How many ways are there to…how do I put it? Study Buddhism? Understand the dharma? Train in the sasana? Explore the Buddhist tradition? Follow the path? Engage in Buddhist Studies? Inquire into the nature of reality? You see the problem already. There are a lot of ways of going about doing whatever-you-call-it, and what you call it makes a significant difference to what you actually wind up doing.
The word “Buddhism” itself, as we are all no doubt aware, is a modern word. It is an abstract noun created in English to situate a vast range of phenomena in a Western tradition of intellectual inquiry. “Study,” too, has a specific meaning in the Western academic community. It refers to a special kind of focused investigation that takes place in classrooms, offices, studies and libraries, the fruits of which are shared and communicated in books, papers, articles, lectures and conferences. To “study Buddhism,” then, is a uniquely modern and Western enterprise, one that takes as its object, for the most part, something ancient and Eastern.
All this, of course, is something quite alien to the 2,500 year old Buddhist tradition itself. The teaching of the Buddha was generally referred to as dharma or dhamma, and the closest ancient word we can find to denote the larger movement set off by this teaching is the sasana, the “religion” or “dispensation” or “tradition” founded by the Buddha. Training in the sasana seems always to have entailed a good deal of “study,” at least to the extent a fairly large and complex curriculum needs to be addressed, memorized, cross-referenced and investigated. This is especially true for the monks and nuns, who not only had to know the 227 rules of the monastic order but who presumably also were expected to have mastered a prodigious amount of doctrinal material. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path were only the beginning. Between aggregates and elements, body parts and other objects of meditation, powers and absorptions and perfections, and so and on, there was a lot to learn. Even lay followers had a few things to keep track of besides the precepts. School children in Sri Lanka today, for example, still learn the Dhammapada by heart.
For traditional Buddhists, the texts, treatises and commentaries are only a part of something much greater.
How divergent are the traditional monastic and the Western academic ways of going about training or study? At first glance, they can seem quite similar in some of their doctrinal inquiries. Both, for example, have a strong interest in the texts and their texts and their interpretation. A sound knowledge of the canonical languages—primarily Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese—and of the vast canonical literatures composed in these languages, is a shared area of concentration. Beyond this, however, the two approaches appear to go signficantly separate ways.
For traditional Buddhists, the texts, treaties and commentaries are only a part of something much greater. The whole point to the teaching, and presumably to its study, is to bring about freedom from suffering for oneself and others—to achieve liberation. Study can be a very useful tool for dispelling delusions, for inducing right view, and for augmenting wisdom. But it is only one of several tools, the others including such things as the practice of meditation, morality, renunciation and service. Study in isolation of practice, or study that is not itself a form of practice, is limited and—many Buddhists would say—a somewhat shallow and limited pursuit.
The Western scholar of Buddhism, I think, would also agree that textual study is only a piece of a much larger picture, but quite a different picture. The study of Buddhism does include a strong component of trying to decipher what the Buddha and his followers through the centuries taught, but it also goes far beyond this to include whole realms of the human situation covered by such disciplines as history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, archaeology, mythology, art, architecture and many, many others. All of these can be brought to bear on the Buddhist tradition, but do not inherently emerge from it. The Western academic tradition, from its Greek origins, Renaissance rejuvenation and astounding proliferation in the 19th and 20th centuries, is essentially a study of mankind and the human condition. From this perspective, the study of Buddhism is both worthwhile in itself, in so far as it is an exercise in fathoming a unique human worldview, and valuable to a much larger endeavor of providing data for the disciplines.
But the academic study of any religion comes with its own special dangers. A common view is that for the study to be truly academic it must at least suspend belief—and possibly even disbelieve—statement of religious truth. Otherwise, it stands to lose the precious (though perhaps imaginary) perpsective of objectivity. When disciplined intellectual activity is put into the service of the converted, the argument goes, then we have not the study of religion but the practice of religion. For many academics, maintaining a clear distinction between study and practice is crucial.
So here we come to a fundamental divergence. For the Buddhist, study should be a form of practice if it is to be at all worthwhile; while for the academic, if study crosses over into practice it becomes greatly diminished in value. But how clear is this distinction? Must the two approaches remain forever at odds? There are a few places in the world that are trying to find a new approach to the subject, one that draws upon the strengths of each perspective and attempts to bring them a bit closer together. Whether or not this can be done remains to be seen. I for one am quite optimistic.
As a product of the academy, with a degree in Religious Studies and a specialization in Buddhism, I am basically very sympathetic to the larger ideal of studying the human situation by drawing on a number of disciplines and maintaining some academic “objectivity.” As the current director of the Insight Meditation Society and a practitioner of vipassana meditation, I have also come to appreciate the indispensability of meditation as a tool for Buddhist Studies. And yet I don’t find myself fitting easily or fully into either camp; I sometimes find much of what is written in Buddhism scholarship to be limited, somehow missing the point, and yet also have a lot of trouble describing myself to anyone as “Buddhist.”
Perhaps that is why I feel so comfortable at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. A relatively new institution, the Study Center (as it is informally called) has emerged from the Insight Meditation Society and still stays closely associated with this well-established meditation retreat center. Yet its mission extends well beyond either just the preservation and propagation of Theravada Buddhism or the purely academic study of Buddhism. The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies is trying to form a meaningful bridge between study and practice, between the communities of scholars and meditators, between the ancient orthodox tradition and the modern spirit of critical inquiry.
There is a whole generation today of brilliant scholars who have more than dabbled in the practice of meditation without losing their critical faculties. There is also a growing corps of experienced practitioners who have an eager appetite for learning more about the tradition that has helped to bring so much generosity, compassion and wisdom to their lives. The Study Center is for these groups of people, and for many others who are in the forefront of changing paradigms that no longer fit into inherited dichotomies. From longtime meditators who are forming study sessions to meet the interests of their sitting groups, to therapists and professional care-givers who use meditation to help their patients out of various difficulties, to college professors who more and more are including meditation practice as part of their courses in religion or psychology, to monks who have been Western-educated or who have left the sangha and are trying to find new ways of serving the dharma in lay life—the list goes on and on.
Many people today, like myself, are more interested in learning about the moon than the finger pointing it out, and yet are not so bound by tradition to shy away from asking awkward questions or trying out bold new perspectives. The ancient Buddhist tradition brings to its subject a deep respect and an appreciation of its profundity and transformative significance that is often overlooked by some scholars. The modern academic tradition brings an attitude of critical examination and comparative perspective that is often lacking in the more orthodox monastic approaches. The encounter of these two ways of doing whatever-you- call-it in Barre is exciting and alive with possibilites.
What I find so exciting is that we do not really know what we are doing. There is no set plan, no particular way that we expect things to go. It is all a great experiment, one that relies on the creative participation of practitioners and scholars alike. If you have ideas, or if you have any interest in helping us explore this interface between study and practice, then please give us a call or stop by for a visit.