In the Dhammapada there is a verse that says "To his own ruin the fool seeks knowledge, for it cleaves his head and destroys his innate goodness". Is there a distinction between wisdom and knowledge? It seems to me that seeking knowledge would be a good thing unless maybe you didn't do anything good with that knowledge. Please elucidate. Thank you.
I have attempted to examine the Pali in this verse. The key word appears to be 'ñattaṃ', which is said to mean 'intellectual faculty' rather than good knowledge (Ñāṇa).
Ñatta (nt.) [nomen agentis from jānāti] the intellectual faculty, intelligence .
Therefore, this foolishness would not only apply to religion (such as religious people that seek worldly fame & material benefits from religion) but also to the worldly intellect in general (such as scientists, politicians & criminals that use their intellectual faculty to create harmful & destructive things & schemes).
There's a slightly different translation here which says "skill" instead of "knowledge":
The skill of a fool can only harm him; it destroys his merit and his wisdom (lit., it severs his head).
In the background story, the example of "skill" is of someone who "was very skilful in throwing stones at things".
Also, "cleaves his head" is a literal translation, the translator says that means "destroys his wisdom".
In case you were wondering about the story, I think it's true to say that the verses in the Dhammapada are "considered to be canonical", but that the stories are not. The Dhammapada Atthakatha (see also Wikipedia) is classified here as "paracanonical" or "noncanonical". I think that means that the stories illustrate the verses (or comment on the meaning of a word in the verse), however that the content of the stories are not considered to be Buddhavacana. The verses (not the stories) are canonical.
I think that this article (for example) quotes (from the suttas, which are canonical) other examples of potentially-foolish knowledge.
Generally in talking to bhikkhu one should try to avoid unsuitable subjects of discussion. Bhikkhus were several times rebuked by Lord Buddha for engaging in "animal-talk," which is defined by this quite common passage in the discourses: "Talk about kings and robbers, ministers and armies, danger and war, eating and drinking, clothes and dwellings, garlands and scents, relations, vehicles, villages and markets, towns and districts, women and heroes, street talk, talk by the well, talk about those departed in days gone by, idle chatter, talk upon the world and the sea, and also on gain and loss" (AN 10.69). When one comes to think about it, this list covers most of the subjects to be found in our newspapers! A layman may also remember that right speech, the third constituent of the Eightfold path, is defined as: restraint from lying, slander, rough speech, and chatter. Nor is it suitable to ask a bhikkhu what food and drink he likes, unless he is ill. Again, it is not proper to ask about the attainments which he has won through his Dhamma-practice. It is an offense of expiation for a bhikkhu to tell a layman even the truth regarding his own attainments, and an offense of Defeat should he be tempted to lie, saying that he has won what has not been won by him. Also among requests which are improper, as they could embroil a bhikkhu in what is not-Dhamma, are questions upon luck, signs, stars, and palms. All this is called animal-knowledge by Lord Buddha and he has made it an offense of wrong-doing for a bhikkhu to learn or to teach it.
An example of a sutta which contains this mention of "kings and robbers" is Kathavatthu Sutta (AN 10.70) and other suttas mentioned in a footnote on that page.
I think the reasoning is that not all topics (certainly topics of conversation, and I'd guess "topics/subjects/types of knowledge" as well) are worthwhile. In various suttas (e.g. Simsapa Sutta (SN 56.31) the Buddha emphasizes that he does not teach things which
are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.
Wisdom, in the context of Dhamma, is the knowledge of how things change, rise and fall. This insight will in the course of one’s practice, lead to the extinction of sorrow and unhappiness. In the Dhammapada you will find little nuggets of wisdom that you can wrap up and take home. The thing is, if you take what was said, out of its context, it may not convey the proper meaning. If you read the Story of Satthikutapeta – the story behind this utterance… ( To his own ruin the fool gains knowledge, for it cleaves his head and destroys his innate goodness. ) you will better understand what Buddha meant by it.
The Story of Satthikutapeta
While residing at the Veluvana monastery, the Buddha uttered Verse (72) of this book with reference to a peta-ghost named Satthikutapeta.
The Chief Disciple Maha Moggallana saw this enormous peta-ghost while going on an alms-round with Thera Lakkhana. In this connection, the Buddha explained that Satthikutapeta, in one of his previous existences, was very skilful in throwing stones at things. One day, he asked permissions from his teacher to try out his skill. His teacher told him not to hit a cow, or a human being as he would have to pay compensation to the owner or to the relative, but to find a target which was ownerless or guardianless.
On seeing the paccekabuddha, the idiots lacking in intelligence, thought the paccekabuddha, having no relative or guardian, would be an ideal target. So he threw a stone at the paccekabuddha who was on an alms-round. The stone entered from one ear and came out of the other. The paccekabuddha expired when he reached the monastery. The stone-thrower was killed by the disciples of the paccekabuddha and he was reborn in Avici Niraya. Afterwards, he was reborn as a peta-ghost and had since been serving the remaining term of the evil consequences (kamma) of his evil deed. As apeta-ghost his enormous head was being continuously hit with red-hot hammers.
In conclusion, the Buddha said, "To a fool, his skill or knowledge is of no use; it can only harm him."
Then the Buddha spoke in verse as follows:
Verse 72: The skill of a fool can only harm him; it destroys his merit and his wisdom (lit., it severs his head).