Heresy

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Heresy comes from the Latin haresis meaning ‘taking’ or ‘choosing’ and is the name given to any interpretation of a religion which differs from the official or the most widely held one. It is very difficult to define the nature of an heretical belief. The 16th century humanist Sebastian Castettio said it best when he wrote, ‘After a careful investigation into the meaning of the term heretic, I can discover no more than this, that we regard as heretics those with whom we disagree.’ In the West until just recently and still in some places in the Middle East, the most drastic penalties were or are inflicted on those accused of heresy. Buddhism has a clear and precise concept of truth and recognises that there are what it calls wrong views (micchà diññhi). However, it has always allowed for a very flexible interpretation of truth and so hypersensitivity to heresy and the hunting down and killing of heretics has been rare. This flexibility is well illustrated by this incident recorded in the scriptures. Once a monk asked several of his fellows how insight is attained and each gave him a different answer. Confused, he went and told the Buddha what the other monks had said and the Buddha replied, ‘Suppose a man who had never seen a kiüsuka tree went and asked another man what such a tree looked like. The other might answer, “A kiüsuka tree is blackish, like a charred stump.” So for the first man it would appear as the other man saw it. Then he might go to another man and ask him what a kiüsuka tree is like and the other might reply, “It is reddish, like a piece of meat.” So for him it would appear as the other man saw it. Then he might go to yet another man and ask him what a kiüsuka tree is like and the other might reply, “Its bark hangs down in strips and its pods burst like a sirãsa tree.” So for him it would appear as the other man sees it. Finally, the man might go to one more man and put his question again and the other might reply, “A kiüsuka tree has thick foliage and gives a close shade like a banyan tree.” So for him it would appear as the other man sees it. In the same way those advanced men gave you their answer according to their individual purified vision’ (S.IV,193).

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