A Buddhist-inspired Theory of Critical Reading

Somparn Promta






Reading is one of the important intellectual activities of man. We can consider reading into (at least) two ways. First, reading as a mechanical process. And second, reading as something which is beyond the mechanical process as said. I would like to say that we have two meanings of reading: mechanical and abstract readings. Mechanical reading is the reading that we explore from physiological and biological perspectives. Some children are born with reading and writing problems. They call these problems under various names that I do not need to mention. The scientists try to solve the reading problems as said. In solving the problems, they have to know and understand the reading process. The study of the human brain is believed to be the ground for understanding the reading of man. We will not talk about this kind of reading in this paper.


We are talking about the reading that we have found in people everywhere. The Buddha says that wisdom sometimes comes from the listening to the persons who have profound wisdom. At the time of the Buddha, we have some evidence to believe that the writing of texts exists at that time already. But there might be some reason that prevents the Buddha from writing his thought. At that time, in the Greek civilization, thinkers like Plato and Aristotle like to write more than to speak. The Buddha likes to speak more than to write. Reading comes along with writing, and listening comes together with speaking. In my opinion, writing and speaking are the same tool. So, when the Buddha says that sometimes wisdom comes from listening to the talk of people who have profound wisdom, this might includes the saying that sometimes wisdom comes from the reading of the books written by the authors who have profound thought.


In terms of the content, and not in terms of physical process, reading is a medium that man uses to transfer something in the mind of some person to the mind of other person. I use the word ‘mind’ in the broadest sense. This includes the brain (the mind can be interpreted as the activity of the material brain, but this has no sense of rejecting the immaterial mind believed in some religion and philosophy.) The great difference between reading and listening, even though I think they are the same activity of man, lies in that the talking and the listening, as done by the Buddha with people, could be highly real-time action. This means that in case there is some misunderstanding by the listener that speaker can add more explanation or information to correct misunderstandings of the listener immediately. I think this is why the Buddha chooses to talk more than to write. However, some authors of the books are alive. This means that we can send them the questions for things that we do not understand in their books. But the communication between the reader and the writer is not a real-time action, compared with speaking. One of the important problems in reading books, especially highly important books such as religious or philosophical books, lies in that the authors are dead, and we cannot question them for the things that we do not understand in their books. The theory of reading happens in this world to use as a tool for the solution of the problems in reading which include the problem that comes from the fact that the authors of the books are dead.


Even in case the writer or the speaker is still alive, sometimes we still have to face the serious question concerning the authority of the meaning of the texts. Something in a book is a personal matter, and the meaning of these things can be put in the hand of the writer or the speaker without any problem. A thinker writes in his book, “According to my taste, this kind of food is better than that kind of food.” It seems that the reader has no necessity to argue for or against this statement. But something in the books is not a personal matter of the author, it could be problematic that can the author alone claim that it is he or she only deserving the position of the meaning-giver for the statements. For example, the writer says, “According to universal truth, this kind of food is better than that kind of food.” This statement does not refer to the personal belief of the author, but refers to the thing that he calls the universal truth. Universal truth is not a personal property of anyone in the world. On the contrary, it is public property in a sense that anyone in the world has the right to say that “the universal truth is not the same as you say, I do not agree with you” or “I think like you, I agree with you.”


Religious books such as the Bible and the Tipitaka have the contents which are mostly concerned with universal truths of the universe. From this perspective, we can question whether or not Jesus or the Buddha are the only persons to give the meanings to important concepts existing in the texts. We have two choices for this problem. First, think that the master is the owner of the truths that exist in the religion. To think like this is possible if we accept that religion is nothing but personal experience of the master with some mysterious things in the universe such as God and Nirvana. If the highest goals in religion are the things that the masters of religion have attained with their personal experience, it is the master alone to point out that whether or not this is the right way to meet God or Nirvana.


