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.