Interpretation as a Spiritual Practice: Buddhism and Cross-Cultural Hermeneutics by Audrius Beinorius
In recent years hermeneutical reflexiveness has become a hallmark of Buddhist studies by reflecting in a self-critical way the historical relativity of the comparative issues.
It is by now a commonplace to remark that attempts to interpret Buddhist thought in Western terms have generally reflected the intelectual perspectives of the interpreters as much as those of the Buddhist thinkers we whish to intrepret.
Nagarjuna has seen Hegelian, Heideggerian, and Vittgensteinian readings come and go; Vasubandhu has been incarnated as both transcendentalist idealist and phenomenologist; the arguments of Dharmakirti and his successors might have stepped out of the pages of Husserl’s Logishe Untersuchungen or the Principia Mathematica of Russell and Whitehead.
To take an ungenerous view of our encounter with Buddhism, a great Asian tradition turns out to be whatever we happened to have had in our heads to begin with.
Let’s take a look at the basic principles of textual interpretation in Buddhist hermeneutics which has highly elaborated systems for classifying the attitudes of practitioners.
Questions concerning interpretation are of crucial importance in Buddhism, since the Buddhist canons contain a huge number of texts that are considered by the tradition to have been spoken by Buddha, although these often contain contradictory and apparently incompatible doctrines.
As intellectual discipline, hermeneutics begins with an awareness of the difficulties encountered in reading sacred texts, that is, hermeneutics presupposes hermeneutical problems.
According to the Buddhist tradition, the aim of Buddha’s teachings was to evoke enlightenment in living beings.
He never preached a single message dogmatically but exercised what is known as “skill in liberative technique” (upàya kauùalya) and the methods he used were as various as are living beings themselves.
Thus, the hermeneutical enterprise, as the science of interpretation of sacred doctrine, is a essential part in the Buddhist methodology of enlightenment.
The Buddhist Canons – Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, Mongolian – comprise volumes and volumes of often radically disparate views.
The diversity of teachings is not due to confusion or weakness in the transmission. On the contrary, it is proof of Buddha’s wisdom and compassion, of his ability to adapt to the needs, capacities, and dispositions of living beings.
It is said, that Buddha has taught different things to different people based on their interests, dispositions, capacities, and levels of intelligence.
The Buddhist canons were the result of a long process of compilation and redaction that we can no longer reconstruct. It is not always possible to distinguish clearly between canonical, postcanonical, and paracanonical Buddhist literature.
The Abhidharma played a central role in the development of the practice and theory of exegesis and philosophical hermeneutics in all schools of Buddhism.
The hermeneutical strategy of the Abhidharma, for instance, is itself derived from a practice attested frequently by the sūtras: numerical lists known as “matrices” (màtðkà), which are digests or patterns for exegetical coherence.
The màtðkàs, as early canons of orthodoxy and interpretation, provided the structure for Abhidharmic exegesis or simple logic of classification when each text must fit one or more of the categories contained in the traditional “matrix”.
Two of the earliest Buddhist works of conscious exegesis have been incorporated into the canon in the Sutta Piòaka. These are the Mahàniddesa and the Cullanidesa, commentaries on the fourth and fifth books of the Suttanipàta.
They date from approximately the third century CE. However, two other works of early, but uncertain date occupy a much more important position in the development of Buddhist exegetical theories: the Nettipakaraía and the Peòakopadesa, both attributed to a (Mahà) Kaccàyana. According to George D. Bond, the Nettipakaraía and the Peòakopadesa represent manuals of interpretation which present methods for the correct understanding of the dhamma and central to these methods is the concept of the gradual path to nibbàna as a hermeneutical device or strategy to explain the logic and the structure of the dhamma.
Nevertheless, some Buddhists, for instance, the Mahàsàíghikas, rejecting the doctrine of multiple meanings, seem to have wanted to forestall exegetical pluralism and protect the integrity of scripture by claiming that all sótras have only one implicit meaning.
When Mahàyàna Buddhism spread to other countries, the size and scope of the Buddhist canons made it necessary for Buddhist scholars to devise systems in terms of which the differences could be reconciled that would allow them to distinguish consistently which texts and teachings would be normative, having its definitive meaning (nètàrtha) for their particular traditions and which would be held to be of interpretable meaning (neyàrtha).
