The Importance of Study: a panel discussion with Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, John Daido Loori, Christina Feldman and Georges Dreyfus.
In the past several decades, Buddhism has captured the popular imagination in the West with the image of a serene Buddha sitting imperturbably in meditation—motionless, silent, free from thought. How popular would the image be if the Buddha were wearing glasses that slid down his nose as he pored over a text to discern its intricate meaning?
All Buddhist traditions agree that the Buddha’s realization is beyond words and books, and yet the Buddha tells us in the Diamond Sutra that untold merit will accrue from memorizing even one stanza from the sutra and sharing it with others. In fact, all Buddhist traditions regard texts as sacred. They all draw on a rich library of sutras, commentaries, biographies, songs, chants, lists and diagrams. The intricate psychological analyses contained in the Abhidharma alone fill many volumes. What is the purpose of these teachings? Is it necessary to study them in order to inform and deepen meditation practice? Can one achieve realization through study alone or, conversely, is it possible to achieve realization without any study at all? Do some people “study Buddhism” while others practice it?
Prior to the 1960’s, Buddhism in the West was largely an intellectual and academic enterprise. Early commentators frequently fit Buddhism into Western religious and philosophical frameworks, making study of authentic Buddhism difficult. Then, during the countercultural revolution that sprang up in the sixties, new adherents of Buddhism sought enlightenment experiences. Nirvana, satori, kensho—these were the watchwords of the day. For many, the study of Buddhism and the adoption of its ethical framework smacked of the traditions they were rebelling against. They sought something that was deeper than words and doctrines.
Forty years later, many Buddhist institutions have established themselves in the West. Early students have discovered that enlightenment does not come merely at the drop of a flower. As more and more students recognize that sitting by itself does not lead to direct realization for most people, teachers are finding there is a renewed interest in the study of Buddhism. This has created the need to adapt the curricula of Buddhism’s ancient traditions to today’s practitioners, many of whom are not following the monastic lifestyle that previously supported in-depth study.
At the center of Buddhist study is the cultivation of prajna, discriminating awareness. Without it, any peacefulness attained in meditation may remain superficial. But how is the cultivation of prajna any different from conventional intellectual pursuits? Is there a core curriculum for Buddhism? Is it necessary for a practitioner of Buddhism to know precisely what the Buddha taught—to understand dependent origination, non-ego, emptiness and all the rest—before meditation practice can give way to deep realization? Given that Buddhist realization is beyond words and concepts—the tools we must use to study—how precisely does study aid in bringing about the enlightenment exemplified by the Buddha?
Bhante Gunaratana: In the Theravada tradition, there are two systems: one is typically academic and the other is monastic and meditative. There has been debate in the past between these two. Since the academicians were very erudite speakers, they of course won the debate. But in reality it is the practice that survives. That is what has made Buddhism survive up to this date. Our ideal situation is to have good knowledge of the dhamma and a good amount of practice, combined together—there must be a balance. We cannot do one at the expense of the other.
That being said, there has been a problem in the West in that many people don’t study the dhamma. They think that they can learn dhamma by focusing the mind on breathing and doing nothing else. They have no knowledge of what the Buddha taught. People who are neglecting study are not that spiritually mature, though, and until their perfections are complete, they need to know what the Buddha taught.
When we start learning meditation, we all come across situations where we get confused. We don’t really know how to solve the problems we encounter. So then we have to look at the texts and see how Buddha solved those problems. Before he had any enlightenment, he was very much like us. He always had problems, just like we have, and whenever he had problems, he found a solution. Since we are not enlightened, when we have a problem we must go to see the way the Buddha solved his problems. This is how knowledge of dhamma comes in handy when we do the practice. If we don’t have any knowledge of dhamma, we get completely bewildered, confused and come out with wrong views and wrong understanding. Therefore, my position is that there must be a good knowledge of at least the theory of meditation and that must be balanced with good practice.
John Daido Loori: The Zen tradition is probably the one best known for special transmission outside of words and letters, a direct pointing to the human mind and realization of buddhahood derived from Bodhidharma, around 500 CE. That special transmission has for the most part defined Zen in both China and Japan. In fact, I’ve actually studied in Rinzai monasteries where the library was locked most of the time, and people were discouraged from putting too much emphasis on words and letters.
