Seeing Is Believing or Believing is Seeing

By: Venerable Shen-Jin Kenna

The study of Buddhist scripture or any scripture for that manor is an undertaking that can lead to greater knowledge of one’s belief system but also can stir deep emotions from within. As Buddhist teachers we need to remember that when we teach the scripture to our students we must keep a fundamental distinction first and foremost in our minds. This distinction is that as Buddhist scholars and teachers we must make clear the difference between the devotional expression of particular religious beliefs as being an ideal standard or model and the nonsectarian study of religion that presumes the religious legitimacy of diverse normative claims. We need to make this distinction in order to recognize the validity of normative theological assertions without equating them with universal truths about the religion itself.

We can trace this distinction by saying that there are two kinds of realism in play when we make factual statements about the place of scriptures in the lives of Buddhist men and women. Religious influences are embedded in all aspects of human experience, and that all knowledge claims (including religious ones) are socially constructed and represent particular perspectives.

We will call this first kind of realism “observable.”

Knowing the facts of observable reality is essential to understanding Buddhism as it has existed in history, but it can have the effect, if we are not careful, of making Buddhist scriptures remote from us in time and space. Buddhist scriptures can become quite confusing when we encounter something that could perhaps be meaningful for people in days gone by or in places far away from wherever we find ourselves today. As we will see in a moment, focusing exclusively on the observable can also distort or even obstruct our understanding.

By looking at the second type of realism we can lessen these unwanted effects.

This realism encourages us to try to make factual statements about Buddhist scriptures not in terms of what is observable about where they have been “situated”, or in terms of what is observable about where Buddhist scriptures have been embedded in history and culture, but rather in terms of who is addressed by a Buddhist scripture.

When we try to make factual statements of this kind, we want to know something significantly different from what can be observed. We want to know what a scripture says to a person, and it will be best if we can hear what it is saying in present time, with a message for a particular person, group of people or oneself. As we try to make factual statements about this second kind of realism, we are trying to discern how scriptures are qualities of personal living, even when they are embedded in history and situated in societies and cultures.

We need to be cautious of the risks and challenges of making these kinds of factual statements.We may think we should not even try because we can see the risks all too clearly of being inappropriately subjective, falling short of the shared collective knowledge, open to public testing, that we should always expect of ourselves in the academic study and teaching of religion.But these are risks that we have to take, if we want to catch a glimpse of what scriptures have meant in the lives of Buddhist men and women in different times and places. Not to try is to fall short of knowing what we want to know. And when we are able to catch such glimpses, we will find that Buddhist scriptures seem to have a lot more density to them and they clearly have the potential of meaning many different things to different men and women in different times and places.

In short, Buddhist scriptures have the ability to change lives by speaking to people. It is this ability to speak to persons and transform lives that is at the heart of what makes them scriptures, not the normative claims found in them nor the authority given to them.How can we catch even a glimpse of what Buddhist scriptures have meant in the lives in men and women?

In his essay,”Comparative Religion: Whither and Why?”, the great scholar of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith suggests a general way, especially when he says that “the study of religion is the study of persons” and “the proper study of [humankind] is by inference.”

“[T]he study of religion is the study of persons. Of all branches of human inquiry, hardly any deals with an area so personal as this. Faith is a quality of [human] lives. “All religions are new religions every morning. For religions do not exist up in the sky somewhere, elaborated, finished, and static;they exist in [human] hearts.”

“We are studying, then, something not directly observable. let us be quite clear about this, and bold. Personally, I believe this to be true finally of all work in the humanities, and believe that we should not be plaintive about it or try somehow to circumvent it. It is our glory that we study not things but qualities of personal living.”

“[It is a] fundamental error . . . to take the observable manifestations of some human concern as if they were the concern itself. The proper study of [humankind] is by inference.”

“The externals of religion– symbols, institutions, doctrines, practices– can be examined separately. . . . But these things are not in themselves religion, which lies, rather, in the area of what these mean to those involved. The student is making effective progress when he recognizes that he has to do not with religious systems basically but with religious persons: or at least something interior to persons.”

The idea that Buddhist scriptures are better seen as qualities of personal living rather than as authoritative books is very suggestive; its significance grows as one reflects on its implications.

The insistence that the study of humankind is by inference is also very suggestive and its significance also grows as one explores this significance. If we say that we know that it is a fact that there are persons in this world the very sight of whose face makes one happy. When we acknowledge such realities, we have to ask ourselves how can we make a factual statement about the reality of that persons face? If we are talking about another person and their happiness, whatever we say will always be by what we know– are sure of– by inference. To paraphrase Smith,”The student is making effective progress when she recognizes that to make a factual statement about the reality of that persons face,she has to do that with what is on that persons birth certificate (which can be observed by anyone) but with at least something interior to persons and also something about persons relationally.” Something that is today, carefully, maybe with a message for me; something that makes today better, something that makes me look forward to tomorrow.

Finally, let’s linger over Smith comment,”We are studying, then, something not directly observable.let us be quite clear about this, and bold. Personally, I believe this to be true finally of all work in the humanities, and believe that we should not be plaintive about it or try somehow to circumvent it. It is our glory that we study not things but qualities of personal living.”

Smith puts the study of religion firmly in the Humanities here, and this is, very important. There is no doubt that the knowledge that we learn about what Smith calls “the observable” in religion is important for understanding Buddhist scriptures, but so is what we learn when we study what is not directly observable, but only known through inference. We should also note that studying what is not directly observable always involves a transformation of the “knower” in a way that is not always necessary when we study what is observable.

This is just to say that in the Humanities, the ways that we include what is not directly observable in our explorations not only changes what we know about what can be directly observed– adding density to them– it can also change us as person, changing us in ways that when we look back at what has happened to us, we can say that we “have grown.”

We study in the ways that we do in the Humanities not only to learn about other men and women, but also to learn about ourselves. We can learn about other men and women by taking the necessary risks of inferring from ourselves, and we can learn about ourselves from other men and women too.

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