During my first semester in community college, someone gave me the good advice that I should buy a dictionary. I was going to be doing a lot of reading, and it was good practice to write down words you didn’t understand and just look them up in the dictionary. Several decades later, an academic colleague of mine wrote a blog piece wherein he decried the use of “big words” in classrooms, that they were an impediment to understanding, and thus should be avoided. This struck me as spectacularly bad (or at least very weird) advice, espcially for the classroom. What’s the point of getting an education if not to become educated? And isn’t part of being educated learning things one didn’t know before they started, e.g., all the “big words”? If you don’t know what a word means, why not just look it up?
This post is not a defense of bad writing; it is not an argument in favor of writing that intentionally obfuscates its meaning behind jargon. Nor is it a defense of pendants talking down to the uneducated unsympathetically or cruelly. The above anecdote is merely to point out that the point of an education is to get educated, and pursuing an education means that we need to learn new concepts. Sometimes we need to use the “big words” because those are the words that we need to use — those are the words that convey precisely what it is that we mean. Shying away from them doesn’t do our students any favors, especially in the classroom, a space intended for growth, for learning new things.
As I said, this post is not in defense of bad writing, and sometimes we need to use “big words” or jargon because those are the words we need to use. Good writers shouldn’t expect their readers to always have a dictionary on hand (even now when your dictionary is a simple right-click away); good writers should expect to explain their usage of seldom-used terms or words they are using in a novel way. An undefined “big word” is absolutely an impediment to understanding; the solution is to simply define your terms.
And this brings us to the title of this post: praxis.
When I use the word praxis, many people think I mean “practice,” that I am intentionally using a fancy-sounding word to sound smarter than I am. This is not true. Whereas there is a relationship between praxis and practice, they are different words, and thus have different (albeit sometimes overlapping) meanings.
When we think of practice in a Buddhist context, we usually think of all the things we do as Buddhists — meditation, chanting, ritual, and so forth, basically whatever our answer is to the question “what’s your practice?” When we think of practice more generally we tend to think of activities we engage in to get better at some skill or task. This is what my wife and I have in mind when we tell our daughter every night to practice to piano so that she can become better at playing the piano.
I use the word praxis, on the other hand, to denote two specific things. First, the actual definition. Turning to the exact same dictionary I bought my first semester in community college, praxis denotes the “practical application or exercise of a branch of learning.” This definition implies not just the activities (the practice) involved in learning some skill or area of knowledge, it also implies the methods by which we come to do that learning, the “application” part of the definition. In other words, praxis involves not just “doing stuff” but also thinking about why we do stuff and how we’re going to do it.
To take my daughter’s piano lessons as an example, her practice is whatever she does every night after dinner at the keyboard — the specific exercises, songs, and scales that she does over and over again to become better at playing the piano. The praxis, on the other hand, involves a reflection not only on those exercises and songs but also on music theory; my wife’s explanations to her about major and minor keys, cords and so on; the specific lessons her teacher has given her and the logic behind those lessons, given to her in a specific order according to her skill set but also in conversion with larger pedagogical theories about how to teach music to children. Praxis, thus, is more than merely practice; it is also a reflection on why and how we practice. It is in dialogue with theory and method.
This brings to me to the second sense of my use of the word praxis, one which I inherit from Richard Payne and his article “Why Buddhist Theology is Not a Good Idea.” I won’t belabor why he thinks Buddhist theology is bad idea (in short, it’s a terminological issue, and I agree with him); instead, I’ll say that he offers, as an alternative to “Buddhist theology,” the phrase “Buddhist praxis,” and defines it as:
thinking about things in terms of some or any of the key ideas that give structure to Buddhist practices — either in the sense of deriving from or in the sense of leading toward, the latter… It is critical to note that what is being proposed by the category praxis is a dialectic relation between doctrinal claims and the practices (and the experiences those practices lead to) of the Buddhist tradition. It is not a case of privileging doctrine as determinative of practice, nor of privileging practice as determinative of doctrine. None of the three terms — doctrine, practice, experience — ought to be considered foundational for the others. Indeed to do so would be rather “un-Buddhist” in that it is counter to the notion of conditioned co-production/mutual arising (pratītyasamutpada).
As I understand it, the relationship between praxis (and its relationship to theory or doctrine) and practice is just that — a relationship. One does the stuff Buddhists do — the aforementioned meditation, chanting, ritual, etc., i.e., the practice — and then one also thinks about practice, reflects on it, and examines the doctrines or the teachings. In other words, one does not “just sit”; one also studies the ten thousand things. Doctrinal study informs how and why one practices; and one’s understanding of doctrine or theory is informed and nuanced by the experiences one has in practice.
Thus, my use of the word praxis is intentional, intending to signify something different from but related to practice. I also use it to convey what it is that I think we’re up to here at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, what I think informs our style of Buddhist education or Buddhist pedagogy — we’re doing praxis. We’re thinking about the things that give structure and meaning to Buddhist practice — usually understood in terms of history, texts, doctrines, philosophy, ethics, and so forth. Our understanding of these things informs our practice, and our experiences in practice informs our understanding of history, texts, doctrines, and so on.
There are a number of metaphors that could be invoked for this type of work — two wheels of a cart, two wings of a bird — but I’ll stick with what I usually fall back on: intersection. Our work here at the Institute is at the intersection of theory and practice. In other words, it’s Buddhist praxis.