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We provide transcribed talks by 35 different speakers
Jinamitra, Welwyn, UK
Ratnaghosha, FBA Chairman
Kuladharini, Glasgow, UK
Vidyamala, Manchester, UK
Colum, London, UK
Viryaja, Toowoomba, Australia
Buddhasiha, Ipswich, UK
Kamalashila, Catalunya, Spain
Audio Available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM446
(Talk given at Taraloka Retreat Centre, Great Gathering, 2000)
So I've just come back from America, and while I was there one of the things that I did was a study
retreat. It was a pretty intensive study, I have to tell you, and ‘getting it’ became rather a theme.
People would say, “Well, I kind of get it, but I just don’t get it” [Laughter]. So given that my brief is
to talk about study as a way to wisdom, I thought, well, what we need to do is to think about how to
move from ‘getting it’ to ‘getting it’ [Laughter]. ‘Getting it,’ right. So I want to talk about this in
terms of the Middle Way, particularly because the Middle Way happens to be something I’m keen on
at the moment. So I want to give a talk about it. The Middle Way is about transcending opposites.
It’s not just about findig a middle point between opposites, it’s about transcending them. So I just
wanted to have a look at various ways in which we can relate to Dharma study; various ways in which
we can go between extremes maybe and something about how to find that Middle Way with study.
I think something that’s very important to be aware of with Dharma study is that we go about it in
very different ways, and there are very many, quite legitimate, ways to think about Dharma study. I
went on an event, a sort of seminar at Madhyamaloka in March, which was a collection of scholars of
various persuasions from around the Movement and we had a question and answer session with
Sangharakshita, with Bhante. And I was very struck by how, in answer to a number of questions, he
started off by saying, “Well people are very different in that respect”. That phrase has resonated with
me a lot, and I thought, "Well it’s true of study". People relate to study very, very differently, because
we are temperamentally very different and I think that’s the first thing I want to say, don’t feel that
there’s just one way to do Dharma study - there are many ways. I want to run through a few pairs of
opposites, if you like. I don’t have very long to speak, so they will be kind of headlines, really, just
things to think about, I guess.
Theory and Practice
So the first one I want to consider is theory and practice. I notice doing study that quite often there
can be two schools here. There can be people who can be very comfortable with and enjoy abstract
thinking and feel that its very important, and then there are other people who feel that the very
important thing is to talk about our own lives and what is really going on, and that, in a way, all this
abstract stuff is a bit besides the point or even being in one’s head and out of touch. Whereas the
abstract thinker can, with justice, I suppose sometimes, feel that the person who insists on relating
everything to our own experience is, in a sense being, well, I would use the word reductionist. What I
mean is reducing, if you like, Dayanandi’s vast sky to this particular star. I suppose I wanted to want
to suggest that we might try to see if we can find a Middle Way between these two positions.
Some of us are going to be very much more at home in the world of the abstract so to speak and some
of us are going to be very much more at home in something more down to earth. Somehow,
1 whichever part of that spectrum we are on, it seems to me that we are going to need to find a balance
somehow, because ultimately it’s going to be about integrating both perspectives. We’re trying to, in
relating to the Dharma, relate to something that is actually beyond or outside our current experience
and at the same time we are trying to relate it to ourselves, we’re trying to ground it in ourselves. So
we have to have that kind of play going on.
I think it relates to a number of other things: the play between the Ideal and the Real and the play
between the Conceptual and the Non-Conceptual. I think Kulaprabha did a good job last night of
arguing for the value of clear thinking and that just because wisdom is beyond the reach of thought
doesn’t mean that we don’t have to think about things. The ‘beyond’ part means we think, and then
it’s ‘beyond’ that and we can’t just duck underneath it, at least that’s the way I take it. But again,
Dharma study involves quite a lot of grappling with concepts, but also we get a lot of opportunity to
do very non-conceptual things. We can dwell in the world of images; we can dwell in the world of
stories. Again it’s probably useful for us to experiment with both, if you like. There’s going to be
one where we are probably more at home, but it’s good to get a balance there. I wanted to read you a
little bit from Vessantara’s new book, Tales of Freedom. It got a great tiger on the front, and he says
something interesting about conceptualizing. I’ve been thinking a bit about this following on from a
retreat I did last year where we were talking about refining our conceptualizing. Sometimes our
concepts are rather blunt instruments, you could say. Actually, what we need to do is to keep refining
the way we think about things and I like the way that Vessantara puts it here:
“Clearly in order to describe the world to ourselves we need to use language. Ideally there should be
a spiraling dialogue between our experience and our description of it. Experiencing life as deeply as
we can, we should hone our language into as wieldy a tool as possible for describing it. This
refinement of our conceptual description will then allow us to dive more deeply into our experience.
The continuing effort to explore experience and refine our picture of it will free us from false and
inadequate ideas about the nature of life and how we exist and enable us to experience ever more
So you get the picture, ideally a kind of play, if you like, between concepts and language on the one
hand and experience, which language can never quite capture, on the other. We’ve got to play
between those things. I think the play between meditation and study is interesting here too.
Literalism and Metaphor
Another pair of opposites is taking things literally and taking things metaphorically. Bhante once said
that at least half the questions he’s asked he’s asked because people are taking things too literally. So I
think that’s very interesting. On the other hand, I think that’s the trouble with describing the Middle
Way, it can all sound rather tricky. There is a bit of a catch to taking things metaphorically also.
Sometimes we can be a bit too quick to take things metaphorically. We can think, “Oh that’s
mythical, that’s metaphorical and somehow that doesn’t have something to do with me, in some way
that’s outside of me”. Again I think there’s something of a play to happen here. We can take things
too literally sure. We can sometimes afford to take things more literally too, I feel. Plus there’s the
added twist that we can take our metaphors literally, which is that you can come up with a really
brilliant image for something, an idea that really seems to capture just exactly your experience and
then you can get rather fond of it, so that you almost come to feel that that image or whatever it is -
2 the cave, the piece of toast, the mountain, whatever it is - somehow it is your experience. You know,
it’s not just evoking it for you in a helpful way. You’ve reified it. It’s become literal. So, rather a lot
to think about in the whole area of literalism and metaphor. I’ll try to not talk about that anymore
either, I’m rather fond of metaphors.
Objective and Subjective
The third area is objective and subjective. When we are studying the Dharma, what we are trying to
do is to take on a different way of seeing things. We are trying, if you like, to set those topsy-turvy
views upright, we’re trying to get to grips with a world view which is not the world view we currently
have. In a way the Dharma gives us a very good objective framework to do that from. On the other
hand, there is a certain value, of course, in having a subjective attitude to Dharma study. A couple of
years ago I was on retreat here and I’d more or less had it with Dharma study I have to tell you. It was
a study retreat, but I’d just finished editing a rather complicated book, and I wouldn’t walk across the
room to meet a concept at that time [Laughter]. I’d sort of had it, but during the course of that retreat
I realized that that was because it had just become a whole bunch of words, a whole bunch of
concepts, and you know a 100,000 words is a lot in a book and to have all of that wandering around in
your mind is a lot. And I realized that, to keep my own interest in the Dharma alive, I really
absolutely had to bring myself into the picture, which is not the kind of advice one always feels like
one wants to take, but I thought, well, “yes that’s true”. I regrouped around what I, myself, was
interested in and I felt I learned ...