What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
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Coëmgenu
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What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by Coëmgenu »

How do we extract truth from the scriptural tradition of Buddhism? I am speaking about the Pali Canon specifically here, but if people want to comment on the scriptural traditions of other sects that is fine.

Do we assume that the Pali Canon transmits an exact or nearly exact account of material history? That would presume that the compilers of the Canon themselves had a historical-materialist worldview, which is an anachronism.
It is because the valleys are empty that they echo. It is because the mirror is empty that it reflects. It is because the flute is empty that it affects sound. It is because the ears are empty that they can listen. It is because the eyes are empty that they can see. It is because the nose is empty that it can smell.

If these were of substance inside, then there would be obstruction in these.

(from the writings of Master Liè, Daoist text, ~370AD)
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cappuccino
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by cappuccino »

Well, faith is one of the five faculties…
The four stages depend on the strength of these five faculties.

(faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom)
Last edited by cappuccino on Wed Sep 07, 2016 11:28 pm, edited 1 time in total.
davidbrainerd
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by davidbrainerd »

Coëmgenu wrote:Do we assume that the Pali Canon transmits an exact or nearly exact account of material history? That would presume that the compilers of the Canon themselves had a historical-materialist worldview, which is an anachronism.
The irony is that you're the one doing that. For instance, you get mad that I view DN 1 as putting words in Buddha's mouth he didn't say.
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by Coëmgenu »

davidbrainerd wrote:
Coëmgenu wrote:Do we assume that the Pali Canon transmits an exact or nearly exact account of material history? That would presume that the compilers of the Canon themselves had a historical-materialist worldview, which is an anachronism.
The irony is that you're the one doing that. For instance, you get mad that I view DN 1 as putting words in Buddha's mouth he didn't say.
That you think DN1 is inauthentic is caused by your literalist interpretation of scripture in general, that interpretation which demands that scripture presents scientific historical materialist reality.
It is because the valleys are empty that they echo. It is because the mirror is empty that it reflects. It is because the flute is empty that it affects sound. It is because the ears are empty that they can listen. It is because the eyes are empty that they can see. It is because the nose is empty that it can smell.

If these were of substance inside, then there would be obstruction in these.

(from the writings of Master Liè, Daoist text, ~370AD)
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by davidbrainerd »

Coëmgenu wrote:
davidbrainerd wrote:
Coëmgenu wrote:Do we assume that the Pali Canon transmits an exact or nearly exact account of material history? That would presume that the compilers of the Canon themselves had a historical-materialist worldview, which is an anachronism.
The irony is that you're the one doing that. For instance, you get mad that I view DN 1 as putting words in Buddha's mouth he didn't say.
That you think DN1 is inauthentic is caused by your literalist interpretation of scripture in general, that interpretation which demands that scripture presents scientific historical materialist reality.
I really don't think materialist is the right word for you to accuse me of. Perhaps rationality is a better one, or common sensicalness. My hermeneutic for determining what a religious founder "really taught" is simple to explain because it is systematic:

1. Read the scripture of the religion, become aware of the competing interpretations.
2. Try (and fail) to harmonize the entirety of the scripture into a coherent system.

Point 2 is always a failure. I've figured out why. Tota scriptura (the idea that you must accept every last word of scripture) never works, because all canons have built in contradictions; they all are found ultimately to be un-systematizable, because they are compromise documents where two or more sects sat down and said "ok, if you'll technically accept X text, we'll technically accept Y" so that opposing doctrines get mixed together in the same set. The point of such a compromise is so that they can technically accept the same scripture, and thus fellowship each other, while actually teaching different doctrines due to actually only following a subset of that scripture. In other words, in practice, nobody actually follows tota scriptura! Thus, tota scriptura (all scripture) fails. Now, generally, a religion that follows sola scriptura also insists on tota scriptura (rhetorically, but not in actual practice). My departure is to toss tota scriptura when a major contradiction is found, keeping sola scriptura in the sense of canon within the canon. Once it is found that all the scripture cannot be systematized due to contradictions, it is time to:

3. apply several filters for determining which of the doctrines of competing sides of the contradiction the founder really taught.