The intention (abhipràya) and skillful methods (upàya) became the keys to interpretation.
What a given Buddhist community considers to be a canonical -- buddhavacana, buddhabhàøita, saddharma – is what, or at least is a part of what, we would say it holds to be canonical, that is to say, representative of the ultimate scriptural authority to which it adheres.
As Buddhist thought flowered in India, one finds adept-based elaborations such as gotra and kula, the ‘families’ or psychological types of practitioners, with differing texts and practices prescribed for different psychological types, much as a skilled physician prescribes different medicines for his patients, as the traditional metaphor goes.
Several Mahàyàna texts mention four traditional hermeneutical strategies called the “four reliances” (catuõpratisaraía), which are as follows:
- rely on the nature of things (dharma) not on the opinion of person (puruøa);
- rely on the meaning or purport (artha) of a text, not the letter (vyaãjana);
- rely on the definitive meaning (nètàrtha), not on the interpretable meaning (neyàrtha);
- rely on intuitive wisdom (jãàna), not on conceptual understanding (vijãàna).
The seventh chapter of germinal Yogàcàra text Samdhinirmocana-sótra provides another schema of Buddhist hermeneutics in which the teaching of the Buddha is divided into three stages or wheels of doctrine, with the first two being declared provisional and the third -- final stage definitive. According to this doctrine of three “turnings of the wheel of Dharma”, the Buddha first preached the Hinayàna teachings in the Deer Park in Varanasi, then he preached the Màdhyamaka doctrine of emptiness (ùónyatà) at Vulture Peak in Ràjagðha. Latter he preached in the same place the Yogàcàra doctrine of vijãaptimatra.
There exist also a Màdhyamaka’s (pàramitàyàna) and Tantric (vajrayàna) versions of this story. Both the Màdhyamaka and the Yogàcàra along with Akøayamatinirdeùa-sótra hold that nètàrtha texts deal with the ultimate level of the truth (paramàrtha), or the goal (àrtha), while neyàrtha sutras deal with the relative level of the truth (samvðti) or the path (màrga).
Thus hermeneutical sistem yàna reveals an attempt to formulate a historical argument in favour of doctrinal claims and such pseudo-historical apologetic was quite popular hermeneutical strategy in Asian development of Buddhism.
And various Buddhist texts are spoken of as belonging to this or that ‘vehicle’ (starting with ùravakayàna, pratyekabuddhayàna, and bodhisattvayàna), and this sistem is compounded by discourse that refers not simply to the texts as such, but to attitudes through which the texts are practised.
Since enlightenment is timeless, Buddhist teachings are relevant for anyone at any time, and the state of Buddhahood for Buddhist is not a unique and unrepeatable event that occurred thousands of years ago, but rather an enduring possibility in the contemporary world.
We may say, that Buddhist scholasticism is concerned with reconciling the rational and the experiential aspects of human religiousness.
Not only was textual interpretation and rational inquiry perceived as essential to the preservation of the tradition’s self-identity, it was also considered essential to distinguishing that tradition from others, to defending it against the intellectual assaults of others, and to demonstrating its relative superiority to others.
Finnaly, part of scholastics task is to synthesize the large quantities of disparate and often contradictory textual material into ordered whole.
Buddhist thought differs from most theological systems, which presuppose that the human capacity for knowledge is limited, that only gods can be perfectly enlightened or omniscient, and that therefore certainty can only arise from dogmatic authority, from the recordings of the utterances of these gods in sacred texts.
It also distinguishes it from the philosophies of skeptics, nihilists, atheists, and materialists, who, although they are eager to be critical and eschew theological dogmatism, unwittingly presuppose dogmatically the impossibility of perfect enlightenment, certain only that they must always been so uncertain about ultimate questions.
However, as Robert A. F. Thurman has pointed out, “Against the theological dogmatists, Buddhist philosophy is critical of their restriction of ominscience to superhuman beings and affirms the transcendent potential of humans.
Against the philosophical sophists, Buddhist philosophy is critical of their dogmatic insistence that all certainty is merely dogmatic and that omniscience is utterly impossible, and affirms that a rigorously honest confrontation with actual experience does afford an ultimately certain insight into its reality and function”.
