On Seeing, Scripture, and Tradition
by Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
Once when the great god Śiva sported with his consort, Pārvati, she covered Śiva’s eyes with her hands. Suddenly, the whole universe was plunged into darkness, for when Śiva’s eyes are closed the universe is like a black hole with no light anywhere—except for the hidden fire of Śiva’s third eye that always threatens the destruction of worlds. Hindu deities are said to be all seeing and never close their eyes. From the near disaster of Śiva’s and Pārvati’s play, it’s a good thing they do not. The well being of the world is dependent on the open eyes of the gods. But the point of this Hindu tale is not about how Hindu gods “see” or how Hindu’s “see” God. The clue is this: it is not only the gods who must keep their eyes open, so must we in order to make contact with them and our deepest selves, and in the process reap their blessings and secrets. Keeping our eyes open is called darsán (“seeing”).
But here’s the hiccup. Conscious experience of anything is very much a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t affair. A fish flashes in the creek that runs in from of my last home in Tacoma, then before my eye dissolves in water like salt. I have seen elk and mountain lions ascend bodily into the heavens, and great blue herons and bald eagles fade into laves. Such events stunned me to silence. They say of experience that most of what exists nature conceals with stunning nonchalance, so that when we do see, vision seems like a deliberate gift, like the revelation of a dancer who for my eyes only flings away the seventh veil. Nature conceals as well as reveals.
This does not mean that seeing is merely sense data imprinting itself on a tabula rasa passive brain. Even at the level of physiology, seeing is an interpretative act—dare I say a “hermeneutical act.” For human beings, seeing is largely a matter verbalization. Most of the time, we need words to call attention to what passes before our eyes, or we simply will not see it. We must have words for it, say them, think them, to describe what we are seeing as we see it, or chances are we will not see.
Of course, some things are hard not to see, and words seem beside the point: exploding volcanoes, storms, a beautiful spring day, the great blue heron gliding ghostly silent into a fog bank shrouding Puget Sound, or what Elijah is reported to have seen and heard while hiding for his life in a cave on Mount Horeb. But most of the time, if we want to notice anything, we have to maintain a running verbal description of the present. Otherwise, we never know what’s happening. This is ordinary seeing of which academic seeing is an example. When we see this way, we analyze, describe, theorize, sort, categorize, argue, debate, file, probe, and grapple with the world, often as seriously as Jacob wrestled with God at the River Jabbok. Then understanding what is seen becomes a function of questions asked, contexts embodied, methodologies followed, presuppositions consciously or unconsciously held.
But there is another kind of seeing, one that mystics in all Religious Ways regard as primary. This form of seeing is also an interpretation of what is seen, but it is different from ordinary seeing because it requires letting go of the instruments of seeing—our theories, assumptions, theologies, worldviews, our selves and our purposes. Both ways of seeing are a bit like walking with and without a camera. When we walk with a camera, we walk from shot to shot reading the light as we go. When we walk without a camera, our own shutter opens as the moment’s light imprints itself on our mind’s shutter. When we see in this way, we are transfixed and emptied, and we become scrupulous observers.
To the person who sees this way, in what the Lakota shaman Black Elk described as “seeing in a sacred manner,” it is less like seeing than being seen for the first time, as if knocked breathless by a powerful glance. It is the seeing of non-duality underlying diversity, apart from which there is no diversity, before unity is split into diversity by the verbalizations of the first kind of seeing. Mystics in all of humanity’s religious Ways have seen in this “sacred manner.” But they also interpreted the meaning of mystical seeing—before and after the experience of non-duality—verbally, according to the traditions that trained them to see. Mystical seeing and conventional seeing are interdependent, and theologians East and West have dedicated themselves to joining them together.
It’s a lifetime struggle marking the literature of the world’s spiritual geniuses. What this literature shows is that there are no hard and fast rules of interpretation. They discovered that the mind’s muddy river carries along with it a ceaseless flow of ordinary trivial seeing, that it cannot be dammed, and trying to is a waste of effort that can lead to insanity. They discovered instead that we must allow the mind’s muddy river to flow unchecked in the channels of consciousness so that once in a while, we can raise our sighs above trivia, look as we flow with it, mildly and with detachment, while gazing beyond it.
But our first hints of this nonverbal unity originate in conventional verbal seeing. The trick is learning how to not cling to the verbal clues—the error of fundamentalism—so that we can see over the channels bordering consciousness. Here, for those religious Ways that ground their teachings and practices in a scriptural tradition, scripture itself may point to to a realm where words and events interact interdependently without utterance. Explaining this assertion requires reflection on the interrelation between scripture and tradition.
Seen from the ordinary perspective of history of religions, “scripture” generically refers to an anthology of oral and written traditions that (1) express and transmit spoken and written words as sacred power, (2) engender meanings, values, ideals, cohesiveness, and communal identity defined through normative standards of behavior (3) relate a community to a reality experienced as sacred and transcendent, and (4) depict a path and exhort persons to follow it to establish interrelationships with this sacred reality.
Scripture fascinates because of its relation to tradition. It’s a non-dual, heads-or-tails, chicken-and-egg affair in which scripture defines tradition as much as tradition defines the scripture that engenders it. Evidence abounds. Catholic tradition defined originally disparate pieces of Christian writing into a sacred canon that simultaneously created the evolution of Christian tradition and praxis—a process never officially ratified by any church council. Jewish tradition includes the oral traditions which Jews think underlie it. It is not limited to biblical writings and is seen as constantly developing, so what Jews count as scripture defies categorization: it is neither exclusively legalistic nor narrative, neither history nor poetry. Certain sacred writings are recognized by all Jews. Others are sectarian and their authority is limited a specific group, their sanctity possibly temporary. So Jews do not so much "read” Torah and Talmud as “learn it.” “Learning it” requires not only study of biblical texts but also detailed study of traditional commentaries whose content determine what scripture is.
Finally, Buddhist texts have been objects of intense veneration and study. Life and limb have been sacrificed to ensure their preservation and correct interpretation. Yet Buddhist tradition also asserts that its sacred texts have, in and of themselves, no inherent value. Their worth depends on what is done with them. In each of these Religious Ways, no scripture defines itself as “scripture” apart from “tradition” and no “tradition” exists apart from “scripture.”
The universal interdependence of scripture and tradition has some startling implications, not the least of which is that scripture is capable of a diversity of interpretations, depending on questions asked. The answers discovered in turn become part of tradition. There is, and always have been, more than one way to skin any scripture’s meaning. This fact alone may make a collection of stories, legends, myths, legal injunctions, and narratives “scripture.” All scriptures mirror the universals of human experience: life and death, joy and sorrow, creativity and tragedy, hope and fear, peace and violence, sacred and profane, all within specific historical and cultural nuances. When tradition inflexibly dogmatizes scripture as the true and only interpretation of the Sacred and our relation to it, scripture’s inherent flexibility vanishes along with its ability to function as “scripture.” At worst the text becomes irrelevant to the ever-changing historical complexities of human existence, particularly in our present post-modern age of religious and secular pluralism. At best, dogmatized scripture becomes an object of merely academic curiosity.
But seeing the non-dual interrelation between scripture and tradition does not mean that all interpretations are equally truthful or valid or of equal worth. Faith and experience guided by intelligence and reason must guide hermeneutical praxis. Still, while all scriptures are capable of either exclusive or inclusive readings, there also exist more pluralistic possibilities generated the questions inherent in postmodern experience of religious pluralism.