Ven. Walpola Rahula: Study or Practice?

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‘Verily, from meditation arises wisdom. Without meditation wisdom wanes. Knowing this twofold path of gain and loss, let one so conduct oneself so that wisdom may increase.’

(Dhammapada: Narada Thera – Verse 282)

In his excellent book entitled ‘The Heritage of the Bhikkhu’, the Ven. Walpola Rahula explains that during the 1st century BCE, the Sri Lankan Theravada tradition essentially split into two factions, with the ‘Gantha-dhura’ (i.e. ‘Vocation of Books’) advocating intellectual ‘study’ over ‘meditation’, and the ‘Vipassana-dhura (i.e. ‘Vocation of insight meditation’), advocating the practice of seated meditation over intellectual study.  Following a debate within the Sangha, it was decided that ‘study’ has precedence over ‘meditation’.  The thinking behind this appears logical on the surface, as without the intellectual understanding of the Buddha’s path (which is intellectually astute and complex), there is a danger that the technical reason behind the practice of meditation could become confused or even lost over time.  This ‘study-first’ perspective became the basis for the subsequent direction of the development of the Abhidhamma literature, that represents the monkish understanding and experience of the practice of the Buddha’s teaching (i.e. Dharma).  However, the Ven. Walpola Rahula, being the excellent scholar that he is, also wrote extensively on how Theravada Abhidhamma literature often deviated from (or directly contradicted) the Buddha’s teachings contained in the Pali Suttas.  For instance, the monkish decision that ‘study’ trumps ‘meditation’, is in direct opposition to the Buddha’s instructions as recorded in the Dhammapada, which states that a moment spent in meditation practice is better than a lifetime of a hundred years lived without wisdom or control (Verse 111).  (In his other works, such as ‘Zen & the Taming of the Bull – Towards the Definition of Buddhist Thought’, and even his famous ‘What the Buddha Taught’, the Ven. Walpola Rahula often points-out where Mahayana teaching is in greater accord with the Pali Sutta teachings, than are the conventions of the Theravada Abhidhamma, or that Mahayana and Theravada concepts can often be satisfactorily reconciled. He also points out that as the Buddha taught that ‘mind’ is impermanent, it is incorrect for certain interpretations of Yogacara philosophy to assume that it is ‘idealistic’, etc.)

The Chinese Ch’an School accords with the Dhammapada of the Pali Suttas, and disagrees with the Theravada viewpoint as expressed in the Abhidhamma of the Sri Lankan tradition.  Dry intellectual understanding of the Buddha’s teachings was common-place in a Confucian country like China that extolled book-learning as a spiritual virtue.  However, the Ch’an masters considered this kind of ‘intellectualism’ to be shallow and unable to propel the practitioner into perceiving the empty mind ground.  Indeed, developing a dry and superficial understanding, even if it were technically correct, served to build more layers of obscuration in the mind that prevented the direct perception of emptiness.  This is why the Ch’an masters (who possessed precise and pin-point knowledge of the sutras) advised their students to ‘give-up’ all intellectual activity whilst engaged in meditation.  As intellectual usage is in fact the ‘moving’ of the mind, it must be abandoned to realise ‘stillness’ of the mind – the exact opposite of intellectual usage.  Once the empty mind ground has been perceived, integrated with, and has become all-embracing (whilst escaping dualism and not falling into ‘oneness’), then the ‘prajna’ aspect of the mind begins to function.  It is in this post-enlightened stage that Ch’an students, if they so wish, are encouraged to read all the sutras and commentaries, because now their minds are functioning in exactly the same manner as that of the Buddha, Vimalakirti and the Sixth Patriarch – or those who produced the profound wisdom that created the sutras in the first place!

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