In case of Buddhism, it is interesting that it seems that many times the Buddha has done something which suggests that he does not think that he is the owner of Buddhism and the truths given by him to the people are universal and these things exist in the universe before his birth. In modern Buddhist books written by Buddhist scholars, they like to say that the truths taught by the Buddha in Buddhism are natural in a sense that these truths exist naturally and the Buddha is not the creator of these truths. The Buddha just ‘discovers’ the truths. And they believe that these truths, as natural things, can be attained or understood by anyone in the world. Certainly, these truths have been kept secretly by nature for some reason. They do not appear to the sense of ordinary people. There must be someone in the world who is highly intelligent and trained enough in terms of the moral and spiritual training to find these truths first and then talks to people who need to see the truths how to find them. This culture of understanding Buddhism seems to be widely accepted among Buddhist scholars in the modern world. And this could be understood as the result of the choice of the Buddha himself not to accept that he is the owner of Buddhism. We are talking about the second way chosen by the Buddha concerning the understanding of the contents of Buddhism. According to this second way, the Buddha discovers the truths that exist in nature before his birth. These truths are useful as the guiding light for people to solve the suffering in their life. The Buddha is a person who deeply knows and understands these truths. He knows the way how to make these truths disclosed in a person’s life. And he talks with people about that way. The Buddha can explain what is the proper way. But he is not the owner of the way. But we have the question: even though the Buddha is not the owner of the truths. And he is not the owner of the way to these truths, in a sense that the way itself really exists in nature before his birth. But there are two meanings of the way. First, the way as something existing in nature already before the Buddha’s birth into this world. Second, the way as the methodology invented by the Buddha. The two meanings of the Buddhist way can be compared with cooking. Suppose there is a kind of food, called X. This food is composed of a, b, c, d, and f. The truth that X is composed of these five things is the universal truth, and it exists in nature before the happening of man in this world. One day, there is some man bringing these five things together to make the food, and the result is X. Even though it is true that X in terms of ontology exists in this world before the person to discover it, can we say that the first man, who brings five things together and that making results in X, is the owner of the method of the making of X? For many people in the world, the answer is yes.


The main point that I would like to suggest from our above discussion is that (1) it is true that according to the belief shared by most Buddhists in the world the Buddha is not the creator of the dhamma, the dhamma as ontological being exists in the universe so long before the happening of our earth and the Buddha, but (2) the method to lead people to the truths of dhamma has been kept secretly by nature, and that makes ordinary people in the world do not know the dhamma, the Buddha is a special man in the world who knows that secret way. As the person who knows this secret way, the Buddha has to be morally acknowledged as the owner of the way. It is true that the way itself exists as part of natural truths and the Buddha does not create the way. But we are not talking about the way in that sense. We are talking about the way in the form of words. These words do not exist in nature. They are the words of the Buddha. Can we say that the Buddha is the owner of these words?


Some of thinkers in modern hermeneutics think that the author who publishes his or her books can be interpreted as the person who needs their work to be the property of public. Certainly, in terms of the copyright owner, the author must be accepted both morally and legally to be the owner of the work. But the contents of the book are different in that as soon as the book has been published the contents of the book which try to present the author’s view concerning truths in the world would become the public property in a sense that the author cannot claim he alone knows the truths of the world better than other people. The reader has the moral right to agree or disagree with the author. It could be possible that some readers could say that things given by the author in the book are false. The role of the books according to this theory has nothing to do with giving the truths from the perspective of the author, but concerned with being the starting point of public discussion to have deeper and deeper knowledge of the truths concerning the world.



The Buddha in my personal belief can be compared with the author of the books who fully understands that what is the role of the author of the books. The Buddha knows well that Buddhism comes from his enlightenment, and his enlightenment leads him to the truths which are concerned with the nature of the human life and the world. Personal experiences tell him that the way that leads him to the truths of the human life and the world is a way, and in terms of logic there could be ways other than his way to the realization of the truths concerning the nature of the human life and the world as said. In Buddhist texts which are developed after the death of the Buddha, there are some sources which say that the way that was discovered by the Buddha is the only way for the purification of the human mind (Nirvana). I think that this belief seems to be different from the things done by the Buddha during his lifetime. The Buddha always says that he is just the way-teller who tells the way that he used to follow and see something very valuable. He talks with people about the way, but he encourages people to agree or disagree with him freely. For me, this means that even though the Buddha is the writer of the book, but he never thinks that the contents of the book belong to him as the owner and the owner alone has the right to judge which is right and which is wrong in the book. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha even says to people that the master of religion and religious texts could be wrong. This is the free spirit of the Buddha, and this free spirit is needed in the moral system given to people by the Buddha. Good and evil in Buddhist philosophy form the bondage of life. The highest development in the human life in the view of the Buddha is not goodness, but freedom. Freedom as intended by the Buddha might not be found if the system of morality given by the Buddha is not the free system in a sense that everyone involved in Buddhism, starting from the Buddha himself, equally plays the free role in listening to the master, thinking, and judging whether or not the saying of the master is reasonable and worth practicing. In the Kalama Sutta, mentioned above, the Buddha finally says to the people that you yourself are the person to judge everything in your life.


The free reading seems to be one of the essential activities in the life of a thoughtful Buddhist. Free reading would lead to autonomy, and that is the starting point of personal freedom.


Somparn Promta

August 27, 2019