67 – Relating to Buddhist Teachings 1: Their Abundance, Diversity & Authenticity
69 - The Soto Zen Goal of Goallessness: How to Awaken Without Trying

From the perspective of most Buddhist lineages, including Zen, study is essential. In this episode I’ll get into why that is and present a practical way you can engage with Buddhist teachings in a fruitful, transformative way that isn’t just intellectual. Then I’ll talk about how you go about studying the teachings – where do you start, and what should you study?

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Teachings Give Structure to Our Lives
Entrusting Ourselves to the Teachings
What It Means to “Wrestle” with the Teachings
How to Wrestle with Teachings in Daily Life
An Example of Wrestling with a Teaching
Some Practical Guidance for Studying the Teachings

 

This is the second episode in my two-part series on how to relate to Buddhist teachings. In the first episode I talked about why studying Buddhism can be a little daunting: there are literally volumes of teachings, and different branches of Buddhism have also developed their own teachings. In addition, schools of Buddhism like Zen emphasize a practice – that is, something you actually do, not something you know – such as meditation. This leads some people to question why, if you practice, do you even need to study?

From the perspective of most Buddhist lineages, including Zen, study is essential. In this episode I’ll get into why that is and present a practical way you can engage with Buddhist teachings in a fruitful, transformative way that isn’t just intellectual. Then I’ll talk about how you go about studying the teachings – where do you start, and what should you study? When I get to that point, I’ll refer back to what I talked about in the last episode: How to make some sense of the “Buddhist teachings” as a whole (their abundance, diversity, and authenticity). In deciding what Buddhist teachings you should know, I’ll use last episode’s metaphor of a tree, where the roots and trunk are the foundational teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, and the branches are different lineages, or schools, of Buddhism.

The Teachings Give Structure to Our Lives

As I mentioned at the end of the last episode, the living tradition of Buddhism is found in the dynamic relationship between its teachings and your personal experience. You’re not supposed to simply memorize, accept, and abide by the teachings like they’re a set of rules. There’s some value in doing that, at times, when we’re at loose ends or struggling with powerful negative habit energy. However, lasting transformation won’t happen unless we explore and question the teachings based on our own, direct, personal experience. It’s when we wrestle with the teachings that Buddhism informs and transforms our lives.

That wrestling, of course, can’t happen unless we study and understand the Buddhist teachings, at least to some extent. Then they give us reference points for our lives: structure, direction, and guidance. They give us language, concepts, and images with which to frame our experience. Without such reference points, our lives can feel… rather aimless, or arbitrary, or lonely – as if it’s entirely up to us to decide what’s right and wrong, up and down, beneficial or harmful, and which direction to go. Living in an entirely self-guided way has its attraction, and I know many people are fiercely independent in this regard. Still, it doesn’t work for everyone, and at certain times in our lives stuff happens to shake up our personal views about life in ways that are disorienting if not traumatic.

Personally, I remember how thrilled I was to encounter Buddhism and its teachings. It helped me make sense of the low-grade misery I’d been experiencing for a long time. It suggested things I could do about it. And it laid out a path – what I should be working on if I wanted to relieve even more suffering and develop my wisdom and compassion. Before encountering the teachings, all I had was a sense of wanting to be a good person, which in my culture and upbringing meant, for the most part, simply being honest and hardworking. Beyond that, it was entirely up to me to find my way, and the world felt like a pretty bewildering place.

Entrusting Ourselves to the Teachings

In order to engage and really be affected by the Buddhist teachings, of course, you have to give them some authority. I talked in the last episode about how the legitimacy and authenticity of Buddhists teachings are measured within the tradition, and if you want to practice Buddhism you’ll probably do some searching around and sampling of teachings to see what resonates. We’re drawn the teachings – at least those of a particular lineage or school – for a number of different reasons: Intuition that they’re pointing to something important or valuable; growing personal experience of their efficacy; admiration for teachers and senior practitioners and a hope that practice will give you some of what they’ve got, or because you find the goals of Buddhism intriguing or desirable.

