In this age, we are fortunate to have easy access to an abundance of materials shared by Enlightened teachers and their students. Many writings have been translated, often after being passed down through oral instruction through dozens, if not hundreds of practitioners who were responsible for sharing the sacred teachings they learned. This is just one reason, no matter which tradition we follow, we must investigate the teachings ourselves by putting them into practice. And of course, the main reason we must do this is to discover if they actually work!
While we are plugging away working on our practice, we naturally talk about the principles we are exploring with our teacher and with others who are interested in the Path. During these discussions, it’s easy to get lost in semantics. Proper semantics is crucial in refining our understandings; however when we get tripped up by what we think a word means, it can stop us from discovering what is beyond the words.
As a Buddhist teacher, I sometimes use the words God and soul and Self. Some traditional Buddhists from long lineages naturally balk at these terms because the Shakyamuni Buddha taught ultimately there is no God and no soul and no self. There was a time when the word God would trigger unpleasant connotations and cause me to tune out. We shut ourselves off because of the limited definitions held within the mind … in other words, semantics obscures the Truth and gets in the way of a meaningful exchange.
As a teacher, I need to meet students where they are in their own understanding. We can begin only from where we are. When we avoid using certain familiar words in our study, it can create an effect where one bypasses deep-seated beliefs that can preclude liberation.
Every sincere religious follower of any tradition I have met seems to agree that God is undefinable and beyond words. In Buddhism, one equivalent word for God is Dharmakaya – the clear light. Some other words I have been known to use to describe what is beyond words are: Eternity, the Divine, That, Infinite Eternal Awareness, or simply Light. In the confusion of thinking we are a separate independent entity, we have a relationship to God, to the Dharmakaya, which we can develop. As we explore this relationship, our notion of the word God expands along with our awareness.
When using the word soul, people often think of a permanent structure complete with an image of our physical form and personality that remain intact after physical death. If I use the word soul, what I am actually referring to is the aspect of the aggregates that travels from lifetime to lifetime. The personality and body are temporary and dissolve with death. There is a causal body that retains awareness; it is this awareness that is reborn endlessly on the wheel of samsara as a result of the karma put into motion.
In Buddhism, there’s a concept of non-dualism that can be fun and annoying when taken to the extreme. Non-dualism teaches us there is no self; that is there is no absolute self. People sometimes have fun trying to speak to one another in non-dualistic terms – the standard come back for anyone expressing an opinion or describing an experience is: “who’s opinion?” or “who is having that experience?” This can be a fun way to break the egotism that can arise as we become more aware, and this type of play loosens the attachment we have to our opinions, experiences, and our self in a lighthearted way. It can also degrade into an annoying defense strategy used to avoid looking deeply at our limited experiences of Reality.
In order to make sense of our experiences on the Path, we often refer to our self and to our higher self. In Buddhism, we understand the self is relative. We have an ego-driven self which looks out only for itself. We also have a higher or deeper self which knows of the inherent interdependence with all that exists. In either case, the self/higher self exists only in relation to this world that has unfolded within samsara. There is no separate self that stands apart from existence. Occasionally, I follow the lead of other teachers who have used the term Self, with a capital S, as a way of discussing being an embodied form of that undefinable concept of unity with God, or Enlightenment.
As you continue on your own adventures on the Buddhist Path, notice your relationship to these and other highly charged words. Take time once in a while to contemplate them and discover what they mean to you and how their meaning changes as your awareness grows.
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