What are these?

A. study the general milieu of the founder to get a better sense of the doctrines of his society, which in the contradictory material of the canon he is on the one-hand asserted to uphold, and on the other to reject.

B. study the present views in more detail. Debate living members of the religion for the purpose of weighing different interpretations against living practitioners. (Thanks, by the way.)

C. majority rule of the canon. In a case of a contradiction on an issue, which position is found more often and more empasized in the canon?

D. common sense mixed with benefit of the doubt. Assume the founder was not insane or stupid and that his doctrine at least was coherent. (If he was stupid and his doctrine wasn't coherent, then the contradiction could be due to his own subpar mental state. But this is put off limits before even number 1.)

These are the factors informing my interpretations. To me, its merely logical, but not obvious from the beginning, not mere common sense; it took me almost 3 decades to develop this system.

And I must say, with certain religious founders, like Jesus and Mohammed, it doesn't yield any positive results. This system demolishes those religions and nothing is left standing. In the end, this system proves that nothing truly historical can be said of the doctrines of those founders. Everything is on sinking sand; its as if everything was made up by their followers and nothing, or next to nothing, they actually said survived. With Buddha, one major misinterpretation of a little word is tossed aside, and it is found that on a particular issue the man has been presented in the canon as only implying something he must surely have positively taught. But basically, some historicity to his teaching holds. That's a good thing.
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by chownah »

Coëmgenu wrote:How do we extract truth from the scriptural tradition of Buddhism? I am speaking about the Pali Canon specifically here, but if people want to comment on the scriptural traditions of other sects that is fine.

Do we assume that the Pali Canon transmits an exact or nearly exact account of material history? That would presume that the compilers of the Canon themselves had a historical-materialist worldview, which is an anachronism.
There really isn't any way to know what is the best way to grasp the dhamma and likely the best way is different for different people. My view is that the buddha presented the dhamma in such a way so that it could be grasped in many different ways so that many different kinds of people would have access.


Don't forget that the buddha taught that all views are to be abandoned.
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by Spiny Norman »

Coëmgenu wrote:How do we extract truth from the scriptural tradition of Buddhism? I am speaking about the Pali Canon specifically here, but if people want to comment on the scriptural traditions of other sects that is fine.
For me it is trying to understand the big picture by reading widely, and recognising that some passages are ambiguous and subject to interpretation.
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by binocular »

Coëmgenu wrote:How do we extract truth from the scriptural tradition of Buddhism? I am speaking about the Pali Canon specifically here, but if people want to comment on the scriptural traditions of other sects that is fine.

Do we assume that the Pali Canon transmits an exact or nearly exact account of material history? That would presume that the compilers of the Canon themselves had a historical-materialist worldview, which is an anachronism.
I've never thought of it in terms of "extracting truth." In fact, I can't imagine what it would be like to read the Pali canon with an outlook of "extracting truth" from it. (I think texts like the Bible or the Koran are in a different category altogether than the Pali canon.)

I read it like this: These suttas are saying some things. Which of those things could be beneficial for me?

Whatever meta-textual concerns I may have, I recognize them as being primarily due to the specific social interactions with various people, but not as having anything directly to do with the text.
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by Coëmgenu »

binocular wrote:
Coëmgenu wrote:How do we extract truth from the scriptural tradition of Buddhism? I am speaking about the Pali Canon specifically here, but if people want to comment on the scriptural traditions of other sects that is fine.

Do we assume that the Pali Canon transmits an exact or nearly exact account of material history? That would presume that the compilers of the Canon themselves had a historical-materialist worldview, which is an anachronism.
I've never thought of it in terms of "extracting truth." In fact, I can't imagine what it would be like to read the Pali canon with an outlook of "extracting truth" from it. (I think texts like the Bible or the Koran are in a different category altogether than the Pali canon.)

I read it like this: These suttas are saying some things. Which of those things could be beneficial for me?

