Words, words, words—what are they good for?

Blind-drawn Faces, by Marla Robb, 2013.

Blind-drawn Faces, by Marla Robb, 2013.

Not all that much, it seems—in practically all the versions of Buddhism, but especially in Zen. It is an extremely common and well-worn admonition, to be found in a great number of Buddhism-for-beginners books (is it me or is there a paradox here already?): do not imagine that reading about and studying Buddhism is the practice of Buddhism.

At best, or so it goes, reading and thinking are stepping stones on the way to real practice—meditation, or chanting, or, if you are a layman in the Theravada tradition, faithful attendance at the temple, participation in proper rituals, and, most importantly, physical and financial support of the monastic community. (The last situation has changed quite a bit even in South-East Asia, as far as I know, since the promulgation of the vipassana meditation for laity by the XIXth century Burmese monks and it certainly doesn’t hold in today’s Western Theravada communities, but it is by no means an extinct attitude.)

Zen, the school for which I feel the most affinity, can be particularly, even vehemently insistent on the ultimate uselessness and distorting nature of words, and the paramount importance of zazen.

It makes perfect sense.

After all, Buddhism is not a religion in which acceptance of certain dogmas and a correct worship of a particular deity will earn you that deity’s protection, blessing, and, ultimately, some kind of eternal blissful posthumous existence. (Oh, wait a minute—have I just described the Pure Land school? Hmmmm…As far as internal reality for many of Pure Land adherents—probably. But, as I understand it, Amitabha’s Pure Land is not the same kind of final abode as the Christian or Muslim paradise, but simply an environment most conducive to meditative efforts—the true liberation must still be worked out by every person for oneself, in accordance with Buddha’s last words. But I digress).

The surface paradox here is that Buddhism is an extremely rich textual and literary tradition. Looking at Zen, only Dogen’s Shonogenzo, to take but one example, is well more than 1,000 pages (at least in all the English translations). Theravadans’ Pali Canon is several times the size of the Bible.

It is a surface paradox, of course, because it is fairly easy to justify the study of foundational texts or the writings of accomplished masters such as Dogen as valuable auxiliary practices that enhance, deepen, and augment one’s meditation efforts.

But what about those—particularly modern Westerners—who consider themselves Buddhists, but whose Buddhism-related activities are largely or entirely limited to reading of popular Buddhist books by the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chödrön, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Chögyam Trungpa, the Dalai Lama, etc., etc., etc.?

Or perusal of koan collections, torn from their original cultural contexts, reduced, one could successfully argue, to nonsensical, surreal brain teasers?

Or devotion to Buddhist poetry: Ikkyu, Ryokan, Han Shan, Wang Wei?

Or, perhaps weirdest of all, in a way—reading of modern Western secular scholarship on Buddhism, the kind of “objective” outsider analysis that is concerned with apologetics not at all, but, to the contrary, has as one of its main goals to demystify, to explain, to debunk, to through doubt on, to question sacred narrative?

I think it won’t come as a big surprise when I admit that all of the above have been, at one point or another and sometimes for lengthy periods of time, my primary or only connection to Buddhism—my main practice.

Well, with one little caveat. As I mentioned in my first post, all my ups and downs in Buddhism—including “reading only” periods—were happening against the background of the basic intellectual conviction and the trust in the idea that the Four Noble Truths were the most accurate summation of the reality, the Eightfold Path were the best guidelines on how to live in that reality (seasoned by the Sixth Patriarch’s enlightenment verse), and the sincere attempts to measure my everyday actions by those guidelines. My actions mostly failed miserably and OK, you caught me—the Eightfold Path includes such steps as Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, which are understood to refer to meditation practice—I said that I trusted the idea, not that I was successful in realizing it.

So, what’s the point here? Is what we have simply a bunch of excuses and self-justification by someone who was too lazy to sit regularly?

In part and on some subconscious level—possibly, although, dear reader, I don’t see why I need to justify myself to anyone.

What I want to suggest is that our monkey brain—or call it Mara, if you will—is capable of fetishizing and turning into a finger first pointing to and before long obscuring the moon anything, even the moon itself—the practice of zazen, the meditation.

When someone says that he or she has been meditating without fail for n hours a day for n number of years, I admire their commitment and self-discipline and I do accept their accomplishment as an important part of their Buddhist credentials. But only a part.

Buddhist practice is not just meditation.

Buddhist practice is doing the right thing.

Zazen properly done is extremely powerful. It sharpens one’s immediate discernment of what the right thing to do at any given moment is and makes it likelier that one would choose that action.

But people differ. Our circumstances differ—drastically.

Ironically, now that I myself have been again meditating very regularly for almost a year, I would be far less inclined to dismiss out of hand someone who is currently approaching Buddhism by grabbing at the rafts of words amid the sea of those habitual concepts pushed on us by culture and upbringing that don’t seem to work anymore.

What I came to believe is that if, for whatever reason, regular meditation practice doesn’t happen (yet!), words can be the next best thing. They can provide a connection—tenuous, fragile, incomplete—yet a real connection to dharma, an aid to one’s right understanding, and an inspiration when a Buddhist teacher or a community are not an option.

So, if you have it in you, close your browser now and go sit, if you can.

Please, don’t use the foregoing as an excuse if the only thing standing between you and your meditation cushion is lack of self-discipline!

But, if you really can’t—pick up, if you feel like it, whichever Buddhist primer you ordered from Amazon last and go ahead and read it. Or savor a Ryokan verse. Or bend your brains a little with a koan you have no hope of understanding. Or learn, if you must, from an academic article how some aspect of Tibetan Buddhist was originally a fascinating amalgam of older Tibetan shamanic practices with the new teaching.

At this moment, perhaps, this is your version of sitting.

Ah, but how do you know if you are being lax with yourself or making the best of the given situation?!