According to traditional exegesis, works of Buddhist philosophy are something like a samàdhi, a sustained and penetrating contemplation of certain pathways of thought and insight.
The Buddhist view is that the ultimate resolution of intellectual difficulties is simultaneous with the ultimately transformative experience of unexcelled perfect.
The European enlightenment has no historical counterpart in India or China. There was never a cataclysmic rift between religion and science, and so philosophy never had to take sides.
Buddhism rejects revelation as epistemically authoritative, and is committed to infinite human perfectibility through empirical inquiry and rational analysis, culminating in full awakening or buddhahood (buddhatva, buddhattà).
Buddhist philosophy, like Western philosophy, aims to understand the fundamental nature of reality, the nature of human life, and so provides a hermeneutical context in which those in Buddhist cultures constitute and understand the meaning of their lives.
In Buddhist context, religious and philosophical practices have never been priced apart as distinct and independent cultural practices, as opposed to connect parts of seamless cultural artefact.
Hence, rational inquiry and systematicity becomes necessary from a textual standpoint as well. Buddhist hermeneutical tradition is a tradition of realization, devoid of any dichotomy between intellect and experience, the rational and the mystical.
However, in the Buddhist tradition there has, at times, been a great tension between the scholastic and the purely meditative approaches, each of which has been prone to its own excesses.
The meditative traditions (epitomized by certain schools of Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen) have at times repudiated the need for the study of the scriptures as prerequisite to spiritual growth.
The famous phrase from Laêkàvatara-sótra is often quoted “From the night of his Enlightenment, to the night of his nirvàía, the Blessed One did not utter a single word”.
Nàgàrjuna also states in Mólamadhyamakakàrikà: “The Buddha did not teach any doctrine anywhere to anyone” (XXV.24).
The Mahàyàna insists that the highest stage in the Path, and therefore, the highest order of meaning, can only be expressed in apophatic statements such as ‘appeasing all discursive thinking’ (sarvaprapaãcopaùama) and ‘cutting out all doctrines and practices’ (sarvavàdacaryoccheda).
The ineffability of Buddha’s experience is clearly described in Ratnagotravibhàga uttara tantra:
“Being unutterable, containing the Highest Truth
Inaccessible to investigation and incomparable,
Being the Supreme, and relating neither
To the Phenomenal World nor to Nirvana
The sphere of Buddha is inconceivable even for the Saints.”
So Japanese Zen master Eisai taught that the Buddha-mind is directly transmitted from Buddha to Buddha apart from the sūtras, which were of no value unless one had directly realized the Buddha-mind.
The deconstructive tendencies of experientially pragmatic Ch’an-Zen schools are grounded on the idea of the inadequacy of words or conceptualizations as a vehicle for conveying the truth, and emphasizes the quest for meaning in practice and a gradual detachment from doctrinal conceptions, as well as from meditation experiences.
This Buddhist deconstruction imply that linguistic meaning is so inevitably dualistic that it can never adequately describe or express reality.
That’s why, according to Robert E. Buswell, Ch’an hermeneutics confronts two of the most fundamental problems in Buddhist spiritual culture: first, what is the process through which enlightenment is achieved, and second, what is precise content of enlightenment? The fundamental hermeneutical principle of so called “scriptureless” Ch’an claim that texts can be interpreted adquately only by enlightened masters.
Reliance is placed on individual practice and inner realization of the truth, and interpretative distinctions are to be applied to people, not to texts.
The hermeneutical principles were developed that would help to distinguish Ch’an’s descriptions of practice and enlightenment from seemingly parallel descriptions in the sūtras.
Rather than remaining complacent with a hermeneutic that described the principles by which truth was to be explained, Ch’an adepts insisted on taking the extra step to a direct, personal experience of that truth.
The scholastic tradition, on the other hand, has often become immersed in words to the exclusion of practice. However, scripture elicits the transformation of the person by acting as the cause that generates successively more profound and subtle levels of realization that eventually culminate in the state of complete perfection known as buddhahood.
