25 December 2009

Meditation & Scholarship

Saint Jerome in his studyOver the last couple of years I've sometimes come in for some shtick from colleagues and acquaintances who think that because my writing focuses on doctrine more than meditation I've got nothing useful to say about the Dharma. I've tried pointing out that the subject I write about is what seems best suited to the medium and my own temperament, and that my words are not entirely unrelated to my experience as a practising Buddhist. But the suggestion that my contribution is of less value hangs in the air. For my part I find that my critics who focus on meditation at the expense of study are often self-absorbed, intellectually vague, and inarticulate. So you might imagine that I was quite interested to see that this kind of, shall we say, 'incompatibility' between Buddhists with different proclivities has a long enough history to be recorded in a Pāli sutta. [1] The sutta is one delivered by Mahācunda to a gathering of bhikkhus and the Buddha does not feature in it at all.

The Mahācunda Sutta (AN 6.46) describes two kinds of monks: those 'keen on dhamma' (dhammayogā bhikkhū) and those keen on meditation (jhāyī bhikkhū). Dhammayoga is glossed in the commentary as dhammakathikānaṃ 'a dhamma-preacher' (AA 3.376), but Bhikkhu Bodhi thinks it means someone (like me) who is more focused on study, i.e. a scholar.

In the sutta it says the scholar bhikkhus disparage the meditating bhikkhus:
ime pana jhāyinomhā, jhāyinomhāti - jhāyanti pajjhāyanti nijjhāyanti avajjhāyanti. Kimime jhāyanti, kintime jhāyanti, kathaṃ ime jhāyantī’ti?

"We are meditating, we are meditating" [they say]. They meditate here, they meditate there, they meditate up, they meditate down. Do they meditate? How do they mediate? Why do they meditate?
Similarly the meditating bhikkhus disparage the scholar bhikkhus:
ime pana dhammayogamhā, dhammayogamhāti uddhatā unnaḷā capalā mukharā vikiṇṇavācā muṭṭhassatī asampajānā asamāhitā vibbhantacittā pākatindriyā. Kimime dhammayogā, kintime dhammayogā, kathaṃ ime dhammayogā’ti?

"we are dhamma scholars, we are dhamma scholars" [they say]. They are inflated, showing off, arrogant; they talk too much and loosely, they're unmindful, unfocussed, scattered and their thoughts stray with senses uncontrolled. Do they study? How do they study? Why do they study?
One can almost hear the mocking tone of these taunts. However the text says that there is no profit for anyone in this kind of talk. Thus all bhikkhus should train themselves this way:
dhammayogā samānā jhāyīnaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ vaṇṇaṃ bhāsissāmāti... jhāyī samānā dhammayogānaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ vaṇṇaṃ bhāsissāmāti

We will say that scholars are of equal value to meditators. We will say that meditators are of equal value to scholars.
The meditator is of value because:
...ye amataṃ dhātuṃ kāyena phusitvā viharanti
...they dwell having touched the deathless state with the body.
The scholar is of value because:
gambhīraṃ atthapadaṃ paññāya ativijjha passantī
they see, they penetrate with wisdom into the depths of texts.
The text is noted by Reginald Ray in his book Buddhist Saints in India. He takes the term dhammayogā bhikkhu or dhammayogin [2] to be synonymous with what he calls the settled monastic whose role in Buddhist society was remembering the Buddha's words, preserving them in texts, and studying the meaning of them. In addition they were responsible for basic literacy - monks like this probably were the ones who spread writing across India, Central Asia, Tibet and South-East Asia. Their counterparts, the meditators or jhāyins, are called forest renunciants by Ray. They devoted themselves to meditation practice in out of the way places, aiming for realisation of the truth. This, by the way, marks the sutta was probably a late addition to the canon because this kind of division must have taken some time to emerge. Ray also notes that such divisions are evident in later strata of Buddhist texts and even in contemporary Buddhist discourse. I might also note in passing that Jan Nattier's book A Few Good Men makes it seem likely that early in the Mahāyāna 'bodhisatta bhikkhu' was also synonymous with the jhāyī bhikkhu. [3]

The Mahācunda Sutta is a plea for tolerance of different temperaments leading people towards the Dhamma in different ways. We can all make a contribution to the wider Sangha according to our abilities. This is not to say that scholars need not meditate, or that meditators should not study. We must not only play to our strengths. It is of course entirely necessary to test our theories in practice - to give expression to our faith. On the other hand concepts are required to communicate insights and it benefits everybody if the concepts are clear and put across in ways that can be understood. As well as some frustrating experiences, I have also found that it is possible to get some depth of conversation with meditators and to use their experience as confirmation of the way I think, and on the other hand to help meditators to clarify the way they communicate the experience of meditation, and even to refine their approach especially to vipassana meditation. We can learn from each other.

In both study and meditation we confront our views. This is one thing about study and scholarship which often seems to be misunderstood. The scholar is not seeking certainty, not trying to fix things in words. Indeed the scholar is often intensely aware of the limitations of words, and especially in professional scholarship one's thoughts are subject to constant criticism by one's peers. The scholar is trying to expand knowledge, to make clear what is opaque, to observe new things. If there were nothing new to see and hear, then scholarship would have died centuries ago, but there are always fresh insights that need to be communicated, always unnoticed subtleties to explore. My own exploration of the texts, especially the Pāli texts, has lead me to a much stronger faith in the Buddhadharma. As critical as I can be, as unwilling to accept received traditions and dogmas, I find something beautiful and timeless in the Dharma that I have great confidence in.

  1. Mahācunda Sutta. Aṅguttara Nikāya 6.46 (PTS: A iii.355). My translations. Also translated by Bhikkhus Nyanaponika and Bodhi. Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. p.163-4; and by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight.
  2. Ray discusses the term dhammayogin on p.201-2. Ray seems too quick to accept La Vallee Poussin's characterisation of dhammayogins which smacks of polemic. There is no a priori reason to think that a scholar is only interested in the 'intellectual' or that they are interested in metaphysics at all - though I will admit that it seems to have been the pattern through history. I wonder whether things could have got that far before the composition of the Mahācunda Sutta?
  3. Nattier, Jan. 2003. A Few Good Men: The Bodhisativa Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press. See especially chapter 5.
image: St Jerome in his study
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