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

Post by Coëmgenu »

binocular wrote:
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."
This sounds like "Buffet Buddhism" (coined to be analogous to "Cafeteria Catholicism"). If I stopped listening and never bothered to research things that didn't "immediately resonate" with me due to a surface-level skimming of the textual tradition I would have never bothered to get even vaguely involved with Buddhism. I, as a fellow Westerner, first became acquainted with Buddhism through exposure to its textual tradition. If I just discarded anything that didn't seem interesting or relevant on first-glance, or even on second-glance, I would still be an atheist.
binocular wrote:
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.
This sounds to me like you are arguing that you are not part of any epistemic community, but I'll take that to be a misinterpretation on my part of what you mean.

Its not a question of if you feel like you belong, its a question of letting the teaching speak for itself before one judges or evaluates it, of attempting to set aside one's assumptions and ideologies and empathizing with the perspective the teaching appears to be coming from to try to get a foretaste of the insider's perspective one would have if one believed the material. Engagement with the right-views and proper Buddhist hermeneutic and orthodoxy is vital, even if one rejects it (although that would beg the question of "why am I even wanting to be a Buddhist"), because the textual tradition of Buddhism does not stand on its own, and was never intended to, like the Koran was for instance. A hermeneutic lens, focused on the subject matter of the Pali Canon, that does not embrace the fullness of the tradition, even as an intellectual exercise rather than a true faith/belief, will produce a heterodox and compromised reading/interpretation of the text, just like reading the Bible without presuming a reconciliation between God-and-man via Christ's passion will inevitable produce the reading that God is evil.
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)
binocular
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by binocular »

Coëmgenu wrote:This sounds like "Buffet Buddhism" (coined to be analogous to "Cafeteria Catholicism").
Yes, I am aware of that.
If I stopped listening and never bothered to research things that didn't "immediately resonate" with me due to a surface-level skimming of the textual tradition I would have never bothered to get even vaguely involved with Buddhism. I, as a fellow Westerner, first became acquainted with Buddhism through exposure to its textual tradition. If I just discarded anything that didn't seem interesting or relevant on first-glance, or even on second-glance, I would still be an atheist.
That's not how it worked out for me, though. I started out with some suttas that I really liked, that instantly resonated with me, and I kept with reading more and more, and more and more began to resonate. I don't discard those that don't instantly resonate; I leave them for a later time and devote myself to those than do resonate now.
This sounds to me like you are arguing that you are not part of any epistemic community, but I'll take that to be a misinterpretation on my part of what you mean.

I do feel that I am not part of the Buddhist epistemic community; and I do experience this not belonging as burdensome and limiting. At the same time, becoming a member of the Buddhist epistemic community doesn't seem possible for me.
Its not a question of if you feel like you belong, its a question of letting the teaching speak for itself before one judges or evaluates it, of attempting to set aside one's assumptions and ideologies and empathizing with the perspective the teaching appears to be coming from to try to get a foretaste of the insider's perspective one would have if one believed the material.
Like I said -- there are hermeneutic strategies that aren't interpretive in the usual sense of the word, but are more in line with the analogy of feeding.
In the theory of pramanas, the means of knowledge, sabda, sometimes called "the divine sound," is the one pramana that has a positive effect on the person merely by the person hearing it; it's the one pramana that in effect doesn't require any cognitive effort on the part of the listener.

Also, your concerns apply if I were to think that my interpretation is correct or if I were to make a point of trying to convince others of the correctness of my interpretation. But I do neither.
A hermeneutic lens, focused on the subject matter of the Pali Canon, that does not embrace the fullness of the tradition, even as an intellectual exercise rather than a true faith/belief, will produce a heterodox and compromised reading/interpretation of the text,
I disagree. If the suttas are read with the intention "What can I find in these texts that would be beneficial for me to think and that I could put into action that would be beneficial for me (and for others)?" then the consequences of such reading cannot be harmful.
(Although, arguably, reading the Pali suttas with the intention "How can this help me to make an end to suffering?" _is_ embracing the essence of the tradition.)
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
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SDC
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by SDC »

In the end, what is read in the texts (deciphered from the Pali) must correspond to something in one's experience.

