Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Meanings, Meanings, and More Meanings

I said last time that I would go a little deeper into how I see things as having surface meanings, mid-level meanings, and deep meanings. Well, I'm back from Thanksgiving and ready to tackle it.

I think many things have multiple levels of meaning, but I'll use a couple of examples from religion. The first is reincarnation, from Buddhism via Hinduism.

The first, surface-level meaning of reincarnation is this: be a good person in order to get a better rebirth; be bad, get reborn in miserable circumstances or as an animal. Round and round you go, and ideally you keep working to be better and better until you are at last reborn as one who is capable of achieving enlightenment (to achieve enlightenment is to enter nirvana and stop the cycle of rebirths into the samsaric world).

That's the surface level -- it's simple, it's straightforward, and it encourages us to be good and not to be bad. The mid-level meaning is the one that many Buddhist teachers use to introduce Western students to the idea of reincarnation. At the surface level, reincarnation seems literal. At the mid-level, it's a metaphor for how we relate to one another.

Because we've been reborn countless times into countless lives, we've all been born to one another. We've all been parents to one another. We've all raped one another. We've all been raped. We've all murdered one another, and we've all been murder victims. We've all fallen in love with one another, and we've all felt ourselves to be the beloved.

Thus, the mid-level meaning of reincarnation is this: we are all deeply, intimately connected to one another. Like the surface meaning, however, this level of meaning has the same ultimate effect: to encourage us to be kind to one another, as kind as we would be if we were still in intimate connection, and not to be evil.

Lastly, the deep meaning of reincarnation is that because we cannot know whether our overall arc is headed up or down, and because we cannot know how many times we or anyone else has cycled through the whole up-and-down-and-up-and-around arc, we should always look on one another with compassion and without judgment. Any interaction between you and another person is merely one tiny vector point in a whole tapestry of relationships you share without knowing any of it. The person who is mean to you today might be struggling upward, and you might be plummeting downward unbeknownst to you. So treat everyone with compassion and non-judging.

And, as you can see, that meaning has the same ultimate end as both of the others: do good and do not do harm. The question is how deeply you can see such meanings. If a person is only capable of wanting a materially better life next time around, they may only be capable of grasping the first meaning. A Westerner who is skeptical about reincarnation but suffering from modern alienation might be best served by the mid-level meaning. The deepest meaning is for those who are spiritual students, who want to understand the fullness of the spiritual tradition.

The concept of being compassionate and non-judging doesn't depend on reincarnation. It can stand on its own without any ideas about rebirth attached to it. But having all three levels provides three entry points for people to arrive at the same idea, making it more accessible to a wider range of people. However, this is why I can say as a Buddhist that I believe in the idea of reincarnation, but I do not believe in reincarnation literally. The idea I believe in is the deepest one: how we are to behave, in this life and in any others that may (or may not) come.

A Christian example might be the rules of various sects. I see a lot of people arguing quite strenuously over whether women should speak in church (and by extension lead services and be ordained), whether worshippers should dress up formally or wear jeans to church, whether they should follow this doctrine or that doctrine, etc. If I were a Christian, I'd obey whatever rules my particular sect happened to lay down. That's not necessarily because I think that God wants me to do it, though.

The surface meaning of the rules are what they are -- don't wear jeans, etc. Again, straightforward, and the point is to obey. The mid-level meaning is that God is an authority over us, and we should behave not as though we are in the presence of our "homies," but as though we are in the presence of our better, one we respect. Maybe it's the native Southerner in me, but when I see someone enter a church in ripped jeans, munching on the last half of a sandwich, I think, "Show your deity a little respect!"

The deepest meaning, though, is about ego, will, and surrender: our insistence on doing things our way and according to our convenience is a manifestation of our ego (not in the sense of vainness, but in the sense of asserting our selfhood and individuality). Throughout the Bible, submission to God's will and giving up our small egos in service to God is urged and held up as the greatest good. Even Jesus struggles to do this: he spends his whole last night in the Garden of Gethsemane struggling with the total surrender of his will to God's. He begs, "take this cup from me" (Matt. 26:39), but ultimately he knows that God's will must be done and he reconciles himself to surrendering his ego.

So the deep meaning of what some sects call "silly men's rules" is that every silly rule is a chance for us to erase a little bit more of our egotism and pride, and to learn to submit our wills, not to men and their rules, but directly to God. He couldn't care less about what we're wearing, but that's only the surface point. He does care whether or not we are willing to make the effort to surrender our willfulness and desire to have things our way to him, and anything that encourages us to do something we'd rather not is something that encourages us to give up a little self-centered stubbornness. Note: I'm not saying that obeying little manmade rules is the same as obeying God's will. Not at all. I'm saying that (if I were a Christian) I can see manmade rules as a metaphor for a deeper message about will.

A last note on me and my personal belief: on the whole, I admire the deep meanings of the Bible. I've read the whole thing cover-to-cover and have a shelf of scholarly books on it as well. But for me, admiring the deep meanings requires no kind of literal belief, not even in God or Jesus. I can see them as metaphors just as I can see reincarnation (a tenet of my chosen practice of Buddhism) as a metaphor. What drew me to Buddhism is that to me, some Christians -- though by no means all -- seem hung up on arguing about surface meanings and whose sect has it right and whose sect has it wrong and why you must join the right sect or you are doomed. Buddhist teachers, on the other hand, seem profoundly attuned to the deepest meanings in a text. They look for the metaphor in everything, and thus they also seek the true meaning beneath the metaphor. And then they work very hard to embody that true meaning in their words, actions, and lives.

So whatever path you follow (even if it's no path at all), look beyond the surface. Find the deepest meanings, and then embody those meanings in everything you do. Peace out, y'all.

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