Studying Practice & Practicing Study

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?


16 thoughts on “Studying Practice & Practicing Study

  1. A religion consists of an arbitrary set of doctrines and practices none of which are verifiable or falsifiable.

    Variants of Buddhism may contain such trappings but I think at heart it’s not a religion. It’s simply a set of methods that allows you to recognise and embrace your humanity and your natural sense of connectedness. Indra’s Net may not inherrently exist but it may also describe as a metaphor how we exist ITRW.

    My perceptions of the world have changed over the years and it seems odd that it would correlate with purely religious texts. It also seems odd that such texts allow me to make predictions.

    So in the long view I feel study is unnecessary and maybe it falls away naturally – the difference between ‘making love’ and pr0n.

    There’s plenty of evidence in the west that a lack of scholastic study has led to shallowness and a lack of recognition of that shallowness. It has led to people not being able to recognize or monitor ‘progress’. In “The Four Yogas” the fourth one is “No more meditatation” and there are plenty around for whom that seems to be true. It also seems an odd pinnacle for a religious path!

    Good luck with your studies. You may discover a few things:
    1. It’s a sugar-rush that never satisifies
    2. There is no end to the conceptual models you can build and grasping the model is not grasping the thing.
    3. Eventually you’ll lose your taste for it.

    But as Dogen would say using vines to untangle vines is a valid approach.

    Today I am unwell and require medication and rest. I find myself thinking of death sometimes. It’s sunny outside and I may go and enjoy it for a short while. I once could write a paper on the phsyics of the sun, but these days being able to enjoy it is enough.

  2. I am glad for your opportunity to study and educate yourself in a field that interests you. I would likewise like to have that opportunity. I found that I go back and forth on this-at one point I read every text/commentary/Buddhist book I can get my hands on, then I get burnt out and tired of it and swing to the “zazen/practice only” side of the spectrum (where I am now). I think both are good, both help us on the path, but like everything else, we work best when we find a balance between the two. Even Dogen, who one moment says that study is worthless (or somehtign along those lines), and all we should do is sit zazen, will tell us later that study s good, seems to have traveled the same path. No need for apologies, Jiryu! the dharma is beautiful, whether it talks to us from zazen or from the Diamond Sutra. Take care, and I look forward to seeign what you learn at school. I’m sue you will enjoy it!

  3. There is nothing shameful in becoming fascinated with the riches of the several Buddhistic traditions. The expansion of the Buddha’s intellectual patrimony over more than 2500 years, & across a vast geographic & cultural range, is one of the great narratives in the history of consciousness. There can be no doubt that it is a subject eminently worthy of study. It should also be noted that truly learned & articulate explainers of Buddhism & Zen are not exactly thick on the ground.

    On the other hand, it cannot be plausibly denied that the various forms of putative Buddha-vacana have been a major distraction & in some cases obstacles to practice for a great many students. I am not speaking here only of the temptation the teachings pose for a philosophically inclined trainee. There are also students who are put off by a more intellectually demanding approach to the path. It is part of a teacher’s responsibility to decide when & to whom a particular doctrine might be useful. For one student the contemplation of a passage from a sutra can lead to insight; while for another it could be the path into a swampland of speculative excess.

    In the case of Zen, independence from words & letters has not been a barrier to the obvious erudition & literary propensities of the masters. On the contrary, scholarly writing is a significant factor in the success of Zen as a religious movement. Zen is a special case in a number of ways, for there is a sense in which it really does reject its own teachings, & a great deal more besides—“if you meet the Buddha in the road,” etc.. As one of my teachers remarked, “You spend the first few years learning everything you can about Zen & Buddha-dharma, & the next 50 years trying to forget all that.” Nevertheless, the ability to leverage the practice intellectually from different doctrinal vantage points can be helpful to students who are not yet fully committed to zazen. (By “fully committed” I mean not a decision to sit for x hours per day but the willingness to surrender to the real, moment by moment.)

    For one who wishes to serve as a monk, priest or minister of Buddhism, the scientific study of one’s own tradition can be of great value, if only to put it in a less friendly light, cheek by jowl with competing systems, some of them from other cultural spheres. There are bound to be a few shocks along the way & that, too, is a good thing. How you fare in the academy will depend in large measure upon your degree of mental flexibility. There have been monks who dropped out of graduate school because they couldn’t bear the challenges it posed to their particular tradition’s view of itself, others who moved off the reservation, & a few who manage to keep a foot in both worlds. You will find your own balance.

