How to Study the Dharma

Understanding Buddhism, says Reginald Ray, takes place in stages of ever-deepening and more direct experience.

Reginald Ray
1 May 2004

Understanding Buddhism, says Reginald Ray, takes place in stages of ever-deepening and more direct experience.

In Buddhism, an ever-deepening understanding unfolds naturally from intellectual study. This process is classically expressed in the teaching of the three prajnas, or kinds of knowledge—hearing, contemplating and meditating.

The first prajna, “hearing,” involves intellectual study of the Buddhist teachings. Here the practitioner aims at a precise and detailed knowledge of traditional doctrines about impermanence, the “self,” karma, samsara, ethical behavior, meditation, the structure and benefits of the path, and so on. The emphasis in the first prajna is on what the Buddhist tradition actually says about the topic under consideration. Consider the example of the first noble truth—suffering—with its major varieties and types: in the first prajna, one seeks an understanding of this teaching through listening to talks by respected teachers, reading sutras, studying commentaries, discussing and debating with others, and, perhaps, taking exams.

Once some mastery of the literal teachings has been attained, the practitioner progresses to the second prajna, “contemplating.” Here one reflects on what has been learned to see what its meaning may be in one’s own life. In the case of suffering, one might ask, What does this teaching have to do with me? What does it say about my actual day-to-day experience? What does it actually mean?

If the first prajna represents the relatively abstract content of the explicit teachings, in the second, through an open, tender, questioning contemplation, individual creativity and expression come into play. The way these two prajnas work together is similar to ballet, where the dancer must first master the external positions and movements before she can begin to use the forms to express the subtlety, beauty and powerful meaning that make a truly great ballerina.

In the second prajna, one descends from the world of concepts and intellect to the much larger and richer world of what psychologist John Welwood has termed, “felt meaning.” This descent begins in the clear light of our foreground consciousness (the first prajna), but leads into the subtleties and shadows of our lived experience, revealing, in Welwood’s words, “a rich and diffuse pre-articulate experiential intricacy.” With the second prajna, we begin to see that terms and ideas that we had at first understood only on a conceptual level hold deep and far-reaching meaning for us. In the example of the first noble truth, we begin to realize that this doctrine actually points us toward persistent and pervading facts of our most intimate selves: the insufficiency, incompleteness and subtle frustration that mark all of our conditioned experience.

It is certainly possible, and even common, to remain at the level of the first prajna for a long time, putting off actually “getting” what that teaching is pointing toward. Particularly when we’re studying painful and difficult topics, we may find ourselves unable to progress beyond a purely intellectual understanding.

Consider the teachings about death. We read over and over that death is real and that comprehending this is an important inspiration and motivator to practice. Although we are continually exposed to this idea, our understanding tends to remain purely conceptual and we resist really letting it “hit home.” Then some external circumstance intervenes—someone close to us dies or we ourselves receive a real scare. At such moments we come to see what the teaching on death really means and that it is true in a far more literal and terrifying way than we had supposed. I have a friend who survived the crash of a DC-10 some years back. She had been a Buddhist for many years and thought she understood the teachings about death and impermanence quite well. As the plane was going down, however, it hit her like a lightning bolt that she had never really understood this teaching at all.

But Buddhism does not rely solely on the chance intervention of external circumstance to move us from the purely conceptual understanding of the first prajna to the real, embodied and literal experience of the second. Rather, it provides various tools and techniques to help us penetrate the superficiality of our own ignorance and resistance. In relation to the teaching on death, we are invited to spend time contemplating the fact that everyone we know will one day be dead. We can go through every family member, friend and acquaintance we can think of, and say to ourselves, “After such and such a time, this person will be dead.” In another contemplation, we can visualize our own funeral with our friends standing around our corpse, mourning and laughing, thinking good and bad things about us, and soon forgetting we ever existed. Particularly powerful is to imagine ourself sitting at the bedside of someone we love a great deal in the last moments of his or her life—visualizing how we would feel, what we might say, how we would act. During such contemplations, it is not unusual to suddenly find ourselves—in a way that feels absolutely real—sitting with our dying friend. We know exactly how we would feel. At such moments, we have achieved the second prajna—”contemplation.”

To be sure, these are difficult and sometimes extraordinarily painful contemplations, but that is exactly their point. As long as we keep the realization of death at arm’s length, as long as death remains a disembodied idea at the level of the first prajna, it is not going to do us much good. When we face its agonizing reality, however, then we begin to see things in a different light. We can begin to prioritize our lives, letting go of the myriad of ultimately meaningless things we do and beginning to focus on what is truly important.

The third prajna, “meditation,” takes us another step further—to an experience of unconditioned reality, the ultimate nature of our own awareness that undergirds and holds all relative knowledge and experience. In the context of the third prajna, when we see that death is utterly real, the impact on our state of mind is immediate and dramatic. There is an instant settling. Suddenly we find ourselves unable to entertain our habitual distractions and preoccupations, and most of what we usually spend our time thinking and worrying about seems like such nonsense. “What a waste of time! I have been wasting my life tying myself up in such ways!”

To return to the crash of the DC-10, as the plane was descending toward its point of impact, and the passengers in the plane realized they would likely be killed, everyone and everything—so my friend reports—became extraordinarily still. When you truly and completely realize the reality of death, you find yourself no longer exiting to discursive thinking, because there is nothing left worth thinking about—there is just this: this moment, this reality, this field of awareness within which life and death are playing out.

Once the second prajna of contemplation has in this way opened the doorway to meditation, the practice of the third prajna is to rest and remain in the meditative state at ever-deeper levels and for increasing periods of time. One lives one’s life ever more fully as an expression of unbounded awareness.

Each of the three prajnas is necessary to the others; none can be skipped or short-changed. The first prajna provides the external form—the intellectual structure and the conceptual understanding—within which our deep understanding can develop. For example, if we don’t have an accurate intellectual grasp of the truth about death and its import for practice, then any contemplation of it that we may do is likely to meander with no definite outcome. We may simply contemplate how sorry we are that death exists and become depressed, apathetic and withdrawn.

On the other hand, if we gain a good, conceptual grasp of the teaching but fail to penetrate its deeper and more personal layers, our study will be like a tree that bears no fruit. Instead of leading us to liberation, our excellent mastery of Buddhist doctrine could even serve to bolster our ego by augmenting our self-concept of being an “intelligent, informed Buddhist.

Finally, if we have not laid the ground of the first two prajnas, if we do not really get the fact that our time in this life is strictly limited and always uncertain, our meditation will have no sense of urgency and we may spend our time on the cushion—perhaps for years—entertaining all kinds of hopeful thoughts and pleasurable fantasies. By the same token, if the first two prajnas are not followed by the third, our understanding—however intellectually astute or emotionally grounded—will remain incomplete and unfulfilled.

Reginald Ray

Reginald Ray

Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., was Professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University and a teacher-in-residence at the Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. He is the spiritual director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation and author of Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.