Do We Really Need to “Study” Buddhism?

Hi all,

Recently I found this post on Twitter in Japanese and it made me think about some things. I wanted to share it with readers:   

Roughly translated it means:

The mere fact that Buddhist temples is great. The general public doesn’t have to know the difficult doctrines. Just by the fact that the temples exist, people can get relaxation/peace of mind. If you are within the temple precincts you can find even more healing. Over in Kamakura, you can find purification like this. People, it is a deep thing.

I wrote back and said:

深いですね。ただ寺院あるだけで、癒されるのは仏教の実力だと思いますね。

It is deep, isnt it? The mere fact the temples can provide healing just by being there, that is the true strength of Buddhism, I think.

What she said made a lot of sense. Western Buddhists, especially converts like myself, spend a lot of time arguing about doctrine and orthodoxy. I’m guilty of this too, admittedly. As a friend once pointed out, Buddhist sermons in English use a lot of technical jargon and philosophical expanations, while Japanese sermons are more indirect and talk about life more. The teachings in Japanese sermons are there but you don’t get a “firehose” of Buddhist terminology and doctrine. This approach is easier to absorb, I think, less in-your-face.

That’s why I like visiting temples in Japan every time I go. The lady above is right: just by being there you can find peace and healing. When I go to some temples in the US, especially convert-only temples, it feels more ピリピリ (piri-piri) which means people are uptight, a bit edgy. Newcomers are nervous about fitting in, while veterans are worried about their own practice or temple politics.

How can anyone relax in an environment like that?

The verses in the fifth chapter in the Lotus Sutra I think help to illustrate my point:

It [the Dharma] rains equally everywhere
Falling alike in the four directions
Pouring without measure
saturating all the land.

In the mountains, streams and steep valleys,
In deep recesses, there grow
Grasses, trees, and herbs,
And trees, both great and small,
The grains, shoots, and plants,
The sugar-cane and the grape vine;
All are nourished by the rain,
And none fail to be enriched.
The parched ground is soaked,
The herbs and trees together flourish.
Issuing from that cloud
Water of a single flavor
Moistens grasses, trees and forests
Each according to its measure
All of the trees,
Great, medium and small,
According to their size
Can grow and develop.
When reached by that single rain
The roots, stalks, branches, and leaves,
Flowers and fruits with luster and color,
All are fresh and shining.

According to their substance and marks,
And natures, either great or small
They alike receive moisture
And each one flourishes.

This is the true power of Buddhism, I think: to nourish, to heal, to parch. But each person is different, just as each plant is different. Not everyone needs to know complex teachings like mindfulness training, or esoteric teachings. Not everyone cares. Some just want to absorb a positive atmosphere or just feel some stability in their lives. And that’s OK.

Until more Buddhist communities in the West understand this, we will continue to be a fringe group, an elitist social club of dedicated practitioners, unable to translate Buddhist wisdom to the greater community. And that I feel misses the point about what Buddhism is all about.

P.S. Written late one night in a hotel. Apologies for typos, poor translations, and poor format. ;-p

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

5 thoughts on “Do We Really Need to “Study” Buddhism?”

  1. I kind of disagree to a point – its not a “Western” thing completely – it depends on the lineage. Many Tibetan schools however really stress that study is a vital part – they talk of three pillars contemplation [which takes in listening to teaching, reading teachings and reflecting on them], meditation and ethical conduct. Many of the teachers in Tibetan lineages stress the need to read, study and contemplate teachings.

    I agree that there is definitely benefit in all the other aspects, just being around centers, listening to chants, looking at images of Buddhas/Bodhisattvas. And you can get lots of merit with just these alone, but that doesn’t mean study is unnecessary or necessarily a Western fixation.

    My local centre stresses both. They absolutely encourage people just to take it in, to listen to the prayer ceremonies (and join in – no one cares if you understand or not !), but also encourage study of texts etc (if you wish)

    Like

    1. Hi Ruairi, some good pints raised there. I think your centre has a good approach, but I’ve not always seen this observed in the temples I’ve visited here in the States thus far. But my experience with Tibetan Buddhism is very minimal too so I am probably wrong here.

      I’m definitely not against study, but I think in many communities the outreach and openness is lacking. I feel if people are inspired, they will find reason to study. If not, it is enough they find some happiness.

      Hope that makes sense.

      Like

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