"Bhikkhu's, there are these two conditions for the arising of right view. What two? The utterance of another and proper attention. These are the conditions for the arising of right view." -AN 2.126

At some point when a "good enough" meaning is grasped from the suttas (or some other text/lecture/teacher's instruction), i.e. "the utterance of another", one must use proper attention in order to find that in the experience. We should ask, "What are these terms referring to?" I think there is a tendency to fall back onto contemporary meanings (of course based on the translations) in order to bring about such a correspondence. But since our common understanding of these terms will inevitably fall short (or be incomplete/underdeveloped), we are left not exactly knowing what the Buddha means or worse off, thinking that we know what the Buddha means.

So allowing a stock understanding of translated terms to dictate meaning, without question, will leave us bound to those meanings and will likely go full circle to nowhere. Remember, we are not obligated to stay with our current understanding of these translated terms. We need to loosen up on them, question them. Be open to the possibility that when I say "consciousness, consciousness" it is likely not exactly what the Buddha meant when he said "viññāṇa, viññāṇa". As uneasy as this may be to accept, it is very likely the case, and will require work in order to get the meanings to correspond.

Where exactly does this leave us? Well, we can make an effort to get the most out of the Pali: we can learn the language or consult with the experts. But even then we may still find ourselves bound to a certain meaning, which still may not be the one the Buddha had in mind. But no doubt we are far better equipped then we were before. Then what? Well we can explore a wide array of interpretations (more of "another's utterance"), perhaps giving us a more effective POV which will give us a better chance to understand. But even then things are still not guaranteed to correspond, i.e. we cannot decide to understand the Dhamma.

We have to properly attend our experience and get acquainted what is happening there. In the MN 10 (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta), "When [doing such and such], they clearly know "I am [doing such and such]". Become familiar with that way of looking at things. Find meaning there and then go take another look at the texts. Things should start to jive somewhat, but no doubt will reveal just how much work is ahead and how much repetition is going to be required in order to understand.

So it is not a matter of deciding based on interpretation; all that can ever be is a starting point. So interpretation is, without a doubt, necessary, but should never cloud the fact that one has to do the work in order confirm it.

That is how I interpret the role of interpretation. So interpret my interpretation according to the same criteria, i.e. don't just take my word for it. :smile:
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by davidbrainerd »

Coëmgenu wrote: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.
I'm not aware of any sutta that literally says "all those places that speak of nibbana as a place, yeah ignore that, that was only metaphor," and that's really what's needed, since it is clearly not presrnted as metaphor. So whatever this is that's "laid out elsewhere in the textual tradition of Buddhism" its not in the suttas, correct?
Coëmgenu wrote: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.
Here where you talk about "the native tradition of Buddhism" a distinction between the beliefs of the common people and the academic theologians becomes necessary. For instance with Christianity if you listened to the academic theologians you'd think all Trinitarian Christians believe the Trinity lacks internal hierarchy, yet it is very uncommon for the common people to be aware they're supposed to believe that and they will quote from John "my father is greater than I" to refute what the academic theologians claim they all believe. Similarly in Buddhism, isn't it the case that your average Asian Buddhist thinks nirvana is a place? And they themselves get frustrated with the academic theologians of Buddhism? (Anyone know any polling data on this?)
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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: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.
I'm not aware of any sutta that literally says "all those places that speak of nibbana as a place, yeah ignore that, that was only metaphor," and that's really what's needed, since it is clearly not presrnted as metaphor. So whatever this is that's "laid out elsewhere in the textual tradition of Buddhism" its not in the suttas, correct?
I am still in the process of responding to your other longer post, but I'll respond to this here since answering it is a considerably more simple matter.

