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On interpreting the teachings
May 8th, 2014

The teachings of the Buddha are classified in “truths in ultimate terms” and “truths in conventional terms”. The latter is understood as “to be interpreted”. Both categories of ‘truths’ are conventional though (cf. Theravāda notions: sammuti and paramatha) so, in fact, both are to be interpreted, even if it's in a slightly different way.

Limitation of language

The fundamental difficulty for the Buddha to communicate truths to others is the necessity to rely on the languages available at the time.

Of course, it's always possible to refine or even redefine terms, and the Buddha notoriously did so (e.g. when defining karma differently from the Jains), but his audience was by definition constituted of ‘ordinary’ minds… so he was limited in how far he could change language before loosing his audience completely.

In such a sense, regardless of how perfect his understanding of the world might have been, the Buddha could not in North East India 26 centuries ago communicate to his audience about the subtleties of quantum physics, general relativity, genetics, etc. Even if (hypothesis) the Buddha saw more than his contemporaries, he was limited by the language they would understand, hence “ultimate terms” include the ‘classic’ four elements (earth, air, fire, water)… Even if (hypothesis) the Buddha understood more than his contemporaries, he was limited to expressing his knowledge via similes rather than clear unambiguous (mathematical?) notations.

So even “truths in ultimate terms” are conventional and context-based, due to their reliance on specific languages available in that particular context.

This is why the current Dalai Lama famously said:

If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

This shouldn't be interpreted as a lack of faith in the Buddha, but simply as a deep understanding of the limitations of verbal expression! The key point here is not about what constitutes the highest ‘authority’, but about what is the best formulation of ‘claims’ hoped to express truths!

When asked “is there no argumentation for the enlightened, i.e. they do not believe in argumentation?” Candrakīrti replied “Who can say, whether they have arguments or not? For them, the highest good lies in silence in the face of unending metaphysical controversies.”

Conventional errors

Truths “in conventional terms” include the teachings on ‘karma’, the teachings relying on the notion of ‘persons’, of ‘aggregates’, of dualistic and extreme “right vs. wrong”s… basically all the teachings not expressed in the fundamental ‘atoms’ of experience. Most teachings given to lay audiences are in this category, but also many teachings given to monastics.


model Ashley Moore

Truths “in conventional terms” should be interpreted, even within the Buddhist framework (i.e. without even debating whether another formulation —e.g. scientific— might be more appropriate).

The necessity for interpretation comes from the fact that the relevant “conventions” are biased in and of themselves, explicitly so… hence there's a limit on how truthful any claim made using these conventions might be.

For example, ‘persons’ is a useful convention for common sense and is conveniently used in teachings related to karma.
However, ‘persons’ is a flawed convention: it ignorantly projects permanency of identity (trackable uniqueness through change), it ignorantly projects entity-ness (clear separation between individuals, idea that a ‘person’ might somehow be defined separately from its culture, environment, past… i.e. separately from its arising), it ignorantly projects that a ‘person’ could be defined in separation from dukkha and Saṃsāra.
The convention of ‘person’ very much breaks all the “three characteristics of existence”, but some teachings still rely on such a convention! Such teachings are to be interpreted.

Conventional karma is not absolute

Angulimala was a serial-killer before meeting the Buddha (it is hard to imagine worse karma with more ignorance —even if some will argue that he had great karma to meet the Buddha… so great that he ‘had’ to massacre many?), but became an arahant in the very same life (MN 86)…

The fallacy of believing that individual karma is absolute simply begs the question: how would you ever awaken if this was true? The very idea of Liberation is related to Liberation from karma, the cessation of clinging (to views, i.e. to karma!). And in fact the Buddha himself said so in the Loṇaphala sutta (AN 3.99):

For anyone who says, “In whatever way a person makes kamma, that is how it is experienced,” there is no living of the holy life, there is no opportunity for the right ending of stress.

Of course, the Buddha taught extensively about morality and tendencies (e.g. in the Cūḷakammavibhaṅga sutta, MN 135). One might e.g. read:

There is the case, student, where a woman or man is a killer of living beings, brutal, bloody-handed, given to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the break-up of the body, after death, he/she reappears in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, hell.