At some point, to do the kind of practice I’m talking about, you have to entrust yourself to the teachings of your lineage. This does not in any way mean you blindly accept them – remember, I’m talking about wrestling with the teachings. What entrusting yourself to the teachings means is giving them weight, like the advice of a good friend. A good friend, at times, might give you some constructive criticism that’s not easy to hear or accept, but it remains in your mind, working on you, because of the esteem you have for your friend. Similarly, you don’t dismiss Buddhist teachings simply because they don’t make sense to you, or because you don’t like what they say. Instead, you go one step further and carefully consider whether they have something valuable to offer you. You might even entrust yourself to the teachings enough to take a few steps into unknown territory just to see where it leads you.

What It Means to “Wrestle” with the Teachings

Once you’ve given Buddhist teachings some authority or weight, what about the wrestling part?

I think of it this way: The teachings give us reference points, direction, and framing. They’re fairly structured and organized, and they depend – for the most part – on language. On the other hand, our lives are messy, complicated, and ambiguous. Our lived experience can’t be fully reduced to language, and every person is different. If we just try to apply the teachings directly to our lives in a literal and ham-handed way, we’re liable to end up feeling frustrated or inadequate. Something seems to get lost in translation between the noble teachings of Buddhism and our busy everyday lives – unless we forget about transforming our lives into a mirror of the teachings and concentrate instead on exploring the liminal place where our lives and the teachings intersect. Or, if you will, the dynamic relationship between the teachings and our lived experience, which is often a place of some tension.

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Jacob Wrestles with the Angel (Gustave Doré, 1866) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I like the term “wrestling” to convey the engaged, dynamic, passionate, and somewhat tense relationship we often have with Buddhist teachings. I was inspired by Judaism in my use of the term: In the Jewish scriptures, Jacob wrestles all night with a mysterious man, believed by many to have been an angel, or even God himself. Jacob prevails and in the morning the man blesses Jacob and tells him his new name is “Israel” means “contends with God” or “wrestles with God.” Practicing Jews view their central scriptures as divinely inspired and more or less set in stone – so there they are, whether or not you understand them or like them or find them useful. Either you struggle to make sense of your Jewish faith by wrestling with the teachings, or you don’t. There’s more variety and flexibility in Buddhist teachings, but I still think there’s value in wrestling with a teaching that’s challenging you: You regard it as more or less fixed and have a go at it, instead of just walking away.

It’s important to realize, though, that it’s not just that our lives are more likely to be transformed if we wrestle with the teachings – the teachings themselves are also transformed! Okay, maybe not literally, but our understanding of them is certainly transformed. In trying to find where the teachings and our experience meet and overlap, our insight into the teachings is significantly deepened. We have to do this, actually, in order to really understand them. And in some sense the transformation of the teachings by our wrestling with them goes beyond our personal experience, because the teachings are useless except in how they’re able to guide sentient beings toward liberation. What gets passed from generation to generation in the lineage of Buddhism is not just the literal text of the teachings, but personal understanding and interpretation of them. Therefore, we change the teachings in subtle ways as we change our relationship to them.

How to Wrestle with Teachings in Daily Life

What does “wrestling with the Buddhist teachings” look like in real life? There are different ways to go about this – some more formal, and some more spontaneous and organic – but I find it useful to start with the places in our lives where we experience dukkha. As I discussed in Episode 27, dukkha is often translated as suffering but it can range from acute misery to a vague, pervasive sense of dissatisfaction. Dukkha appears in our lives in infinite ways, including troubled relationships, depression, anxiety, stress, worry, envy, jealousy, sustained resentment or anger, harmful habit patterns, irritability, boredom, you name it! Sometimes the dukkha in your life may be obvious, but at other times, when things are going fairly well, it may be subtle: A moment of reactivity, tenseness in the gut in the presence of a particular person, or a longing for something you don’t have.