However, I’ve found that because we’re not in a Buddhist culture in America, people know very little if anything about Buddhism, so it is necessary to include a pretty comprehensive training in academic study. At Zen Mountain Monastery, our Eight Gates of training, which is for all students, includes a good dose of what we call “academic study.” This is not only for the monastics but also for lay practitioners. There are, of course, different types of study for monastics and lay practitioners because they need to know different sorts of things.
The tendency of students in the West has been, when they hear certain words and terms in Buddhism, to equate those with the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is what we’re familiar with. As a result, they can come to conclusions that aren’t accurate. So, in addition to studying the sutras that are important to Zen training—such as the Prajnaparamita, Lankavatara, Avatamsaka, Pundarika and Vimalakirti sutras—we also study the Abhidharma teachings and some of the sutras from Theravada Buddhism, because these are sutras that were taken up by some of the ancient Zen masters, such as Dogen. We also have Buddhist Studies, which pays particular regard to “Buddhist philosophy” and provides a little bit about its history. The monastics are required to study comparative religion and they also do tantric studies.
In Zen Buddhism there was a traditional saying that “painted cakes”—that is, words—”do not satisfy hunger.” Dogen, in the thirteenth century, said painted cakes do indeed satisfy hunger, and aside from painted cakes there’s no way to satisfy hunger. So he took a very different point of view from that normally found in Zen. In our order, the Mountains and Rivers Order, academic study is part of the training curriculum for all students—residents, non-residents, lay practitioners and monastics.
Georges Dreyfus: I would distinguish pretty sharply between what has been done traditionally in Asia and what’s been done in the modern West, and even in some sectors of modern society in Asia. In the Tibetan tradition, one can distinguish two main approaches: one where establishing the view precedes meditation practice (“from the view looking through meditation”) and one where the view arises from meditation practice (“looking for the view through meditation”). The first is a classical, scholastic approach in which one first studies and then one practices. The second one is reserved for a few people who, under the guidance of a teacher, practice meditation without extensive study and then attempt to gain realization in that way.
Contrary to what is often thought, the more scholastic approach is found in all four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s not the case that one tradition does this approach well and the other does that approach well. In fact, the dominant approach has been the one laid out by Bhante—studying extensively and from there trying to meditate and gain realization.
There are, however, in all traditions, people who have dispensed with study and have more resolutely attempted to gain realization without much study. The point that Daido Loori Roshi made is very relevant. It’s quite misleading to take these rare examples of people from traditional cultures gaining realization without extensive study and apply these to modern Western practitioners. In the Tibetan tradition, the dominant model by far is the first one, where one first studies and then practices. This would also be a good model for the West. Among the various Tibetan groups operating in the West, an evolving question has concerned what type of curriculum to use. More and more groups have developed curricula of varying complexity and sophistication that attempt to provide knowledge of basic Buddhist culture and Buddhist philosophy. This gives Western students an orientation to basic Buddhist culture that they do not have access to through their own cultural background.
Christina Feldman: My experience is drawn mainly from two traditions. When I first began to practice in the Gelukpa tradition, I anticipated being immediately introduced into great tantric initiations and so forth, but my teacher at that time didn’t encourage much meditation practice at all. The emphasis was much more on the scholastic, academic understanding of Buddhist philosophy. Meditation was introduced slowly. After a time, I began to train more in the Theravadan meditation community, where there was something of a reversal going on at that time. The emphasis in Theravada was more on direct, intuitive experience. I found these to be quite radically different approaches. Having made my home more within the Theravadin tradition, and particularly the meditative tradition, it’s been interesting for me to see how the question of the relationship between practice and study has been evolving.
I guide students based on an intensive meditative tradition, but that doesn’t mean teaching is absent. Within that context, there’s a great deal of teaching of Buddhist philosophy—sila, samadhi, panna. But it has also been evolving in other directions. Here in England, for example, I’ve been part of Sharpham College. There we present a wider understanding of Buddhist teaching, and I’m currently running a two-year study program for a group of people here. We had sixty applications for the first year, but the program is limited to twenty people. We initiated this program to address a thirst for understanding that I sense in people, many of whom began with intensive meditation experience. They seem to want to put that experience into a meaningful context.
Buddhadharma: Each of you has discussed curricula being offered to Western students, but do you also find that there has been some resistance to study?
