Monday Morning Greetings 2021 #8 – “Before Breaking the Rules, You Have to Know Them!”

February 22nd, 2021

“Before Breaking the Rules, You Have to Know Them!”


I recently heard this quote in a class by Friar Richard Rohr that I was listening to in preparation for my last post. I became struck with the profundity of the statement and researched its origins. It is difficult to exactly pinpoint its roots, but it is generally credited to either Pablo Picasso or the Dalai Lama. I don’t know anywhere, however, where this saying is so deeply elucidated as in the essay “The Bhagavat, its Ethics and Theology” by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur. The essay is a mine of jewels on this subject. I will pick just one short excerpt to begin our analysis of this point:


“Thoughts will necessarily continue to be an endless series of means and objects in the progresses of humanity. The great reformers will always assert that they have come out not to destroy the old law, but to fulfill it. Valmiki, Vyasa, Plato, Jesus, Mohammed, Confucius, and Caitanya Mahaprabhu assert the fact either expressly or by their conduct.”


As I thought further on the need to be immersed in tradition before attempting to reform it, it became evident to me why this understanding is so essential. At the crux of this view is the conviction that there is logos, a truth or controlling principle that forms the basis of ancient traditions. Therefore, “breaking the rules” to institute reform cannot possibly mean to totally discard the tradition. Rather, it means reformatting or changing how these truths are expressed and applied so that those same truths remain relevant in a modern context.


From my experience, it is either those who are too reactionary or progressive that pose the greatest challenge to maintaining this type of a living tradition. While the reactionary fail to recognize the occasional need to break the form of the law when it is no longer functional, the thoughtlessly progressive fail to recognize the purpose of the law leading to either an uncompromising break with tradition or a radical transformation of it. A state or institution without this ability to both break and remain true to its roots at the same time will surely lack the wisdom needed for its conservation.


A more contemporary example that demonstrates this very delicate concept is the success of Srila Prabhupada implanting an ancient Indian tradition in the West. He credited the marked success of his movement to the liberality in which he accepted women into the ashram and empowered them to serve despite the apparent orthodoxy of the Indian tradition in this matter. At the same time, he no qualms carefully delineating and promoting the place of traditional gender roles in a functional society when they could be appropriately applied. In other words, he broke rules, but also knew their value and thus set the foundation for a living tradition, one with both the purity of tradition and the compassion of adaptability to survive the nihilistic post-modern world.


“Before Breaking the Rules, You Have to Know Them!” The statement intrigued me, and I found no one that better elucidated either the depth of its meaning or the folly of its neglect than Bhaktivinoda Thakur. We’ll end our Monday Morning Greeting here with another one of his gems: “Progress certainly is the law of nature, and there must be correction and developments with the progress of time. But progress means going further or rising higher. Now, if we are to follow our foolish critic, we are to go back to our former terminus and make a new race, and when we have run half the race, another critic of his stamp will cry out: ‘Begin anew, because the wrong road has been taken!’ In this way, our stupid critics will never allow us to go over the whole road and see what is in the other terminus. Thus, the shallow critic and the fruitless reader are the two great enemies of progress. We must shun them.”



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