But this passage didn't apply to Angulimala… Nor does it prevent king Ashoka —initially a rather forceful ruler— from being praised by Buddhists for his later years…

The counsel given by the Buddha on a particular occasion to a particular audience (e.g. MN 135, op.cit.) might well be short and memorable, a good and useful guidance, a great example of pedagogy and clarity… but its contextless caricature is explicitly rejected (e.g. in the next discourse in the basket, Mahākammavibhaṅga sutta, MN 136):

Now when a monk or brahman says thus: “It seems that there are good kammas, there is a result of good conduct,” I concede that to him.
When he says thus: “For I have seen that a person abstained from killing living beings here… had right view. I saw that on the dissolution of the body after death, he had reappeared in a happy destination, in the heavenly world,” I concede that to him.
When he says: “It seems that one who abstains from killing living beings… has right view will always, on the dissolution of the body, after death, reappear in a happy destination, in the heavenly world,” I do not concede that to him.
When he says: “Those who know thus know rightly; those who know otherwise are mistaken in their knowledge,” I do not concede that to him.
When he obstinately misapprehends what he himself has known, seen, and felt; and insisting on that alone he says: “Only this is true: anything else is wrong,” I do not concede that to him.

Obviously, the Buddha doesn't contradict his own teaching on karma; he simply warns against “truths in conventional terms” being left un-interpreted, being taken as absolute truths; he warns that the conventions used for these “truths in conventional terms” are flawed enough for a limit to exist on how truthful they are!

Karma as a law of causality is difficult to argue with, but in a context of selflessness (in the ultimate sense), karma is not truly attached to persons. This is made clear in the Avijjāpaccaya sutta (SN 12.35).
There are (many) teachings describing karma as ‘individual’, but… by the very nature of the ‘person’ convention, these teachings are to be interpreted; the interpretation is not optional! And indeed karma makes as much sense at a collective level as it does at the individual level —because the individual appropriates his/her ‘own’ culture (cf. collective karma).

The Buddha's argument on the intractability of karma by the ordinary mind also relates to selflessness. Is anger an unwholesome tendency with karmic consequences? Yes. Is a person experiencing anger at a particular moment reducible to the caricature of experiencing solely this one tendency? No!
The mental formations and habits (karma) of the person are an aggregate, and understanding the karmic proclivity of each element within the aggregate doesn't allow for caricatural simplification at the level of the aggregate. So the Buddha could indeed express ‘truths’ vis-à-vis the ultimate terms (like anger) via examples of people having experienced such conditions… but the Buddha did not caricature it in black&white “if you're angry, you'll necessarily face this-or-that consequence”. Instead, the Buddha explained that anger has a tendency to unfold in a particular way, if the conditions and circumstances are supportive to such unfolding.
This ‘conditionality’ is critical. This relates to maybe the most important teaching of the Buddha (Dependent Origination) but it also explains why ‘cultivation’ with the Buddhist Path makes any sense: by changing our conditions and circumstances, we can avoid simply perpetuate our mistakes from the past, we can Liberate ourselves! Even if karma still ripen, its manifestation will take a dramatically different turn and consequences might become hardly recognisable (cf. Angulimala).

So the lack of automaticity, the dependence on context, is not only key to the possibility of Liberation, but also key to the path of cultivation!
Any black&white caricature of karma, either as ‘inherent,’ automatic or even ‘individual,’ is contradicting the 4th noble truth stating that a particular change in our conditions and circumstances (starting with the intention to follow the path) might indeed lead to Liberation!

Precepts are not absolute

The precepts do not arise in a vacuum. For a start, we know how most precepts and monastic rules came into being, from detailed descriptions (in the Canon) of the circumstances! They were created in response to a context.

Even more fundamentally though, the precepts are based on karma, based on the clear understanding of causality, of Dependent Origination, of how phenomena arise and cease in dependence with a context!

So, either we can debate endlessly how to translate a particular Pāḷi term (Pāḷi being itself a translation from the Indo-Aryan languages the Buddha probably spoke… but none of these attested languages having all the features of Pāḷi!) to English, and then even debate whether “to refrain” in English is absolute or not…
Or we can remember where the precepts come from!

