At first glance, the link between Buddhist practice and the academic study of Buddhism is a tenuous one. Sometimes I see them as estranged cousins—clearly in the same family, but not acknowledging each other at reunions. When they do gather in the same room, Buddhist practice is usually huddled at its own table, picking at vegetarian food and murmuring about how Buddhist studies is disconnected from the heart, from the true meaning of Buddhism, and Buddhist Studies is at the open bar in a sharp outfit complaining about how deluded, idealistic and ahistorical Buddhist practice is. Of course, being in the same family, they actually do need each other. As the night wears on, Buddhist practice might shyly ask Buddhist studies about the correct translation of a word in its favorite text. And if Buddhist studies has not drunk too much, it might admit that Buddhist practice is the lifeblood of the whole event, the family member who may be annoying but has, after all, organized the reunion.
One of my favorite Zen aphorisms was penned by Dogen Zenji in his fascicle Genjō Koan. There, Dogen writes, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by ten thousand things. When enlightened by ten thousand things, the body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.” When I was training in Japan, my teacher would often repeat this to me. At the time and in that context, the subtext was clear; he was saying I needed to get over myself. But the words also seemed mysterious to me and have stayed with me as a kind of koan. What is studying the self? And what is forgetting? Why does forgetting the self lead to enlightenment by ten thousand things?
A master’s degree, lots of therapy, and almost ten years later, I wonder if I was making things too hard on myself when I sat for endless hours in a cold zendo, trying desperately to figure out the meaning of forgetting the self. This is because the first link in the chain is not forgetting the self. The first step is studying.
The language Dogen uses to describe studying the self is very simple and non-mystical. In the original Japanese, he uses the word narau (習う), which means a basic kind of studying, like studying a language. I see this studying as a deductive process. Whether studying the self (in meditation, therapy, or self reflection), studying a language, studying a period of history, or studying a particular theory, we always start in the unknown. We open ourselves to being one, small person faced with infinite possibilities, infinite directions for our research. Then, we immerse ourselves willingly in this vast unknown. Gestalt therapy calls this the “fertile void.” Zen calls it beginner’s mind. Academic advisors might call it curiosity about a hole in the field. Whatever our discipline, whether we identify primarily as practitioners, scholars, or some awkward combination of the two, we have to be able to name this hole. We have to be able to speak to and from a lack.
After recognizing our lack of knowledge and understanding, next we take up one task—one subject, one book, one article. We look at it, play around with it, and hopefully, come to understand it. Once we have enough data points like this, a fuller picture emerges. We can make a claim—about ourselves, or about our research. The words “habit” (習性) and “mastery” (習熟) in Japanese both contain the same kanji as the word narau (習う), to study. There is a habitual, continual quality to this kind of study. It recognizes the long game.
For me, coming into consciousness as an adult has been a kind of research project. Like most research projects begun by people in their twenties, it has taken far longer than I anticipated, and my thesis isn’t that original. It has involved sitting in silence, but more importantly, being in relationship with others—with teachers, ideas, therapists, books, partners, and spiritual friends. It is through these relationships that I have come to study and also forget myself. Contrary to what I was told as a young nun, studying the self in dynamic relationship is the most powerful way I know to observe my own conditioning. When I observe my own conditioning for long enough, in relation to others, I become fluent in its strange and unique language. Then I can step away from it a bit.
This does not occur solipsistically or in a vacuum. Good research is profoundly dialectic and relational. It involves not one person or idea, but two, in relationship to each other. Academic research involves starting broadly, observing, learning, and then eventually narrowing the focus. Research involves testing our own ideas against what has been written and argued before. It is in the dialectic that new ideas and theories emerge. But the first step, as I hope I have made clear already, is a willingness to bear the discomfort of the unknown.
To study anything well requires a fierce and gentle patience.
This blog is called “Ten Thousand Things” as an homage to Dogen’s profound advice on studying the self. Ten thousand things, in Buddhist parlance, is also a stand-in for “everything,” or “all dharmas.” We do not expect to master or cover all things in this blog. What we are interested in is smart, accessible writing that speaks to both scholars and practitioners of Buddhism. We are also interested in study—in the long, process of encountering one thing. mastering one thing, and then forgetting it to make way for new theories and new interpretations. We are interested in the dialectic, in the dynamic relationship of Buddhist studies and Buddhist practice, self and other, old ideas and new.
Dogen said when we forget the self we are enlightened by ten thousand things. I believe this speaks to the necessity of others. Whether our “study” is of the self, a period of history, or a theoretical concept, we are always one small being in a larger field, and mastery will mean opening ourselves to being in relation with this larger environment. We hope this blog can offer a place for dynamic encounter, for forgetting, and being enlightened by others.
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