Interpreting old texts for modern times

Question:  Surely the old texts, and the comments of the later masters on them, have to be interpreted to suit modern people and condition? After all, instructions given to Indians or Chinese centuries ago are inevitably out of date; they were doubtless appropriate for the conditions of their times, but not now. For instance, the recommended cross-legged meditation positions, with one or both feet up on the opposite thigh, were easily attainable for people who sat on the floor. But they are torture to Westerners today. And it is the same with some of the recommendations for conduct. We now know that a rigid celibacy is unhealthy, and leads often to a sort of inner sterility also. These things have to be interpreted to make them suitable for modern aspirants on a spiritual path.

Answer:  And who is to make the interpretations?

Questions on these lines seem to be made on the unspoken assumption that the questioner would be perfectly objective, all-wise and able to distinguish (on the firm basis of a total lack of experience) what is suitable for any people and any time and any circumstances.

So the general answer is: first interpret yourself. Interpret your own character, the hidden fears behind the outer confidence, the confusions and doubts and obstinacy of yourself. When these have been interpreted, that is to say recognized and lived through and made clear, when the interpreters are themselves free from distortions, they will be able to recognize the truth contained in the earlier traditions, and find it is the truth of their own being also.

As for the supposed examples, they are founded on nothing much. When Buddhism went to China, the Chinese were not living on the floor, but sat on chairs. And we cannot say that Beethoven and Leonardo da Vinci were sterile, nor in the Far East, the monk Kobo Daishi, Japan’s universal genius.

© Trevor Leggett

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