Bhante Gunaratana: Things have changed from forty or even twenty years ago. Those were the days when people were tired of pursuing an academic career, going to university and getting degrees. Many of them were the ones who became interested in meditation, and they were also the ones who wanted to attain enlightenment very quickly, and who therefore did not think academic study was that important. Of course, when it comes to Buddhist learning, we are not talking about secular academic degrees or qualifications but rather simple learning. More than ever before, it is true that people have begun to realize the importance of learning dhamma. Though there still are some students who think all they have to do is meditation, among the students who practice with us, most are very interested in learning the dhamma.
John Daido Loori: I haven’t experienced that resistance to academic study. In the early days it was a different story; twenty-five or thirty years ago, the student body was quite different from what it is today. Most students these days are professionals of one type or another. They’re college-educated. They’re accustomed to studying. They tend to want to intellectualize things. That’s why the balance is so important. So at Zen Mountain, academic study is just one of eight gates. Zazen, sitting meditation, is the core of the whole thing. Liturgy is an important gate. Ethical teaching is an important gate. Body practice is an important gate. Face-to-face teaching with the teacher is also important. These things all balance themselves out.
Academic study is a required part of the daily routine during our ninety-day intensives, although people both in residence and at home can select to do the academic study or not. By and large, they choose to do it, because they’re much more comfortable with it than they are with the mysterious realms of sitting meditation, where they don’t have any kind of reference system. With study, it’s something they can nail down. The reason that it wasn’t part of our regular training when I started, I think, had mostly to do with the teacher. I trained with a Japanese master whose command of English was pretty good, but not extensive, so complicated discussions of Buddhist metaphysics were something that just didn’t come up. There was a lot more emphasis on the practical aspects of Zen: sit, work, do the liturgy.
Buddhadharma: Did this also reflect the training that your teacher came out of?
John Daido Loori: Yes, because in the training he came out of, most Soto monks are ordained when they’re eleven years old and grow up in a family temple. By the time they are ready to go to high school or college, they’ve been working in the temple, assisting the teacher, doing the liturgy. They are familiar with the language of Buddhism from an early age. Then, they go to Buddhist university and get the equivalent of a Masters degree in Buddhist studies, before they do their intensive stay of two or three years at a training monastery. When they walk into a training monastery they already have a good foundation in Buddhist studies, liturgy and moral teachings, so their focus is more on the practical aspects at that stage.
Georges Dreyfus: In the Tibetan tradition, you have an even more traditional society. Most monks would become ordained in a small village monastery where they would learn basic literacy, ritual and so on. Many of them would then spend time in a more central monastery, where they would receive scholastic training. In all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the elite of practitioners—not always, but usually—get some form of scholastic training when they are in their middle or late teens. After that, they may go back to the monastery or they may start a more intensive meditative practice. By the time they start on their meditative career, they have already had several years of systematic scholastic training.
If I were to compare Nyingma, Kagyü and Geluk, what’s most different is not that one school studies and the other does not. It’s mostly the way they study that differs. The Geluk put more emphasis on debate and the study is longer. The Kagyü and Nyingma put less emphasis on debate and more emphasis on textual study, and the period of study tends to be shorter. There are certainly differences between the schools, but it would not be accurate to say that the Geluk study and the other schools don’t. Many Nyingma scholars I know would be very insulted if things were described in this way.
Christina Feldman: I would agree with Bhante and Daido Loori that twenty to twenty-five years ago one encountered a lot of resistance to study in the West. There was a belief system that valued transcendent mystical experience above everything else—as a kind of fast track to enlightenment. I do think that kind of thinking has changed considerably over the years. Many Westerners who are practicing now have a great deal of respect for investigation as a means to awakening. They have found that investigation is not just about having an experience, but that it’s a much broader, much deeper, much vaster way of coming to understand the dharma.
I do sense sometimes as I encounter people that there are two schools of thought, although I would acknowledge some convergence between the two. One we could call the “meditation” school, where people think “this is it.” They sit on a cushion, they walk, they practice, and this is essentially what they’re looking for. It fulfills their expectations. It fulfills their needs, their wishes. The other school is the “dharma” school, in which meditation plays a part but it is a part of a larger picture, which is sila, samadhi and panna. My sense at the moment is that the “dharma” school is becoming much more prominent than the school that only values inner experience.
Buddhadharma: Since there are many more lay practitioners than monastics in the West, is there a different course of study that is appropriate for laypeople?
