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Barbara O'Brien

Relying on the Meaning

By October 3, 2012

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The second of the Four Reliances is "Rely on the meaning, not the words." I think this may be harder for some of us than others. Since the deeper wisdom of dharma is ineffable, usually anything we can say about it falls short of being absolutely true.

For this reason, texts often are a kind of barrier gate. We tend to rely on words to learn, but until we begin to understand what cannot be said we won't understand the words. Appreciating this is relying on the meaning, not the words.

This may seem a bit off the wall, but when I think of the difference between meanings and words I think of the poet Dylan Thomas and what he said about words:

"There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable. Out of them came the gusts and grunts and hiccups and heehaws of the common fun of the earth; and though what the words meant was, in its own way, often deliciously funny enough, so much funnier seemed to me, at that almost forgotten time, the shape and shade and size and noise of the words as they hummed, strummed, jigged and galloped along."

He's saying words have a deep evocative power that goes beyond their dictionary meanings. One of Thomas's poems that, for some reason, has been stuck in my head for years begins "To-day, this insect, and the world I breathe." I don't know what the English lit professors say about that poem, but what this line evokes for me is life and fecundity and the present moment. But in the context of the rest of the poem we see the word "insect" also evoking plague and decay.

As I read it, the poet sees himself as a quivering bit of life caught in a moment between an unknowable past and eventual death. At least, this is what the poem evokes for me. However, a hopelessly literal reader might get hung up on wondering what species of insect the poet was writing about.

In reading sutras or other dharma texts, you don't want to be too loose with the meanings of words. You might end up like a fellow I met once who was convinced the Diamond Sutra was a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. Seriously.

In other words, you need to take care you are not projecting your current understanding on to the words, or make them say what you want them to say, but instead read them honestly. On the other hand, if you get too caught up in a literal reading you are likely to not see what the words are pointing to. And keep in mind that English translations often distort what the original was meant to evoke.

Comments
October 5, 2012 at 3:52 am
(1) Hein says:

I have found that quieting the mind by a session of meditation and then only thereafter reading a sutra can convey the meaning of that sutra. The sutra is the product of an enlightened and calm mind. A mind filled with anxiety, fears and dogma is not conducive to “getting the meaning” of a sutra.

October 6, 2012 at 10:35 am
(2) Mila says:

Hein — My experience with reading sutras in conjunction with meditation is similar to what you’ve expressed here. Dropping the words into a spacious, relaxed, open attitude/posture yields a very different sense of the text.

And — flip-side of the same coin — reading a passage first, then letting go of conscious effort to understand it, for a period of meditation — invites all kinds of wider contexts to shed their light ….. so that when I come back to it later, oftentimes my understanding will have deepened …. a very cool & mysterious thing :)

October 6, 2012 at 10:49 am
(3) Mila says:

Barbara — thanks for the very beautiful Dylan Thomas quote re: the power of words. Also for linking to that poem, whose first stanza in particular I heard as a description — very in line with Buddhist understandings — of how our symbols/concepts — by “elbowing out space” and “dividing [original] sense” — by creating duality (“slapping down the guillotine” between the “head” and “tail” of a living one-ness, a once-seamless fabric of Reality) — doing this is none other than the “murder of Eden.”

Even with his most morbid images, love the deliciousness, the rich lyricism of his language (though rather out of fashion in the contemporary poetic scene) ….. those Irish-folk sure know how to write :)

October 6, 2012 at 10:57 am
(4) Mila says:

oops …. & Welsh-folk too :)

October 8, 2012 at 3:35 am
(5) Hein says:

And — flip-side of the same coin — reading a passage first, then letting go of conscious effort to understand it, for a period of meditation — invites all kinds of wider contexts to shed their light ….. so that when I come back to it later, oftentimes my understanding will have deepened

have not tried it this way, but will do so…it reminds me of another similar manner to quiet the mind. instead of “letting go” you let the mind engage with whatever thoughts or sounds it wish to do. and “lo and behold” the mind then does not want to engage with it and want to become quiet…but in all of this one have to be gentle, kind and patient with the mind :)

October 8, 2012 at 6:32 am
(6) Hein says:

Dhyana Master Hsuan Hua in a commentary on the Diamond Sutra gave imho not only a very practical expose of “prajna” that illustrate the point that one has to Rely on the meaning, not the words, also show the interrelatedness of the Four Reliances and prajna with the written and spoken word with the Dharma. Master Hsuan Yuan wrote here (at page 146) about chapter 13 that there are Three Kinds of Prajna:
literary prajna; contemplative prajna; and real mark prajna. Literary prajna refers to the sutras. With literary prajna you can give rise to contemplative prajna, which in turn enables one to penetrate through to real mark prajna. Real mark prajna is no mark, but is without marks. It is no mark and not without marks.
Although essentially there is but one kind of prajna, it may be divided into three aspects; literary, contemplative and real mark. Prajna is a denotation for a basic substance which is itself empty, which is itself false, and which is itself the Middle Way. Without attachment to it, it is empty. Without attachment to emptiness it is false. Abiding in the emptiness and falseness without attachment is the Middle Way.

Unsurprisingly Master Hsuan Hua also makes no mention of the birth of Jesus in the parts I have read thus far. It seems to me that once one believes that your god is the only god then one tends to squeeze everything into that paradigm. There is just one antidote for that and that is “put it down” or “let go of your attachments”.

October 8, 2012 at 6:38 am
(7) Hein says:

For some or other reason it would appear that the link i inserted does not work…well here is the URL i intended to insert: http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/prajparagen2.pdf

October 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm
(8) Mila says:

RE: “it reminds me of another similar manner to quiet the mind. instead of “letting go” you let the mind engage with whatever thoughts or sounds it wish to do. and “lo and behold” the mind then does not want to engage with it and want to become quiet…but in all of this one have to be gentle, kind and patient with the mind”

yep, an instruction I enjoy playing with — similar to what you’ve mentioned here — is to have the thought: “I wonder what my next thought is going to be?” — & then to “watch” for thoughts in the way that a cat might watch for a mouse to emerge from its hole: an infinitely patient and relaxed, yet vividly alert and genuinely curious, kind of waiting ….. which tends to support a resting in the Pure Awareness aka Nature Of Mind aspect of our being — and oftentimes from this place thought-activity will decrease, and when thoughts or images do arise they tend more immediately to dissolve back into that vibrant space of Awareness — similar to how letters written on the surface of water immediately recede back into the water.

October 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm
(9) Mila says:

RE: “The sutra is the product of an enlightened and calm mind.

Yes, and so the written sutra carries not only the meaning implied by the words and sentences, but also — it seems to me — a more subtle “energy” which can also be tapped into. Almost as though we could slide through the black letters/words into the spaciousness of the white page upon which they are written.

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