    One of the things you will likely discover as you explore “the historical, philosophical, philological mess of Buddhism” is the particular mess that was Chinese Buddhism just before the dawn of the Age of Chan. A patchwork of early & later Buddhist scriptures & their associated schools made up a Buddhist milieu so various & fragmented that not even Zhiyi’s ingenious system of classification could make it convincingly whole. The need for a supreme authority who could vouch for and interpret the incoherent heritage of India—so long ago & far away that who could be sure?—was the primary impetus for the invention of the Chan patriarchy. It is a tale of political intrigue & deception as riveting as any thriller. Enjoy!

  4. You have said just now “But that’s exactly where I can find myself, justifying rather than celebrating the Dharma.”

    Yes, Jiryu, so it would seem that you might often cultivate a tendency to justify your activity!

    As a professed Feral Monk who has himself avowed and aspired for enlightentment outside of the very scriptures he studies them constantly, I thoroughly comprehend your point, even as I experience your disclosure itself as a form of justification with which I have been painfully familiar.

    Dealing with this, I have recast the three wisdoms as Study, Practice, Authenticity. Even though these come to us in the literature with an implied linearity of development, I see them instead as being three stations on the same turning wheel.

    What I have come to understand, is that the Ancients were in fact running all three processes all the time at full speed and that despite our veneration of their words, their brains were much as ours are today. But then, that’s all pretty much all been stated in the Eihei Koso Hotsuganmon.

    Before running all three stations of the wheel of wisdom smoothly, I suspect one runs them irregularly, perhaps by running them serially instead of simultaneously and synchronously; and, if one is not yet an ancient, then one, like me, is probably insufficiently adept at being aware of actually doing ‘authenticity’.

    Doing ‘authenticity’ is, for me, the practice of being aware of whatever special cases are manifesting but from the point of view of my buddha-nature (which is to say the tatagathagarbha’s permeation of this momentary, impermanent, interdependent and apparently ‘personal’ special case that nevertheless both studies and practices best from the cultivation of authenticity).

    From close observation of you for a very short time at Green Gulch in January, I would submit that you already do authenticity aplenty amidst your wife and child. I don’t think it is unreasonable to suppose that by continuing to practice non-discontinuity there, perhaps such a common tendency to justify will dissolve as you also cultivate your ancientness.

    Anyway, this sort of thing works for me. Maybe something like it can work for you as well!

  5. I have always wondered how studying Buddhism precisely contributed to awakening. Personally I put my effort into loving-kindess, Zazen, chanting, bowing, and prostrations. I know that at some point I will have to learn about what the Buddha taught, but I never really received an answer on why studying Buddhism is necessary for awakening.

    One of the reasons why I am reluctant to dive into study is that I fear it would be another thing to hold on to, a little toy to play with when I want to escape just this moment.

    • I don’t think studying is necessary for awakening, but to be well rounded, knowledgeable, and able to discuss Zen or Buddhism is a valuable thing. Understanding what we practice, why we practice, the history of Buddhism, and the teaching is important. Thinking you will acheive awakening by studying is not realistic…not to say it isn’t possible, but I don’t think that is the goal. Although the famous story of the diamond sutra causing one of our ancestors to acheive awakening indicates that it can happen. I think that studying can offer insight and wisdom for us all.

      • Except I am not sure it is clear that Hui Neng was “enlightened by” having heard a part of the Diamond Sutra in a manner that gave him new insight, so much as by simply having stumbled into a situation that was conducive to his recognizing something being said that he already knew (existentially) was the case.

        This is an important distinction and one which I find is absent from many Dharma study discussions.

        I rather think that ‘scriptures’ – the traditional sutras and enlightenment stories – are all post-enlightenment, ex post facto maps, composed by ones whose actualized (i.e. existential practice of) enlightenment apart from precedent scriptures illuminates the prevailing conventional wisdoms – most especially the dominant spiritualities – in a “new light” that enables “new articulations” of having discovered the same old evidence within one’s self and the self’s milieu.

        For me, trying to move towards enlightenment by ‘hearing’ absent any reasonably developed practice of existential attunement (e.g. zazen) is a bit like taking nourishment through the anus – once a common medical practice for feeding people who were incapable of delivering food to their bodies in the usual way.

