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Studying Buddhism

by Acharya Emily Bower

Reading Buddhism

It's said in the Buddhist tradition that meditation practice and study of the Buddha's philosophy, the Dharma, go together, like the two wings of a bird.

If we were to only meditate without studying the teachings—the "view" of what meditation and Buddhism are all about—we wouldn't have much insight. And, if we were to try making progress by only reading and attending Dharma lectures without spending time in meditation, then the information wouldn't penetrate our experience, and our realizations would be conceptual, untested.

The students of the Buddha shared his philosophical teachings and his meditation instructions by memorizing them and then telling them to others. In this way, the Dharma was preserved for hundreds of years until members of the Sangha were able to record the Buddha's teachings in writing.

Since then, we've had texts to study. And those teachings have been explained and expounded over the centuries. And, because Buddhism is a living tradition--once again, combining meditation practices with study and contemplation-- each student comes to her or his own understanding afresh. Many Buddhists have achieved profound insights and realizations about the true nature of the mind and the universe by studying and practicing the view and meditation instructions of the Dharma.

Fortunately for us, many have written illuminating verses, essays, commentaries, as well as instructions for meditating in different skillful ways. Thanks to these scribes and scholars and diligent students who took good notes when their teacher was speaking, and those who have excellent recall and can remember what they hear and read—and of course the people who copied things out by hand before we had printers—thanks to those who have gone before us, we have a rich treasury of books to learn from.

Considering this history, Buddhists treat their books with respect, even reverence. Because a book about Buddhism contains the wisdom of the Buddha and, often, the collective wisdom of centuries of practitioners, it is considered to be sacred. Even if we don't agree with a particular author, as a gesture of appreciation of their efforts, and the work of all Buddhists who devote themselves to sharing their insights with others, we keep the book clean and put it on a nice shelf, high off the floor. And we never toss a dharma book onto the ground or use it as a coaster for our coffee cup or beer glass.

There are recommended ways of reading the Dharma. One is to read a bit and then stop and let the words sink in to your mind. Re-reading sections or lines that seem especially provocative or mysterious is highly recommended. To memorize a particularly moving section can also be a good way to learn. Because the words stay with us and sometimes arise in our mind spontaneously, we find deeper and more complex meaning in them over time.

Another technique is to choose an appealing passage—or one that we find difficult—and put aside time to formally contemplate its meaning. Our contemplation may be supported by definitions in glossaries and dictionaries—and by commentaries written by other authors. These techniques emphasize quality over quantity: the quality of our attention and curiosity is more valuable than the quantity of books we consume.

To read the Dharma can bring alive for us the mind of a person of great wisdom whom we may never meet, perhaps someone who lived centuries ago. But because their words were preserved with loving care, we can meet the mind of that wise person and receive their guidance.

Editor's Note:
Our Books and Media category includes books and recordings from Pema Chodron and Chogyam Trungpa , the latest books from Sakyong Mipham and Thich Nhat Hanh , books about Chi Kung, Tibetan Buddhism, Death and Rebirth and the latest in Buddhist music and Vegetarian Cooking .