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Buddhist Hermeneutics could be the objective study of Buddhist texts (from my limited understanding).

Is hermeneutics possible in Buddhism? There are so many allegories and parables in Buddhist texts, I feel that an objective study of these texts would be a good first step towards proper interpretation. Am I wrong?

Even if we can't make sense of all of Buddhist teaching, at least we can read the texts properly (in proper contexts).

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You're going to find two schools of thought on this:

  • Fundamentalist sects will hold that the original teachings of Gautama Buddha are 'perfect', and that anything which appears to be revisionism is an aberration or misunderstanding
  • Progressive sects will hold that any written expression is limited and flawed, so the teachings of Gautama Buddha must adapt to changing contexts and climates as the world moves forward

Neither position is right, and neither is wrong; they reflect different worries about the preservation of the teachings, and as such are inherently dukkha. The teachings will fade away, and they will be recovered in a different form. Clinging to the future, clinging to the present, clinging to the past... the operative word is 'clinging'.

Everyone who encounters the dharma will go through a period of hermeneutics, be it formal or informal. We all try to grasp the dharma intellectually, one way or another. That intellectual struggle is a way of tending a field (clearing, hoeing, weeding) in which understanding can grow. Understanding is not something we create through these efforts — like any crop we can prep the field, but then we have to sit and wait to see what grows — but the hermeneutic process helps. Some hermeneutic paths lead to fundamentalism, some lead to progressivism, some lead elsewhere... The point to remember is that all paths are meant to lead beyond the teaching to bone-deep understanding.

Don't think of hermeneutics as objective. Hermeneutics is intra-subjective: a way of engaging in dialog with a teacher to reach a common worldview. The intention shouldn't be to learn, i.e., accumulate objective knowledge. The intention should be to see: to un-cloud our eyes and gain perspective.

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  • "a way of engaging in dialog with a teacher to reach a common worldview". Does that mean Hermeneutics cannot grasp at reality? But Hermeneutics involves semiotics: gathering of all parts of a message (verbal, non-verbal, contexts, etc) so that we don't miss any part of the message. The intention of Hermeneutics is to "fully understand the message as perceived/intended by the communicator of the message". And the best way to do that is to have a literal interpretation of all parts of the message. – jhannwong Mar 3 at 22:01
  • "two schools of thought". Did the Buddha claim all His teachings are perfect, such that Fundamentalism has cause to preserve His teachings verbatim? (There's also the question of why the Buddha didn't come during a time when writing was invented and verifiable formal discourse was fully facilitated.) Why must the Buddha's teaching be adapted by Progressive sects? Did He explicitly state His knowledge is imperfect? Facts about reality apply to all contexts. Gravity, for eg, applies the same to all cultures and times (assuming it is fully and correctly defined). – jhannwong Mar 3 at 22:37
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    @jhannwong: Finger pointing at the moon. Do you believe that the entirety of the Buddha's worldview was contained in the words he spoke, or do you believe that the words the Buddha spoke pointed at something he wished people to see and understand? (rhetorical question...) The point of hermeneutics is to interpret the text as a self-consistent whole, in order to reach or recover that intrinsic 'thing being pointed at'. But the 'thing being pointed at' is in no way identical to the literal words that are doing the pointing. That's as true of gravity as it is of the dharma. – Ted Wrigley Mar 3 at 23:46
  • I didn't know about that finger and moon! Will ask another question to discuss it. Thanks! In linguistics, all communication tools are "the finger" that point to the concepts discussed, "the moon". To understand "what is perceived/intended by the communicator" is hermeneutics/semiotics. Whether the communicator intended to reference the "moon" or to throw up "smoke and mirrors" is not for us to judge, but to simply know. The first step of communication is to receive the message in its entirety, hence "all parts of the message" in hermeneutics. Gravity is a language. – jhannwong Mar 4 at 0:09
  • (Gosh, comments are so short!). The "finger", whether a labeling language or a observational instrument, can be refined over time (because we imperfect folks invented imperfect tools). That "finger" has become powerful telescopes that helped us discover that the moon isn't "a tiny light bulb", for eg. A perfect Buddha could've helped create a better language/lens to give a more intimate account of the "moon". Instead, I'm left wondering why the Buddha didn't consider inventing writing to facilitate learning and investigation. But I merely aim to know the Buddha. – jhannwong Mar 4 at 0:19
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The teachings of the Buddha are "literal". The first description of the teachings are they are "well-spoken". Others verses from the Pali scriptures support this, such as:

Bhikkhus, the Dhamma well proclaimed by me thus is clear, open, evident, and free of patchwork.