        My teacher pointed out to me recently that even Hui Neng submitted himself to “training” after 16 years of public dharma teaching based solely on his own ‘awakening’. That training was for enabling Hui Neng to meet other minds on their own terms towards being helpful and harmless in his assistance to them. Studying sutras, their transformations through commentary, and their evolution is merely a way to make polyglots out of monoglots through both space and time.

        Therefore, no one on the path needs to form any opinion at all on this matter of somebody’s study practice v practice study.

        Anyway, it is said that the third wisdom happens at the point of no longer needing either dedicated study or practice that might impede the full flow of compassionate presence to all beings.

  6. @Elliot:

    In Buddhism there are six senses that can be used for awakening, studying uses one of those senses – thinking. Dogen was a geek and studied a lot – he flaunts his geekiness in everything he wrote. Zen downplays study a lot – unsurprisingly and ironically – but it is a valid approach. For me it formed part of a practice for a time, a puzzle.

    Nagarjuna’s “Fundamental Wisdom of the middle way” (Jay Garfield trans.) is an iconic text which explores the limits of language to describe reality and thus the limits of study. However without lots of practical experience it is also a text that will pretzel your mind – attempts to ‘understand it’ can be futile.

    With sensible use of the internet I think it’s now pretty clear that text and therefore thinking and study is a valid path for some. In Jiryu I recognise a kindred spirit – a man for whom deep thinking and deep study is part of his nature, and Zazen can be a subtle denial of that very nature. I am always studying some topic for fun, even if it’s no longer Zennish.

    It’s not really possible to escape from ‘this moment’ unless you are in dreamless sleep. It’s just a case of where your attention is – it could be you are looking at thoughts, it could be you are looking at thoughts about the outside world – “Ooohhh a Squirrel” it could be you are experiencing the outside world and thoughts are not there. It could be that the outside world is a movie you watch. It could be that there is no movie you watch. In the west we call one/some of these ways as “being in the moment” but it’s not really accurate. “The four foundations of mindfulness” and “The Tibetan book of the dead” both explore some of these things from a practice viewpoint.

    Some are born Geeks, some are born Jocks. Some are neither, some are both. I learnt from a Jock but found myself returning to geekdom. That is my nature, it’s not right/wrong/better/worse, it’s just my nature.

    • ““To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by the myriad things. To be enlightened by the myriad things is to drop off the body/mind of oneself and others. No trace of realization remains and this no trace continues endlessly.” – Dogen

      This might be what awakening is about.
      1) Establish concentration or as Reb Anderson once said, “Be calm so you can study the mind.”
      2) Directly encounter the ego in meditation. Maybe when we start to forget the self in deep concentration the self asserts itself as fear of the groundless state. At this point we realize that our ego is constantly overseeing our minds. Whenever, and it’s only happened once, I move toward this groundless abyss, I become absolutely terrified and it’s my ego that labels my experience and thus frees me from my fear. Somehow after years or eons of studying the mind we might be able to enter into this groundless state and forget the self. I think Jiryu wrote in his book that this transition into awakening would be accompanied by a “primordial scream.”
      Question: How, by what mechanism, does reading and commenting on sutras specifically lead to awakening? If studying texts is not the most efficient and rapid way to awakening and we only have this one precious human life, then shouldn’t we focus on formal meditation?

      • @Elliot:

        Good question!
        If sutras are so useless why do they exist? Isn’t meditation enough? Why bother with a teacher after all everyone can find a wall! Is this blog just a sutra that talks back?

        The sutras, like teachers contain information perhaps guidance perhaps fantasy or lies; they contain a body of knowledge that has been passed down through the years maybe after repeated verification through practice. They are a tool or a trap – you can turn the scriptures or be turned by them as Linji might say.

        Zazen is also a trap. It is very easy to use Zazen to grow your ego. It is very easy to use it as proof of a desire for awakening whilst avoiding it.

        In your house and mine there is everything at hand that I might need to commit suicide – electricity, poisons, plastic bags, knives, car fumes, gas oven, fire sources, the list goes on. Suicide is therefore incredibly easy to arrange and could be done at any time. Very few people commit suicide.

        When you or I look at an oven we think of food, bleach we think of hygiene, plastic bags we think of storage and so on. Somehow we go through life never thinking “I’ll use this bag to kill myself after I finish my coffee”

        All methods of practice are like that – they can be used to embrace or avoid awakening. Sometimes it takes 30 necessary years of avoidance to lay the groundwork. There is a koan about this “If you haven’t awakened in 3 days you should just kill yourself”.