The suttas are not dhamma and dhamma is not the suttas. The suttas do not stand on their own, they have never stood on their own. To argue that they do stand on their own, that is a sola scriptura literalist reading of the suttas. That is an anachronistic ethnocentric chronocentric reading of the suttas. The suttas are not the teaching, are not the tradition, and the teaching and the tradition is not the suttas. The suttas are read *with* and *through* the dhamma. Via only the suttas, and no engagement with the Triple-Gem, there is no dhamma present.
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)
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:
davidbrainerd wrote:
Coëmgenu wrote: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.
I'm not aware of any sutta that literally says "all those places that speak of nibbana as a place, yeah ignore that, that was only metaphor," and that's really what's needed, since it is clearly not presrnted as metaphor. So whatever this is that's "laid out elsewhere in the textual tradition of Buddhism" its not in the suttas, correct?
I am still in the process of responding to your other longer post, but I'll respond to this here since answering it is a considerably more simple matter.

The suttas are not dhamma and dhamma is not the suttas. The suttas do not stand on their own, they have never stood on their own. To argue that they do stand on their own, that is a sola scriptura literalist reading of the suttas. That is an anachronistic ethnocentric chronocentric reading of the suttas. The suttas are not the teaching, are not the tradition, and the teaching and the tradition is not the suttas. The suttas are read *with* and *through* the dhamma. Via only the suttas, and no engagement with the Triple-Gem, there is no dhamma present.
Actually we both agree that "The suttas are not dhamma and the dhamma is not the suttas." It seems where we disagree is you think the dhamma is longer than the suttas, and I think the dhamma is shorter than the suttas. It seems to me the teaching of a religious founder is always shorter than the canon that grows up around it.
Via only the suttas, and no engagement with the Triple-Gem, there is no dhamma present.
The triple gem is Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha. We can't engage Buddha directly, only via the suttas. The Dhamma is what Buddha taught so we can't engage it directly, only via reading the suttas or listening to those who have read them. The sangha can be engaged directly, but the refuge Sangha of the triple gem cannot, inasmuch as the refuge Sangha of the triple gem is the arhants of Buddha's time not every monk of today. Also, by reading the suttas, we are engaging with the refuge Sangha that produced it, aren't we?
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Assaji
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by Assaji »

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.
The first trouble is that huge semantic shifts happened over the centuries, and even when the Pali texts have been preserved, the meanings of words have to be carefully reconstructed. Without proper reconstruction of terms we get translations in hybrid language, readable but hard to apply.

Even if we reconstruct the terms correctly, there remains a second problem. The texts present general methodology of practice, and presuppose detailed individual instructions from living masters. However, many practices mentioned in the suttas are completely or partly lost. And when the practices survive, they are presented in language with terms which have shifted semantically over the centuries. Alignment of Pali texts with surviving practices requires careful work.
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.
Pali Canon was never intended to be an exact account of material history. It's intended foremost purpose is to preserve instructions of the Buddha.

Accordingly, the problems arise with application, in linking theory and individual practice. Two major Theravada hermeneutical texts, Petakopadesa and Nettipakarana, deal with that, describing personality types and types of suttas for each personality type.

Currently the Western interpretation struggles with the first problem, that of terms, and other problems remain distant.
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by Javi »

My understanding is that the main texts for hermeneutics in Theravada are as described in this wiki article
Two major Theravada hermeneutical texts are the Petakopadesa and the Nettipakarana (c. 1st century CE), both traditionally attributed to the exegete Mahākaccāna. Both texts use the gradual path to Nirvana as a hermeneutical tool for explaining the teachings of the Buddha in way that was relevant to both monastics and laypersons.[7] These texts assume that the structure of the Dhamma is derived from the gradual path. They classify different types of persons (ordinary persons, initiates and the adepts) and personality types and different types of suttas that the Buddha addressed to each type of person (suttas on morality, on penetrating wisdom, on Bhavana).[7] Each type of sutta is meant to lead each type of person further on the graduated path to Nirvana.

