No matter where you begin, says Judy Lief, or whether you are an independent practitioner or affiliated with a particular tradition, all you have to do is to dive in.
Thanks to the efforts of translators, practitioners, and scholars, we have access to an abundance of magazines, journals, books, articles, videos, podcasts, and websites about Buddhism in all its diverse forms. Different Buddhist schools emphasize different aspects of the tradition and have varying guidelines regarding the proper balance of study and practice. And when it comes to study, different schools of Buddhism focus on completely different primary texts and commentaries.
Practitioners studying within a particular sangha may follow a customary curriculum, and be guided in their studies by teachers within their community. But for the independent practitioner, there is no clear roadmap. The sheer volume of material to study can be overwhelming, and so can figuring out where to start. So it is probably best to begin at the beginning—with yourself.
Some people love to practice and hate to study, and other people love to study and hate to practice. Which type of person are you? If studying comes easy for you, it is possible to confuse intellectual understanding with real understanding. If studying is more difficult for you and practice is easier, it is possible to hide out in a vague understanding of meditative experience and fail to challenge yourself intellectually or to develop a sophisticated understanding of the dharma.
So before you launch into further study, study yourself. If you are more scholarly you could balance that by more practice, and if you are more practice-oriented, you could balance that with more study and analysis. Bringing together study and practice so that they balance and support one another creates a strong ground for developing your understanding of the dharma and progressing along the path.
Having established that ground, look into how to study the teachings. Dharma study is not simply about acquiring information; it is a process of transformation and deep reflection. Instead of reading one book after another, amassing more and more information, you might go over the same text, or even the same short passage, over and over again, and come back to it year after year. Each time you go over it, question what is really being said, its relevance, how it can be applied, and whether it rings true to your own experience and observation of the world.
Traditionally, it is said that dharmic understanding develops in three stages: hearing, contemplating, and meditating. Developing an intellectual understanding of a text or presentation is just the first step, called hearing. You then need to wrestle with the material so that it begins to sink in, so in the practice of contemplation, you make a direct, personal, and quite intimate relationship with the material you are studying. When your understanding deepens to the point of mastery—when it’s in your bones—that is the third stage, meditating.
Once you have examined what it means to study, how do you choose what to study? A smorgasbord of options awaits, and you could begin almost anywhere. You could choose to explore a particular tradition such as Zen, or you could begin with an overview of the Buddhist tradition in general, or the life of the founder, Shakyamuni Buddha. You could explore the many different styles of teaching, from traditional sutras and commentaries, to biographies and life stories, to works by contemporary Asian meditation masters or Western Buddhist teachers. You could listen to talks online, read poetry, look at art.
There are many different teachers, many different styles of dharma teaching, and many different media for presenting the teaching. You could begin by exploring widely, and in the process you may discover an affinity for one or another teacher, tradition, or approach, which may help you to narrow your search and guide your studies in a certain direction. It is also possible that as you are looking for the right book, unexpectedly, the tables are turned and the right book finds you.
At this point in history, there is a greater abundance of dharma available to ordinary practitioners than in any previous era. That is a great blessing, and at the same time, quite overwhelming. But no matter how much you read, how many talks you hear, or how many websites you visit, there is no guarantee that there will be any real benefit. It is good to accumulate knowledge, but it is better to let that knowledge transform you. The benefit comes in the meeting point between you and the dharma, when a seemingly outer teaching strikes a deep inner chord.
Only you know how you are approaching your studies. Only you can decide what kind of relationship you want to have with the dharma, how deep or how shallow you want it to be. Basically, how much you put into it, is how much benefit will you derive—no more, no less. And as you progress, the effect of your study will be determined not simply by your learnedness, but by the changes in your character, by your further gentleness and sanity.
The dharma is like an ocean, which is too big to consume and too heavy to carry along as your accoutrement. You cannot put it into your book bag or capture it in your DVD player. No matter where you begin, or whether you are an independent practitioner or affiliated with a particular tradition, there is plenty of room for you there. All you have to do is to dive in.