Study v. Practice
I’ve been studying the Dharma for two years now – officially. That is, I’m in college to learn about Buddhism! How cool is that? I take classes like ‘Spiritual Formation’ and ‘Women in Buddhism’ and ‘Buddhist Psychology.’ But somewhere along they way, I think I forgot that I’d don’t just study Buddhism – I practice it.
I never entirely forgot. I continued to try to enact new skills, such as reflective listening, as I learned them and cultivate old ones, such as patience, in new situations daily. However, in the overburden of assigned reading, I started skimming and stopped integrating. Skimming can be a useful reading tool for any student, particularly in graduate school, but it does create a sense of psychological distance from the material. It’s no longer something I want to learn for its own value, but something I need to learn in order to achieve an abstract agenda (a passing grade). Moreover, I forgot just how plain good the Dharma is, how much I simply enjoy it, and how it helps me cope in times of distress.
Therefore, in an effort to revive my love of the written Dharma, I am going to spend the summer reading a few choice Dharma books. I’m starting with Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching on No-Self by Rodney Smith. I’m three chapters in and can feel my head expanding. This work attempts to explain one of the Buddha’s trickiest teachings, annatta or non-self, in modern psychological jargon. Rodney spent several years as a monk in the Burmese Theravada tradition and is a founding member of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society.
The second book is In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, edited and translated by the famed Bhikkhu Bodhi. This American-born monk ordained in the Sri Lankan tradition is a proliferate translator and writer, having published contemporary (and almost neurotically detailed) translations of most of the Pali Cannon (including the Samyutta Nikaya which my Dad bought me over Christmas despite being unable to pronounce) as well as contributing extensively to Access to Insight and many more journals and online teachings.
Lest you think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, there is a method to the madness. Harry Potter these are not. There is no reading them through in one sitting. In fact, reading either for more than about and hour makes my head spin. That’s because they force me to think. Therefore, I find Dharma books easiest to read in small bites, one book interspersed with the other. That being the case, this is the start of a summer series, Dharma Bites, which will include excerpts and thoughts from these and other books. Also on my reading list are The Elegant Universe by Brian Green, which I about half finished last summer, and Why God Won’t Go Away by three overqualified authors with too many letters behind their names.
This last book was a belated gift from Dr. Locke, a wonderful teacher of mine who passed away in April. His kind wife has generously been donating his extensive religious library to his students. This book is one of an entire stack and I look forward to it all the more because it carries his telltale pencil marks.
To start us off, I have a single line from the Introduction of Smith’s book (p. xvi):
Once we abandon the belief that there is a more spiritually useful moment than the one we are in, we have embraced our life and infused it with the energy for awakening.
I cannot ‘study’ now and ‘practice’ later. I must practice always and also sometimes study if I want to progress on the spiritual path. I hope you’ll come with me, for a summer at least.