The Netti provides five guidelines (naya) and sixteen modes (hara) for clarifying the relationship between a text's linguistic convention (byanjana) and its true meaning (atha).
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_hermeneutics

Anyone have any other sources on these texts and what they say about interpretation?
Vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā — All things decay and disappoint, it is through vigilance that you succeed — Mahāparinibbāna Sutta

Self-taught poverty is a help toward philosophy, for the things which philosophy attempts to teach by reasoning, poverty forces us to practice. — Diogenes of Sinope

I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind — Ecclesiastes 1.14
Caodemarte
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by Caodemarte »

I was taught that a religion, as object of study, is comprised of traditional and modern written and unwritten material as well as scholars, practioners, believers. It is the totality of the religion in full context. Many, if not almost most, Buddhist sects give primacy to praxis. There are major, major exceptions. However, the central question is usually how one can realize/practice and a less important question is what you believe (belief is important in how it helps realization, not for its own sake). So an appropriate lens for a practitioner to read Buddhist texts would be the traditional lens of "is this true, supported by reason, and useful for realization?"
davidbrainerd wrote:...Here where you talk about "the native tradition of Buddhism" a distinction between the beliefs of the common people and the academic theologians becomes necessary. For instance with Christianity if you listened to the academic theologians you'd think all Trinitarian Christians believe the Trinity lacks internal hierarchy, yet it is very uncommon for the common people to be aware they're supposed to believe that and they will quote from John "my father is greater than I" to refute what the academic theologians claim they all believe. Similarly in Buddhism, isn't it the case that your average Asian Buddhist thinks nirvana is a place? And they themselves get frustrated with the academic theologians of Buddhism? (Anyone know any polling data on this?)
I lived in Asia for some decades. The "average Asian Buddhists" I know do not think nirvana is a place and are not frustrated with scholars or senior practioners. There was a false stereotype that Asian, and Asian American, Buddhists did not practice meditation, were superstitious, ignorant of their own religion, etc, (and needed to have all this explained to them by Caucasians), but that has been debunked repeatedly. If anyone is interested in the subject or looking for polling look at http://www.angryasianbuddhist.com/

By the way, anyone who went to Catholic school is very much aware of the Trinity in Christian theology. I was randomly quizzed about the Trinty in a parking lot by a Protestant street missionary so the heretics ( ;) ) are also up on Trinitarian doctrine.
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by chownah »

Caodemarte wrote:I lived in Asia for some decades. The "average Asian Buddhists" I know do not think nirvana is a place and are not frustrated with scholars or senior practioners. There was a false stereotype that Asian, and Asian American, Buddhists did not practice meditation, were superstitious, ignorant of their own religion, etc, (and needed to have all this explained to them by Caucasians), but that has been debunked repeatedly. If anyone is interested in the subject or looking for polling look at http://www.angryasianbuddhist.com/
Seems that you discussed nirvana with alot of "average Asian Buddhists" over a period of many years. You have reported what they think nirvana is not.....can you post what they think it is?

You mention one false stereotype but there are others. There is a false stereotype that Asian and Asian American Buddhists do practice meditation, are not superstitious, are not ignorant fo their own religion, etc, (and don't need to have all this explained to them by someone). Has this stereotype been debunked? Can you comment on it?

It would be good for us to know what group of asians you mostly hung out with and discussed nirvana with when you were in asia for some decades. For instance, were they mostly english speakers, were they mostlyi college educated, were they affluent relative to the society at large, were they people you typically saw at a temple or were they people you saw at work, etc.
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Caodemarte
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by Caodemarte »

chownah wrote:
Seems that you discussed nirvana with alot of "average Asian Buddhists" over a period of many years. You have reported what they think nirvana is not.....can you post what they think it is?

You mention one false stereotype but there are others. There is a false stereotype that Asian and Asian American Buddhists do practice meditation, are not superstitious, are not ignorant fo their own religion, etc, (and don't need to have all this explained to them by someone). Has this stereotype been debunked? Can you comment on it?

It would be good for us to know what group of asians you mostly hung out with and discussed nirvana with when you were in asia for some decades. For instance, were they mostly english speakers, were they mostlyi college educated, were they affluent relative to the society at large, were they people you typically saw at a temple or were they people you saw at work, etc.
chownah
I don't believe the things you mention are stereotypes at all (what a better world it would be if they were!), but if you are interested in data on these questions poke around the site I linked to.

For the other questions:
Sri Lanka -in south and west (in Sinhala majority areas) with senior monks and lay Sinhalese believers of various degrees of education and income, rural and urban, in English or through a translator to English.
South Korea - throughout the country with senior, middle and novice level monks and lay Korean believers, rural and urban, of various degrees of education and income in Korean, with foreign monks or lay practioners in English.
These were either specifically selected for interviews as providing good information on the Buddhism of that country, met at temples and monasteries, or friends.