For the scholastic tradition of Buddhism, without the understanding of scripture as the successive expression of the Buddha’s own insight there can be no realization or the successive levels of insight that leads to the re-creation within the adept of the Buddha’s ultimate experience, enlightenment. Buddhist considers philosophy itself as a therapeutic process rather than a constructive metascience.
Vasubandhu, in a frequently cited verse of Abhidharmakoùa divided the Buddhist teaching into the two great domains of transmitted doctrine (Skt. àgama) and realization (Skt. adhigama). M. T. Kapstein suggests that, the transmitted doctrine is that which comes down to us, while realization is that which comes through when the transmission is rightly understood. Vasubandhu associated these two domains with two sorts of spiritually meaningful activity: exegesis and practice.
Jointly, they guarantee the continuing integrity of the Buddha’s message in the world. The close connection between interpretation and religious practice is even more elaborated with the rise of Tantric hermeneutics, where orthopraxy becomes central to textual interpretation and a single text or passage can be both nèta and neya, depending on the receptor of the message.
In Buddhism, as in many religious traditions, a scriptural, that is, linguistic, understanding of doctrine has never been considered an end in itself. Without having spiritual realization and transformation as its aim, scripture would be nothing but dry words.
For Buddhist scholastics the problem of the nature of scripture arises in the context of describing the mechanism whereby the doctrine can become a soteriologically valid entity, an adequate medium for generation of salvic experience.
The doctrine is perceived as having two components, one mental or experiential in nature and the other linguistic or scriptural. As the often cited verse from the Abhidharmakoùa states: “The holy doctrine of our teacher is of two kinds, that which is of the nature of scripture and that which is of the nature of realization” (saddharmo dvividhaõ ùàsturàgamàdhigamàtmakaõ’ – Abhidharmakoùa, VIII, 39 ab). Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions focuses question on origins of scripture and its compatibility with God’s essence.
The Buddhists, not concerned as much with the origins of scripture as with the transmission and internalization of the doctrine it contains, pose the question in pragmatic and dynamic terms: how can the soteriologically valid experience of an enlightened individual, experiences that – by virture of becoming mental states – are non material, be coded into a material medium, language, and then decoded as the mental states of the adept.
Language with all its limitations, is recognized as an important vehicle (upàya) for salvation. Buddhism’ long-standing preoccupation with language throughout its history may be simply due to the fact that “any tradition that seeks mystical silence becomes intensively involved with the question of the role language” as L. Gomez aptly puts it.
A text is not a mere splash of ink on paper, a text is constituted as such by its meaning, and hence by being understood. Its character and identity are hence determined by a history of encounters with readers and each encounter transforms its meaning, and hence its identity.
A reader is a structure of prejudices, anticipations, and views: an occupant of horizon whose interaction with that of the text constitutes the phenomenon of understanding. For a text to be understood is, however, for the horizon of the reader to be altered thereby.
A strictly Gadamerian-Heideggerian account of the circular and temporal structure of understanding and of writing presupposes the integrity and the uni-dimensionality of a tradition. H-G. Gadamer writes: “
A person who is trying to understand a text is always performing an act of projecting. He projects before himself a meaning for the text as a whole as soon some initial meaning emerges in the text. Again, the later emerges only because he is reading the text with particular expectations in regard to a certain meaning.
The working out of this fore-project, which is constantly revised in terms of what emerges as he penetrates into the meaning, is understanding what is there.”
A principal role of tradition is to supply the intertextual context of prejudices that makes the reading and talking possible and the background in which revelation of meaning and the composition of meaningful text become possible.
E.Deutsch and N.Smart have already revealed the difficulties in applying Western hermeneutic methods to Asian philosophical traditions, and Ben-Ami Scharfstein, D. Lopez, and J. Cabezon have discussed of the very different hermeneutic approaches characteristic of Buddhist traditions.
Jose Cabezon emphasizes the ways in which language serves as a source of authority (e.g., in scripture), as the medium of expression, as a central object for philosophical reflection. He takes serious account of the structural differences between scholastic traditions and the significance of these differences for patterns of historical development.
He notes, for example, that in the Buddhist traditions of India and Tibet scholasticism has always been associated with a specifically monastic environment. And this he contrasts with the situation in the Christian West, where during the medieval period, a separation took place between the scholasticism of the monastics, on the one hand, and the scholasticism of the clerics, on the other.