Bhante Gunaratana: Whether people are monastics or lay practitioners, there are three levels of development: pariyati, learning what is taught by the Buddha; pattipati, putting it into practice; and pattivedha, realizing. We can do these three at the same time. We don’t have to spend a great deal of time studying first, and then start practicing, and then go on to realizing. As we learn, we practice and we realize. This is the Buddha’s scheme and it is good for both monastics and householders. Some people are so busy, however, that they have become very impatient. They want to achieve something very quickly; therefore, they overlook the first two steps, learning and practicing. They want to realize very quickly. That is the general problem most people face, whether Western or Eastern, so I have been suggesting to monastics and some laypeople that they must follow a curriculum of very rigorous book study. There also has to be ongoing daily practice and that can be followed by anybody without too much academic or rigorous book study.
These days there are all kinds of modern technologies invented for communication and learning that can be used by laypeople in everyday life. Of course, these are often used for wrongdoing, but I suggest to people that they use them for their own development. In the early morning, instead of listening to all kinds of negative, destructive, painful news, they can start the day with what we call dharmacitta. When the alarm goes off, they can listen to a beautiful, peaceful message of the Buddha. They can wake up to a message about metta, compassion, joy and equanimity, for example. They could keep that with them all day as an object of contemplation. This way we can bring the Buddha’s message into our daily life, in addition to our meditation. Contemplation itself is meditation, because we incorporate the message into our life. These messages must be kept alive in our daily life, in our thoughts, words and deeds. In my upbringing, long before we even knew our alphabet, we knew a lot of Pali chanting and dharma verses from our tradition. The very first thing we heard when we woke up in the morning was our parents reciting something very beautiful, very peaceful, wishing goodwill, peace, solace and comfort for the world.
The teachings of the Buddha are very practical. The noble eightfold path is not a theory; it is practice. We have to learn to put the teachings into practice. Somebody can philosophize about the teachings, can psychologize about the teachings, but what Buddha taught is a real and practical.
John Daido Loori: Because most people lead very busy lives, many of them will gravitate to the kind of training that just requires sitting fifteen minutes a day or visiting a center once a month to sit or listen to a talk. For example, we have a Sunday program, and it fills a niche in many people’s lives, replacing the Sabbath. That’s the only time we see them, though. They never really enter into training. They come in, they sit for two periods, listen to a talk, have a community lunch and that’s their dose of Buddhism for the week. There are other lay practitioners who are a lot more serious and decide to become students. They’re required to make a commitment not only to meditation practice but also to engage in our program, the Eight Gates of Zen. We track them and we keep student records. After a period of time, we can tell just by reviewing the records what they need to give more attention to. If we find out that they’re just paying dues and not being active, we tell them to save their money and not continue.
There’s a whole spectrum of students, then, from monastics, who have made a lifetime commitment and will live, die and be buried at the monastery, to lay practitioners who have families and jobs and a very limited amount of time—and everything in between. A realistic training program has to address the needs of this very diverse group. We try to do that by using many different venues, so the training doesn’t only take place at the monastery. It’s on the Web, it’s in journals and books, and it’s available through affiliate groups around the country.
Also, whether the students are lay or monastic, they need to be clear about what they are committing to. If people are looking for psychological counseling, they should see a psychologist. If they are looking for physical well-being, they should go to a health spa. If, however, they come with a question—Who am I? What is life? What is death?—then they’re asking religious questions, and that’s what we do. That’s what we’re trained for and that’s what we can help them with. Physical and psychological well-being may be by-products, but the initial force for studying and practicing Buddhism must be religious.
Christina Feldman: This is something I’ve been discussing at some length with students on retreats. My sense is that, historically, a dedicated, vigorous religious life was considered to be the territory of monastics, those who had renounced the world. Currently we have a different paradigm. We have a very large lay community trying to find a way to lead a dedicated spiritual life in the midst of a very busy lay life. There has never been a blueprint for how to do this. My sense is that there is a very powerful link between rigor and inspiration. If people feel inspired, a great deal of effort and commitment comes out of that inspiration. It’s a spiritual commitment, and as Daido Loori was just saying, a religious commitment.