Once we identify the arising of dukkha in our life, we ask ourselves, “What do the Buddhist teachings say about this?” It may take a little research to find out – we may vaguely remember something about it folded into the teaching on the Four Noble Truths, for example, and need to read up on them. We may need to ask a teacher. Sometimes we need to look below the details of a situation in order to see the practice elements involved, because although the Buddha didn’t say anything about how to avoid getting so upset in traffic, he did offer teachings about reflecting on the fruitlessness of anger. Usually we can find something in the Buddhist teachings that’s relevant to what’s going on for us.

Because we’re starting with a personal experience of dukkha, the teachings relevant to our situation are likely to point out to us how we’re contributing to our own suffering. They’re likely to advocate calm and honest self-reflection and offer an explanation of our dukkha based on our self-concern, delusion, aversion, grasping, or attachment to fixed views. The teachings will instruct us to renounce whatever it is that’s causing the dukkha and get over it. Of course, despite our apparent desire to be free from dukkha, we often cling to what’s causing it.

An Example of Wrestling with a Teaching

Lest this all sound theoretical, let me give you an example of something arising in real life, and then reflecting on what the Buddhist teachings say. Let’s say I struggle with a fair amount of stress and anxiety about my financial security. I haven’t been able to find a well-paid job, I’m barely making ends meet, and I have no savings. I lie awake at night, my mind filled with awful scenarios about what might happen to me. Will I end up alone, living under a bridge? I try to push the anxious thoughts out of my mind but they’re very persistent.

Despite my conviction that I can’t do anything about my worry unless my financial situation improves, I ask myself, “What do the Buddhist teachings say about this?” In this particular example, the teachings say that as long as we depend on impermanent things for our happiness, we’re doomed to experience dukkha, including stress and worry about not having enough, or losing what we have. Okay, what should we do about that? We let go of our desire – in this case, our desire for things to be anything other than what they are. Then we’ll find genuine, lasting peace and happiness, regardless of our external circumstances.

This is where the wrestling comes in. Rather than rejecting a challenging teaching like the one just mentioned, or accepting it and then and beating ourselves up for not being able to follow it, we grapple with it. Okay, Buddha, just give up desire for things to be anything other than what they are. Does that mean I don’t care about descending into poverty? Should I not care even if I’m sick or starving, without the means to take care of myself? Does this teaching mean I stop looking for a better job and sit peacefully in my living room eating saltines? What if I have responsibilities to take care of other living beings, do I just give up on making them materially comfortable as well? Really, Buddha, what the heck?

To really engage the teachings, we have to allow for our sincere reactions to them. What really goes through your head when you hear a particular teaching? Why do you resist it? What do you assume it means?

To wrestle with a Buddhist teaching, we have to stay engaged with it. Once we acknowledge our resistance or confusion, we approach the teaching again. How does it answer your questions? Does it answer them? Maybe if it doesn’t even address your questions, you’re right to doubt what you think it means. That phrase – “you’re right to doubt what you think it means” – is something my Dharma grandmother Roshi Kennett used to say, according to my teachers. She meant we should trust our intuition when something seems wrong or unhelpful in the teachings, but then to question our own understanding of them.

To continue with my example, Buddhism couldn’t have lasted as a viable religion if it taught people to go completely passive and ignore all their material needs. So… if the Buddha’s teaching isn’t about that, what is it about? Maybe, just maybe, there’s a way to let go of my desire for things to be other than what they are, but to still remain active and responsible? Maybe there’s a difference between a natural kind of caring about what happens and striving anxiously to find a way to guarantee nothing bad does? I may need to wrestle with the teaching for a long time – maybe my whole life – but it’s in that lived, tense relationship between my messy everyday life and the Buddhist teachings that true insight and transformation occurs.