Nirvana was universally described as liberation, awakening, a kind of mental event like opening your eyes. People were always eager to talk about various topics in Buddhism, including the state of relations between various parts of the sangha.
binocular
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by binocular »

chownah wrote:It would be good for us to know what group of asians you mostly hung out with and discussed nirvana with when you were in asia for some decades. For instance, were they mostly english speakers, were they mostlyi college educated, were they affluent relative to the society at large, were they people you typically saw at a temple or were they people you saw at work, etc.
Relying on statistics is problematic, since we don't have the means to get exhaustive statistical data, and even if we did, statistical data is likely to become obsolete quickly.
Trying to get the objective picture of a situation is usually impossible, and it's not clear whether it would really help anything, at least for the individual person.

It doesn't matter that the data seems to show that something occurs in about 1% of cases. When it happens to a particular person, it is relevant to that person and is something that that person has to deal with, and it is completely irrelevant for that person if 99% of people don't have to deal with it.
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
chownah
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by chownah »

Caodemarte wrote:
chownah wrote:
Seems that you discussed nirvana with alot of "average Asian Buddhists" over a period of many years. You have reported what they think nirvana is not.....can you post what they think it is?

You mention one false stereotype but there are others. There is a false stereotype that Asian and Asian American Buddhists do practice meditation, are not superstitious, are not ignorant fo their own religion, etc, (and don't need to have all this explained to them by someone). Has this stereotype been debunked? Can you comment on it?

It would be good for us to know what group of asians you mostly hung out with and discussed nirvana with when you were in asia for some decades. For instance, were they mostly english speakers, were they mostlyi college educated, were they affluent relative to the society at large, were they people you typically saw at a temple or were they people you saw at work, etc.
chownah
I don't believe the things you mention are stereotypes at all (what a better world it would be if they were!), but if you are interested in data on these questions poke around the site I linked to.

For the other questions:
Sri Lanka -in south and west (in Sinhala majority areas) with senior monks and lay Sinhalese believers of various degrees of education and income, rural and urban, in English or through a translator to English.
South Korea - throughout the country with senior, middle and novice level monks and lay Korean believers, rural and urban, of various degrees of education and income in Korean, with foreign monks or lay practioners in English.
These were either specifically selected for interviews as providing good information on the Buddhism of that country, met at temples and monasteries, or friends.

Nirvana was universally described as liberation, awakening, a kind of mental event like opening your eyes. People were always eager to talk about various topics in Buddhism, including the state of relations between various parts of the sangha.
It seems to me that you have not been talking about "average asian buddhist". Seems like you are over representing monks....certainly monks are not the "average asian buddhist". You even mention that some of the people were specifically selected for interview.....this is not a way to find out about "average asian buddhists". You don't say this but it seems likely that you have experienced the fervent asian buddhist who spends alot of time at temple. I'm not trying to negate what you are saying except to say that I really doubt that you have encountered an average sampling of asian buddhists.
Also, I took a brief look at the link and I think it is misleading to call it a poll. A poll is supposed to be unbiased and represent both sides of an issue.....the very title "angryasianbuddhist.com" guarantees that it will be one sided...it will attract people who want to express that emotion....not really a poll or representing both sides.
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binocular
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by binocular »

chownah wrote:It seems to me that you have not been talking about "average asian buddhist".
What is an "average (Asian) Buddhist"?
How could such an abstract concept possibly be justified?
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
binocular
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Re: What is an appropriate hermeneutic lens to read Buddhist scripture through? What is not?

Post by binocular »

Dmytro wrote:Currently the Western interpretation struggles with the first problem, that of terms, and other problems remain distant.
We could still consciously decide that our definitions of terms are tentative and we could consciously decide to work with hypotheses.
Such an approach makes it impossible to have much religious pride (if any at all), it is deeply humbling (and some would say, humiliating).
It also seems to make it difficult to build large communities of practitioners that way.
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
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