Over the years I have read and reread many of the central writings of the world’s spiritual traditions.
With most books I read, whether fiction or nonfiction, I want to be stimulated. I seek books with interesting ideas, a good story, or just really creative use of language, all of which I find stimulating. I read spiritual texts, however, for a different reason: to be quieted.
There is an old tradition in Western hermeneutics that the Bible can be read on multiple levels of meaning. With the Bible, four in particular are mentioned: the literal, the implied, the allegorical, and the hidden or mystical. Similarly, most spiritual texts can be read on multiple levels.
If we seriously wish to penetrate beyond the surface level of such texts, we need to approach them with a quiet and focused mind. Most spiritual traditions advocate some form of mindfulness, such as prayer, mantra or formal meditation. And many spiritual text provide instructions on attaining to such mindfulness, or present the lives of deeply mindful people as models.
Working through the text with a focused mind, I sometimes find myself in a state of complete mindfulness. In achieving such mindfulness, the state achieved seems a better understanding of spirituality than the mere ideas the text is able to convey. I seem to have moved beyond the message conveyed by words to the thing itself, to the “mystical or hidden” meaning. When I reach this point I set the book aside. It has done its work.
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What I’ve said above is a bit arcane; let me provide some examples. In the Chung Yung, a Chinese text attributed to Confucious’ grandson, we find this:
When you make an axe handle
Using an axe to shape the wood,
The model is near at hand.
Literally, this simply means that you can look at the axe handle you are holding as a model of the axe handle you are trying to make. An interesting situation, but not particularly profound. But if we think of this in terms of reading a spiritual text, it cuts a little deeper.
If we consider the axe handle as a stand-in for contemplation, then these lines might be read as: when we read a text that calls us to contemplation with a contemplative mind, we have the model of a contemplative mind right at hand. Our own contemplation provides us with a direct model of the state the text advocates. If this is the case. we needn’t read further; we have attained to the mindfulness the text is calling us to.
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A text I have spent many years contemplating is the Tao Te Ching. A central concept of this work is wu-wei, which means something like intentional non-action. In contemplation or meditation, we are often physically inactive, but mentally we must be deeply attentive and intentional. For a person with no sense of contemplation, the concept of wu-wei must seem strange if not absurd. But as we become more adept at contemplation, the concept makes more and more sense. In deep contemplation, everything is just so…there is nothing incomplete, nothing to want, no reason to do anything but continue contemplating until we are ready to move on.
Here, I can imagine someone saying, “but we ought to be doing something, we ought to be making the world a better place.” Yes, perhaps. But for the most part, the world’s problems arise from human activity; activity motivated by desire, often, even, the desire to make the world better. And is there not always somebody who opposes our idea of a better world with a contrary idea? How many wars have been fought over ideals about what is best. The Taoist notion of wu-wei suggests that perhaps more activity is not what the world needs. Perhaps what the world needs are more models of peace and harmony. A deeply contemplative mind is the best model of peace and harmony I know.
Reading the Tao Te Ching helps us understand contemplation and as our understanding of contemplation grows, so does our ability to understand the Tao Te Ching.
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One translation of a well known haiku by the Zen poet Basho reads:
frog jumps in,
The simplicity of the poem suggests that there must be some deeper meaning to these words. And there is. It would be a mistake however, to read this poem seeking some deeper meaning without first fully attending to the simple image of a still pond, a frog, the sudden motion of the frog’s jump, the sound of the frog as hit hits the water, and the suggested ripples expanding outward across the pond.
If we attend to this image long enough, other associations might arise. In meditative traditions, the mind is often associated with water and ideas are like little disturbances in the water. The poem itself is like a frog jumping into the pool of our consciousness and creating such a disturbance. And as with an actual frog jumping into a pond, we might sit on the bank and watch the little ripples in our mind spreading outward, until slowly the surface of the mind is quiet. And there you are in a state of contemplation. And perhaps that is the deepest meaning of this poem.
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The Tao Te Ching is relatively free of the kind of supernatural ideas that might deter a person who holds a naturalistic point of view. Personally, I have no problem reading more theistic or metaphysical texts, including Christian, Islamic or Hindu writings. In a genuine spiritual writing — and of course, what counts as “a genuine spiritual writing” is highly subjective — the spiritual wisdom will emerge from the mythological, will rise above the supernatural or metaphysical if you can stay open to it.
One of the stumbling blocks for many naturalists in reading such a text is the presence of the word “God.” In my article “The Naturalistic Equivalent of God” published here Nov. 5, 2020, I suggest a way to translate the word “God” to an equivalent naturalistic expression. This allows me to read such texts without getting hung up on the fact that how I think about the word “God” differs from how the writer may think about it. And that allows me to focus on the similarities, rather than the differences, between the writer’s spiritual understanding and mine.
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1 thought on “Reading a Spiritual Text”
This is great stuff Thomas, thanks much!