If karma cannot be caricatured in black&white rules, then the precepts shouldn't be caricatured either!
This may sound hard to swallow, at least for the ‘strongest’ precepts, but there's textual evidence for this, not in some minor sutta but in one of the “Long Discourses”!

The Cakkavatti Sīhanāda sutta (DN 26) notably gives advice on how a ruler would behave, should he embody all the qualities of an enlightened ruler:

(…) yourself depending on the Dhamma, honouring it, revering it, cherishing it, doing homage to it and venerating it, having the Dhamma as your badge and banner, acknowledging the Dhamma as your master, you should establish guard, ward and protect according to Dhamma for your own household, your troops, your nobles and vassals, for Brahmins and householders, town and country folk, ascetics and Brahmins, for beasts and birds.
Let no crime prevail in your kingdom, (…)

This passage supports the idea of armed defence, even for an enlightened ruler.

Let's be more precise though, for it is true that self-defence is explicitly rejected (many times) in the suttas, and some people might interpret this rejection of self-defence as promoting a literal interpretation of the first precept.
I dare to suggest that the rejection of self-defence is not “because the precepts are absolute”, but simply “because self-defence falls too easily prey of self-serving narratives”. The rejection of self-defence is a specific antidote to the specific hindrance of selfishness or self-centredness, to the specific fetter of “self view”!

But the passage from DN 26 doesn't talk of self-defence… it supports the idea of usage of force in a specific context: putting oneself in harm's way for the benefit of others is rather a good example of understanding and embodying selflessness! This is not about the king protecting himself, but about the enlightened king protecting others! This context is not ethically, morally, karmically equivalent to (self-serving) self-defence. And by resorting to force, maybe the harm incurred by the king will be some karma-based suffering, but it remains that even an enlightened king might need to face difficult choices (in which selfless sacrifice of one's own karmic ‘comfort’ for the protection of the many might turn to be a wholesome choice…).

In my view, this illustrates why the caricatural interpretation of the precepts is inadequate. The passage is not an apology of the “just war” doctrine; it just realistically and pragmatically places war and violence in the context of higher ideals. It avoids pretending the world could be ideal “if only” this-or-that; it avoids the (classically samsaric) “wishful thinking”.

And let's not pretend the king's army is not filled with people (the commentaries of the Mahā Sudassana sutta, DN 17, associate the “four-fold army” to the wheel-turner: infantry, cavalry (horses), artillery (elephants) and chariots)… I doubt the buddha would say “this is a good thing for the king; too bad for the soldiers; I'll focus on the karma of the king and ignore the karma of the soldiers!” So, ‘ordinary’ people —not as enlightened as their ‘ideal’ king— might end up resorting to violence, without the Buddha having black&white objections as long as it's to protect others and in the absence of other (diplomatic) solutions.

If you think this is solely a self-serving interpretation by a lay practitioner for lay practitioners, you can refer to bhikkhu Thanisssaro's introduction to the Patimokkha rules:

Rules, however, are not the only way to express ethical norms, and the Buddha also made use of principles and models in teaching the virtues he wanted his following to develop. The rules thus function in a wider context than simple legality, and work together with the principles and models formulated by the Buddha to provide a complete training in behavior, with each side making up for the weaknesses of the other.

Principles and models serve as personal, subjective standards, and tend to be loosely defined. Their interpretation and application are left to the judgment of the individual. Thus they are difficult to enforce when an individual has blatantly overstepped the bounds of proper behavior.

Rules serve as more objective standards, and thus are more enforceable. To work, they must be precisely defined in a way acceptable to the Community at large. This precision, though, accounts for their weakness in general as universal guides to behavior. To begin with, a clear, practical line must be drawn between black and white, i.e., between what is and is not an infraction of the rule. In some cases, it is difficult to find a practical break off point that corresponds exactly to one's intuitive sense of what is right and wrong, so it is sometimes necessary to include the areas of gray either with the black or the white.
Secondly, the more precisely a rule is defined to suit a particular time and place, the less well it may fit other times and places. This is where principles and models come in: They indicate the spirit of the rules and aid in applying them to differing contexts.


grey schist emaciated Siddhartha (Gandhara, 2nd/3rd century)

Thus as you look at the rules and contemplate them, you should keep in mind that they function in a larger context: the teachings and practice of the Dhamma as a whole. The Buddha's own name for the religion he founded was Dhamma-Vinaya, so remember that neither half was meant to function without the other.