Some Practical Guidance for Studying the Teachings

I’ll assume at this point you’re convinced it’s worth it to engage with Buddhist teachings as a form of practice. Now I’ll briefly discuss how to get familiar enough with those teachings to wrestle with them. Three points:

First, you don’t have to know all the Buddhist teachings by heart. As I mentioned in the last episode, that’s impossible anyway. The more familiar you can get with the teachings, the more present they’ll be for you in everyday life, but it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to study, or if you’re someone who gets too caught up in intellectualizing when you study, it’s good to make yourself do it anyway. Make a place for study, somewhere, in your practice. Don’t worry about retaining everything; once you’ve been exposed to something, at least you’ll be likely to remember a particular teaching exists once you encounter a situation where it’s relevant. Then you can go look it up or ask a teacher about it. If you’ve never been exposed to a teaching, though, you won’t even know to go looking for it. So there’s value in reading or taking classes even if you don’t have a sense that you’re necessarily understanding or memorizing all the material. It’s also valuable to expose yourself to a wide range of teachings, not just ones that immediately seem accessible or relevant to you right now.

Second, although the Buddhist teachings are so voluminous as to be almost infinite from a mortal’s perspective, there are ways to focus your study. In the last episode I described how you can view the totality of Buddhist teachings as a tree, with the foundational teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha as the roots and trunk. From there, large branches are the main sects of Buddhism (such as Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana), and then there’s further branching as Buddhism evolves into many different schools and lineages. There are many approaches to study, but – unless you just love study and comparative religion – I recommend, for practice purposes, more or less restricting your study to your own branch of Buddhism plus everything between that branch and the roots of the tree.

This means it’s good for all Buddhists to be familiar with the foundational teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha (if you want to wrestle with the teachings in the way I’m describing – there are few Buddhist sects which eschew study). The foundational teachings include:

I don’t have time, here, to go into an exhaustive list of foundational Buddhist teachings, but that’s a good start! If you go to (or if you’re on) this episode’s page on the podcast website, the list I just read includes links to episodes I’ve already done on these teachings, with the exception of the paramitas. I imagine when I reflect further I’ll find more foundational teachings I should share.

You may notice I didn’t include a number of other significant teachings of the Buddha in my list, particularly the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and other descriptions of the Buddhist path of practice such as the Seven Factors of Awakening. Other teachers may disagree with me, but my sense is that some of the Buddha’s teachings describe reality from a Buddhist perspective, and outline the goals of Buddhism, and these I consider foundational to pretty much all forms of the religion. Other parts of the Buddha’s teaching have more to do with the how – how you practice the Buddhist path and achieve the original Buddhist goal of Nirvana. The how parts of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings are obviously essential things to study for students of Theravadin Buddhism, one of the branches of the Buddhist tree which bases its practice primarily on the original teachings of the Buddha himself. Other branches of Buddhism, however, have come up with their own versions of how.

As I mentioned in the last episode, it can be confusing to study too much between branches of Buddhism, at least if you’re looking for teachings to entrust yourself to and wrestle with. One branch says you absolutely must have a guru, another states you don’t need to do anything except chant the Buddha’s name with devotion, another says you have to become a fully ordained monk or nun and practice full time, while another says you already have everything you need and – theoretically, at least – you could awaken this instant. Talk about confusing! Which is right? There’s really no answer to this question for the ages: How can so many diverse paths all be right? I guess it’s most helpful to think of them as different roads up the mountainside, to use another metaphor – and this is also a useful metaphor because, eventually, if you want to get to the mountaintop, you have to pick a road and stop wondering whether other roads might have gotten you there quicker.

As for what to study along your own branch of Buddhism, I can really only speak to Zen Buddhism, and really only to Soto Zen when you get into the last 500 years or so. I’ll address Zen and Soto Zen study at some later date, but in the meantime, I recommend you ask a teacher in your lineage of Buddhism for a recommended reading and study list.

Third and finally, there’s enough to study in Buddhism for it to be a lifelong process. There’s no set amount of material you should be familiar with or need to get through, but the more you study, the more teachings you’ll be able to bring to bear in any given situation. There’s something in our human makeup that causes us to search for order and meaning in life, and by exposing yourself to lots of Buddhist teachings within your lineage, you’ll find, over time, your whole way of thinking becomes Buddhist. Enjoy!

 

67 – Relating to Buddhist Teachings 1: Their Abundance, Diversity & Authenticity
69 - The Soto Zen Goal of Goallessness: How to Awaken Without Trying
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