Philosophy as Practice

Philosophy as Practice

Some think: meditators do not need to study; those who teach need to study. Actually, learning is more necessary for the meditator; teachers may just incur the fault of explaining something incorrectly.

It is vital for a meditator to study in order to properly understand what to meditate on. This may sound obvious, however, many people think that studying or the doing of philosophy gets in the way of real practice. However, the great Kadampa masters of old Tibet tell us it is more important for a meditator to study than a teacher, because all a teacher can do is say something wrong. A meditator who has not studied, on the other hand, could potentially waste years meditating on an incorrect object or misunderstanding of the nature of reality.

In this articles, I intend to argue that studying philosophy is a form of dharma practice in and of itself. That there are real and tangible benefits in the practice of studying philosophy. Moreover, studying philosophy is vital, if one is seriously engaging the Buddhist path. Without the ability to think deeply and clearly on subjects such as the nature of conditioned existence or dependent-arising, these subjects cannot be properly understood. Do you really expect to be able to meditate on subjects such as these if you cannot think deeply and clearly? In fact, I would argue that without the ability to analyze and use critical thinking, even the compassion spoken of in Buddhism cannot be fully developed. Therefore the wisdom lineage, as in method and wisdom pervades the method lineage.

A teacher of mine – the late Gelug lama Geshe Jampa Gyatso – a great scholar and meditation master (at the time of his death, Geshe Jampa Gyatso remained in clear light for seven days) once said:

The Kadampa Geshes have a saying:
‘Meditating without having listened to teachings
is like someone without hands trying to climb a snow mountain’.

In order to fully appreciate the benefits of philosophical knowledge we need to draw a distinction between studying philosophy and doing philosophy. Much has been made of the worthiness of Buddhist scholars, that perhaps, they are merely academics with little understanding of the utility of Buddhist thought. Up to a point I agree with this claim. For instance, some say their knowledge of the dharma is merely knowledge for it’s own sake and that they often misunderstand the implicit meaning of the canonical texts. This sentiment has at times, caused me concern, for I feel it can be used by some Buddhist practitioners as an excuse to do no study at all. Although there will be times when a practitioner must focus almost exclusively on meditation, this is only after gaining a proper foundation in Buddhist thought. While it is true that some people think that meditation is all that is needed, and that philosophy is for teachers and academics, upon reflection this can be shown to be incorrect. However for those who may not intuitively see the benefits of doing philosophy, I will attempt to explain the difference.

Studying Philosophy vs Doing Philosophy

Studying is generally thought of as the act of analyzing a given subject as a means of understanding that subject. However, more often than not, we engage this process by merely learning definitions and divisions. We then think we know the material. If we are studying computer programming this method of study is fine. We will find suitable work and earn a living. However, this approach does not work when it comes to the study of dharma. Why? Because the purpose of studying dharma is not merely the collection of information. Understanding the dharma is not merely the ability to repeat the definitions and divisions of a given text.

Philosophical truths are not things that we look up in books; they are truths we acquire by hearing, reading, thinking, contemplation and meditation. If you merely report what someone else says, then you are not doing the thinking for yourself. Moreover, doing philosophy requires analysis and an ability to think critically. As Buddhist practitioners, we need to unearth the wisdom of an ancient tradition for ourselves. Therefore we need to think for ourselves. We are not reinventing the dharma wheel; we are discovering that wheel for ourselves.

Doing philosophy, is therefore, an investigation into the fundamental ideas and concepts we hold as true. We must challenge our everyday assumptions of personal identity, free-will and even if enlightenment is possible! Doing philosophy, for example, is taking the concept that all phenomena are dependent on causes and conditions, parts and an imputing consciousness, and critically and rigorously investigate these assertions to see if, in fact, this is the case. Being able to merely explain dependent-arising is therefore not doing philosophy and therefore I claim it is also not studying philosophy as it is from within the tradition.

However, this rigorous investigation is only part of the process of doing philosophy. Developing responses to these questions is an important component in this process. In the Nalanda tradition of ancient India and in the monastic traditions of Tibet, doing philosophy was engaged through debate. However, this does require the participants be in one place at the same time. Something that for Westerners is not possible. On the other hand, in western philosophy this same conversation of the rigorous questioning of our unchallenged assumptions takes place via a written essay. The essay is the central communication device. It is a tool used to tease out from our subconscious these assumptions. To investigate them and to formulate clear and concise thoughts on them. The written essay speaks our ideas, if you like. There is also the tradition in of other philosophers responding to our claims via their own essays. Bringing points of difference, counter-arguments and objections to the conversation. A conversation of “call and response” takes place, albeit over a longer period of time, that is similar to traditional debates.

I would like to see more of this type of conversation take place between western Buddhists. We, as a tradition , can leverage our own cultural heritage in the form of essay writing, and use it to benefit both Buddhism and our own understanding of it. Lets not leave this conversation to university professors and those from academia that merely engage it because it is interesting. Let us learn how to communicate as they do, and use these tools to forward the project of presenting Buddhism to the west.

There are also other benefits by communicating in this way. The most powerful of which is; writing as a means of learning. When writing in your own words for example, what is meditation, your thoughts on the subject need to be very clear. Writing is therefore a tool for learning and engaging the tradition. The other advantage is that others may also benefit from your efforts. This is something that western university philosophy departments have been acutely aware of for some time. Much emphasis is placed on the ability to think critically and write clearly. Because of the importance of these skills, students of western philosophy in universities are taught how to read and write critically.

Raising Possible Objections

An objection cold be raised here: one might say that knowledge for knowledge sake is a waste of time, as it adds to conceptualization. I would agree. However, this argument assumes that doing philosophy is knowledge for knowledge sake. This argument fails to recognize the distinction between the doing of philosophyand knowing lots of different stuff. As to whether wisdom will naturally arise through meditation: I believe,  even the action of meditation comes from learning it, be that directly from a meditation teacher or even from a book. Therefore, if one needs to hear, read and contemplate about such things, how can the ultimate nature of reality dawn without any guidance?

Another objection might be: those who debate minute details of, for example, the view of emptiness or the meaning of cessation are missing the point. That ultimate reality is beyond conceptualization and therefore, speaking, debating and discussing such things will not bear fruit. This argument might claim: just meditate. However, this fails to understand that discussion is part of the process of hearing, thinking and meditating. While it may be true that the direct cognition of emptiness is beyond words. That does not negate the benefits of investigating. Moreover, I would assert that in order for the direct non-conceptual cognition of emptiness to arise, it must be proceeded by a conceptual cognition, which is a union of calm-abiding and special insight. This union in turn is proceeded by thinking about the meaning of emptiness. So you can see from this, an understanding of the ultimate truth of all phenomena starts by deeply, clearly and critically contemplating the meaning of reality.

Yet another counter-argument might be: combining western and Buddhist philosophy will weaken the Buddhist tradition. However, I would suggest that if something is worth believing, it is worthy of critical analysis. If the basic assertions of Buddhism are true, then, these assertions will be validated when placed under critical analysis. I would also suggest that we are not conflating two traditions but rather, leveraging the tools of one tradition for the betterment of the other.

Summary

In this article, I have tried to posit the benefits of rigorous investigation and critical thinking as a means of gaining insights. That is to say, studying philosophy is not merely knowledge for knowledge sake. That it can in fact be an actual dharma practice. As much of the Buddhist path is made up of insights and perspectives. So if we are to achieve the paths to enlightenment, we need to develop these insights and perspectives. In order to do that, we need to challenge our everyday assumptions on how things exist – we must do philosophy.

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