Whatever meta-textual concerns I may have, I recognize them as being primarily due to the specific social interactions with various people, but not as having anything directly to do with the text.
Well every text is read to extract a truth. You can't escape hermeneutics when approaching scriptural traditions. But just because the word "truth" is being used, that does not mean that I am implying that reading scripture alone will, in any way, bring you any closer to the Buddha. We all extract disparate truths from every text we read.

her·me·neu·tics
ˌhərməˈn(y)o͞odiks/
noun
the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.

All acts of interpretation are the extrapolation of truth(s) from source materials. If you have a problem with the usage of a relativistic definition of truth, than substitute "truth" with "authentic interpretations".
It is because the valleys are empty that they echo. It is because the mirror is empty that it reflects. It is because the flute is empty that it affects sound. It is because the ears are empty that they can listen. It is because the eyes are empty that they can see. It is because the nose is empty that it can smell.

If these were of substance inside, then there would be obstruction in these.

(from the writings of Master Liè, Daoist text, ~370AD)
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by chownah »

Well every text is read to extract a truth. You can't escape hermeneutics when approaching scriptural traditions.
I think this represents a scholarly way of approaching a text. A scholar might say "I will approach this text a being an historical account of events that occured at a particular time in the past, and see truths I can extract" or something similar.
However, I don't think that the bulk of humanity reads texts that way and especially I don't think that the typical westerner will read the cannon that way because the canon has many disparate truths built right into it and I think that whatever hermeneutic arises in the reader will result from how the reader's experience resonates with the part of the text being read. I guess in other words the hermeneutic might be considered to be part of the truth which is extracted and that is dependent on what part of the readers psyche resonates best with the text.
Of course I am not sure I understand what all is implied when using the term hermeneutic so maybe what I have written is not applicable at all.
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by Coëmgenu »

chownah wrote:
Well every text is read to extract a truth. You can't escape hermeneutics when approaching scriptural traditions.
I think this represents a scholarly way of approaching a text. A scholar might say "I will approach this text a being an historical account of events that occured at a particular time in the past, and see truths I can extract" or something similar.
When we say "extract truth" in the context of hermeneutics we are just talking about the act of reading itself. That's why hermeneutics can't be avoided. We perform hermeneutical operations every day without it being necessary to even know what hermeneutics is. It certainly is a word that is used almost exlusively in academic circles though. Even now as you this these very words, you are applying your own hermeneutic to the words. Hermeneutics is just the study of interpretations, specifically as it relates to text. Or, in more detail, hermeneutics asks questions like "what assumptions do I bring to this text that informs my interpretation?", "how can I form interpretation(s) that is/are authentic to the intended meaning(s) of the text(s)?", and "is it possible for a text to have an intended meaning that is accessible at all?"

I am pointing out and drawing attention to how people approach the Pali Canon and what hermeneutics they apply because certain people fall into the habit of treating the Pali Canon like the "Word of God" rather than what it is.

If I read certain sections of the Dhammapada with a literalist hermeneutic I will reach the interpretation that Nibbana is a heavenly realm that souls go to. This interpretation doesn't pass the authenticity test of Dhamma laid out elsewhere in the textual tradition of Buddhism. If I read that same passage with a hermeneutic that allows for a more flexible interpretation, or a hermeneutic that originates from the native tradition of Buddhism, I understand that the presentation of Nibbana as a place is a metaphor.

So asking "how do we extract truth through our hermeneutical lens" is basically asking "what is a correct way to read this that will produce an appropriate interpretation of these words I see before me"
It is because the valleys are empty that they echo. It is because the mirror is empty that it reflects. It is because the flute is empty that it affects sound. It is because the ears are empty that they can listen. It is because the eyes are empty that they can see. It is because the nose is empty that it can smell.

If these were of substance inside, then there would be obstruction in these.

