Letter and spirit
The letter (vyaṭjana) refers to the exact literal meaning of a statement and the spirit (attha) refers to the broader nuances and implications that the letters might convey. The Buddha said that an enlightened person is ‘skilled in the words and their interpretation’ (niruttipada kovido, Dhp.352) and that we should understand and practise the Dhamma ‘in both the letter and the spirit’ (D.III,127; Vin.I,20). This is because only a harmonious balancing of the two will make our spiritual journey fruitful. If we focus too much on the letter we tend to become pedantic, rigid and even edge towards fundamentalism. If we do not give the letter the attention it deserves we can end up thinking that we are practising the spirit of the Dhamma when all we are doing is interpreting it to suit ourselves. The letter orientates, the spirit illuminates.
There are many examples where the disengagement of the spirit from the letter can create problems. For example, the Buddha placed the highest value on honesty and said that we should always tell the truth. However, it is possible to tell the truth with the specific intention of hurting someone. One can say something, the literal meaning of which is one thing, while the tone in the voice or the expression on the face suggests the exact opposite. By omitting just one or two essential facts or highlighting others, it is possible to give an entirely different picture of the event one is recounting and yet maintain, quite truthfully, that everything one has said is true. It is also possible to speak with just enough equivocation that the exact meaning of one’s words is unclear and later deny or affirm what one has said according to what is convenient. These examples show that one can adhere exactly to the letter of the Precepts, the Vinaya or other aspects of the Dhamma while being cruel, devious, manipulative or dishonest.
How can we avoid this kind of distorted approach to the Dhamma? The first thing that can help us integrate the letter into its spirit is to always put any of the Buddha’s words within the context of the whole Dhamma. For example, the Buddha made a rule that a monk or nun who develops psychic powers should not display them. Some time later, when two children were kidnapped by bandits and a certain monk used his psychic powers to rescue them, he was roundly condemned by his fellows for ‘breaking the rule.’ But the Buddha cleared him of any offence, for while the monk had broken that particular rule he had conformed to the spirit of the Dhamma by acting out of compassion for the children and their parents (Vin.III,67). The other thing that guarantees a fruitful integration of the letter with the spirit is what the Buddha called (M.III,38) internalizing the Path (paṭipadaṃ yeva antaraṃ karitvā). If we commit ourselves to practise sincerely, wholeheartedly and honestly, this will give us the self-confidence and wisdom to know the words and to see their deeper and broader meaning.
In one passage, the Buddha makes it clear that the letter should not always be taken and that there are times when the spirit is needed as the interpretation:
"Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? He who explains a discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred as one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out. And he who explains a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out as one whose meaning needs to be inferred. These are two who slander the Tathagata." (Anguttara Nikaya 2.25)
In the Nanda Sutta the Buddha coaxes his cousin Nanda by saying that he will have 500 beautiful nymphs in heaven if he ordains. Later after Nanda obtains enlightenment, he releases the Buddha from this promise. The Buddha was making that promise as a skillful means, knowing that Nanda would obtain enlightenment and of course that there would no longer be any cravings for that once enlightenment is attained. It was a lie, but with the best intentions and for the wholesome outcome for the enlightenment of Nanda.
Another example that is often used is that of hiding Jews during Nazi Germany. If the Nazis knock on the door and ask if there are any Jews hiding there, the correct response is to lie for those hiding Jews in their homes. Why? Because doing so is for the wholesome reason of saving their lives. The only reason not to would be to cling to a rule with dogmatic fervor or perhaps to be over worrying about any kamma result, which would be for selfish reasons. Whereas, lying in this instance would be for completely compassionate and wholesome reasons and therefore, actually have no negative kammic results.