Understanding The Dharma: Multi-Dimensional Aspects To Buddhist Study

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei 曦 肯

As informed and educated beings when we respond to a new interest we first work to achieve some understanding in order to know how to engage it’s potential usefulness in our lives. While there are many ways that we can facilitate this understanding, from my experience it is generally done in the beginning through reading or listening to an awakened teacher. Today I would like to speak to you about how we may consider approaching the study of Buddhist thought from our reading and self-directed research. After all, many of us started our Buddhist life as “book-Buddhists”.

English language books on Buddhism have increased in number since they began to be published in the nineteenth century. Until very recently, virtually all of them have taken one of two distinct contemporary forms, either they put themselves within the modern scientific tradition in order to analyze the history and sociology of Buddhism, or from a more romantic sense as they attempt to transmit the truth and transformative nature of traditional Buddhist principles. As Buddhism engages our Western culture we often encounter current re-prints of older Asian publications that also gives us a chance to study Buddhism from an Eastern perspective. It is my reading-experience that each of these forms have tended to criticize the other severely. From a scientific point of view, romantic transmissions of Buddhism are simply inaccurate. They project forms of Buddhism more in line with contemporary non-secular ideals than with anything that has ever existed in Asia, and often miss the spiritual aspects of Buddhism. And from a romantic point of view, scientific studies miss the point of Buddhism altogether. They inadvertently transmit the mentality of a modern science worldview, and do nothing to awaken the mind, or alleviate unsatisfactoriness, for that matter. The scientific motive for the study of Buddhism is to obtain accurate knowledge of our world – awakening defined as a thorough understanding of world culture and history. The romantic motive for the study of Buddhism is to give us a breakthrough to a new kind of experience – awakening defined as a fundamental transformation of the human body-mind. These approaches seemed to be irreconcilable until recently.

If scientific rationalism and modern romanticism can now be seen to share a similar worldview, the perspective from which this can be seen is no longer completely within either one of them and therefore in some sense has created a stronger platform from which to study Buddhism from our contemporary experience. And it is this new development that has acted to create platforms like Pragmatic Buddhism, the American Ch’an tradition that I was trained under by the Ven. Dr. Shi Yong Xiang, my root teacher. The quest to understand what Buddhism is without understanding cultural influences is analogous to the academic demand to set aside all personal preferences and just examine the information, or read the text, in and of itself. Our minds are context-dependent; they come to a particular form of understanding that they do within particular cultural and historical settings. As we read and study available Buddhist books we have the obligation to take care to also understand the cultural and social references, as well as the perspective, of the author. We do not just read for pleasure. We read for understanding and assimilation into our own worldview. In the language of Zen, it calls forth “the one who is right now reading,” and refuses to allow the reader to cling to his or her own invisibility. The dharma is transmitted to each generation through the process of the human connection. Transmission is the process through which all forms of culture, including Zen awakening to the dharma, makes their way from one generation to the next, one form leading to a transformed other and to another, without end. It is another example of our causal Universe at work. Here I am using the word “transmission” to mean universal understanding of the dharma (or what is real), not the formal transmission you may be more familiar with where a teacher passes on to their Dharma-hire the “teaching” style and methods of a particular school. The dharma is transmitted in many ways, and those of us that have stepped onto the path have opened ourselves up to receiving Siddhartha’s legacy when we became receptive to its relevance in our lives.

We are challenged to read as a form of meditation. Our reading, therefore, is focused on three aspects: thoughtfulness, self-awareness, and self-transformation. First of all a meditative reading practice should be thoughtful. Although understanding what we are reading is essential, reading is not a passive activity; it should be active and engaged. In order to receive transmission, or skilled understanding, the reader must do what the author has done — think. Dogen was often heard challenging his listeners after a dharma discourse to “ponder this day and night.” Meditative reading is a philosophical and reflective activity. We must not be just satisfied with the content, but we must read and push the boundaries of our understanding in order to grow our awareness of the unspoken meaning beyond language. The initial act of reading serves to lure the mind out of complacency and challenging it to consider something new, or to experience more deeply what has alreay been thought. Dale S. Wright, a contemporary Buddhist scholar, puts it this way, “A critical reader seeks freedom through the practice of reading, freedom from immature forms of grasping, self-deception and confinement.” What is happening when we read meditatively is we link the writer and reader in such a way as to seek cultivation of the mind. It is another dimension to the reality of mind-to-mind transmission.