(from the writings of Master Liè, Daoist text, ~370AD)
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by chownah »

Coëmgenu ,
Thanks for the explanation. I'll give this some thought.
Just one question for now. If someone hands me some text (could be about anything at all) and asks me to read it without telling me what it is about, then what hermeneutic lens would I be using when I read it?
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by Coëmgenu »

chownah wrote:Coëmgenu ,
Thanks for the explanation. I'll give this some thought.
Just one question for now. If someone hands me some text (could be about anything at all) and asks me to read it without telling me what it is about, then what hermeneutic lens would I be using when I read it?
chownah
Your hermeneutic lens is your own interpretive philosophy, which in turn in comprised of many overlapping philosophies and traditions, and is context-specific.

If someone handed you a text called "How the Jews Control the Weather for Economic Gain" (just for the sake of giving an absurd example) you would interpret the text with a high degree of disbelief, skepticism, and presuming that the text is a) anti-semitic b) espousing conspiracy-theories c) has its origins in mental illness, and you would most likely be right to do so. One assumes. I don't know you and I haven't read very many of your posts, being newer here, so I can't really "know" for certain what informs your worldviews/hermeneutics.

Your hermeneutic lens is necessarily shaped by ideology. So the ideologies that you subscribe to or reject inform your hermeneutics and become your hermeneutic lens.

For instance: I subscribe to a definition of Buddhism that involves, at its core, the Triple-Gem. In my opinion, the only proper way to evaluate and interpret scripture in Buddhism is: via the Buddha, via the Dharma, via the Sangha, via all three equally and simultaneously. Obviously this is a high order though, and one's own ideologies are going to sneak in more-than-occasionally unless high attainment is achieved, which is why it is important to be able to spot your own biases and preconceptions, right?
It is because the valleys are empty that they echo. It is because the mirror is empty that it reflects. It is because the flute is empty that it affects sound. It is because the ears are empty that they can listen. It is because the eyes are empty that they can see. It is because the nose is empty that it can smell.

If these were of substance inside, then there would be obstruction in these.

(from the writings of Master Liè, Daoist text, ~370AD)
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by binocular »

Coëmgenu wrote:"how can I form interpretation(s) that is/are authentic to the intended meaning(s) of the text(s)?"
This is one of the questions I don't ask myself when reading the suttas.

I ask myself such questions when reading the newspaper and maybe the Bible, but not the Pali suttas.

I read the Pali suttas by the principle, "If it instantly resonates with me, I give it a second reading and see how it can be beneficial for me; if it doesn't instantly resonate with me, I move on to something else."
So asking "how do we extract truth through our hermeneutical lens" is basically asking "what is a correct way to read this that will produce an appropriate interpretation of these words I see before me"
To me, coming up with such an interpretation is necessarily linked to belonging to a particular epistemic community. If, for whatever reason, such a sense of belonging doesn't exist for a person, the way this person will go about reading-interpreting a text will be very different in comparison to a person who does have such a sense of belonging.
Coëmgenu wrote:If someone handed you a text called "How the Jews Control the Weather for Economic Gain" (just for the sake of giving an absurd example) you would interpret the text with a high degree of disbelief, skepticism, and presuming that the text is a) anti-semitic b) espousing conspiracy-theories c) has its origins in mental illness, and you would most likely be right to do so.
I wouldn't even read such a text. The very decision to read or not to read a text at all is also already an hermeneutical act.
Your hermeneutic lens is necessarily shaped by ideology. So the ideologies that you subscribe to or reject inform your hermeneutics and become your hermeneutic lens.
Of course.
But I think there is a wider range of hermeneutical strategies than you mention here; such as reading for the sheer pleasure of it; reading to find resonance; reading to find inspiration. Such strategies are not interpretive in the usual meaning of the word; they are closer to the analogy of feeding.
For instance: I subscribe to a definition of Buddhism that involves, at its core, the Triple-Gem. In my opinion, the only proper way to evaluate and interpret scripture in Buddhism is: via the Buddha, via the Dharma, via the Sangha, via all three equally and simultaneously. Obviously this is a high order though, and one's own ideologies are going to sneak in more-than-occasionally unless high attainment is achieved, which is why it is important to be able to spot your own biases and preconceptions, right?
I think that only someone who is a functional member of a Buddhist community in good standing can (hope to) read the texts this way.
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
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