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Standing on Holy Ground

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by Sangharakshita

... lot about it but who do not try to practice it and who don't even think of trying to practice it.

But it is time we proceeded to the poem itself. But just to refresh your memory, let me read it again.

The Scholars Asked 'What is Buddhism?' off they go, Consult the dictionaries, row on row, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Pali - German too, As though it was the only thing to do, Until we wish in all sincerity, A second Burning of the Books could be.

Have they no other word for sick souls full Of doubt than 'Read my latest article'? Off with the shoes! 'Tis Holy ground! Depart! Buddhism's in the life and in the heart.

So the first line of the poem envisages a certain situation, a situation in which someone has just heard about Buddhism and they want to find out more about it, they want to know what Buddhism is. So they start looking for someone to ask, someone who can tell them what Buddhism is, they start looking for an authority on Buddhism, so as we usually do in all sorts of fields of life, they start looking, they start turning to the specialists, they turn to the scholars, the academics and ask them, not of course directly, but through their books, they ask them 'What is Buddhism?'. As I have said the poem was of course written in 1957 and at that time there were comparatively few books on Buddhism available, there were comparatively few translations of sutras, especially Mahayana sutras. I remember whenever a new translation of a Mahayana sutra came out we were very excited, it was a real gift, they weren't easily or readily available, there were very few of them, we valued those early translations, imperfect though they were, very very highly. But even the translations of the sutras were mostly the work of scholars who were not Buddhists, but we had no alternative, on many occasions, but to turn to the scholars, especially if we were living in the west.

Now it mustn't be thought that I am just criticising those early scholars, they certainly did their best, and so we should be grateful to them, at least something of the Dharma usually managed to shine through, to percolate through their writing, but on what were those writings based? When the scholars in the poem are asked 'What is Buddhism?' what do they do? They go and consult the dictionaries, the dictionaries of the canonical Buddhist languages, the languages in which the Buddhist scriptures are written. Also they consult dictionaries of modern European languages, not only that they consult them as though it were the only thing to do. So what does that all mean? I'll have to go into it a little.

But first of all a few words on the question of consulting the dictionaries, I don't want to give the impression that I think it's wrong to consult the dictionaries. This is very far from being the case, I think in fact that we should consult them very much more than in fact we actually do, in most cases. Most of us it has to be admitted, speak and write very badly, we have a very poor command of our own language and because we have a very poor command of our own language we can't communicate our thoughts and our feelings to others effectively and in this way all sorts of misunderstandings between people arise. Fairly often we've only a vague general sort of idea of the meaning of the words we use and sometimes of course we confuse words that sound alike, one confusion that really does irritate me sometimes is that between 'militate' and 'mitigate'. I discovered that confusion, that confused use of one of these words, believe it or not in yesterday's Daily Telegraph in an article by a quite intelligent person, where I hadn't really expected to find it. And then of course, people confuse 'affect' and `effect'; one finds this even in writings on Buddhism.

In other words people's vocabulary is often very limited. The total number of words in the English language is said to be somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000, quite a lot of words, but most of us use habitually only a couple of thousand, some people it's said use habitually only a few hundred words. So think how we overwork certain words, words like 'nice', 'have a nice day', 'a nice book', 'a nice meal', 'a nice film','a nice meditation'; almost anything can be nice. And then the other is `fantastic'; this is a word that young people it seems a very fond of using, I won't give you any examples of that. And then 'devastated', every day I hear on the radio or read in the paper about people being devastated, someone loses his job, he's devastated, his football team doesn't win the match, he's devastated, his father dies he's devastated, well of course, he hasn't any stronger word to use because he used that word 'devastated' in so many different contexts, so a range of expression becomes fairly restricted. So a range of expression becomes fairly restricted and we therefore need to consult the dictionary much more than we do and if we consult the dictionary it will help clarify and refine our use of words and we will be able to express ourselves better and communicate better whether in speech or in writing. Of course if we consult the dictionary it will help us to think more clearly. Personally I must say I do consult the dictionary quite a lot, in fact when I am writing whether it is writing memoirs or even a letter, I habitually consult three dictionaries, just to make sure.

Because they don't always have quite the same definitions or explanations of words. I consult Collins (I'm not doing any advertising for them), I consult the Concise Oxford and I consult my dear old friend Dr Johnson's Dictionary, a facsimile copy of which a kind friend presented me with quite a few years ago. And of course for emergencies, when Collins, Concise Oxford and even Dr Johnson isn't of any help there is the great 12 volume Oxford Dictionary to fall back on. I also consult the Thesaurus.

When I am writing I ask myself the meaning or the meanings of the particular words I'm using, is it quite the right word? First thought are by no means always the best. I think any practising poet or practising writer can tell you that. So I ask myself does this particular word I am using or thinking of using convey the precise shade of meaning, of thought, of suggestion, of resonance I want to communicate. I ask myself this question with regard to almost every important word I set down on paper, especially if I am writing something like my memoirs. So these sort of questions when I am writing I ask myself all the time, and then of course there is the question of spelling, punctuation, syntax and grammar, I am not going to go into all that otherwise the lecture will sound too much like a lesson. So we need to consult the dictionary, the dictionary, we may say, is the writer's best friend, that is his best friend as a writer. And the dictionary is also the reader's best friend as a reader, because in your reading if you come across a word you don't quite understand, look it up, or make a note to look it up later on, otherwise you may well miss something of the author's meaning, miss a subtlety that may be quite important. I hope I am not labouring the point but as I said a little while ago, I get lots of letters from people, some of those letters are quite well written, a few of them are very well written, but I have to confess, not only letters but even reportings in to various journals I think I had better not mention, show that the writer has quite a poor command of his or her, usually his, own language. This can give rise to all sorts of problems, all sorts of miscommunications and therefore all sorts of misunderstandings, apart from the fact that it's not very pleasant to read clumsy or badly written items of any kind coming from whatever source. So I think the moral of it is we should be proud of our mother tongue whatever it happens to be and we should do our best to speak it and write it correctly, effectively and as beautifully as possible.

But it's time we got back to the scholars and to their use of the dictionaries. 'Asked 'What is Buddhism?' off they go, consult the dictionaries row on row, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Pali - German too'. So why do they consult them? Or rather what do I mean by saying in the poem they consult them? The Buddha's teachings, that is to say the Dharma, is found in the Buddhist scriptures, and those scriptures consist of words and the mere scholars think that if you have understood the words you've understood the scriptures. He thinks that if he's understood the words in which the teachings find expression he's understood that teaching itself, so he just consults the dictionaries in order to find out the meaning of the words and the meaning of Buddhism. Not only that but he consults the dictionaries as though it were the only thing to do. So in other words, within the context of the poem, 'scholars' means those people who think you've understood Buddhism when you've understood the words that Buddhism uses, especially the words that Buddhism uses in the Buddhist scriptures, when those words are contained in a book, a text or a palm leaf manuscript. So a scholar in this sense means one who believes you can know what Buddhism is without practising it, without experiencing it and without contact with others who also are practising it. Of course I am not saying that consulting dictionaries is of no help at all in our attempt to understand Buddhism, that would be to go to the opposite extreme. What I am saying is that consulting the dictionaries is by no means enough, understanding the words in which the Dharma finds expression is by no means enough. The words by themselves are not the Dharma. This is perhaps why in the Lankaratara Sutra the Buddha is represented as saying that from the night of his Enlightenment to the night of his Paranirvana, he has not uttered one single word.

So much then for the first four lines of the poem, they envisage ...

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