Saturday, October 1, 2011

The English Language and What the Gurus Won't Tell You

You're probably one of those who has read a few spiritual books or listened to audio CDs or watched spiritual DVDs. Maybe you've participated in workshops, seminars, or church groups that often throw around quotes from the "Masters" and teachers from out of our distant past. You've studied the Bible, the Qur'an, the Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Upanishads. Perhaps you've allowed the teachings of the Buddha to become part of your personal path.

Well, here's a wake-up call for you and you can quote me on this:

English spelling was not standardized until Samuel Johnson created and published the first comprehensive dictionary in London in 1755. Up until then, spelling and meaning were all over the place. Each village, town, and city had its own way of speaking, writing (for those who were literate, which were few), and interpreting previous documents and manuscripts. Much of it was done by church scholars, who, not surprisingly, had their own biases and agendas. They would often change things around to suit the beliefs of the day.

Here's the point. Much of what you have read and have been quoting from all those old teachers and spiritual gurus doesn't come close to anything they may have actually said, or worse, anything they actually meant. And studying it in English helps to lose even more of its original integrity. You are thinking and studying with a contemporary mindset and seeking to fit very old texts and beliefs into that context. It's very difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to do at all, let alone to do it well.

We can learn a great deal from the words of antiquity--when we get them right. Too often, however, we just take it for granted that the writings that have come down to us through the ages convey exactly what the authors or the scribes or the interpreters had in mind. Problem is, we really don't know. How could we? We're talking about minds that believed in snake gods and lightning gods and evil temptress spirits. At least that's what I THINK we're talking about...

We've made it all up, those interpretations and meanings of ours. And sometimes we've done a pretty good job. Still, it makes sense to realize that, since all of the past is open for judgment, we can pick and choose what we will or won't accept. Nothing, paradoxically, is written in stone.

My advice, if I may be so bold, is to heed these paraphrased words of the Buddha (if he actually wrote them): Do not believe anything you hear or read just because some great sage has mouthed it. Do not believe anything just because someone else tells you it's true or because you've read it in some great book or tablet or scroll. (Or CNN, MSNBC, FOX, etc.) Don't even believe it if you hear me say it. Believe only that which resonates within your own heart and spirit. If it makes sense to you, hear it. If not, discard it. Be kind in your dealings with others as they, too, are seeking truth.

You have the world at your feet. Tread and discern wisely. Take old words as well as new ones with a grain of salt. Others are reading them--and living them--quite differently.

Wisdom, then, would suggest that we keep our minds and hearts open. After all, we're in this together.

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