Many of you know that I’m soon to begin formal graduate studies at UC Berkeley in East Asian Buddhist Studies. (The program I’ll start in is technically an MA in Asian Studies, as a Buddhist MA isn’t offered, but my emphasis will be the language requisites for Buddhist Studies and from the start I’ll be relating mostly with the Buddhist Studies folks.) I’m exceedingly privileged to be able to take up this study while remaining in residence at Green Gulch Farm.
With this shift in my life approaching, I’ve been feeling acutely the (real and false) tension between “study” and “practice.” Teaching a recent six-week class here on Buddha Nature doctrine also brought the issue home for me, as teaching classes here has before. Green Gulch is a Zen Center, after all – a practice place – and it seems unfitting to bring up even the most wonderful of Buddhist doctrines and systems without consciously tying them to our Zen meditation practice. Tying the teachings to practice is one thing, but it can go even further than that for me: I can feel I need to apologize, to justify the teachings in terms of people’s ideas about practice.
“I’m so sorry to bring up this beautiful, perfect, brilliant teaching on the dynamics of spiritual reality, it’s just I think it may be of some little help to our meditation practice, that’s all…”
At the main temple I practiced at in Japan, Bukkokuji, our teacher Tangen Roshi was said to insist that Buddhist study diminished a person’s affinity with the Dharma. That is, to study the Buddhadharma, the rich field of teachings uttered by the revered ancestors in the lineage of fulfilled Buddhas, makes it less likely that you will actually for yourself realize the heart of meditation. The idea is that studying the words of others – “slurping the dregs” of the ancients, as a Zen ancient himself put it – distracts us from finding in our own heart, here and now, the very source of those words.
With this kind of baggage it can be hard to just be unambivalent in the affirmation of Buddhist study, but actually that’s what I want to do. My primary Zen teacher, Mel Weitsman, has urged me not to apologize for the doctrines when I teach them – not to apologize for abstraction even, but to just share the teachings on their own terms. That feels right to me. The Buddhist teachings aren’t something to apologize for! Loving these teachings, and loving the turning of these teachings, and loving the mind of engagement with the teachings, is not something to be ashamed of or some kind of accidental problem.
“Welcome to the Zen Center, sorry the rooms are moldy and the people can be rude and we have all these Buddhist teachings around – we hope you enjoy your time here anyway.”
What kind of religion rejects its own teachings?! What kind of priests apologize for their study?!
But that’s exactly where I can find myself, justifying rather than celebrating the Dharma. And in this next step for me, this conscious, careful diving into the historical, philosophical, philological mess of Buddhism, I feel a turn towards simple celebration. Towards valuing the mind. Towards using and sharpening intellect, and integrating it with the “spiritual person” I imagine as somehow apart from that. Towards just doing what interests and excites me – in this case Buddhist study – without thinking too much about what Zen people are supposed to do or what Buddhism is “really” supposed to be about.
The great Chinese Buddhist ancestor Zhiyi taught four kinds of balance between Dharma study and meditation practice. First, there’s the person who has little study and little meditation. Second, there’s little study along with much meditation. Third, much study with little meditation. And fourth (tell me if you saw this coming), is much study with much meditation. Sweet number four is, of course, where Zhiyi wants to see us.
Depending how crazy or lazy our standard is, we’ll understand “little” and “much” in our own way, but I’d bet that by Zhiyi’s standards at least most of us are likely solidly in the first kind. That is, ours is the balance of not much with not much! But even if you feel that you don’t sit or study much, a relationship might be apparent – not much meditation, maybe, but even less study! Or not too much sincere thinking about Dharma teachings, but even less practice of them. Or maybe – just maybe – real balance? Or even perfect integration?
Whatever you think of the amount of meditation practiced at San Francisco Zen Center’s temples, it is clear that there is much more of it than there is of Buddhist study. And this is appropriate – I really have no beef with it. In this we’re somewhat in alignment with the modern Japanese Zen tradition: there, the standard course is to get the meditation and ceremonial training in one place (the monastery) and to get the doctrinal training in another (the university). Just as no one expects that the university will emphasize zazen or ritual practice, no one expects that the monastery will provide any kind of basis in Buddhist doctrine. The difference between here and there, though, is that most monks there are expected to do both – they do get the academic doctrinal training – whereas here most Zen students are just offered the sitting.
So my going forward now into the secular academic approach is for me very much a continuation of and filling out of my training as a Zen priest. It’s a new lens on the Dharma and a new lens on my life. I’m sure that my posts in the next months and years will reflect this influence. I hope they also will get more deeply into the tangle of “practice” and “study” – there’s much of my own “practice” experience that bears on it and much in the “study” of Buddhist doctrine that addresses it explicitly.
How do you see it?