September 05, 2012

Lost in Quotation

Partial Readings of the Kalama SuttaAndrew Cooper

Lost in QuotationThe Kalama Sutta has become among Western Buddhists one of the most frequently cited scriptures in the Pali canon. But usually only a specific section is quoted. This section portrays Buddhism as being almost a precursor of European Enlightenment thought, which is to say, it is used to confirm characteristic Western attitudes as being intrinsically in line with the teachings of Buddhism. But it is misleading to present this as the whole message of the sutta, as is evident when one reads the whole thing.

In the current issue of Tricycle, Thanissaro Bhikkhu discusses what might be called partial readings of the sutta, “partial reading” having here several meanings. First, it refers to readings that include only part of a text and neglect other parts; second, it describes the tendency to read in a partial—that is, highly biased—way, so that a text serves largely to confirm what one already thinks; finally, it refers to a reading that selects out all matters of context that inform interpretation.

The Kalama Sutta was but one of a great many of the Buddha’s discourses as set down in the Pali canon, which is to say, its meaning does not stand isolated from the rest of the canon but is, rather, bound up with it. This is one way in which context is tied to interpretation. Here is another: often in the Pali scriptures, it is especially clear how the Buddha is addressing his words to the specific concerns of a specific audience, and not to recognize this can lead to significant misunderstandings. The Kalama Sutta is exemplary in this regard.

Some might argue, with reason, that people have always reinterpreted their religious tradition in a manner that is in line with their current concerns. But credible interpretation must rest on a genuine engagement with tradition and certainly more than a cursory knowledge of its texts; it can’t just be about individual preferences and selective appropriation of a passage here and a passage there. The idea that it is irrelevant to enter into a dialogue with a community of other interpreters, past and present, and that all that matters is one’s own personal experience is itself a product of the extreme individualism of the modern Western mind set. It is certainly not a teaching of Buddhism, and as Thanissaro Bhikkhu shows, it is a mistake to think that it is the message of the Kalama Sutta.

If we see the interpretation of tradition as a purely individual matter, our Buddhism will fail to challenge some of the deep assumptions that condition how we moderns construe the world and, in the process, we would, ironically, reinforce our own preconceptions. On the other hand, there is no unmediated reading of a text; there is always the process of interpretation. Every culture interprets Buddhism in a manner that addresses its needs and reflects its own deepest experience of self and world. It is naïve to think that it could be otherwise. But by taking a critical look at how partial readings undermine the Buddhist conversation, we can perhaps read texts and tradition in a richer and fuller way.

—Andrew Cooper, Features Editor

Read "Lost in Quotation," Thanissaro Bhikkhu's new article.

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