The mistaken approach to Buddhism made by academics
Academics and scholars repeatedly make one of the most basic, self-defeating and debilitating mistakes anyone can make in approaching Buddhism, and this is to believe that scholarly dabbling on the periphery -reading books, learning languages, translating texts, attending heavyweight seminars, visiting Buddhist centres and taking notes – somehow constitutes actual involvement in the Buddhist quest itself.
Almost every book, article, website, lecture and teaching on Buddhism you can come across is likely to promote a fundamental and damaging misunderstanding of the teaching itself, and this misunderstanding is poisonous enough to ruin more or less everything which follows. Academic studies are the worst offenders, because academics believe that scholarly studies should be judged on their manifest scholarship, and not on their relevance or meaningfulness; in other words, it doesn’t matter how preposterous and wrongheaded your research is, as long as scholarly standards are upheld.
And the elemental, basic, square one mistake people make is to take Buddhist doctrine as if it were some sort of mystical car manual, the reading of which, and the handling of which, is equivalent – and possibly even superior – to the driving of the car itself. To drive a car, you need to get inside it, put yourself into the driver’s seat, and then drive it. Reading the manual – or the ‘how to’ book – is not the same as actually driving the car, even if you know the accompanying text off by heart, translated it from the Khotanese, and can read it [sort of] in the original medieval Tibetan. To drive the car you actually need to get into it, start the engine, put your hands on the steering wheel, and then drive it. You could have a manual on your lap, if you want to make life difficult for yourself, but there is really no need to, and you would be better advised simply to drive, learn from your mistakes, and adjust to situations as you find them, as a driver in the actual – as opposed to theoretical – driving seat. And if, as an expert driver, you then find it of interest to browse the manual, do so by all means; as an expert, you have earned the privilege to do whatever you want. But the idea that the ‘text wallahs’ have somehow obviated the need actually to drive the car, is as mind-shatteringly ridiculous as anything could possibly be. What value their knowledge ? How can you possibly know anything about the actual experience of driving a car from reading a book about it ?
The counter argument might run as follows: Buddhism and Buddhist doctrine are not as distinct as the actuality of driving a car is from a book about it. Buddhism is more like, say, poetry, and reading the right books on poetry can inform you mightily about all aspects of it – how to write it, how to appreciate it – without necessarily becoming a poet yourself. The same would apply to a great number of other subjects, such as music, or architecture, or even to sex, in that you can create an imaginative space in your mind which, depending on you imaginative ability, can often seem very close to the real thing, and can on occasion seem like a very adequate substitute for it. And after all, Buddhism is really just a bunch of ideas, and anyone can get to grips with ideas if they have a will to. You don’t have to become a Buddhist to be able to know it from top to bottom; all you have to do is read the right books.
For the counter argument to have substance and cogency, Buddhism really has to be no more than an ideology. You fill your mind with some received concepts, and behave accordingly, and the whole charade never goes much beyond that. This is what entitles outsiders to judge Buddhism as if it were a mere form of theatre, and what also entitles them to participate in it at will, and then withdraw again if it all gets to be a bit much.
Unfortunately for the many who like to dabble in Buddhism, Buddhism is infinitely more than just a bunch of ideas. You need to engage with it, and actually ‘do’ it, for it to have the least substance; on the page it is nothing. The metaphysical exploration of your own mind, and second-hand metaphysical exploration of someone else’s ideas, are two entirely distinct things, and pretending to explore your own metaphysical reality by reading the accounts of how others see it is like trying to swim by looking at pictures of water. This is not as glib an analogy as it may seem. In fact, it is just about as serious as anything can be. For example, if you ask yourself, ‘what is a thought ?’, you should turn to the source of your experiencing and take a look, for yourself. What do you see ? How does it manifest itself, if at all ? Is ‘manifest’ the right word for what you perceive in this kind of witnessing ? And so on. You are forced to look for yourself, and what you will witness will be very complex, elusive, and not at all easy to put into words. It will take you many months, possibly years, to develop the ability to distinguish – with any facility – between the different features of your mental functioning: it is a difficult as trying to identify shifting shapes in a mist. Most people go throughout their entire lives never having even the meanest ability to witness the functioning of their own minds, and this would have to include those who have clocked up tens of thousands of hours of intense meditation. It is just not something you can take lightly. And the most foolish way of approaching the whole subject is to listen to someone else’s account, and then use their ideas as a template with which to negotiate your own witnessing: all you are doing is looking at someone else’s ideas in your own imagination, and then trying to mould your experience to that. You might as well not bother, and simply declare yourself a Buddha on the basis of what you have been told – which is incidentally what a lot of people do anyway. Filtering your experience through received ideas is Buddhism by proxy, and very often the proxy is as distorted and unhelpful as it would be if someone were deliberately out to mislead you. Worse still, even if the account you are given is one hundred percent accurate, it is not your account, it is someone else’s, and it doesn’t help you to have their ideas interfering with your own. You have to learn to look for yourself. Buddhism is not about received ideas, it is about learning to see metaphysical reality for yourself, by yourself, without intermediary.
Why all the fuss ? Because a crucial feature of the Buddhist quest is about knowing for yourself what the situation is with regard to yourself and your metaphysical reality, and not having to take it on faith, or having to rely on the testimony of others, which is almost always second-hand itself. You can’t free yourself from your entrapment until you know the way out, and you can’t find the way out if all you have is other people’s ideas in your imagination. You have to find what the problem is for yourself.
How then do you avoid making the elementary blunder of treating Buddhism as a doctrine instead of as a challenge to explore – directly, without mediation, and without received ideas – your own metaphysical reality ? Please read the section called The Buddhistic method: start thinking for yourself.