Interpreting the Buddha

In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to section II: The Bringer of Light of In the Buddha’s Words, he argues that there are two general perspectives of the Buddha in the Pāli Canon.  The first general perspective views the Buddha as a human being working to see in and through his human frailties the path to enlightenment and the way to teach this path to his disciples.  This perspective is one that is most amenable to a broadly non-supernatural, humanistic interpretation of the Buddha and, more generally, Buddhism.  It is definitely one that I have emphasized in various posts on this blog and in my own thinking about practicing the Buddha way.

But there is another important and often neglected perspective.  This one situates the Buddha as “the most recent member of a cosmic “dynasty” of Buddhas constituted by numberless Perfectly Enlightened Ones of the past and sustained by Perfectly Enlightened Ones continuing indefinitely onward into the future.”  From this second perspective, “the Buddha is seen as one who had already made preparations for his supreme attainment over countless past lives and was destined from birth to fulfill the mission of a world teacher.” (In the Buddha’s Words, pages 44 and 46)

As Bhikkhu Bodhi states: “A correct view of the Buddha can only arise from the merging of these two perspectives, just as the correct view of an object can arise only when the perspectives presented by our two eyes are merged in the brain into a single image.” (In the Buddha’s Words, page 45)

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s words resonate deeply with me.  There is always a danger in interpretation that we end up reading more of ourselves into what we are interpreting than the thing itself.  (Indeed, it might be that we are always playing in a web of interpretations in this respect!)  I see this most clearly when I practice listening deeply to others, sometimes seeing that I hear more of myself in their remarks than their own meanings and intentions.  (For example, treating a tired ‘hello’ as meaning the person does not want to talk with me rather than meaning that they are simply tired or had a rough day!)

This applies just as much to textual interpretation.  Of course, although I agree with Bhikkhu Bodhi’s statement that we ought to merge the two perspectives as we study the Buddha’s life, this leaves open what overall perspective will result.  And if we take his metaphor literally, we should not expect any one interpretation to result, but a myriad of interpretations in part depending on the “eyes” of the interpreter.

Although this possibility of an abundance of interpretations might be unwelcoming, I think it is important to bring these questions about interpretation (as all questions about Buddhism) back to practice and how we cultivate the Buddha way in our lives here and now.  Many bows of gratitude to Bhikkhu Bodhi for bringing to light the interpretative life of the Buddha.  I hope to explore this theme in upcoming posts and in my own practice.

May we all benefit from looking deeply into our views and interpretations, whether fixed or flowing, in our daily lives!

2 thoughts on “Interpreting the Buddha”

  1. Hi,
    Thank you for this comment. I am reading the book (“In the buddhas words”) at the moment and I struggled over the same sutta as well. Was totally confused and searched in the internet if that could be a sutta which is in dispute.

    But couldn’t find anything in that direction and then I found your post and am happy to have read your view on this.

    Thank you and have a good day

    1. I am glad to have helped in anyway! Thank you for reading and for the comment! I do highly recommend In the Buddha’s Words. The introductions to each section are a great critical introduction to the Dharma and the Pali Canon, and the translations are a wonderful and complicated read.

      Thank you, again, and may the Sutras help you with your practice, whatever it may be!

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