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I want to turn now to what I think are the really interesting questions raised by Justin Whitaker’s latest post on the Sigālovāda Sutta. These are questions of hermeneutics, of method in interpretation. As noted, the previous post was exegetical: I think everything I say there could have been endorsed by a historically oriented religion scholar with no stake in Buddhist tradition. But Justin and I are not that: we are Buddhist theologians, who consider ourselves Buddhists and seek to apply the tradition to our lives. So I now want to take the previous post’s ideas into that wider theological context.

I think there is value in the two methodological sentences that Justin returns to from his earlier post. I have been aiming throughout this discussion to follow the first piece of advice, “dig beyond the specific wording of the instructions to perceive the underlying reasoning behind them.” The reasoning, as I understand it, is that worldly pleasures, like the theatre, are inherently unsatisfactory, leading one (as the sutta says) to always want more of them, and therefore the ideal life is a monk’s life that renounces them; there are still better and worse ways to pursue a household life, but the better ones emulate monkhood, and one of the ways that one would do this is to avoid the theatre.

I don’t think Justin’s points about benefits in this life make a difference in that regard: from the perspective of the reasoning underlying this sutta and others like it, as far as I can tell, monks too are getting benefits in this life, and the benefits householders accrue are those that come from being like a monk. The sutta’s reasoning is that we benefit in this life from not attending theatrical shows because shows are as unsatisfactory as any other worldly pleasure, and we should reject them alongside other worldly pleasures – just as, if we were further along the path, we would reject familial love and get an even bigger benefit in this life from becoming monks. I derive this interpretation from looking at the sutta in the light of other suttas, and Pali texts contemporary to them, that express similar ideas. I think that is the most effective way to figure out what the reasoning of text’s authors was.

That much remains exegetical. But Justin’s next piece of advice gets constructive, and that’s where I think it gets both more interesting and trickier – for both me and Justin. That is: “Once one understands the reasoning, the difficult work of applying it to one’s own life begins.” For us as theologians, application is essential. But it is not at all clear to me that we want to apply everything in the suttas to our own lives, when there is a significant amount in there that is wrong and perhaps even potentially harmful. Consider here the Kamboja Sutta in the Aṅguttara Nikāya, whose entire text says this (in the Bhikkhu Sujato translation):

At one time the Buddha was staying near Kosambi, in Ghosita’s Monastery. Then Venerable Ānanda went up to the Buddha, bowed, sat down to one side, and said to him:

“Sir, what is the cause, what is the reason why females don’t attend council meetings, work for a living, or travel to Persia?”

“Ānanda, females are irritable, jealous, stingy, and unintelligent. This is the cause, this is the reason why females don’t attend council meetings, work for a living, or travel to Persia.” (Aṅguttara Nikāya II.83)

Are we going to apply that idea to our own lives? That women and girls are “irritable, jealous, stingy, and unintelligent”, and that’s the reason why they shouldn’t work for a living? Or even, are we going to apply the underlying reasoning behind that idea? Because it sure seems to me that the reasoning here is that the author – a man observing a patriarchal society – observed women in inferior positions, and therefore reasoned that they must be of inferior capacity (a line of reasoning that still gets applied to black people). I wouldn’t want to apply that underlying reasoning to my life, and I’m willing to bet Justin doesn’t either.

From my perspective, the idea that a good householder does not frequent theatrical shows – an idea that remains in the text, no matter what anybody else has said about the text in the two thousand years since its writing – is a bad one, just like the idea that women shouldn’t work for a living because they’re jealous and dumb. I look at what’s in the texts, I infer the underlying reasoning from them and from other texts in the canon, and I conclude that we are better off not applying either of these ideas to our lives.

Now I think Justin could push me further on these points because of the interpretive stance I previously took discussing Rudolf Bultmann. Walter Kaufmann had described Bultmann as interpreting instead of saying no; I had supported Bultmann’s method as follows:

I find it valuable when Bultmann says his “criticism of the biblical writings lies not in eliminating mythological statements but in interpreting them; it is not a process of subtraction but a hermeneutical method.” (99) It is this approach, of not eliminating but interpreting, that is involved in the project of naturalizing karma.

What the present conversation is helping me to realize is how much can be involved in “not eliminating but interpreting”. I think it is exactly that approach that Justin wants to take to the Sigālovāda Sutta, and I am sympathetic to it: we want to avoid rejecting a classical text, eliminating it. We may disagree with what the sutta says or appears to say, but we can still interpret it on a different, perhaps higher, level. This sort of interpretation is what I have called reinterpretation: it is constructive, rather than exegetical, interpretation. So when I noted last time that I was not reinterpreting the Sigālovāda: well, this response would go, perhaps I should be!

Now two points are important regarding such a response. First, Bultmann is still willing to admit that, on an important level, the text does mean what it says. He believes the world picture in the New Testament actually is a mythical one, fanciful and supernatural, and he thinks that those claims are wrong as stated: the world is not really like what the New Testament authors thought it was. The point for him, though, is that there’s a deeper level of meaning, existential meaning, that was there in the mythical picture and is also there when we read it now without the myth. That deeper level is what has value to us now. We are trying to get at that deeper level without denying that the text often also had literal meaning for its authors; as responsible historians, we do need to recognize the latter is real.

Second, though, it seems to me that if we really take Bultmann’s approach to the fullest and try to reinterpret everything rather than subtract it, then that doesn’t just apply to the Sigālovāda Sutta; it also applies to the Kamboja Sutta. I think that what the Sigālovāda says about the theatre is awful; I think that what the Kamboja says about women is even more awful. The simple and straightforward approach to these texts is subtraction: we just ignore the advice that we think is wrong. We can also say that these are both sacred texts of our tradition and we must take them seriously on a deeper level, but that is much harder – and we will then need to do that with the Kamboja as well as the Sigālovāda. And I’m not sure what that would involve.

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.