Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Reading as prayer

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The Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130–1200) recommended in an essay on reading that a young person should read widely to gain a broad education, but an older person should select a few works to read again and again. He recommended reading slowly and carefully, word by word, reflecting on each phrase. This practice of slow and careful reading is akin to what medieval Christians called lectio divina.

The Christian contemplative classic called The Cloud of Unknowing recommends inspirational reading. Anyone seeking an intimate familiarity with higher things (by whatever name one wishes to call them) does well to recall that few of us have within ourselves all the resources necessary to succeed fully in our pursuits. We benefit by being exposed to the wisdom of others. But blindly following others as authorities is no less a folly than ignoring the good that others have to offer. To make the wisdom of others fully our own, we must ingest it very slowly. Having taken a small helping, it is best to digest it well before taking more.

The kind of reading one does as part of one’s prayer and meditation practice is almost exactly the opposite of how one reads as a student. Students are usually assigned absurdly large numbers of pages to read. They are forced to skim rapidly, with the result that not much sinks in. Modern education breeds superficiality. It takes most students the better part of a lifetime to break all the poor reading habits they are forced to acquire on their way to getting a degree. It takes some effort to become properly uneducated so that, after getting a diploma, one can finally become properly educated.

The works I find myself reading again and again in my older years are The Cloud of Unknowing itself, the inner chapters of Zhuangzi, the essays of Xunzi and Mengzi, the Suttanipāta, the Bodhicaryāvatāra and a selection of essays by William James, especially “The will to believe.” Recently I have come across some early Quaker writings that, if breath keeps pouring into my lungs, I am inclined to read over many times in the future.

The particular list of what is read is of interest mostly to myself. How it is read should be of much wider interest. Read slowly. Read with an open heart. Let the words work their way into the core of your being, and let them do there whatever they will do. The results are bound to be as surprising as they are wholesome.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 20:11

Posted in Meditation

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