.

I believe that in the future more people will be searching for the truth anywhere they can find it. Tolerance of ideas and beliefs different from our own is essential to understanding and respecting the people of other cultures. Without this tolerance misunderstanding and conflict can cause much human misery that might be avoided. It seems to me that as we become more aware and enlightened we become more universal in our interests and knowledge.

Having studied the great world religions and philosophies for many years, I am offering here what I consider to be the most helpful of ancient texts in the development of wisdom. It is difficult for one person to be an expert in everything, yet after many lifetimes of spiritual endeavor and thirty-five years of spiritual searching, work, teaching and writing in this life, I believe that I can bring an intuitive understanding to the concepts expressed in these various texts. Thus these English versions are in some respects unified by my consciousness. I have attempted to select the best modern English words to describe the original spiritual meaning of the texts so that similar concepts from the different books can be understood more easily.

Nevertheless I must admit to my limitations. I have translated the Plato, Epicurus, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Gospels, and Epictetus from the Greek originals, and I translated Boethius from the Latin. In the case of the Bhagavad-Gita, the edition annotated by Winthrop Sargeant is so detailed in giving the grammatical form and various meanings of every word that by using this I could almost call my English version a translation. The above translations make up about 80% of this collection.

In regard to the other texts originally written in ancient Chinese, Sanskrit and Pali, I compared several English translations and used my intuition to select what I considered to be the most spiritually accurate words after having read the various choices of other translators. Having studied and taught the philosophies of China and India I know many of the terms and concepts. On the Chinese texts I have been assisted by the useful advice of Ken Tsang, who compared my English versions to the original Chinese and made useful suggestions. With the Upanishads, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, the Buddha's first sermon, the Dhammapada, and the Qur'an I cannot call my work translations but only English versions.

In all the translations and English versions in this collection I have attempted to be as accurate to the original as I could be, trying to find the comparable or nearest English expressions. I often found that other translations rather freely paraphrased or summarized what is in the original. I have avoided doing this even at the risk of making the text seem a little more difficult or awkward, although I have avoided awkwardness as much as I could. I want the readers to have the best chance they can to understand what was originally written even though it might be a slightly different way of saying something than we would today.

I often found that if I gave myself enough time to understand the author's use of words that suddenly, as though a light had come on, the sentence began to make sense as it was written in a different way than it had been translated by others. I could only do this, of course, in the translations. Since this is the first edition of this book, I would be grateful for any corrections or suggestions individuals might like to offer for improving these versions and the translations.

I have attempted to avoid sexist language as much as possible but not so much as to change the original meaning of the texts. Some translators have used sexist language when it is unnecessary to do so. In referring to God or Spirit I might use the impersonal pronoun "it" unless the male pronoun was more clearly indicated in the original. For example, Jesus often refers to God as Father and himself as the son; I left these this way. Instead of putting "kingdom" I have used "sovereignty." In some cases in referring to the earth or other personifications the female pronoun was used, and of course I translated them that way. Often in the Chinese texts there is no indication in the original of gender, number, or even the tense of verbs. Thus problems could be avoided by using the plural, for example.

Perhaps another major contribution of this collection of this Wisdom Bible is the way the words are phrased line by line like free verse so that they are easier to read and understand. Ancient texts were often written and copied in this manner, but the only one I found to be entirely in this form is the Wisdom of Solomon. In the case of that text almost every line of my translation matches a line of the original. The other example of this is with the poetry in Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. I do believe that by putting all of these English versions in "phrase-form," as I call it, the readers will find them much easier to read and understand. It also makes them easier to read aloud to a congregation.

Almost every text is broken up into numbered divisions. The only texts that included titles to these sections within the texts themselves are the Yoga Sutras, the Dhammapada, and the Qur'an. I have included those titles in the text also. However, to help readers find different subjects in the various texts I have given topical titles to each of the numbered sections in the Contents of Topics at the beginning of this book. Other than the very shortest of these texts the only one that did not have any numbered divisions in the original is Plato's Alcibiades; I have made numbered divisions for this text myself. Also I have divided The Good Message of Jesus the Christ into one hundred chapters.

Each text contains a brief introduction to the historical background and gives biographical facts for contextual understanding. At the end of these introductions I have provided a few notes to clarify some of the references in the text by using the chapter numbers, but there are no footnotes nor any detailed scholarly apparatus.

Perhaps the main purpose of this book is to popularize the ancient wisdom teachings by making them more available to people in a single, easy-to-read edition. I believe that the universality of these teachings can be understood by anyone who cares to study them. I hope that someday the Wisdom Bible might be found on almost everyone's bedside table if not in every motel room. I feel that churches and other religious and social groups could benefit by reading aloud and studying these texts. Of course could also be used as a sourcebook for high school or college courses in the humanities or philosophy or world religions.

My greatest hope is that more people will apply these teachings of wisdom, love, and justice in their actions so that we can all live more in freedom, harmony and peace with each other on this planet. I trust that the readers will be able to find their own personal and spiritual interpretations of the meaning of these writings for themselves and that they will be inspired by them to live a better life for the benefit of everyone.

Copyright 2001 by Sanderson Beck

Dao De Jing (Way Power Book) by Lao-zi
Da Xue (Higher Education) by Confucius
Zhong-Yong (Center of Harmony) by Zi-si
Kena Upanishad
Katha Upanishad
Isha Upanishad
Mundaka Upanishad
Prashna Upanishad
Mandukya Upanishad
Shvetashvatara Upanishad
Bhagavad-Gita (The Lord's Song)
Yoga Sutras (Union Threads) by Patanjali
Buddha's First Sermon
Dhammapada (Path of Truth)
Introduction to Socrates and Plato
Alcibiades by Plato
Defense of Socrates by Plato
Crito by Plato
Phaedo by Plato
Ethical Writings of Epicurus
Wisdom of Solomon
Good Message of Jesus the Christ
Manual of Epictetus by Arrian
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
Qur'an Selections

BECK index