Expressing Experience

Not hearing is not as good as hearing, hearing is not as good as seeing, seeing is not as good as mentally knowing, mentally knowing is not as good as acting; true learning continues up to the point that action comes forth. – Xun Zi


How can we communicate experience? Can one learn by observing (either seeing or hearing or reading about) actions of others or must they experience (or do) it themselves in order for the learning to be meaningful?

Are there lessons that cannot be taught but only experienced?

The quote by Xun Zi (incorrectly attributed to Benjamin Franklin and sometimes simplified as “I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do, and I understand”), reminds us of a similar gem in Sanskrit.

आचार्यात पादमादत्ते पादं शिष्यः स्वमेधया |
सहब्रह्मचरिभ्य:पादं पादं कालक्रमेण च ||

AchAryAt pAdamOdatte pAdam sishyah swamEdhaya
sahabrahmahchAribhyah pAdam pAdam kAlakramENa cha

Learning is one part from what is taught by a teacher, one part by self-intelligence, one part by discussing with peers, and one part gained over time (by doing / experiencing).

Tacit Knowledge

Knowledge Management theories classify knowledge as explicit (knowledge that can be unambiguously transmitted through written media) and implicit / tacit (knowledge that is internalized by humans and has to be conveyed person-to-person).

From a business perspective, explicit knowledge is ideal, as it is tangible, brings more certainty to what’s known, and allows knowledge to be treated more as a commodity. You document operational knowledge as an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) and can send it offshore to save costs.

However, most knowledge is tacit rather than explicit – gathered over time and hidden in the recesses of human minds. While it is potentially feasible to convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, it is typically imperfect and cost prohibitive. Instead, the most common form of tacit knowledge transfer tends to be in the form of ‘shadowing’ – essentially the person wanting to gain knowledge follows or ‘shadows’ the person who has said knowledge for a period of time, interspersed by meetings, interviews, and review sessions. Interestingly, this structure bears a lot of similarities to the Gurukulam mode of learning practiced in India in the early days.

Importance of a Guru

Even in our changing times where questions are being raised on the effectiveness of institutional knowledge, there is still a lot value placed on the formal way of learning and parents focus on getting their kids into the best schools with the best teachers – from kindergarten to doctorate degrees.

With a rich heritage of literary works, a question is often asked as to why the ancient seers (rishis) of India didn’t figure out a way to preserve the texts in writing and instead used oral tradition to pass on the works. The answer we have heard is that the seers felt that the written form does not do justice in providing the appropriate context to the words and hence can end up being misinterpreted over time. Hence, an oral tradition where the context would be provided by a properly learned teacher was considered more appropriate. While this sounds weird at a first glance, even modern management techniques seem to be adopting this idea in the form of “storytelling”.

Given this approach, it was considered critical for a student to find the right teacher who would pass on such knowledge. There are stories about in Indian literature where great saints went far and wide to find their guru who would teach them.

The word guru in sanskrit means ‘one who removes ignorance’. Equally interesting is the word ‘AchArya’, which also refers to a teacher. It means one who practices what he preaches. This definition is more appropriate for our context – where an AchArya is one who preaches his experience (practice). Thus, it becomes important that the teacher have the right experience so as to transfer the same to the student.


Thirumoolar (திருமூலர்), one of the more widely known Siddhars, explains this importance of finding an appropriately qualified teacher in his own unique style.

குருட்டினை நீக்கும் குருவினை கொள்ளார்
குருட்டினை நீக்கா குருவினை கொள்வர்
குருடும் குருடும் குருட்டாட்டம் ஆடி
குருடும் குருடும் குழி வீழு மாறே

kuruttinai neekkum guruvinai koLLaar
kuruttinai neekkaa guruvinai koLvar
kurudum kurudum kuruttaattam aadi
kurudum kurudum kuzhi veezhumaarE!

Those who do not take the effort to find a teacher who can remove one’s ignorance (mental blindness) will end up going behind a teacher who is blinded by the pleasures of this world. It will then be like the blind leading the blind, whereby both will end up falling in a hole, unable to get out (of this worldly bondage).

The poem is an elegant play of words (kurudu – blind, guru – teacher; Thamizh does not differentiate between ‘ga’ and ‘ka’ sounds in the written script).

Brief History of Thirumoolar

Before we go a bit deeper into this idea, let’s step aside for a minute to know the star of this post – Thirumoolar. Even though Thirumoolar has contributed significantly to Thamizh literature (he has written the 10th chapter of ThirumuRai, known as Thirumandhiram – containing around 3,000 verses), not much is known about his antecedents. Even his time period is not certain, ranging from before CE to 4th century AD to even as late as 13th century.

There is however, a common story on how he got his name. Thirumoolar was originally named Sundarar and was a disciple of Sage Agastya – the foremost of Siddhars and considered the father of Thamizh as a language and of Siddha medicine. Having learned from Agastya, he was sent to Mount Kailash for further studies in Sanskrit under the tutelage of Nandi (divine personification of Shiva’s bull).

