4 Ways of the Wise, continued

2. Depend on the meaning and not on the words

People like to follow fine words. Impressive language can be very convincing. Wording can be skillful to make meaning clear or it can help to make something more beautiful, as in a poem or a song, or wording can be used to impress your audience, to let them know you are educated and adept at prose style and turns of phrase. But the meaning is the most important: it should be the correct meaning.

What is correct meaning in spiritual teaching? First, to be correct, a teaching must give some benefit. Second, it must tell the truth. Once these two criteria are met, then wording is less important. But good wording can make correct teachings easier to read and more interesting, so it is useful.

Yet, if you use good wording but tell lies, not only does your good wording give no value, but it is actually harmful, because you may cause people to fall into harmful beliefs and errors.

Here’s an example. Legend says that once upon a time there was a Brahmin scholar with a very beautiful wife. At an advanced age, this Brahmin got sick and knew that he would soon die. He was a jealous man, and he became terrified that another man would marry his wife after his death. So, being a scholar who was also very determined, he did something quite extreme. He mustered all his strength to write a self-serving book to convince to convince his wife to jump into his funeral pyre. In this book, the Brahmin said that when his body is offered to the god Shiva it will be transformed from a burning body into a “liberated” body. He went on to write that since a Brahmin’s wife is not just a wife, but a goddess taking part in a holy union, that she should join her husband and become liberated as well. The style and language of this book were perfect, since the Brahmin was a master of rhetoric. Indeed, so the legend goes, the book was so convincing that the wife jumped in the fire. And thus was the hateful practice of sati begun in India. It was widespread until outlawed by the British and continues in some places even today.

Wording is a flower, it is an adornment. Meaning is the real body. Good wording without meaning is like precious jewels on a corpse. The power of meaning will come through even if words are not impressive, like a beautiful woman who is unadorned, whose natural beauty shines through. Skillful wording allied with good meaning is like a beautiful woman whose natural allure is enhanced by beautiful jewels.

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