Study and practice work together, says Judy Lief, to undermine ego. They’re the great disrupters.
There are many ways to engage with Buddhist teachings. You can read books on the dharma and take classes in person or online. You can meditate on your own or attend retreats. You can engage with Buddhism as an academic or translator, or relate to it primarily as a guide for living more harmoniously. You can connect with the dharma through your affinity with a particular spiritual or cultural community, or become a devotee of a Buddhist master. There isn’t just one way to enter the path.
In my case, it wasn’t ideas or books that sparked my interest in the dharma; it was meditation. I was a graduate student and a “word person,” but when I learned to practice, something fundamental opened up for me, something not expressible in words.
Later, I read something my teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote: “When the current of thoughts is self-liberated and the essence of dharma is known, everything is understood, and apparent phenomena are all the books one needs.” Taking those lines literally, I deposited all my books on the sidewalk, free for the taking. I figured books got in the way, and the only thing that mattered was direct experience.
Yet what did I end up doing on my dharmic path? Working with words! Editing, writing, and teaching. All of which require studying, reading, and thinking. So it wasn’t as simple as ditching my books.
Just studying isn’t sufficient, but just meditating isn’t sufficient either. Only when practice and study are in harmony, can you make progress. Then, like a bird with two strong wings, you can fly.
Personally, I didn’t always fly straight. Sometimes one wing was stronger than the other and I needed to rebalance. Working with this balance has been an ongoing challenge. How much study? How much practice? What kind of study? What kind of practice?
Being learned is great, but it’s not the point. Being a good meditator is great, but it’s not the point, either. The point is transformation and to help this suffering world by cultivating wisdom, compassion, and skillful means. The feedback we receive from our everyday life reveals the extent to which the training has taken root. Our training shows in whatever we do.
In the West, the Buddhist tradition is so identified with sitting meditation that the important role of study tends to be overlooked. But dharma study is essential in the tradition. Dharma teachings are a means of transmitting a tradition over generations. When we study the dharma, we’re connecting with the students and scholars who’ve come before us. Study exposes us to a very different way of approaching our world and provides insights into our inner hang-ups and obstacles, as well as our inner potentialities. But without meditation practice, it’s hard to reap the benefits.
Traditionally, study and practice each have a role. The mark of study is less arrogance and the mark of practice is a lessening of one’s negative emotions, or kleshas. Obviously, this is based on a hopeful view of study and practice. In my experience, academic studies often lead to greater arrogance, not less. Likewise, meditative practices don’t always reduce kleshas; at times they seem to enhance them.
For study and practice to be transformative, they have to be disruptive. If we don’t disrupt the momentum that perpetuates harmful ego fixations, we’ll simply go on as usual. There’s no way to keep doing what we’re doing, and at the same time be open to transformation. For individual dharma students, and for the integrity of the tradition going forward, the kind of study and practice that’s essential is the kind that’s disruptive to ego fixations.
Dharma study is as much about unlearning as learning. In terms of learning, it’s important to develop basic knowledge about the tradition you’re following. That places your practice in a larger context and gives you a sense of where the tradition comes from and where it’s heading. Reading even a short passage of dharma can inspire you to keep going when you lose heart. Connecting with the broader tradition keeps you from drifting along, unmoored. It gives confidence.
As we study, we infuse our everyday stream of thinking with dharma. This is a slow process. For the dharma, our everyday stream of thinking is hostile territory that’s already overcrowded with deep layers of thoughts and assumptions shaped by the dominant culture and our personal history. It may be best not to be slaves to our thinking at all—to free ourselves entirely from the hold of fixed views—but in the meantime, since we’re thinking anyway, why not think dharmic thoughts? Such thoughts have a way of poking the edifice, exposing the underlying fear at the root.
As we study, the dharma begins to confront our inner world. This is a clash of two totally incompatible ways of thinking. The dharma is exhilarating but threatening. It’s one thing to follow the dharma “out there,” but quite another to accept its implications for what’s going on “in here.” This level of study is like fermentation. We let the dharma seep in and try to dig down into what it’s really getting at. We question its truth, our understanding, and its relevance. Layer by layer we dig.
Occasionally, as we grapple with the relationship between personal experience and dharmic teachings, we have moments of clarity. We find that neither the literal words out there, nor our struggle to interpret and digest them, fully hold up. The dharma doesn’t even need the label dharma. It just is. Simple and immediate.
At first, you may be able to study the dharma somewhat impersonally, as something of interest “out there.” However, over time the dharma tends to become not so easy to keep at arm’s length. It leads us to question our most basic assumptions about who we are and how we’re living.
We start to realize the dharma isn’t an adornment to our existing infrastructure, but its unraveling. This unraveling or unlearning is gentle. It frees us from the frozen quality of holding ourselves together through our solid views. The more space this opens up, the more dharma enters in.
Studying the dharma leads to the kind of inquisitive mind that takes an interest in all aspects of our outer world and inner experience. So, study goes beyond book learning and beyond a narrow definition of dharma. Taking an interest is a form of love. It opens a tender connection with whatever arises. You find that when you’re a true student, everywhere you turn there are teachings.
For a balanced dharmic life, study needs to be paired with meditation. Words are powerful, but they can be deceptive. Just because we know something intellectually doesn’t mean we truly understand it. Meditation practice is key to understanding the dharma.
Meditation is so simple that it can seem that nothing is happening, but it changes things completely. Mindfulness–awareness practice cuts expectations, speed, and judgmentalism. It connects the head to the heart, and uncovers deep tenderness. Most of all, sitting practice opens up space in the mind, and with a spacious mind, the powerful energies of negative emotions lose their support.
The words of the dharma aren’t an end in themselves. It’s what they point to that matters. We could accumulate more and more ideas about dharma, but unless we slow down and allow ourselves time to digest them, we won’t reap much benefit. But when we balance sitting and study, we allow the conceptual and nonconceptual to intertwine and enrich one another.
Direct nonconceptual experience is like the string of a rosary, and the variety and richness of dharmic understanding is like the beads. The balance of the two protects the integrity of the tradition in the present and going forward. Together they bring the dharma alive.