For most of us born in the Western world, remote from Buddhism of any institutional kind, knowledge of the dhamma has come entirely from books and, occasionally, spoken words, some quite excellent and informative, certainly. But this kind of learning still retains a somewhat ethereal air in the absence of actions, traditions, and spiritual observances in which we can participate. That the Buddhist religion has survived so long in the world is a result not so much of the durability of manuscripts as of the power of ideas embodied in custom; and custom, for all our abundant sources of information, is what we lack and cannot in the long run do without. Books crumble easily enough; thought crumbles faster, if not made firm by some sort of concrete practice that holds together believers and sees to the transmission of the teaching to the young.
The modern world, with its quickly accessible pleasures, its entertainments, hobbies, and intellectual pastimes, inclines us to suppose that religion, too, can be selected piecemeal, can be appreciated, assembled, and indulged in precisely to the degree and in the manner that we prefer. We like to read about enlightenment; we like to meditate a little, when it suits us. We may even like to exercise our minds by studying some of the profound philosophical discourses of the Buddha. Nowadays it is not hard to satisfy ourselves at least with respect to these limited, nameable interests. Having read books, attended lectures, practiced meditation, admired Buddhist art, and chatted amiably with other seekers, we have done pretty much all we had in mind to do. And yet, disconcertingly, we are not enlightened; we are not even confident of moving in the direction of enlightenment. Even if we are inspired by our studies, we remain in some sense perplexingly alone, outside the grand, historical flow of the Dhamma, waiting disconsolately for spiritual fulfillment as an entirely private blessing.
Why should this be so? If we have investigated everything we like, should we not be satisfied in a deeper sense than we are? But perhaps we have passed a little too blithely over important matters. One thing that contemporary society especially fosters is the assumption that each individual intuitively knows or can confidently decide what is useful in tradition and what is not. So we read and we reject; or we read and approve with qualifications, briskly skipping through the lines of ancient teaching; or perhaps we read and enthusiastically accept everything, taking it all as understood even if it is not. For most of our lives society around us has been offering us things, urging activities upon us, suggesting countless measures for recreation, education, and employment, so even with regard to handed-down Buddhist teaching, we feel quite disposed to edit, abbreviate, and rearrange according to our pleasure. If, then, the fragments we finally approve of do not over time sustain us spiritually, we grow skeptical and gloomy, thinking we have done what should be necessary, selected and revised as is our unquestionable right, and yet found the effects wanting. Should we now fault the teaching? Or should we revisit some unexamined assumptions? When we study a doctrine that is new to us (although it might be very old) and find in it points that coincide with our private opinions and theories, we are naturally cheered—and certainly we could never adopt any doctrine if it did not at least partly correspond to our own deeply pondered intuitions. This, without doubt, is natural and reasonable. But to go on to decide that a certain teaching is worthwhile simply because it echoes our established opinion is very unwise. Along that easy course there is no new discovery of truth, only more stale habit.
Similarly, when we read of teachings contrary to our preferences and outside the realm of our usual consideration, we tend to reject them automatically. They are strange and intellectually disturbing—hence they must be wrong. This tendency, too, is quite natural; and certainly our native intelligence and worldly experience should alert us to what is outlandish and incoherent. But it is good to remember that a new or an old way of considering and dealing with life is not false just because it surprises us or contradicts our theories. A sincere seeker should compare ideas for the purpose of gaining a closer fix on truth.
When investigating Buddhism, then, we ought to give some thought to the cultural and intellectual background out of which we peer. Are we indeed entirely qualified to decide what is meaningful in the tradition and what is not? And why should we suppose that this present age—which is not without its cruelties and contradictions—naturally stands above all others in moral insight and affords us a superior view? We have perhaps assumed a little too quickly that we can (as we do in so many other fields) select exactly what we like and then declare it comprehensive and true.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.