MN 22

I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back.

DN 16

For hundreds of years it appears most Buddhists are not interested in being honest about the scriptures.

For example, if an objective literal approach is taken towards the Teachings, as examples:

  1. In the 1st Noble Truth, the Buddha said: "In summary, the five aggregates subject to attachment is dukkha". Yet maybe 0.1% of Buddhists will say all dukkha was summarised by the Buddha as attachment. Where as, the 99.9% will say life is dukkha or rebirth is dukkha rather than attachment is dukkha or birth is a type of attachment.

  2. In the Dependent Origination, "birth" is literally defined as "the birth of various beings in a category of beings"; where the scriptures elsewhere literally define "a being" as a "view" or "convention". Yet maybe 0.1% of Buddhists will say "birth" in Dependent Origination refers to views or conventions of social or self-identities. Where as the 99.9% will say "birth" means "child-birth".

  3. The original (Pali) scriptures literally say Dependent Origination is about twelve conditions leading to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair and the whole mass of suffering. But most Buddhists will not say this. Most Buddhists will say Dependent Origination is about reincarnation or about the causality of all things in the universe.

In summary, the core teachings of the Buddha are literal and clearly defined.

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  • Your 1st point is so illuminating! Relates to my question on craving vs loving: buddhism.stackexchange.com/q/44171/20644 . So, a tendency towards loving and serving people around us won't be classified as "attachment amounting to dukkha"? I'm so glad this forum gives such literal (non-superstitious) answers! Thank you! I'll dig into the other points soon. – jhannwong Mar 2 at 10:23
  • Still haven't had time to dig into your other points, but will do so soon! I agree that humans have a tendency to extend knowledge as much as possible to "get most bang for buck", often extending knowledge beyond its intended context. For eg, many people believe that Da Vinci's painting revealed his musical talent. If you have any modicum of music training, you'd be hard pressed to consider the composition "learned and intentional". – jhannwong Mar 3 at 23:07
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The idea of Buddhist hermeneutics can be found in the Pali Canon, as seen in the quotes below.

Traditional commentaries in Pali and other supporting texts such as the Visuddhimagga also developed as an interpretive framework. Traditionally, the Abhidhamma is said to have been taught by the Buddha, but others see it as a supporting interpretive framework too.

AN 2.23-25 (below) is useful for this topic.

“Mendicants, these two misrepresent the Realized One. What two? One who explains what was not spoken by the Realized One as spoken by him. And one who explains what was spoken by the Realized One as not spoken by him. These two misrepresent the Realized One.

These two don’t misrepresent the Realized One. What two? One who explains what was not spoken by the Realized One as not spoken by him. And one who explains what was spoken by the Realized One as spoken by him. These two don’t misrepresent the Realized One.”

“Mendicants, these two misrepresent the Realized One (the Buddha). What two? One who explains a discourse in need of interpretation as a discourse whose meaning is explicit. And one who explains a discourse whose meaning is explicit as a discourse in need of interpretation. These two misrepresent the Realized One.”

“These two don’t misrepresent the Realized One (the Buddha). What two? One who explains a discourse in need of interpretation as a discourse in need of interpretation. And one who explains a discourse whose meaning is explicit as a discourse whose meaning is explicit. These two don’t misrepresent the Realized One.”

The other useful thing, is the four great references of AN 4.180 (below). Please also see this answer.

