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The letter (vyañjana)refers to the exact literal meaning of a statement and the spirit (attha) refers to the intentions behind a statement, and 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’ (niruttipadakovido, 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). Compassion is always more important than following minor rules. The other thing that guarantees a fruitful integration of the letter with the spirit is what the Buddha called ‘internalizing the Path’ (paṭipadaṃyeva antaraṃ karitvā, M.III,38). If we commit ourselves to practice sincerely, wholeheartedly and honestly, this will give us the self-confidence and wisdom to know the words and to see their deeper and broarder meaning.