Secondly, when we develop the ability to read meditatively, we must be willing to remain self-aware. We learn to use the text as a mirror upon which the reader’s own mind can be reflected and observant. In this sense, our reading becomes a form of a dialogue, a back and forth movement between the reader and the text. In this way we learn to question what is said in the text, and at the same time, we let the text question our own worldview and personal preferences. For every statement made in the text an implicit question is presented – what do you think? A unilateral reading, which seeks only to absorb what the author has said, does not challenge us to consider how it fits into our own life experience, and fails to develop our growing awareness. Meditative reading is a practice requiring our full presence of mind. When we read critically and thoughtfully, we will begin to see the reading-practice of the author. We will see not just what the author has read, but how, why, and to what effect his own practice reflects the Dharma. The value of this way of reading is to develop awareness of our own reading practice, and to evoke change. And make no mistake, when we read, change happens in our perspective and knowledge. Reading at its best is an engagement of the mind that alters the mind. Wisdom begins to blossom.

The goal of meditative reading is self-transformation. Through the practice of studied-reading, some change of mind and character is sought. Change, however, requires openness to change, which is never easy. This transformation can only be accomplished in an open process of questioning. In Zen we call it “great doubt”. In this way we open our mind to something that is other than its current state of awareness. We open to real possibilities of a spiritual transformation. We read to seek the meaning of the Buddhist ideas that we encounter as we engage self and other. This challenges the reader to true sincerity in the enterprise of study, and the openness of the mind when encountering alien ideas. I say ‘challenged’ because it requires that our own ideas and states of mind be placed at risk and open to transformation by being tested against those of the writer. When these practices are developed, philosophical meditation becomes a practical, ethical activity, one through which our own forms of awakening will be shaped. This is why it is so critical to take care when we select our reading material.

Another aspect to this idea of reading Buddhist text is the notion that is prevalent in some Zen circles of not reading at all. Those that take this view site the long held historical fact that the Sixth Patriarch of Zen did not read, in fact he could not read. This produced an anti-scholasticism in many ancient Zen monastic communities. The practices of reading and textual study, which had been central to Chinese Buddhism up through the mid-T’ang, were exposed to a forceful review. It was thought that what did reading have to do with the enlightened behavior of a serious Buddhist practice anyway. This produced Zen schools that were based on “wordless” transmission of the Dharma. The “just sit” school of practice. If we look closely with a contemporary eye, however, we will see that the very opposition between the literary world and the world of immediate experience is itself a literary construct, one which functions to bolster the reality of immediate experience with understanding the experience of Zen Masters though the legacy of their writing.

The Buddhist scholar Dale Wright’s research refutes this notion that early Zen Masters did not use text to support their understanding. In fact, his research found that the Sixth Patriarch read variously. The slogan which was taken to epitomize the anti-reading sentiment in Zen, “no dependence on language and texts”, was thought to have descended directly from the founding figure of our tradition, Bodhidharma. He was speaking to individuals just being introduced to Buddhist thought and philosophy, and he was supporting the teaching methods of the day that one learned from a teacher by discourse, not text. We all know in our own experience that reading Buddhist text can be very confusing without a teacher to guide us through the intricacies of the basic principles first. So, after we have a good foundation on which to support our practice, we our encouraged to study on our own the Buddhist cannon and contemporary literature that will act to strengthen and enhance our understanding. It is also not surprising that the Zen movement would eventually appear as a model of this immersion in the written word, and at the same time, has produced by far the largest and most influential cannon of texts of any Buddhist movement in East Asia.

Making something our own is never simply and individual matter. Transmission of ideas always entails the convergence of many forces. But we must never forget that Buddhism is not primarily a philosophical movement, practice, not theory, is the emphatic focus of our reflection as we ready and study the dharma together. Yet, another thread in the fabric of engaged Buddhism, and an example of Indra’s Net reflecting the interconnectiveness of our world.

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