To demonstrate this he investigates dGe lugs pa analysis of various aspects of language, scripture, and their relationship, and explores the ways in which dGe lugs pa scholastics have affirmed and analyzed the potentialities of specifically philosophical language as a vehicle for articulation and defending Buddhist ontology and soteriology.
Cabezon then goes on to contend that the consistently monastic environment in India and Tibet is closely associated with the long-term continuity that has characterized that tradition. And he makes the correlated claim that the medieval separation of clerical scholasticism from the monastic environment provided the necessary preconditions for the development of the secularized styles of research and argument that have come to characterize our own work as humanist scholars in the modern academy.
Recently Pierre Hadot has elaborated a new reading of the classical tradition and at the center of his reflections is the concept of ‘spiritual exercise’, because: “Philosophy then appears in its original aspect: not as a theoretical construct, but as a method for training people to live and to look at the world in a new way.
It is an attempt to transform mankind.” For, although it is a contribution of inestimable value to delineate with care the manner in which classical philosophy embodied commitments to well-formed regimes of self-cultivation, in which dialectic and argument played central roles, it remains nevertheless true that classical philosophy was also concerned with both speculative and practical knowledge. Such reading of the classical Greek tradition has a powerful analogy in Buddhism and in Asian traditions in general.
Traditions, according both to Gadamerian and to Màhàyana Buddhist hermeneutic theory, have an additional crucial role in the hermeneutic enterprise: they are a repository not only of context but also of commentary.
As we know, Paul Ricoeur defines hermeneutics as a discipline primarily concerned with textual exegesis. He states, that the hermeneutical problem was first raised within the limits of exegesis, that is, within the framework of a discipline which proposes to understand a text – to understand it beginning with its intention, on the basis of what it attempts to say.
Usually hermeneutics is conceived as being the rules and methodologies used in interpretation, rather than the act of interpretation itself.
It was customary in classical Buddhist India to introduce a text by identifying its purpose (prayojana) and its ultimate purpose (pratyartha). Traditionally, the purpose was considered to be the elucidation (literally, “the making known”) of any of a number of religio-philosophical subjects, and the ultimate purpose (or the purpose of the purpose) was usually identified as the attainment of the state of human perfection known as enlightenment (bodhi).
Indeed, it is neither the authenticity nor the pragmatic truth of the Buddhist scripture that tradition questions, but rather their intended meaning (abhipràya). In that sense the methodology of Buddhist exegetes has been and continues to be much closer to that of Schleiermacher than Gadamer.
If the goal of Mahayana philosophy is to bring oneself and others to the experience of enlightenment, which is nothing more or less than a repetition of the experience of the Buddha, then the attempt to establish the intent of the author, the goal of what Gadamer terms the romantic endeavor, has strong soteriological overtones for the Buddhist.
Buddhist hermeneutics is based on an assumption that the author of scriptural text had an intention or a set of intentions that can in principle be realized and explicated by competent exegetes.
This assumption, which H-G. Gadamer labeled the ‘romantic endeavor’, is central to Buddhist commentarial literature, which assumes that Buddha had a hidden intention when he made conflicting statements and that this intention can and indeed must be discovered by this followers, even those who are separated from him in time, language, etc.
Like Schleiermacher, Buddhist philosophers proposed to understand a text by understanding the mental processes of the author. In Buddhist hermeneutics, on re-experiences to some degree the thought processes of the author through the medium of the text and through oral and written commentarial traditions.
Understanding of both the words and their meaning are but preparatory stages to the internalization of that meaning via the transformative experience of meditation.
Actually, Buddha’s words were all spoken with particular intentions and this intention also has a soteriological dimension of bringing his followers progressively closer to the state of enlightenment. The all words of Buddha are considered to be a vehicle for the attainment of nirvàía.
The statement in Aêguttara-nikàya (IV. 163) that, “whatever is well-spoken (subhàøita) has been spoken by the Buddha”, is often taken to mean that anything not fundamentally at variance with the essence of Buddhist doctrine and practice can legitimately be adopted.
