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A Buddhist Perspective on Revelation and the Word

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Words are Windows (or They're Walls)


I feel so sentenced by your words,
I feel so judged and sent away,
Before I go I've got to know
Is that what you mean to say?
Before I rise to my defence,
Before I speak in hurt or fear,
Before I build that wall of words,
Tell me, did I really hear?


Words are windows, or they're walls,
They sentence us, or set us free.
When I speak and when I hear,
Let the love light shine through me.
There are things I need to say,
Things that mean so much to me,
If my words don't make me clear,
Will you help me to be free?
If I seemed to put you down,
If you felt I didn't care,
Try to listen through my words
To the feelings that we share.



Ruth Bebermeyer


From Nonviolent Communication: a Language of Life
By Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.
Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer Press, 2003



The power of words


The Buddha considered the way we use words so important to spiritual development that he recommended following precepts regarding the way we use speech. In addition to the precept on speech, he also included right speech further as part of the training in the eight-fold path and defined it as: refraining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter. The Buddha advised his son to make the resolution 'to not utter a deliberate lie, even for laugh'.


I live in a multicultural, mixed age and gender community and I have made a number of mistakes using British humour. The use of speech has been considered so important within the community that we had a non-violent communication (NVC) trainer come in for a weekend and run a workshop for us – a skilful means for living together. Words are powerful. Just take three words: love, God and peace; notice the reaction within oneself. Yet these words have no power unless they have life breathed into them.


In my investigation into this, we breathe life into words with our intention and our energy, and this has such a powerful effect on our action: thoughts plus intention (energy) equals action.[1] In themselves word are empty; they are either mirages floating within our mind or they are written down on paper, a serious of dots with spaces between. One of the practices I use is to notice this: to learn to watch the gaps between thoughts: space. By noticing this space more and more we can develop an attitude of mind which is spacious and hence not focused so much on the words, but on welcoming and receiving. This is the place of contemplation, and then words can become very powerful.


In my own practice whenever I want to try to understand a word, I look up the etymology of the word, where it came from. For instance, many words in English derive from Sanskrit, such as mother and father.[2]

Sometimes I even speak the words and listen for resonance, for example within the Tibetan tradition chanting a mantra is a practice within itself. If you chant the word OM on a drum skin with sand spread out on it, you actually get the Sanskrit symbol for that sound.


The real meaning


The Buddhist tradition I live within is from Thailand and many of the teachers learnt Buddhism first in Thailand. It has taken many years to translate and differentiate between Thai culture and Buddhist teachings and practices. Translation and interpretation can be a tricky business. For instance, within Buddhism many of the scriptures were originally translated into an archaic form of English and then these were later retranslated into more modern forms of English without looking back at the source language of Pali. In going back to the original words, which I have done on numerous occasions, to find out the roots, the style of the writing, one comes up with an entirely new translation.


What is also interesting is that taking the meaning of a word into my meditation practice I can see whether it fits with my experience of what the words mean. Sometimes there is a very strong resonance and you feel it's right but even then, as your practice matures, the meaning deepens. I've been chanting pretty much the same morning and evening chanting for eight years, and sometimes whilst chanting with a spacious attitude a deeper nuance of the meaning just pops into my mind. The Buddha said whatever you don't understand in the scriptures just leave it alone. Take what you can understand and work with that. The abbot's teacher, a Thai meditation master, told his monks not to read the scriptures at all for the first five years.


Words as pointers


For me, words are the static representation of a dynamical process: words in themselves are dead. They point to something, and if you confuse the words for what they are pointing at, especially within the spiritual area, then it usually leads to confusion and arguments. Words and hence language are limited. It's not that I am not grateful for words. They can help with life, but only in the conventional realm, they can only point to the spiritual realm. In Buddhism Nibbana or freedom from attachments, or ultimate bliss, or knowing the way things are, is sometimes called the deathless. The deathless means, in the scriptural language, the absence of death: the unborn or the uncreated. What words or set of words can describe that?


Words can then so easily manipulate us, and they can distract us, or even absorb us. Just notice the next time you read a book which you really like, how time and space seem to disappear, there seems to be a oneness with what is happening; both book and body disappear. You seem to be neither a person nor the book, maybe the story. When this is recognized, it can be a pointer to oneness which we can all access when we stop believing the thinking mind and trust in the universal power of love. Or is this just another bunch of words?


So just try contemplating some words, ask yourself what does it mean, what does it mean for you and why are you using it?





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