Scholasticism and meditation

( Georges B. J. Dreyfus: The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk )

It is the normative ideal of developing wisdom that the model of the three acumens intends to promote. Monks first undergo an extended scholastic training, which prepares them for the intensive practice of meditation. But not all students are equally concerned about soteriological matters. Some show great devotion early on in their studies and are strongly drawn to the more strictly religious aspects of the teachings. One of my classmates at the Buddhist School represents this type. He was always an enthusiastic participant in devotional practices such as the all-night prostration around the temple. Later, he became a hermit and by now has spent more than ten years in strict meditative retreat. Not everybody is cut out for such a path, and most monks do not see themselves as being capable of such singleminded dedication. I believe that in our class of twenty or so, two became hermits.

Other students, such as myself, see their studies as an occasion for intellectual stimulation as much as a source of religious inspiration. Such an attitude is not rejected by the tradition, which values intellectual activity too highly to belittle anyone who is seriously engaged in scholarship. The tradition sees scholastic studies as a form of merit making and hence as intrinsically valuable. Moreover, the intellectually gifted monks who are committed scholars and less immediately attracted by intensive meditative practice are precious, for it is from among them that the future monastic leaders and teachers are recruited. Meditators are rarely interested in leading others or even teaching. Hence, the more scholastically oriented students are crucial to sustaining the tradition. They will become abbots and teachers, often sacrificing their desire to retire into more intensive meditative practice.

That intensive meditation comes after studies does not mean that the two activities are wholly incompatible. In fact, the monks who become hermits often begin their practice while studying and gradually develop a stronger commitment to intensive meditation. But how many monks meditate in the large Tibetan scholastic centers? Not many, it appeared to me. My impression is confirmed by my interviews of monks trained in Tibet. Though a few, such as Geshe Rab-ten, said that they had engaged in the
type of contemplation described in the Stages of the Path literature, most admitted they did not meditate. Some even confessed that they had never followed a teaching on the Stages of the Path during the many years that they spent in the monastery in Tibet. One thus can reasonably claim that most scholars do little or no formal meditation while studying, a claim also backed by my personal experience. I never managed to combine studies and meditation, despite the encouragement of some teachers, and I believe that my failure is typical of all but a few.

Such widespread failure is hardly surprising, for meditation has never been the concern of more than a minority. Some may believe that this lack of interest reflects a degeneration from some purer form of the tradition, but they are wrong. There is in fact no obligation for a Buddhist monk to practice meditation. Being a good monk entails abiding diligently by the numerous rules of the Vinaya, and practicing meditation is not included in those rules. In general, to meditate is not a moral obligation, whereas to follow precepts is. This is not to deny meditation an important role in Buddhism and in monastic practice, but to underscore that its role must be understood properly.

More often than not, meditation’s role is normative: it is the means through which the ultimate goals of the tradition can be realized. As such it is highly valued, for without it the whole system of religious practice is in danger of collapsing. That status as a normative practice also implies that it is important to be able to point to some people as practicing meditation. They are the virtuosi who authenticate the ultimate claims of the tradition, but their numbers are small. Meditation is a difficult practice, and not everybody will equally succeed in it or even benefit from it. Moreover, there are many other practices that are important. Why engage in meditation, unless one feels a special call and ability to do so?

A monk at the Nam-gyel monastery expressed a typical view when I asked him why he was not meditating. Visibly becoming defensive, he said, “You Westerners are really quite funny. You all want to become a great meditator and become buddha in this life like Mi-la-re-pa. You think it’s easy.You do not realize how difficult this is and how much sacrifice one must be ready to make. In Tibet, there were hundreds of thousands of monks, and one or two managed to achieve realization.” Many traditional Buddhists would agree with his reply. This stance is often combined with the cosmological vision of the degenerate nature of the times (snyigs dus), a view pervasive in most Buddhist traditions. Many of my teachers shared this outlook, arguing that our time is too degenerate to allow much spiritual development. One put it this way: “We are not strong enough to reach realization in this lifetime. But we can prepare ourselves so that when Maitreya [the next buddha] comes, we will be in good shape and become one of his chief disciples.” The traditional cosmology suggests that the wait will be rather long, and hence there seems to be no compelling reason to rush toward enlightenment.

As some of the monks themselves recognized, this outlook can be taken as authorizing all kinds of accommodations with worldly concerns, and it often is an excuse for laziness. Yet it also reflects a wisdom that Western converts, myself included, are frequently unable to appreciate. Cultivation of virtues is a difficult process undertaken by each individual, requiring time and patience. One should therefore engage in the task in the way that is appropriate to oneself, with no expectation of quick results. The Dalai Lama told me one day, “You will see that you will not be able to achieve too much, but this does not matter as long as the little you do is valuable.” I was taken aback by this statement; I was then twenty-two, and the sky seemed the limit. I thought, “Maybe you are talking about yourself or people around you, but don’t count on me to wait until Maitreya comes!” I soon learned that the arrogance of the neophyte is indeed no guarantee of success.

To fully understand the role of meditation in monastic education, we must qualify the claim that most Tibetan monks do not meditate, for it presupposes too narrow an understanding of Buddhist meditation. The Buddhist practice should not be reduced to concentration on a single point. The Sanskrit word bhāvanā , which is usually the term translated as “meditation,” literally means “development” or “cultivation” and thus has a broader application. In Tibetan, it is translated as sgom pa, which derives from the word gom, “habituation.” Thus, if we accept meditation as a translation of the Sanskrit and Tibetan words, we see that to meditate entails cultivating positive habits, or virtues. Far from being reduced to a single type of exercise, meditation as traditionally understood appears to include a vast array of practices.

2 thoughts on “Scholasticism and meditation

  1. Pobjegli oni od lopate i obiteljskih obaveza, meni se cini. Sto bi reko’ Johnny Stulic, njezna dusa, od rada mu muka…

    Pa sta je iso’ u monahe ako nece da meditira?

    Liked by 1 person

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