Friday, November 8, 2013

Study when practicing (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

American monk Bhikkhu Bodhi (, making "The Case for Study" (Buddhist Publication Society) edited for Wisdom Quarterly (Access to Insight) by Dhr. Seven
The Buddha, Gandhara, ancient Indo-Greco Afghanistan (Boonlieng Wongchaowart/flickr)
Wisdom: leaf from the Bodhi tree
The recent upsurge of interest in Buddhism, both East and West, has been marked by a vigorous practical orientation. There is a drive to discover the peace and freedom to which the practice of Dharma (Pali, Dhamma) leads.
This zeal for practice, however, has often been accompanied by another trait -- the tendency to neglect or even belittle the methodical study of the historical Buddha's teachings. This is not likely to be fruitful.

Arguments are offered in defense of this anti-study attitude; they have already become familiar currency among us, for example:
  • Study is concerned with "words and concepts," not with realities.
  • It leads only to learning, not to wisdom.
  • It can change our ideas but fails to touch us at deeper levels. 
To clinch the case, the testimony of the Buddha himself is sometimes enlisted. The Kalama Sutra is misunderstood and misquoted. His famous remarks that to learn much without practicing much is like counting the cows of others or like carrying a raft on one's head instead of using it to cross over to the further shore (nirvana).
This contention, to be sure, has its aspect of truth. But it also suffers from a one-sided emphasis that may actually thwart rather than aid our progress on the Buddhist path.

It is certainly true that learning without practice is fruitless. But the other side of the issue should also be considered. Should a person gather cows if s/he knows nothing about how to take care of them? Should one try to cross a rough and dangerous body of water without knowing how to operate a raft?
Past buddhas revealed by the Budda, Theravada art, ancient Thailand (Trianons/
The Buddha insisted that followers learn and transmit the Dharma -- both in the letter and the spirit.
Rather than appealing to traditional formulations and facile quotes, let us inquire ourselves into the value and function of Dharma-study.
The point at issue, it must be stressed, is not study as an academic discipline or the accumulation of a wealth of learning. It is, instead, about the acquisition of a sound and solid working knowledge of basic Buddhist doctrines.
To see why this is essential, we must recall that the entire practice of the proper Buddhist path develops out of the act through which we enter the path -- the going for [guidance] to the Triple Gem [Budddha, Dharma, and Sangha].

If we have taken this step honestly, with correct motivation, it implies that we have acknowledged our need for spiritual guidance and have entrusted ourselves to the Buddha as our guide and to this teaching as our vehicle of guidance [and to those who have successfully completed the path, the Noble Sangha or "Community of Enlightened" individuals, both lay and monastic].

By taking [guidance from] the Dharma, we accept not merely a technique of meditation that we can use at liberty for our own self-appointed purposes, but a profound and comprehensive teaching on the true nature of the human condition. This is a teaching designed to awaken in us a direct perception of  Truth as the means for reaching the full and final end of suffering (nirvana).
In the Buddha's Words
The liberation offered by the Dharma comes, not from simply practicing meditation in the context of our own preconceptions and desires, but from practicing upon the groundwork of the right understanding and optimal intentions communicated to us by the Buddha.
This cognitive character of the Buddhist path elevates doctrinal study and intellectual inquiry to a position of great importance.
Though the knowledge that frees the mind/heart from bondage emerges only from intuitive insight and not from a collection of doctrinal facts, genuine insight always develops on the basis of a preliminary conceptual grasp of the basic principles essential to right understanding. In the absence of it, growth will inevitably be obstructed.

The study (suta) and systematic reflection (anussati) through which we arrive at this preliminary and preparatory right view necessarily involve concepts and ideas.
Before we hasten to dismiss Dharma-study as being, therefore, only a worthless tangle of words, let us consider that concepts and ideas are our indispensable tools of understanding and communication.
Concepts can be valid or invalid tools of understanding; ideas can be fruitful or useless, capable of bringing immense benefit or of entailing enormous harm. (Few things are worse than grasping Buddhism correctly, which is likened to taking hold of a snake by the tail rather than the neck. Grabbing it by the tail is easy, but then it reaches back to bite and destroy one; taking it by the neck is difficult but safe. Then something useful, like the basis of an antidote to snakebites, can be extracted).

The object of studying the Dharma as part of our spiritual quest is to learn to comprehend our experience correctly, so that we become able to distinguish:
  • the valid from the invalid,
  • the true from the misleading,
  • the wholesome from the unwholesome.
It is only by making a thorough and careful investigation that we will be in a position to reject what is detrimental to our growth and to apply ourselves with confidence (verifiable-faith) to cultivating what is beneficial.

Without this preliminary conceptual clarification, without having succeeded in rectifying our views, there can indeed be an earnest attempt to practice Buddhist meditation techniques. But there will not be the practice of meditation pertaining to the integral Noble Eightfold Path (which begins and ends with "right view," the first being preliminary and conceptual, the second being ultimate and the result of direct experience).

And while such free-based meditation may bring its practitioners mundane benefits like greater calm, heightened awareness, and pleasant equanimity, lacking the guidance of right view and the driving power of right motivation, it is questionable whether practice can ever lead to the penetrative realization of the Dharma, to its final goal, the end of ignorance about the Four Noble Truths and therefore the complete cessation of suffering (nirvana).
Bhikkhu Bodhi (
It is difficult to give a single word of counsel on the subject of study applicable to ALL followers of the Dharma. Needs and interests vary so greatly from one person to another that each will have to strike a personal balance between study and practice that suits one's own disposition.
But without hesitation it can be said that ALL who earnestly endeavor to live by the Buddha's teaching will find their practice strengthened by methodically studying the Dharma!

Such an undertaking, of course, will not be easy. However, it is just through facing and surmounting the challenges we meet in life that our understanding will ripen and mature in liberating wisdom.

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