An underlying premise of Buddhist philosophy and meditation theory is that Buddha has actualized a potential that is present in all sentient beings, and all beings share the capacity to progress in understanding and eventually attain the state of Buddhahood. Understanding can occur because there is some correspondence between our own inner experience and the experience and teaching of Buddha. To do hermeneutics means to shake a text to its foundations, to solicit it to reveal its psychological, or better to say, soteriological matrix.
It means, that the goal of Buddhist hermeneuticians is to posit the author’s horizon and carefully exclude his own accidental associations.
Finding Buddha’s meaning is difficult, and the gulf in understanding between Buddha and an unenlightened exegete makes it necessary that he or she initially identify and rely on sutras of definitive meaning, but it is assumed that through this process one may in fact bridge the temporal distance separating Buddha from one’s own time, culture, etc.
G-H. Gadamer contends that every encounter with tradition that takes place within historical consciousness involves the experience of the tension between the text and the present, which accurately reflects a concern of Buddhist hermeneutics.
Unlike Gadamer, however, Buddhist exegetes think that this gap is not an unbridgeable one and that through following proper exegetical principles and through practicing meditation in accordance with Buddha’s instructions they can re-cognize Buddha’s meaning and re-create in their own minds his understanding of reality.
At the same time, traditions are not to be viewed as ossified and rigid systems that are resistant to change and innovations, but rather as continually changing organisms that require innovations in doctrine and practice to retain their validity.
In Indian literature, however, it is more difficult to find terms that correspond to Western usages of the term hermeneutics.
One of the few examples of an Indian term that has some of the connotations of this word is the term saídhinirmocana, ‘explaining the thought’ as it is used in the Saídhinirmocana-sótra.
In this sūtra in which Buddha not only explains what he was thinking of when he made some of his earlier statements, but also expounds general rules for determining the meaning of other scriptural statements and how to understand the thought behind them.
The term saídhi in this context means “intention” with the sense of a deep or underlying meaning and nirmocana means “explanation or “interpretation”. This, then, is the sūtra in which the Buddha’s intention, his underlying meaning is freed from illusory knots of contradiction that appear when all his statements are read literally.
This attitude accords with Ricoeur’s idea that the world is the ultimate referent of a text, since the aim of Buddhist teachings is to bring about the elimination of one’s illusions and misconceptions about the world and to replace them with understanding that accords with reality. We may say, that the goal of Buddhist doctrine is to present guidelines for re-interpreting all of one’s experience, to reorient one’s perceptions and understandings in such way that one is no longer confused and deluded by false appearances and mistaken conceptions. In this sense, the referents of Buddhist teachings are the world and one’s perceptions of it.
This focus has been noted with respect to Buddhist hermeneutics by Etienne Lamotte, who states that sound hermeneutics in Buddhism is based not on theoretical understanding, but on direct knowledge of reality.
Neverthless, E. Lamotte pays little attention to the role of tradition, custom, and Buddhist notions of authority in this process, and stresses the importance of reasoning for Buddhist thinkers seeking to decide what can legitimately be considered the ‘word of Buddha’. In order that text be accepted as the ‘word of the Buddha’ is not sufficient to call upon the authority of the Buddha himself, upon a religious community (saмgha) which has been formally established, or upon one of several particularly learned elders; the text in question must also be found in the sutra (sótra ‘vatarati), appear in the Vinaya (vinaye saмdðùyate), and no contradict the nature of things (dharmatàм ca na vilomayati).
In other words, adherence to the doctrine cannot be dependent on human authority, however respectable, since experience shows that human evidence is contradictory and changeable; adherence should be based on personal reasoning (yukti), on what one has oneself known (jãàta), seen (dðøòa), and grasped (vidita).
This is certain true of the, which stresses the importance of direct personal understanding and the soteriological benefits gained by those who contemplate its teachings. The single aim of all Buddha’s teaching was to evoke enlightenment in living beings.
It is worthwhile in Buddhist studies to attempt to reconstruct the context in which particular doctrines were formulated, since the context of an utterance or doctrine is of crucial importance in determining its meaning and application. Buddhist doctrines operate within the context of functioning system of shared symbols and assumptions, and a contemporary interpreter should seek to understand and explicate this context.