Take another mendicant who says: ‘Reverend, I have heard and learned this in the presence of the Buddha: this is the teaching, this is the training, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’ You should neither approve nor dismiss that mendicant’s statement. Instead, you should carefully memorize those words and phrases, then check if they’re included in the discourses and found in the texts on monastic training. If they are included in the discourses and found in the texts on monastic training, you should draw the conclusion: ‘Clearly this is the word of the Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha. It has been correctly memorized by that mendicant.’ You should remember it. This is the first great reference.

Take another mendicant who says: ‘In such-and-such monastery lives a Saṅgha with seniors and leaders. I’ve heard and learned this in the presence of that Saṅgha: this is the teaching, this is the training, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’ You should neither approve nor dismiss that mendicant’s statement. Instead, you should carefully memorize those words and phrases, then check if they’re included in the discourses or found in the texts on monastic training. If they are included in the discourses and found in the texts on monastic training, you should draw the conclusion: ‘Clearly this is the word of the Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha. It has been correctly memorized by that Saṅgha.’ You should remember it. This is the second great reference.

Take another mendicant who says: ‘In such-and-such monastery there are several senior mendicants who are very learned, knowledgeable in the scriptures, who remember the teachings, the texts on monastic training, and the outlines. I’ve heard and learned this in the presence of those senior mendicants: this is the teaching, this is the training, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’ You should neither approve nor dismiss that mendicant’s statement. Instead, you should carefully memorize those words and phrases, then check if they’re included in the discourses and found in the texts on monastic training. If they are included in the discourses and found in the texts on monastic training, you should draw the conclusion: ‘Clearly this is the word of the Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha. It has been correctly memorized by those senior mendicants.’ You should remember it. This is the third great reference.

Take another mendicant who says: ‘In such-and-such monastery there is a single senior mendicant who is very learned and knowledgeable in the scriptures, who has memorized the teachings, the texts on monastic discipline, and the outlines. I’ve heard and learned this in the presence of that senior mendicant: this is the teaching, this is the training, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’ You should neither approve nor dismiss that mendicant’s statement. Instead, you should carefully memorize those words and phrases, then check if they’re included in the discourses and found in the texts on monastic discipline. If they are included in the discourses and found in the monastic law, you should draw the conclusion: ‘Clearly this is the word of the Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha. It has been correctly memorized by that senior mendicant.’ You should remember it. This is the fourth great reference.

These are the four great references.”

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  • "One who explains a discourse in need of interpretation as a discourse whose meaning is explicit". Oh wow, this is interesting! Did the Buddha say this Himself? Did He anticipate that some of His teachings would lack explicit details such that interpretation is required? Why omit details, when language at the time was obviously advanced enough to be explicit in prose, clear as textbooks today would be? I'm also curious why the Buddha left many questions answered with effectively a "it's none of the above" instead of "I won't answer an irrelevant question". In formal discourse too! – jhannwong Mar 3 at 22:15
  • The Four Great References is interesting too! All that because writing and signatures weren't invented yet. What a difficult time to teach! It seems the Four Great References were strictly for recording purposes? Did the Buddha say something to the effect of "I'm awakened (didn't say fully), so hear me out, but please test everything I say"? Today, good scholars know that it takes a lot of imperfectly awakened persons (cross-checkers, fact-checkers, at least) working together to have any hope of arriving at truths; "singular heroes" isn't erroneously relied on (peer reviews). – jhannwong Mar 3 at 22:51
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It wouldn't be possible to become, say, a traditional Chinese of certain province by just reading and without intensive direct and physical association. Every of them would recognize one soon as a common fake.

How could one manage to become a Noble One only on words read?

This tradition is like a skill profession, requiring a student, master relation, i.e. a real threefold Refuge.

As for a/the forum: a forum can not act. As for if association with members, watch out careful and start with thinking whether a Noble One would accept being/getting bond on common and commercial rules... not to speak about virtue at forst place.

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But is there really one proper interpretation? Or two? If this were so, then why would the texts have erred on the side of allegories and/or parables?