Once the studies were thus completed, on his way back to Agastya, he sees a dead cowherd named Moolan. Apparently, Moolan was a kind soul and so, his cows were crying next to him inconsolably upon losing him. Being the kindhearted, Sundarar uses his yogic powers to shift his soul from his body to that of Moolan, safely keeping his current body inside the hole of a tree.

The cows rejoice on seeing Moolan back to life and happily accompany him back to the village. Moolan’s wife is happy to see him back from work and tries to get near him, at which point Sundarar moves away from her and says that Moolan is not really Moolan, but Sundarar. The wife gets upset and takes to court, where it is eventually decided that it is indeed a saint in the body of Moolan.

Having cleared the confusion, Sundarar (in Moolan’s body) goes back to where he left his original body but finds that it is not there anymore. He realizes that it is the will of Shiva to remain in Moolan’s body and spread spirituality. He explains this as follows:

என்னை நன்றாக இறைவன் படைத்தனன்
தன்னை நன்றாக தமிழ் செய்யுமாறே

ennai nandRaaga iRaivan padaithanan
thannai nandRaaga thamizh seyyumaaRe

I have been asked to take this birth so that I can sing the praises of Shiva in Thamizh!

The implication here is that Shiva wanted Sundarar to explain the wisdom he has gained in terms that everyone could understand and hence wishes him to remain in the body of a cowherd, thereby using the language used by a cowherd than that of a pundit.

Experiencing Self-Realization

Now back to our scheduled program!

As the quotes at the beginning of this post emphasize, learning is not complete till it is experienced. A prime example of this is spirituality itself. Science is based on the foundation of observation, while spirituality is based on experience. While seemingly contradictory, in the context above, they seem to represent a continuum.

From Siddhars to Buddha, there have been many saints who have claimed to have achieved self-realization. However, it is not something they can write about and pass on to others. Thirumoolar (திருமூலர்) explains this dilemma of the inability to explain “enlightenment” in an interesting “not safe for kids” way!

முகத்தில் கண் கொண்டு பார்க்கின்ற மூடர்காள்
அகத்தில் கண் கொண்டு காண்பதே அநந்தம்
மகளுக்கு தாய் தன் மணாளனோடு ஆடிய
சுகத்தை சொல் என்றால் சொல்லுமாறு எங்ஙனே

mugathil kaN koNdu paarkindRa moodarkaaL
agathill kaN koNdu kaaNbadhe anantham
magaLukku thaai than maNaaLanOdu aadiya
sugathai sol endRaal sollumaaRu engnganE

Fools – you claim that only seeing is believing; know that learning to see from your mind’s eye (self-realization) is the one that brings endless joy.
If you ask a mother to explain to her daughter how she enjoyed the pleasures of sex from her husband, how will she be able to do that?!

What a zinger! One wouldn’t explain such a simple but profound statement from a saint who has forgone it all! This notion of having to experience something to understand the ups and downs of the issue also comes up in the life of Adi Shankara, where he uses the same technique used by Thirumoolar to enter into the body of a villager to understand what it means to be a married person. He couldn’t get the details by just reading about marriage – he had to experience it, even if for an instant.

Perceptions and Wisdom

Our experiences tend to shape how we perceive things – reality or concept – for better or for worse. Thus gaining experiences that move us toward the goal we want to achieve becomes critical. Not all experiences are relevant and some may even be counterproductive. Helping us get the right type of experience in the appropriate trajectory would then lie in the hands of the teacher or Guru that we get. The same would apply to cultivating the right mentors in the business world – those who help us ‘see’ things properly.

Thirumoolar, in one of his famous poems, brings this concept in a very profound manner.

மரத்தை மறைத்தது மாமத யானை
மரத்தில் மறைந்தது மாமத யானை
பரத்தை மறைத்தது பார்முதல் பூதம்
பரத்தில் மறைந்தது பார்முதல் பூதமே

marathai maRaithadhu maamadha yaanai
marathil maRaindadhu maamadha yaanai
parathai maRaithadhu paarmudhal boodham
parathil maRaindadhu paarmudhal boodham

The elephant hides the wood; the elephant is hidden in the wood;
The world and its creations hide the One; the One is hidden in the world and its creations.


A child, with its innocence and mind uncluttered by the sensual distractions, looks at a wooden toy elephant and believes the toy as an elephant than just a piece of wood. But as it grows older, the elephant vanishes and becomes a piece of wood.

Alternately, when someone looks at an exquisite wooden sculpture of an elephant, they may forget that it is made of wood and only see the elephant come to life. For others who cannot appreciate or realize the beauty, it will be a piece of wood.

Similarly, for the one who does not have belief (or in other words, one who is only focuses on what is seen), world and the beings within are seen just as they are. When realization occurs, world and the beings vanish and they just see the One that drives all.

Elephant Race

This reminds us of the Illusion Art (formally known as Stereograms) that we have seen during childhood, where the picture is just made of random stuff, but when you look at it at just the right distance from the eyes, a 3D image emerges.

Whether we believe a higher being or not, the morals propounded by saints like Thirumoolar apply beyond our beliefs and it would be wise to find ourselves appropriate gurus to walk down the path to wisdom.



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