We should keep in mind, that “Even the most radical destructions of the world and the self in Buddhist contemplative experience, where the disposition to hanker after the merest grain of reality in body or mind undone, must be seen to be indexed to specific soteriological projects and the axiological assumptions that accompany them” (M. T. Kapstein).
The interpretive community to which one belongs will determine one’s hermeneutical orientation to a large extent. Buddhists teachings are meaningful to Buddhists primarily insofar as they are perceived as saying something significant about human existence, and this is what Buddhists try to find in them.
In Buddhism grasping texts literally does not lead to comprehension of the Dharma and is equal to scorning of the Dharma.
Buddhist philosophers and meditators are generally not primarily concerned with learning about other topics (history, geography, etc.) that are not perceived as being relevant to this soteriological orientation.
It is clear that the more contextual the treatment, the “thicker” the description, the less chance there will be of overt misrepresentation. The most we can hope for from our own interpretation is to provide, in Richard Rorty’s words, “the culminating reinterpretation of our predecessors’ reinterpretation of their predecessors’ reinterpretation”.
European scholars have consistently looked in Buddhist traditions for answer to Western philosophical problems.
In each generation, the new problematics of Western philosophy have yielded correspondingly new, but not necessarily more “correct” readings of the Buddhist tradition.
As the aims, conscious and unconscious, of scholars change, their readings of texts will change as well. To this extent, their readings are isogetical (isogesis – “reading into”): they reveal far more the views of scholars and their scholarly eras than exegesis is said to do. Exegesis is an conscious intent, whereas isogesis is simply unconscious and inevitable phenomenon that often reveals as much about the interpreter as it does about the being interpreted.
The elaboration of doctrine and argument in traditional Buddhist settings necessarily responded to the intellectual cultures of the times and places concerned.
We cannot rightly expect to find there ready-made answers to the problems that confront our contemporary philosophical culture. And one of the hallmarks of philosophy is that it must forever renew itself in response to specificities of place and time.
The central ideological commitments of translators - the criterion of objectivity, -- has supposed that interpretation and translations of ancient Buddhist texts are intended to be as “accurate”, “objective”, and “close to original” as possible. The standard reading of the nineteenth-century hermeneuticist position is that it concerned with the recovery of original textual meaning, which can be recovered only through the reconstruction of the historical, psychological, and cultural context in which the text has been written.
In essence, traditional hermeneutics insists that there is one true meaning that is the goal of any interpretation, and that this meaning is effectively identical with the author’s intention. But this notion of “objectivity” is itself a product of Western theoretical assumptions.
The Kantian ideal of the neutral observer, like the Cartesian program of doubting all accepted beliefs, assumes the possibility of an epistemologically neutral state, a way of seeing the world that is not influenced by any specific cultural or personal factors. And this ideal is inherently problematic.
It ignores the fact that “no man wholly escapes from the kind, or wholly supasses the degree, of culture which he acquired from his early environment.”
Is evident that every reading of a text – including the most carefully contextualized and historicised readings – will, in some ways, be unavoidably determined by some set of prejudgements.
There are no non-culture-specific languages in which to write, or unconditioned perspectives from which to view, another age or culture.
However, no translator or scholar engaged in textual exegesis wants to think that he is guilty of reading his own cultural presuppositions, or forcing his own interests onto the text: To impose our own categories on the data provided by the Buddhist source materials is to run the risk of violating their intentionality and, consequently, to vitiate the entire interpretive enterprise.
This type of textual positivism has been reinforced by the view that the interpretation of another culture’s texts is a primarily a philological matter and that the production of a good translation is tantamount to solving most important interpretive questions.
Our present philosophical era is characterized by the idea that it is more self-conscious than earlier periods and by its suspiscion of any and all theoretical commitments.
We see that in the light of the work of Gadamer it is impossible to separate the study of Buddhist hermeneutics from the question of the hermeneutics of the modern scholar who having by time and culture determined his prejudices and preunderstandings interpretes traditional Buddhist texts. We may conclude our discussion, that if the goal if Buddhist practice is to see reality „as it is“ (yatha bhuta), probabaly we can say, that the goal of Buddhist studies is also the same - to see Buddhism „as it is“.