The current role of many meditative communities is not merely to teach people how to sit on the cushion; it’s about how to nurture and cultivate the necessary level of inspiration, so that people find the way to be rigorous and dedicated. In the study program I mentioned earlier, we mentor people throughout the two-year period. They also have homework they have to turn in that is not simply testing knowledge; it is reflective, applied homework. The reports we are getting from the mentors tell us that this study process is nurturing inspiration. People are making far more effort in their practice and the application of the practice than they did previously when they were only attending meditation retreats.
Georges Dreyfus: The Tibetan tradition is in transition. It is a very complex tradition and it has moved pretty abruptly from being situated in a very traditional society to the modern West and exile in India. The various Tibetan Buddhist groups are trying to deal with this transition by developing curricula for this new kind of mostly-lay student, but this is still a work in progress. Even how Western monks should be educated is still not a completely clear and settled question.
Buddhadharma: Do you believe, then, that a philosophical tradition as ancient and complex as Tibetan Buddhism can be adapted without “dumbing down”?
Georges Dreyfus: Yes it is adaptable, but it’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be quick. Until recently, Westerners have dealt mostly with people who were completely steeped in a traditional culture, who have had less sense of what is required in a modern context. The transition we are talking about does not just involve Tibetans and Westerners, it’s also among Tibetans, who have gone through the trauma of invasion, destruction and exile. How is the Tibetan tradition of learning going to survive and transform when Tibetan society modernizes and changes? I guess we have to be optimistic. Buddhism is, after all, an export product. It remakes itself in very different social and cultural contexts.
Buddhadharma: Finally, how does study, as opposed to meditation practice, contribute to realization?
John Daido Loori: We make a mistake if we regard realization as being within the province of either one or the other, meditation or academic study, or for that matter, limit it to Buddhism. I’ve never regarded realization to be solely within the province of Buddhism. There are just too many great historical beings, such as John of the Cross or Theresa of Avila—even Walt Whitman, for that matter—who have clearly had some kind of an awakening, some kind of a realization, some sense of what we in Buddhism would call kensho or satori. That can happen outside of the context of Buddhism. It’s happened probably more so within Buddhism because there’s a specific drive to do that, but it can happen with study or without study. If someone has no understanding of Buddhism, has no awareness of Buddhist teachings, and has some kind of a realization, they may be a little bit lost. But they will have experienced the nature of the self, the nature of the universe. They will understand them clearly.
Of course, having some kind of a context to fit that into is very helpful. Then it becomes a rational thing, not so odd. I had a dharma sister about fifty years ago who as a child experienced kensho. Her parents thought she was insane and sent her to psychologists. It wasn’t until she was forty years old that she met a Zen master who examined her and decided that what she had experienced was actually an awakening, a realization. She wasn’t a Buddhist. The Sixth Ancestor of Zen wasn’t a Buddhist. He wasn’t even literate, and yet he realized himself. All of the schools of Zen trace their lineage back to him.
Christina Feldman: People tend to transfer the patterns of their lives and their minds both to how they meditate and how they study. There are different ways of approaching study. There are different ways of approaching meditation. They can be approached in a materialistic way, as a way of accumulating more concepts or more meditation experiences. They can be approached in a greedy way. Meditation and study are both means to transform those habitual patterns of mind. Even though our initial approaches may not be so skilled or even so wholesome, they can be transformed through the simple willingness to begin. Then both meditation and study can be approached in a very reflective way. Approaching study in a very reflective way, sitting with some teaching as one would with a koan, can be a way to bring the mind to great stillness and receptivity. At the same time, approaching meditation in a very reflective, investigative way can open us to levels of understanding not previously accessible.
Georges Dreyfus: A great deal depends on how one studies. It’s very important that the study remain connected to practice as much as possible. When I was in the monastery I remember our teachers constantly emphasizing that, because it’s so possible to go astray. It’s also important to be clear about what study means. Study traditionally means hearing, reflecting and meditating. At the basis of hearing, or studying, there is considerable emphasis on memorizing the text one is studying. That way one owns the text, imbuing oneself physically with the words, rather than leaving them in one’s notebook. Once these texts are memorized, one can reflectively go through the most important ideas, and then develop meditation on that basis. Indeed, though, different people gain different things from different aspects of the tradition. A great deal of insight can be attained in study and a great deal of understanding can be developed through practice. Once again, it is important to balance study and meditation, which is the mainstream of the Buddhist tradition, while recognizing that individuals, based on their particular dispositions, may benefit more from one aspect or the other.