Thursday, October 28, 2010

Concepts about Enlightenment Are Like Books about Dancing

There is a certain stereotype about Western students of Buddhism, which holds at least a kernel of truth: we tend to be really strong in the area of study and acquiring textbook knowledge about the Buddhist teachings, but not always as strong in the area of practice and realizing the meaning of those teachings in our own experience.

It's possible there is something in our culture that tilts us in this direction. Comparative studies in cognitive psychology have shown that Westerners do tend to have a more analytical mind than more holistically-minded East Asians. Although all stereotypes are suspect, the image of a Westerner whose primary relationship to the Dharma is through reading (or writing) books about it is not without some basis in reality.

Or maybe it's not really a Western thing -- just a human thing. Every religion has its adherents who have studied the founder's teachings in great depth but still seem to be clueless about their basic meaning. Fundamentalist Christians can quote the Bible chapter and verse while holding signs saying "God Hates Fags," but they seem to forget that Jesus primarily taught tolerance, understanding, forgiveness and love of one's neighbor. Jihadists can memorize the whole Koran, but use its words of wisdom to rationalize mass murder. And Buddhist scholars can debate absolute and relative truth and quote Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti and the Buddha on the subtle meaning of emptiness, but their personal lives might remain a mess and their relationships can be as devoid of compassion as any drunk on the street.

Of course, studying the Dharma and developing conceptual knowledge of it is an essential element of the path. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is often depicted as one of the three wheels: study, meditation, and action. Yet it seems that study is frequently overemphasized at the expense of the other two wheels. When we fall into this trap, we might develop a lot of very refined concepts about enlightenment, yet we may not understand what it means to actually live in an enlightened way. Scholars of Buddhism can, and often do, have an intimidating level of erudite and sophisticated knowledge about the Dharma, and yet they can, in some cases, remain apparently clueless about what it means to actually live the Dharma.

Recently I said to a friend: "Concepts about enlightenment are like books about dancing." (I was paraphrasing this line from a Buddhist teaching I saw somewhere, but I can no longer recall where.) No matter how well-written or well-researched a book about dancing might be -- even if it is written by the most accomplished dancer -- by itself it can never convey or bring about the actual experience of dancing. For a professional dancer, there is a certain value in studying the history and theory of dance, but no amount of theory alone can actually make one a good dancer. Only practice and action can do that.

Naropa, one of the Indian mahasiddhas revered by Vajrayana Buddhists, was a great, accomplished scholar at Nalanda University in ancient India. One day as he was poring over one of his texts in the library, a shadow fell over the page. He looked up to see an old hag standing next to him. In her croaking voice, she asked him, "What are you reading, Naropa? Do you understand the words or the meaning?"

Naropa replied, "I understand the words I am reading." At this, the old hag became gleeful, and danced around laughing. Naropa wasn't sure why his response had made her so happy, and so he added, "I understand the meaning too." At this, the hag stopped dancing and grew morose, and began to cry. Confused by this schizoid behavior, Naropa asked, "Why are you crying? And why were you so happy when I said I understood the words?"

"When you said you understood the words, you were telling the truth," said the old hag, "and that made me very happy. But when you said you understood the meaning, you were lying. You and I both know you don't understand the meaning. And that made me very sad." With this, the hag vanished, but this encounter was said to be the spark that led Naropa to seek out his guru Tilopa and attain genuine realization of the teachings rather than mere intellectual understanding of them.

Like most stories about the mahasiddhas and saints, the story of Naropa and the hag is perhaps best regarded not as a historical account but as hagiography (pun intended) -- a teaching tool in symbolic or narrative form that contains a valuable lesson for each of us. The story of Naropa and the hag is a cautionary tale, a reminder that academic study of the Dharma, like books about dancing, is useful up to a certain point, but useless beyond that point. There comes a time in the life of every spiritual aspirant when you simply need to set the books aside and step out on the dance floor, and live the Dharma. That is the only way to realize the meaning of what you're studying.


Unknown said...

Great post. I find this to be so true among many Buddhists. They have studied a lot of material, they have received many empowerments and teachings but have not spent the time with their rearend on a cushion to let what they have learned sink in and become their own. Study is good because it can help you understand what you are experiencing but without the experience it means nothing. There is a huge difference between understanding the Dharma and realizing the Dharma.

Anonymous said...

There is a certain stereotype about Western students of Buddhism, which holds at least a kernel of truth: we tend to be really strong in the area of study and acquiring textbook knowledge about the Buddhist teachings, but not always as strong in the area of practice and realizing the meaning of those teachings in our own experience.

This may be one typology, but it is one of several, and I don't believe it characterizes most Westerners. In my experience there are far more Westerners who have practiced a lot (ie spent lot of time on the cusion) but still don't have much more than a rudimentary grasp of key Buddhist concepts. And this group is just as likely to be "apparently clueless about what it means to actually live the Dharma."

Ceci Miller said...

Thank you for another insightful post, Dennis. You always teach me something. There's no question that it's necessary to strike a balance between study and practice. In my own case, a lot of practice preceded my efforts at study. When I finally did begin to study in earnest, it was so exciting -- there on the page were the answers to so many questions that had arisen as a result of practice. I didn't find ultimate answers to the Big Questions; I found explanations that informed and helped me fine-tune my practice. This made me very happy, and I danced around. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh . .and regarding dancing analogy, I don't think it is entirely apt. Even if we are only talking about "fine arts" professional dancers - ballet & modern dance and so forth - reading about dance is fairly tangential to actually dancing. You could learn to dance well without ever reading a book about it.

Many dharma lineages -- particularly the Indian and Tibetan ones -- consider academic study to be an essential, indispensable part of the process of getting enlightened. Sure, it is far from the only component, but it is an essential one.

RonC. said...

I think it was Frank Zappa who said "talking about music is like dancing about architecture." Another apt quote for this subject.

I know that for me personally, one of the biggest signs that I know a person actually has some serious insights and has made it a good stretch down the path is when they don't talk about the dharma as it is laid out in books. When someone can explain it from personal experience, especially the big things like emptiness and no-self, I know it's worth it to keep listening.

wayfarer said...

another great post. Your writing is terrific, and the point perfectly true. But this is what makes the Dharma of the Buddha so great, this emphasis on action. One of my all time favourite Dharma books is [u]To Meet the Real Dragon [/u], which is about Dogen, and his is a philosophy of action - direct, engaged, immediate - although, I suppose, through non-action, shikan tanza, just sitting. There, we sit just to sit, we sit for the purpose of sitting - but sticking to that, actually doing it, is the crucial point.

Linda York Leaming said...

Great post, as usual Dennis, as are the comments. I think I've probably gone the other way. I sold everything and moved to Bhutan about 13 years ago. At this point in my life it would probably be good to read a few books about dancing as well as your blog. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Yes, Dennis. I've seen this often. And among those who emphasize practice, we often overlook the so-called preliminaries, which one accomplished Tibetan yogi referred to as the main practice. Westerners want to go for the most "advanced" practices and rest in the absolute. I think it only makes us grouchy. The cultivation of love, generosity, gratitude, equanimity, refuge and offering --these are the foundations for the mahamudra and dzogchen teachings. It seems almost trite to say it, but no study can replace the steady, daily cultivation of these qualities. I've been living in Bali, and have learned a great deal from the Balinese about what working with the relative can do for us. See for insight into the power of their offering practice. It has a lot to offer Buddhists--especially when we are stuck in the subtle dualism of preferring the more subtle states of meditation--or the mental stimulation of study--to the good, old earth with it's good, old humans.