I recently attended a talk a French philosopher named Frederic Lenoir, author of Socrates, Jesus, Buddha. When asked why he chose these three figures and what they had in common, his response surprised me. I had spent countless hours with these three figures and never stopped to ponder the basic similarities he observed.
First, none of them wrote anything down. Isn’t that interesting that the founders of two major religions, as well as the originator of a philosophical method which would come to profoundly influence western culture, refused to commit anything to writing? Presumably, if they had wanted to, they could have sat down and written a treatise on the nature of being. Instead, they prefered to conduct dialogues with students, and transmit their teachings orally. Why?
They knew that Truth is a never ending process of questioning and interpretation.When you write things down, however, you run the risk of people clinging to your words, taking them out of context, or worshiping them. Fundamentalist groups always claim to have the right interpretation of scriptures, as though there were only one possible meaning to be found.
Because all three teachers transmitted their teachings orally, they adapted their teachings to their audience to ensure that they were properly understood. They knew that words were useful to the extent that they would lead the student beyond words into the direct experience of reality itself.
The Buddha is renowned for simplifying his teachings to that even peasants could grasp the essential point (evidenced by the parable of the mustard seed.) (side note: isn’t it interesting that both the Buddha and Jesus have parables involving mustard seeds?!)
In different settings with monks present, he elucidated the nature of conditioned existence and cause and effect, which would be beyond nearly everyone’s capacity to understand. Similarly, Jesus’ knew that misunderstanding would ensure if he gave the same teachings he reserved for his inner circle to laymen or priests.
Tailoring an answer to the capacity of a student is easy to do in person, but nearly impossible with the written word. Take Jesus’ saying in Matthew 10:34: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace upon the earth, but a sword.” Someone who doesn’t understand the context of Jesus’ message might see this as a justification for violence, instead of a call to cut through all attachments to family, clan, and even ideas of right and wrong.
Related to that is the teaching that there is ultimately no right and wrong. In the hands of an immature disciple, this teaching would justify all kinds of egotistical behaviors. “If right and wrong exist only as categories in the mind, then I’m free to do whatever I please.” Instead of liberating a student from attachment, this teaching could lead to further enslavement.
By contrast, for someone has gone through the process of self-examination and cut through worldly attachments, this teaching can be a valuable catalyst for liberation. As Hafiz said, “your ideas of right and wrong are training wheels to be laid aside when you can live with veracity and love.” Someone who has observed that the ego does not ultimately exist and that attachment to it brings suffering acts naturally out of compassion and love, for they have see that this is the nature of reality.
The teaching that reality is amoral is the end of the journey and not the beginning. It is the same as Socrates’ declaration that he knows that he knows nothing. You could use that as an excuse to not make any effort at all (what’s the point if I can’t know anything?!). But you need to go through the process of thinking that you eventually will know something to see that, in reality, you know nothing. The journey itself is transformative. It can be conducted on your own by reading books, but there is really no substitute for the power and immediacy that a teacher-student relationship can bring.
Socrates, Buddha, and Jesus knew that an examined life is one of never ending questions, never ending opening to wonder, never ending deepening of sensitivity to the Mystery of life– something that could never be fully captured using any words. But if Truth is beyond words, then why bother speaking in the first place?
A monk posed this question to the Buddha, who responded to him by asking him to fetch water. The monk did as he was told and brought back a full bucket. The Buddha then asked him why he brought a bucket when what he had asked for was water. The monk then understood that in just the same way we need a container to transport water, we use words to point to the Truth.
Sometimes you have to make noise in order draw attention to the silence. Words are vehicles and containers that, when properly used, point to a direct, lived reality beyond themselves.
But if you get hung up on the bucket- perhaps by criticizing and comparing your bucket to others- then you’ve missed the point of drinking the water. Think of how much blood has been spilled over arguments about the nature of God, which is a word that we use to point to a reality beyond words!
This might lead us into a justified silence. But because there is always the potentially that someone will wake up as a result of your words, we must take the risk to speak. As the German poet Holderlin said: “Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”