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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. Continue reading

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