Saturday May 16, 2009
I wrote a few months back about the Heart Sutra, making that modest proposal that, if the Heart Sutra is a text that seems to be rife with negation – on a rough count, in the Chinese version, the negating characters 無 or “wu” and 不 or “bu” appear in total something like 30 times, making up somewhere around 12% of the whole text – then one faithful reading of the text might be to negate the sutra itself. Sadly, my wu-ing of the Heart Sutra (or, for that matter, my saying “bu” to the Heart Sutra) did not woo many of you. Some of you, indeed, wu’d my wu-ing and said “bu” to my bu-ing, moves that seem to me to be themselves very much in the spirit of things. And a couple of you were bold enough to say that, for all my bu-ing and wu-ing, the Heart Sutra had a very clear and unambiguous meaning, and that I had simply failed to understand it.
Perhaps. There are many things that I simply fail to understand. But I want to sidestep this charge, and ask what I think are some interesting questions about interpretation. Such questions are particularly pressing when it comes to classic texts such as the Heart Sutra. I am struck, on leafing through some of the commentaries written on the Heart Sutra, by two things. The first is the air of certainty that so many commentators have, the boldness with which they say: the sutra means this. The second is the curious fact that these various commentators do not seem to agree on those things about which they seem to be most certain. This raises the question of who has the right interpretation.
Of course, this in turn assumes that there is such a thing as the right interpretation, and I’m not sure that this is the case. There may, however, be wrong interpretations – or, at the very least, interpretations that don’t get us anywhere. To interpret the Heart Sutra as a manual for troubleshooting your broken computer, for example, will probably not do much either to help you fix your computer or to enhance your understanding of the Heart Sutra. But even when we have done away with these kinds of unhelpful or unenriching interpretations, it is hard to find our way to the interpretation that really nails the text. Could it be that the very thing that calls for interpretation is the fact that the text is uninterpretable, in the sense that whatever meanings may be found in the text are not there on the surface, but need to be drawn out?
It might be helpful to imagine a sliding scale of interpretation. At one end are relatively unambiguous things, for example the zookeeper’s cry of “Run! The lions have escaped!” Of course, this could be interpreted in various ways. It could, for example, be a piece of zookeeper performance art… But my bet is that most of us, when hearing this as we stroll through the zoo, would have the sense to run and hide in the café. The café is a good place to hide, because they have coffee there. And cakes. The doors closed, over a steaming mug of coffee and a slab of cake, it is possible to debate the finer points of interpretation in relative comfort. And, whilst discussing these points, it might happen that a lion strolls pass the window, or a doctor rushes to the aid of the zookeeper who has had his mind addled by workplace stress, so clarifying the situation a little. Often, that is to say, we have neither the need nor the leisure to indulge in long processes of interpretation and, when it comes to lions at least, it pays to err on the side of caution. This, then, is one end of the spectrum. At the other end are are rather more ambiguous and – it has to be said – rather less urgent utterances. For example – oh, you know – the claim that form is emptiness and that emptiness is form. You need more than one slice of cake, I feel, to untangle the interpretive knots in texts such as these.
Texts that are richly interpretable such as the Heart Sutra generate whole traditions of interpretation that seek to bring out the hidden meanings, to make the texts themselves utterly clear and lucid. And whilst these traditions are often interesting in their own right, they tend not to converge on single meanings, but to diverge. Various Buddhist commentators may agree that the Heart Sutra is saying something really important; but they may well disagree on what this really important thing is. This absence of convergence suggests that there is not, in fact, a single hidden meaning in there that – with sufficient thought, meditation, discussion, coffee, cake or whatever – can be drawn out. Not only this, but traditions of interpretation tend to also to deaden us to the sheer liveliness of texts like this. Sinologist Stephen H. West talks about the way that texts such as the Heart Sutra can easily become swallowed up by their own traditions. Traditions of interpretation strip texts of their obscurity, and replace them with clear, lucid meanings; but in doing so, they also strip texts of a lot of their power. As West suggests, it may be by saying “bu” to these traditions, or by wu-ing readers off the straight-and-narrow with new and idiosyncratic approaches, that we can free classic texts from a kind of imprisonment.
Here it might be possible to suggest an answer to the question of what it is that makes a classic text in the first place. My hunch is that successful classics are all, in a sense, uninterpretable, in that they do not give us a single, clear and unambiguous meaning. And it is for this very same reason that successful classics are texts that that give rise to interpretations, that ask of us that we interpret them nevertheless, that bug us, gadfly-like, into making some kind of sense of them. And this, I think, is why the Heart Sutra is worth reading. Not because it tells us unambiguous truths about deep sources of wisdom; but because – like many other classics besides – it is, in its refusal to be pinned down, richly generative of new thoughts and new possibilities.
(Image courtesy of AlohaOrchid )
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