The Letter but Not the Spirit

So many purists who know the letter but not the spirit of what they’re trying to talk about … oh my my my

People who follow the law (and maybe some whom the law is following) talk about “the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law.”

This usually means the rigorous application of the minutest details of a rule or regulation while ignoring mercy, fairness and other more “human” considerations. The legal system is filled with such people.

And if we widen our view to include more than just the courts and law books, we find that this same legalistic divide runs through just about every area of life.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the brilliant and innovative architect back in the fifties, ran headfirst into experts who knew everything written about how you design buildings. Trouble is, there are worlds of ideas and concepts that haven’t been written down yet. And the caretakers of the old knowledge will never discover anything new because it’s not yet in the library they’re so zealously guarding.

Charles H. Duell was the US Patent Office Commissioner in the late 1800s. Duell is remembered for saying, “everything that can be invented has been invented.” Of course, that quote may well be apocryphal, but it strikes a humorous chord anyway, doesn’t it?

Back when I was very young and still thought that religion was good for me, I’d go looking for answers. I’d hear arguments between those who believed that God was a gentle, loving father, versus others who, while they thought God was loving, believed even more that he was a stern teacher demanding exacting obedience right down to the finest minutiae.

Some said you should never dance. Others pointed to verses in the Scriptures where dancing pleased the Lord. You should worship on this day. No, it’s that day. You should eat this kind of food. No, it doesn’t matter. Never drink alcohol. No, Jesus turned water into wine. Oh, that means grape juice not fermented drink. No, it’s impossible to store and keep grape juice in a warm climate without it fermenting. For every argument there was a counter.

Both sides had quotes, chapter and verse “proving” their view was the correct one.

I finally lost interest when it occurred to me that these were just retreads of the old “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” argument. I mean, how small is God if He can be defined by one or another group of angry, arguing men?

The thing is, this kind of argument shows up everywhere.

Over the past year I finally warmed up to Facebook (just a bit). But the party was already in full swing by the time I arrived. Well-established groups, cliques and discussions were everywhere. And just like any physical party, there are little clumps of members who welcome newcomers and there are those who ignore them.

I especially enjoy the Facebook pages that have a set theme and publish quotes and information on the topic. A couple of pages, for instance, post pictures, usually soothing and low-key, containing ideas and quotes in the Buddhist tradition.

And you can count on it, like night following day, below every single post some critical comments will very quickly pop up. Of course, disagreement is what discussion is for; it’s healthy, so no problems there.

But some of the disagreement sounds … well … legalistic. They focus, not on the relative value of the idea expressed, but rather on superficial details.
…….• “Buddha never said that”
…….• “Seems like a Buddhism page would run more authentic quotes”
…….• “No, that term never means that, it means this”
…….And the very intellectual: “That’s bollocks”

Take the first one, for instance: “Buddha never said that.”

How could we know that? Nobody wrote down any of his teachings until centuries later. His quotes weren’t even collected into a body of knowledge until after he died, by a bunch of grief-stricken followers. Caretakers and librarians.

As in every other topic, newcomers are bound to be confused or even discouraged by the arguments they find. But just as in every other topic, here too, those who care enough to persist will winnow through and find what they’re seeking. They will weigh, evaluate, pick up, discard, and eventually settle into a view of the “truth” that fits them at the present moment. That view may then freeze in place and they become another librarian who’ll never venture outside the walls.

Or their understanding may continue to expand, leading them on to wider, subtler, more interesting views of the “truth”.

One thing we can count on, truth for these restless souls is a moving target, always there, always just barely within reach, and always calling for just a bit more stretch.

Always.

Cheers from sunny Japan,
Charles


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