Scholarship and Practice

I have written about this before, but it has come up again, and I think some of the points bear repeating. It has to do with scholarship vs practice in the Buddhist world.

I recently started to read an interview with a very prominent Buddhist monk. He is a self-described scholar. I am quite familiar with his work. For about two years all of my reading and study was with him. I read his books, did an online course with him, and I went to a ten-day retreat with him. He is certainly a nice enough person, and he is intellectually brilliant.

What I remember most about that time is two things. The first is that I learned a very good way to study the discourses. At some point I want to document that process. I am always encouraging people to read the discourses, and his way of analyzing them is, I think, very helpful. So that is on the positive side.

But on the negative side, at the retreat there was a young woman who I got to quite like. She is bright, creative and artistic, and very dedicated to Dharma practice and study. On the first or second day of the retreat, she was asking a lot of questions. And the monk got short-tempered with her and treated her, I thought, quite rudely.

Thich Nhat Hanh, who may be one of the sweetest people in the Buddhist world, says that everything that you do should be a Dharma talk. To be sure, I fall quite short of that. But I have been blessed to have teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, Larry Rosenberg, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu who don’t just talk the talk. They walk the walk. They embody the Dharma.

Inevitably when you go to a retreat, there will be people who will test your patience. This is exacerbated because of how raw your nerves can get during a silent retreat. But this is when we need to give the gift of patience and forbearance. This is especially true of our teachers.

I have been to so many retreats over the years that I can hardly even remember them all. And to be honest, I hardly remember anything that was said at those retreats. But I certainly remember if a teacher was harsh or mistreated someone.

To be sure, I am very grateful for some of the wonderful scholars who have brought the Dharma to the West. How could I not be? There are some extraordinary people who are a lot smarter than I who have learned how to study and translate the vast gift of Dharma literature that we have.

But to simply be a scholar and not aspire to something greater than that is, I think, terribly misguided. The Buddha was quite clear that he was not creating a philosophy or a religion or a description of ultimate reality. He described a path. It is a training. He defined our dilemma as being inevitably subjected to aging, sickness, and death. Nothing saves you from that fate. He found a way out, and he taught us how to follow that way out.

Think of it this way. Your car breaks down by the side of the road. Some kind person gives you a repair manual. You have two choices. You can read the manual, understand it as best you can, and try to fix the car.

Or you can study the manual. Maybe you will compare it to other manuals. You can write treatises on the manual, how it describes how to fix your car. You can debate alternative ways to describe fixing the car. You might even get a Ph.D. in writing car repair manuals. In any event, the car is still broken. You have not solved your basic problem.

When I talk to people about studying the Dharma, I encourage them not to get too hung up on trying to have a perfect understanding of every word. I think the way to read the discourses is simply to read them and understand them as best you can. But when you sit, keep it simple. Just sit.

One of the things that I found interesting when I researched my biography of the Buddha is that in the last 18 months or so of his life, almost every discourse he gave (except for one) had the same three themes: virtue (ethics and morality), concentration, and wisdom. This is particularly interesting given the emphasis on mindfulness in Buddhist today. But the Buddha emphasized concentration.

The way I have come to understand practice is this. When you read or study a discourse you are planting seeds in your subconscious. Perhaps you have had something like the following happen to you. You read something or you hear something in a talk, and much later, even years later, suddenly you understand it. It just pops into your head like one of those cartoon thought bubbles.

The practice of concentration creates fertile ground in which those seeds grow. The mind gets still, and then the subconscious has a chance to mull things over. This is how the creative mind works. You need to get the conscious, intellectual part of the mind to quiet down so the subconscious can do its work. This is why you can be struggling with a problem, and you put it down and go for a walk, and suddenly the solution appears to you.

When I started my career as a software engineer, I read about a technology called “b-trees.” Almost every database system in the world uses b-trees. And for a long time, I could not make any sense of them. Then suddenly one day it all seemed terribly obvious, and I could not understand why it took me so long to figure them out.

Practicing the Dharma is often like that. You take up a topic like dependent co-arising. That is a particularly tough one. But then over time, pieces of it begin to make sense. One day you catch yourself self-identifying with some mental phenomena, and you think “becoming.” It is a little startling when that happens. It should also be very gratifying. This is the practice working.

So back to the original point. The Dharma has very little meaning if it is not a way of life, a training, a way to become happier and a way to become more skillful. If it is a topic for study, that is missing the point. And if your only goal is to be a scholar, then that is all you will ever be. You will never attain the perfection of being an arahant. You will never be a teacher who can be infinitely patient and loving toward a student who is pestering you with a lot of questions. We only learn through questioning, and we can only learn from teachers who truly manifest the perfection of the Dharma.

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One Response to Scholarship and Practice

  1. Daijo says:

    I have also thought about scholarship vs practice in my Zen life, and agree with what you have written. Without scholars studying and translating the old masters into English, we would be without the roots of Buddhism. But without embodying the wisdom of the Buddha by actual practice, our lives would perhaps not be much changed.

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