As noted above, (absolute) language is flawed and inadequate (some more so than others) in describing any spiritual experience - i.e. anything pertaining to the inner world. Anyone who has had experiences and tried to share them with others knows this. Indeed, language itself has evolved phrases to illustrate this stark shortcoming: "I'm speechless", "There are no words....", "Words are not enough...", "I'm at a loss of words", "I can't find the words to...", "A picture is a thousand words...". And even with language, we gesticulate now and then when we're at a loss of words to render an exact experience with no details spared. (Which is why telepathy is a thing, if you believe in such things).

You are missing one thing. Understanding does not come through intellectual discourse... Or words read in a book/on paper. Understanding comes through direct individual experience. Hence the teachings are really a "guide" (which explains the parables/allegories), and people that 'teach' us are not really "teachers" in the Western sense of the word, but rather "guides".

Thus, a parable being a "picture with words", and a picture being a thousand words, what better way to 'teach*' than to paint a (verbal) picture...? - Indeed, we do it today when someone does not "get" us: we use "analogies", "scenarios" or descriptions prefaced with "let me paint you a picture...".

All of Bhudda's teachings merely point us along a direction, and Bhudda's teachings were different for different people. - Because people ARE different.

Interpretations are as diverse as opinions and subjective experiences, and yet, any of them that leads (read: guides) anyone to enlightenment is a "proper interpretation".

But be aware that reading alone, or "interpretation" alone will get one nowhere. Beyond reading, there is practice. And practice is more important than reading. Or any interpretation. Bhuddism after all is a "way of life".

If we "can't make sense" of Bhudda's teachings, it might be because we spend more time reading, than we do practicing....

"Even if we can't make sense of all of Buddhist teaching, at least we can read the texts properly (in proper contexts)."

  • Reading is not a prerequisite to Bhuddism, nor to enlightenment???

As for a desire for objective study of the teachings, Enlightenment is not an objective experience, It is a very subjective one, and there is no one sole path that leads to it exclusively.. Nor can we lead anyone else to enlightenment, short of pointing them the way... So, which is more important? The study of it or the experience of it?

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  • "Understanding does not come through intellectual discourse". The Buddha needed to teach what he knew, so He used words (unfortunately not in writing, but this question doesn't ask why He didn't invent writing). Words need to be processed and understood. If the words Buddha put forth weren't clear enough, eg ambiguous that they spawn multiple interpretations, then a valid question would ask "why Buddha didn't speak more clearly". And that relates to this question of hermeneutics: to understand Buddha's words clearly. (I didn't downvote anyone! FYI.) – jhannwong Mar 9 at 14:19
  • Thank you! Bhudda gave his teachings, using words (the only way possible) to GUIDE us. But it is only through practicing, through experiencing that we will understand his words. He himself attained nirvana without the need to study words - because of his practices. The words alone, without understanding through practice are like empty seeds clanging around in a gourd. They make one seem learned, but they won't by themselves lead to Nirvana. Many Bhuddists leave to other religions/countries bcos their practice (and hence understanding) wasn't genuine and as such produced no results for them. – xxandra Mar 9 at 14:43
  • "Hermeneutics : to understand Bhudda's words clearly". Borrowing your words, if Bhudda intended this, he would have spoken clearly, and not ambiguously. And yet he didn't - for a reason (known to him). But we seem to want to be wiser than him and speak clearly where he did not - in other words, distort his teachings with our own interpretations. Whereas his words become clear to all who practice, genuinely, because true understanding comes from within, from experiencing, and not from being tossed about by opinions. But this is my personal view, and many seem to disagree with me.. which is ok. – xxandra Mar 9 at 14:51
  • If Buddha intended to speak "not clearly", then He should know that his audience will receive His lessons "not clearly" as well, right? Without clear communication, there is no way the audience can receive His messages. I don't think His audiences want to "be wiser than Him"; we're all just trying to understand Him! Thank u for helping me out with this question, nonetheless. I'm still confused and searching, given your claim that the Buddha intended to speak "not clearly". – jhannwong Mar 11 at 6:02

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