Dharma Talks: Words Can Inspire And They Can Hinder Practice (Part II)

Talks can be inspiring.  Words can instruct, urge, encourage, and rouse.  Making a concept precise that was once imprecise can be the difference between wrong view and right view.  Surely this is all part of practicing the Buddhadharma.

So there is room for analytical thinking, analytical discourse, and analytical practice in all of this.  In fact, if you look at some of the Buddha’s teachings on dependent origination or some of the teachings of the great Tibetan masters (especially the ones interested in logic, reasoning, and cognition) you will see that our closely related traditions are home to some of the most beautiful and breathtaking analytical and philosophical writing.

But words can hinder practice too!  They can shut the gateless gate!  Practitioners beware!

This arises in the Diamond Sutra.  The Lord asks Subhuti, “What do you think, Subhuti?  Is the Tathagata to be recognized by his possession of any characteristics?”  Subhuti replies, “As I understand the Lord’s teaching, the Tathagata cannot be recognized by his possession of any characteristics.”  The Lord, or the Buddha, responds with the following verse:

Those who see me as form,
Those who follow me by words,
Waste their efforts,
For those people do not see me.

Edward Conze translates this verse from the Diamond Sutra as follows:

Those who by my form did see me,
And those who followed me by voice
Wrong the efforts they engaged in,
Me those people will not see.

Dharma talks, Dharma writings (such as this blog!), Dharma words – our efforts to hear them, understand them, write them, and give them are all wasted if in the end we are just caught up in more words, more concepts, more theories, and more noise.

I am confident we all understand this.  Take some version of the golden rule such as Do Unto Others As You Would Have Done Unto Yourself.  Accepting this is not just holding on to the words.  It is actually doing to others as you would have done to yourself.  Hard to do sometimes: I sometimes cut people off while driving, take more than my fair share when splitting a meal with my partner, and think less of others for what they believe in.  But it is the acting out of the golden rule that gives life to the Bodhisattva vow – merely holding on to the words is wasted effort.

The same applies to Buddhist teachings and concepts: emptiness, impermanence, nirvana, and so forth.  Learning about them is essential.  Understanding the nuances of their meanings will guide us in our practice.  Hearing precise talks about them can inspire us, encourage us, rouse us.

But if we do not practice these teachings and concepts – practice emptiness, practice impermanence, practice nirvana – then we are not seeing the Buddha, not seeing ourselves, not seeing others, not seeing that there is no self and no other, not seeing things as they really are.

So how do we check our practice?  How do we know if we are hindering or inspiring ourselves and others?  How do we move from the shore of words to the shore of practice?

Thank you for reading, asking, and practicing these questions together!  May this post find you at ease wherever you are!

(Note: The verse and exchange between Subhuti and the Buddha is from chapter 26 of the Diamond Sutra.  The first of the two translations is from a photocopy I have that does not specify the translator.  The second is due to Edward Conze from Buddhist Wisdom, page 63.)

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1 thought on “Dharma Talks: Words Can Inspire And They Can Hinder Practice (Part II)”

  1. Perhaps the best “check” for our practice is the mirror provided by our human relationships. We rarely choose to look directly into this mirror, but it’s always present in each interaction.

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