Closing the gap
Scholarship and Practice
The two sides
Textual studies and archaeology have filled out the history, so Buddhists now understand and live their traditions in the light of academic findings. In fact everyone refers to them — particularly people who want to avoid the dead ends of consumer culture, and to live better.
It ultimately this educated public that sustains Buddhist Studies. Yet scholarship may sometimes take little account of experiential or existential motives, or may even devalue them. So a gap may emerge between the purely scholarly and the more generally practical exploration of Buddhist tradition.
The gap is bigger than it need be. Can we narrow it? Can we even close it?
Scholarship is impartial in the sense that:
Factual statements about Buddhist tradition rely on the evidence of texts, archaeology and social anthropology — they are in a different category from assertions about personal experience, e.g. of Buddhist practice,.
The academic value of a scholar’s work is not dependent on her or his personal experiences or qualities or attitudes to the material.
Equally, personal practice is central to Buddhist tradition.
By practising appropriate physical and cognitive behaviours, Buddhists have always aimed to improve and potentially transform their experience and behaviour. They have undertaken this process of self-training with a view to achieving a sense of balance and ease which will so inform their lives that they are spontaneously able to meet ethical standards (while at the same time raising the spirits of those they come in contact with).
Recent scientific work has used elements of Buddhist practice. Forms of mindfulness training have been offered to counter conditions such as depression. Clinical trials have shown such training to be effective and efficacious.
So we can assume that traditional texts and social forms were created and preserved as part of a wider endeavour in which practice of this sort was always crucial. Any interpretation that discounts the practice dimension is therefore apt to present difficulties.
Sometimes, a feature of the tradition is subject to different plausible interpretations. In such cases, it may be relevant to consider those interpretations from the perspective of practice, e.g. with reference to scientific study of mindfulness.
Institutions that contribute to the development of Buddhist Studies can accommodate a range of perspectives. Both those who have and those who do not have a practice may make a valid contribution, so:
Those with a practice may not dismiss the work of those without on the basis that, lacking personal experience, they can have no insight into the tradition.
Those who do not have a practice may not dismiss the work of those who do on the basis that, motivated by faith, they cannot be objective.
There is little point in undertaking any practice unless one puts one’s heart into it. Confidence is needed. That applies also in the mindfulness training programmes of contemporary psychologists, so such confidence is compatible with a sceptical, enquiring, rational mind-set.
That view accords with Buddhist tradition. Tradition does envisage that people will in the first place take on trust certain statements (texts, teachings) and their author(s), but it is expected that what was taken on trust will in time be evaluated in the light of experience and reason. Unconditional faith that skips the evaluation process is generally considered inappropriate.
It is true that unquestioning faith has appeared in many social forms associated with Buddhism. Equally, thinking and practice have generally converged on the view that ‘scripture is not valid cognition’.
The implication is that practitioners have as much reason as anyone else to apply critical methods in analysing Buddhist texts and social forms. Critical practitioners may then help to set the scholars straight. For instance:
Some traditional students of the Pali Canon hold it to be literally the Buddha’s word, absolutely true and consistent in all its parts.
Some contemporary scholars, meanwhile, impressed by the relatively late date of extant manuscripts, have gone the other way, claiming none of the Canon can bear an interpretation beyond the mythological or ideological.
For other researchers, this would-be super-scepticism is itself ideological. By analysing the internal evidence of the texts and relating the results to what is known of the ancient social context, they can show how the material is stratified chronologically and so reconstitute this history of ideas.
The point stands on its merits: the sceptics represent a minority bias. Still, opinion among the educated public has been helpful in resolving this situation. Critical practitioners have played a role.
In neo-Platonism or Advaita Vedānta, knowledge (gnosis, jñāna) is an understanding of the universe and a state of being which fully-realised persons attain. In Buddhist tradition, by contrast, wisdom (prajñā/paññā) is a pattern of cognitive behaviour which grows from practice and feeds back into it.
Still, ideas matter in Buddhist tradition. Practice without thought is useless (unlike in Jainism); practitioners cultivate specific ways of thinking.
The Abhidharma testifies to the importance for meditative practice of classifying experience. Nāgārjuna and later philosophers develop this impulse in new ways, addressing a literate public in a context of controversies between contending traditions, but the underlying impulse is the same.
So there has to be a philosophical dimension to the study of Buddhism. At the same time, this element of the tradition never stands alone. It has important literary, social, and institutional corollaries. Above all, philosophy emerges from and feeds back into the ethical and cognitive-behavioural practices, around which this tradition has always been organised.
Practitioners and scholars form overlapping categories. More to the point, they are interdependent. The results of scholarship feed into practitioners’ understanding of tradition and the practitioner audience can support good scholarship in many ways. It is in both sides’ interest to come together. Still, a bit of encouragement won’t go amiss.