Buddhist scholarship vs. practice


I signed up for a graduate class about Buddhism. It’s not an introduction; students are expected to be familiar with the basic teachings and history of Buddhism. I knew that a university course in Buddhism would be a lot different from listening to a Dharma talk or reading a book about Zen practice, and I’m okay with that. (It’s been a while since I was in grad school, but my cognitive skills are still functioning.)

I’ve started reading one of the textbooks, a newly updated book titled Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, 2nd edition. The writing style is surprisingly clear and even somewhat informal — especially welcome when you realize there are 121 pages of end notes!

The biggest difference between this book and most of the others I’ve encountered (so far) is the historical approach. Sutras are mentioned and summarized when they contribute to our understanding of, say, the difference between the Madhyamika and Yogacara schools. I have to confess that I’m pretty much a practitioner, not a scholar, and my whole knowledge of “schools” up to this point was Mahayana, Theravada, and an assortment of Zen traditions. Nothing more than that.

Now and then the book gets challenging because I don’t have much background in philosophy, and it’s a bit tough for me to stay with a long argument about, for example, existence and nonexistence and emptiness. But I’ve been pleased to see a few little illuminations on what I already know. (Also, I’ve learned more about Arhats in the past week than I’d ever heard in four years of Zen practice.)

This reading has me thinking about some Buddhist discussion forums such as E-Sangha. I don’t spend much time in forums because it seems like so many people there are debating points of scholarship. I realize such debate has a long, happy history in Buddhism, but to me it seems quite separate from the practice.

I’m just becoming aware — now — of a more purely philosophical approach to Buddhism. It’s thinking and not doing. Nothing wrong with that, but the two are very, very different! I’ve heard people refer to “bookstore Buddhists,” meaning folks who’ve read lots of books but rarely applied backside to cushion. I can see now that you could spend many years doing the former.

As for me, I feel sure I’ll continue doing the latter.



7 responses

  1. I’m going to try to do both, but with emphasis on the cushion…the practice. I tend to be an academic by nature and thrive in that environment, but I know that theory without practice is empty, and can even at times be hurtful…. It is the practice that will put our lives where our mouths are.

    Nice post. Thanks for making me thing. 🙂

  2. I’m more oriented towards practice, but I am in training which mandates study. More than a few times I have wrestled with a teaching in the books and then had great progress with it later in meditation and contemplation. Study definitely deepens practice and vice versa although it takes some time before this becomes apparent. Just be patient — and energetic. It’s really worth the effort.

  3. Thanks for this post. Text book Buddhism will not take one to the final goal because the understanding will be purely at the intellectual level, not the experiential level. I do however believe that reading other’s wisdoms is important because the words serve as signposts along the way. The path cannot be trod by the intellect, however.

  4. In recent years, I’ve started to spend more time with scholarly texts on Buddhism.

    Partly, this interest comes from simple curiosity (just where did all these bodhisattvas come from, anyway?). And, in part, the interest comes from an increasing sense of place in a long tradition of practitioners.

    One of the things that has become clear to me is that the distinction between cognitive understanding and direct perception (study/meditation) is pretty much an invention of the last 60 years and is a distinction that occurs only in the West.

    I recently read a text of Mazu and his dharma heirs (Pai Chang, et al), and it was clear that these teachers had deep understanding of the formal teachings and traditions of Buddhism – their insights did not arise solely from the butt, but also from the head.

    I have advanced degrees in philosophy (many years ago) and sometimes I come across a text that completely baffles me – so filled with jargon and technical terminology that I just can’t make sense of it. It’s weird. Surely the same thing could be said more simply.

    I’m interested in the textbook you’re studying. Right now I’m reading a book on the early period of Buddhism and the sectarian divisions that occurred in the period after the Buddha’s death. Human impulses have not really changed – and so practice continues to be necessary.


  5. @Barry – This book is quite enjoyable because for a while it will be naming teachers and their disciples, and distinguishing some division or disagreement, and giving dates and geographical references — and then it will go into the meat of the argument and become very down with philosophy. Yesterday I read the utterly fascinating chapter about the Tathagatagarbha (which I had never heard of before*) and how it is interpreted (and disputed) by different groups. It was all very clear, and moreover, it gave me some wonderful food for thought about No-Self.

    *I was familiar with the idea that each person, or each sentient being, contains a Buddha, or has Buddha-nature. But no more than that!

  6. @Dai Chi – Thank you for mentioning that you “have wrestled with a teaching in the books and then had great progress with it later in meditation and contemplation.” That is a very important point, I’m sure!

    This morning during meditation, I found my thoughts very focused on self, no-self and the five skandhas, in a way they have never been before. I’m sure yesterday’s reading had something to do with it. I was really trying to locate that “self” that I’m intellectually certain does not exist — but really, do I KNOW it doesn’t? I don’t know what or where it is, but in fact I have not looked under every rock and beaten all the bushes. Now, it seems, I am doing that. And I’m guessing that’s an experience I need to have.

  7. Yes, studying texts and books is very important but it’s not necessary when practicing Buddha’s Way; reality is open for everyone, no matter if one can read or not. Most important thing is to remember to practice zazen and try to walk Buddha’s Way as wholeheartedly as possible, following guidelines like the precepts and Eightfold path. Sometimes it’s very good to study, sometimes it’s not. I think we know when it’s time to study by practicing zazen everyday and when our body and mind are balanced, we can intuitively know what’s going on.

    But if a person can read and understands something, then it’s very important to read and study. But it’s not necessary.

    Good luck and well done! Keep up the good spirit and thank you for your efforts and practice! May this year 2009 be just the way it should be!

    With palms together,