Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

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When I was a graduate student learning to read ancient philosophical texts written in Sanskrit, there were two schools of thought on how best to approach these old texts. One school advocated the view that the best way to understand a text is to read all the commentaries that have been written on the text in later generations, including all the translations (which are, after all, also commentaries of a sort) of the source text into Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Italian and English. The other school advocated the view that the best way to get an insight into the mentality of an author is to read as much of possible of what that author had probably read; reading later commentators and translators, said partisans of this school, is anachronistic. Surely a commentator like Candrakīrti, writing some five hundred years after the time of Nāgārjuna, lived in an entirely different world from Nāgārjuna’s and would therefore be a poor guide to Nāgārjuna’s thoughts. Both of these schools of thought made sense to me, so my own tendency was to do both—learn as much as possible about the author’s worldview and then be open to hearing whatever insights subsequent generations might have had into the text in question. This makes the study of any given text an endless task. No matter how much one may learn about a text, the amount one has not learned, and can never learn, about it is incalculably greater.

There was yet another approach to classical texts that none of my own teachers explicitly advocated but that made a good deal of sense to me, probably because of my years of being influenced by Quakers. George Fox, the founder of what eventually came to be called Quakerism took the view that no one could possibly understand Biblical passages unless they opened themselves up to the same Spirit that had inspired the authors of those passages in the first place. This contemplative approach involves sitting quietly until all the chatter of one’s own thinking subsides and then reading a passage and letting it speak to one’s own particular condition. Spirit, the person who wrote inspired words, and the reader of those words all collaborate in the composition of a new text. This approach, I concede, would probably not make for very good academic scholarship—Spirit is rather difficult to footnote—but it is still the only way of reading a text that makes sense to me when the goal is to be inspired by a text, a goal that is quite different from the goal of writing something about a text for a publication destined to be vetted by highly critical academic referees.

Now that I have retired from professional life and have little interest in submitting my writing to academic referees before making it available to the public, I find myself doing far more reading in the Quaker manner than in either of the two academic approaches that I learned as a graduate student. Nowadays when I read a Sanskrit text, I like to read just a few verses, or perhaps a paragraph or two of prose, then close the book and just let the text percolate through my memories and random thoughts and half-baked speculations and unexamined assumptions to see whether all this percolation makes any lights go on. Sometimes they do. Often they do not. I am equally content either way.

My fear of cliché is not as robust as it used to be, so I don’t mind saying that life itself is rather like a text. The task of making some sense of it may be approached by reading commentaries, listening to the wise counsel of elders, studying it methodically and analytically, forming hypotheses and testing them or reading blogs written by wild and undisciplined conspiracy theorists. There is no lack of material out there that can be used to put the experiences of life into convenient containers filled with predigested pap. As I get older, however, I find myself not wanting to avail myself of any commentaries at all. It is not so much that I want to make sense of life all by myself without any help form others—an attitude that is quite common among us off-the-scale introverts. Rather, it is that I find myself not feeling a need to make sense of life at all. Life needs no commentary; it goes on quite well whether sense is made of it or not. When sense is added to it, often quite artificially, I find it does not enhance the flavor very much. Indeed, it often masks the subtle flavors that raw experience delivers up.

I love to watch the birds that come to our feeders. There are days when I crave to know the genus and the species of every visitor and to read about their mating habits and the way they make nests and care for their young and their migration patterns. Knowing as much as possible about what others have learned by observing birds can add a dimension of pleasure to watching birds. Some days I crave that kind of pleasure. Other days, I just like to sit quietly and watch the birds eat and chase rivals away from the feeder and dart around in the branches of nearby trees. They do not care what names human beings have given them, nor do they care what generations of human observers have recorded about their lifestyles. They care only about eating and not being eaten in this very hour, an hour to which they have no need to attach a number.

As much as I may learn about birds by reading what other human beings have observed about birds, I think I learn more about how to go about being human by listening to the teaching of the birds—without a commentary.

I apologize for disturbing your day with my thoughts.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 at 12:26

Posted in Buddhism

One Response

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  1. Your post brought to mind….

    Dongshan asked Yunyen, “Who can hear the teachings of the insentient?”

    Yunyen said, “It can be heard by the insentient.”

    Dongshan asked, “Do you hear it, Master?”

    Yunyen said, “If I heard it, then you would not hear my teaching.”

    Dongshan answered, “That being the case, then I do not hear your teaching.”

    Yunyen replied, “You don’t even hear my teaching, how could you hear the teachings of the insentient?”

    Dongshan was enlightened on hearing this and responded in verse:

    Wondrous! Marvelous!
    The teachings of the insentient are inconceivable.
    If you listen with the ears, you won’t understand.
    When you hear with the eyes, then you will know.


    Wednesday, April 23, 2014 at 19:52

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