[Buddha-l] Re: Can an Air Force cadet have Buddha nature?

Richard P. Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Thu May 19 09:46:07 MDT 2005

On Thu, 2005-05-19 at 20:02 +0700, Randall Jones wrote:

> I thought that the meaning you intended by your words and the meanings 
> taken by the readers of your words were at some remove from each 
> other.  This happens.  It's in the nature of reading.  Whatever the words 
> of an author are intended to mean, they often mean something else to his 
> readers.

Yes, this sort of thing does happen. The hazard of misinterpreting an
author's intentions increases with the temporal distance between author
and reader. I recall reading in Leibniz once that it is almost
impossible to know when authors from a different time and culture are
joking and when they are being serious, when they are saying things they
intend to be taken literally and when they are waxing poetic and
allegorical. And this difficulty, he observed, often results in a
tendency to take old texts literally, perhaps much more literally than
their authors intended them to be taken. But the point is, we don't know
for sure how a deceased author intended his words to be taken, and
therefore hermeneutics is always "interesting" (by which, of course, I
mean imprecise and therefore risky).

When one has the luxury of being able to communicate with an author and
ask what the intention was behind certain words, then hermeneutics is
not quite so risky. One can just ask for clarification, and usually it
helps. The only time it may not help is when the inquisitor is following
what is often called the hermeneutics of suspicion, which is based on
the presupposition that the author has a hidden, and usually pernicious,
agenda that he or she is deeply unwilling to have come to light. The
hermeneutics of suspicion, like most other manifestations of suspicion,
pretty much makes communication impossible, since no statement is taken
at face value, unless of course it reflects very badly on its speaker. 

> I was also thinking about how the unintended meanings of our words are
> like the unintended consequences of our actions.

Last summer at the annual Seminar on the Sutras, Jay Garfield gave an
excellent talk on a Buddhist analysis of karma. His claim was that the
Dge-lugs tradition has a complex analysis of actions whereby it is
recognized that excellent intentions may have excellent consequences,
but they may also have unintended good or bad consequences; moreover,
almost any action's consequences, when studied in full, will turn out to
be good for some beings and bad for others. Garfield's claim was that
ALL this must be taken into account, and that a fully responsible agent
will take responsibility for unintended as well as intended consequences
and for harming some even while helping others. (Just yesterday al-
Zarqawi allegedly explained that it is impossible to kill infidels
without also killing a few Muslims. This would be a good example of
someone taking responsibility for the unintended consequences of his

Garfield's analysis sounds amazingly Western to me and is unlike
anything I have ever seen in any Buddhist text I have read, but then I
am totally ignorant of Tibetan Buddhism (and some would claim that I am
equally ignorant of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism) and therefore am
quite willing in principle to entertain the possibility that the Dge-
lugs analysis of action is every bit as sophisticated as Garfield
claims. If anyone can supply references to sophisticated ethical
positions in Buddhist literature, I would be most grateful.

> Perhaps a perfectly skillful writer would write words that allowed of
> only one reading, though I don't think you did and I doubt any real
> writer could. 

Like you, I believe it is probably impossible to use language in a way
that no one could possibly misunderstand. (Anyone who teaches
undergraduates is familiar with the phenomenon of being routinely
misunderstood.) Although I have tried most of my life to be as clear as
humanly possible when writing articles and giving lectures and dharma
talks, I find that people often misunderstand at least some of what I
say. I attribute this, of course, to the inherent stupidity and/or
maliciousness of my audience. 

Another factor could be that I am very fond of irony and of being
provocative. And I have a serious character defect that manifests itself
as an irrepressible urge to get people's goats by skating very close to
the edge of what I suspect are the limits of their tolerance. When I was
in college, one of my friends said of me that he knew of no one more
likely to get gunned down by an irate reader. Needless to say, I had to
shoot him before he did anyone harm. Anybody whom walks around with such
dangerous ideas is bound, sooner of later, to act on them.

Anyway, thank you for your clarification of what you meant by your
original words. It led me from puzzlement to understanding and was,
whether you intended it to be or not, a splendid example of civility and
harmonious communication. But don't worry. I'm not likely to follow your
good example. This is, after all, buddha-l!

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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