The less politically-correct way to say “to include the areas of gray either with the black or the white” is to say “to caricature”.

The less politically-correct way to say “neither half was meant to function without the other” is to say “clinging to a literal reading of the precepts is similar to extreme concentration at the expense of wisdom: concentration certainly is a path to higher rebirth, but it is also known not to lead to Liberation”.


The Ariyamagga sutta (AN 4.235) contains one of the clearest affirmations that even the ‘right’ spokes of the eightfold path (4th noble truth, hard to be more Buddhist) are not black&white:

(…) what is kamma that is neither black nor white, with neither black nor white result, leading to the ending of kamma? Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

As the precepts relate to morality, and morality is explicitly in the eightfold path (as right speech, right action, right livelihood), concluding that the precepts are literal and absolute is explicitly rejected by the Buddha.

The 2nd noble truth states that the root-cause of suffering is “clinging”, and the parable of the raft makes it clear that this means “clinging to views”, all views, including Buddhist views. For the avoidance of doubt, ‘clinging’ is the problem, not necessarily the views.

There is a difference between using the Dharma as “good questions”, “great guidance”, “useful hints” and perceiving the Dharma as “final answers.” We can value traditions and their ‘function’ (including the preservation of the teachings until our day)! We can certainly appreciate good questions, compassionate pointers in the right direction… but we don't need to endow them with the truth-value of absolute answers.
To confuse good questions with answers is to be lost. One of my teachers once said: «to cling to the words, the concepts, and their interrelations is to concern oneself with the finger rather than the moon at which it points.»
When reading suttas, it is better to ask “why does the Buddha say that, in this specific context?” than to assert “this is the way it is.

The Middle Path avoids extremes, all extremes, including ‘Buddhist’ extremes.
This is not to say (contrarily to the classic caricature, by the absolutists, of those who question) that every ‘truth’ becomes insipid, a sort of politically-correct “all views are equally legitimate” or “50%–50%”. There are “right views” and ‘ignorance’ in Buddhism, it's not “all the same.”
But avoiding extremes simply is the humility to recognise the limitations of language, the limitations of conventions, the limitations of examples, the limitations in levels of grey we discern; it is the humility to recognise that "100%–0%" is a caricature even where “99.999%–0.001%” might be valid and a perfectly reasonable guideline!
Short precepts are of value, as they're most easily memorable and provide a strong enough backbone for us not to drift too far, but clinging to ‘absolutes’ is not!

The kalama sutta famously rejects many logical fallacies, notably the call to authority (even the authority of the Buddha himself!) and enjoins us to establish for ourselves the truths of the Dharma.
But Buddhism warns us (in the teachings on the five aggregates) against the illusion that our perception is enough to objectively grasp reality: perception is easily biased by anticipations, mental fabrications, preferences… so even when we “establish for ourselves” some truth which matches the teachings of the Buddha, we should remain vigilant and continue to pay attention, for maybe the ‘insight’ we had is more the result of auto-suggestion than it is a case of “seeing things as they are”!
Remember (MN 136): «when he obstinately misapprehends what he himself has known, seen, and felt; and insisting on that alone he says: “Only this is true: anything else is wrong,” I do not concede that to him.» Neither caricature nor generalisation, and no clinging! Even if you did truly discern valid examples of how causality and karma work!

One of the views I think the genuine practitioner needs to drop is that nothing has ‘fundamentally’ changed about the human condition for the last 26 centuries. This is clinging to «what the Buddha said at the time, in a particular context, remains literally-valid today in our context.»
We should certainly pay attention to good guidance, good principles, inspiring stories and examples; we should avoid the fallacy that “it's not at all the same” (so self-centred and self-obsessed with our ‘originality’ that we'd deny similarities)… but we might also enquire into the following: «in today's context, how should I manifest the Buddhist ideals and understandings?»
The answer to this question might have similarities with answers given many centuries ago, but ‘similar’ is not merely ‘identical’. We won't discern wisdom if we assume we already hold it in hard-cover printed form. We won't discern wise and appropriate answers if we don't pay attention to impermanence, to what has changed between then and now.