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The Spirituality of Reading

I find television to be very educating.  Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.” – Groucho Marx

Reading is the most timeless of all the methods of intellectual nourishment. It is true that other mediums that have been made possible by today’s digital technology, such as documentaries, movies, or even computer games (I’m ashamed to have learned most of my Japanese Sengoku history from a game – which is not unusual for Generation Y). Even this website, Buddhistdoor, is a product of a new technology, a new way of studying and relating to the world. But the act of reading itself – the activity of looking over words that different cultures have arranged to form a coherent message that can be passed down to children and grandchildren – is an achievement that is grossly underrated. It is evidence, or even proof, of just how clever we human beings really are. Or at least, how clever we can be.

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be –
I had a mother who read to me.
– Strickland Gillilan (Thanks, Laurel)

Without a doubt, reading constitutes a good part of spirituality. This is how the literate learn about religion. This is how people can see the Dharma and know of the virtues and truth of the Buddha’s teaching. All this is recorded in the scriptures and in the literature that have been passed down to us. This realization alone should grant the activity of reading not only great respect, but also urgency. But even when we are not reflecting on, say, the Dhammapada or the Lotus Sutra, the sheer power of reading spills over religious texts and suffuses many other texts that are of a lesser sanctity.

Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life.” – Joseph Addison

A spiritual life is certainly about what one can give to the world. But it is also about how one can grow in life and its challenges. A good life, of eudemonia, is not restricted by the Buddhist ideals of non-attachment and renunciation (I wrote a feature some time ago about this idea of Buddhist flourishing). Flourishing also denotes a flourishing of the mind and intellect, an opening of doors. And what happens when a door opens? A new journey begins. And that is what reading provides: journeys. Not simply journeys of the mind, but of the heart as well. These journeys may be to outer space, to see the stars and constellations, or they may be to Hogwarts. They may take us to Jerusalem, or the towns of Kashmir. They will bring us to the Great Wall, or the caves grottoes of Mogao. Or they may simply take us on a journey inwards, that we may know ourselves better and hence give more of ourselves in the spiritual life. That is surely an important destination to try aiming for. And the most exciting part is this: regardless of how the journey is taken, no two individuals travel the same way.“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” – Henry Thoreau, Walden

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