        The text you quote was my first introduction to Dogen. ISTR it is also Dogen quoting a chinese sutra. It was given to me as a helpful text. I read it in one way, the giver in another.

        The answer to your question is in that very quote. What do you see? What do you fail to see? What should you do?

        When you are ready nothing will obstruct you. When you are not everything will. I cannot help or hinder. Everyone must find their own way.

        OBTW Awakening is a process, not an event – even if landmarks appear to exist. It’s not always pretty. Outside of a monastery there is no safety net beyond the one you build and it may not always work! You may not even like all of your true nature!!!!! Nothing in life only has an upside!

        Luke: “What’s in there?”
        Yoda: “Only what you take with you”
        Luke: “I’m not afraid!”
        Yoda: “Oh! You will be”

  7. Hi Jiryu,

    I would offer that the West needs its Buddhist teachers (and more students) to be better steeped in both the teachings and history of Buddhism. US culture in particular has a strong do-it-yourself ethos and furthermore, Buddhism has entered its culture at a moment when this propensity appears to be strengthening. To my perception, it is as if we are manifesting our individualist ethos more strongly all the time, and this often applies to systematic study—people of the West frequently find it unpleasant and question its worth.

    Yet Buddhist history reveals how often great teachers and awakened ones both studied and practiced deeply and thoroughly. Not that either is easy, but both seem profoundly worthwhile, even if the combination can be bewildering and/or ego-boosting. Dahui comes to mind here, not only for his ego, but also for his great scholastic knowledge, as well as for how long his practice-based journey lasted in order for him to fully manifest synthesis of both.

    As someone who teaches at a junior college, I witness daily and yearly the need for growth through systematic study, as well as the profound resistances to it. My sense is that you have a profound opportunity, and as others above have suggested, you will find your own way to balance life in the academy with life at Green Gulch. It seems to me that you are already moving forward with an eye towards this balance —i.e, studying with your intention squarely upon discovering how it can benefit practice and awakening of all beings.

    I am thrilled for you and wish you the very best on this latest chapter.
    Blessings and Deep Bows,

  8. Hi! I was looking at the history of the Hua-yen School and Zen in general. It seems that the teaching about impermanence is evident even in the wide history of Buddhism. There´s no way to keep a permanent tradition over the centuries, but is possible to let it become always a new expression of itself. Can we think in the 21th century that something has a permanent essence? Does the study of Buddhism has a permanent essence? Aren´t we talking precisely about the wonderful dynamic existence of everything?

    I have the feeling that the interesting mix of the University and the temple life is the result of this dynamic and beautiful impermanence and emptiness of self. At least in the North American Zen I met, there was a cultural mixture, not an exact copy of every single word that Dogen Zenji said. As a Western and a 21th century man, I find extremely difficult to become one of the monks that studied under Dogen Zenji a long time ago, to ignore the University (which is one of the greatest creations of the West), and to live as a Japanese of the 13th century.

    As the “Treatise” by Fa-Tsang says, the teaching of the Hua-yen school is more about including than cutting off that which contradicts the main teaching. Even more, I guess that if there´s no Zen at University, definitely, there´s No Zen in the West.

  9. Jiryu–

    Here in Japan, too, there is a dismissive tone towards Buddhist scholars, as if they have nothing to offer (even when the scholars are also priests, which is so often the case). There’s an idea that by delving into the written teachings, they have somehow stepped away from the practice itself. It’s a ridiculous assumption.

    It’s my sense that the people in our Zen history who have spoken with the most authority on the non-necessity of academic study have themselves been scholars of the highest order–they’re qualified to say what they’re saying because they’re seeing it from the other side. It’s not “don’t study.” It’s “don’t be attached” (which goes for everything anyway).

    I think it was Bill Maher who recently said something like, “Americans actually love the elite, but only when the elite are rich. When we say the culture is anti-elitist, what we mean is that Americans hate educated people.” There’s a lot of truth to that. It puts someone like you in a double bind–you belong to two cultures that will forever treat your studies with a kind of contempt.

    But what you’re doing is incredibly generous, and also incredibly rare. We desperately scholars who can see from inside the tradition, who can shine that light from inside the room. Thank you.


  10. Pingback: Who Owns the Dharma? | No Zen in the West

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