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Buddhadharma : Spring 2010
37 SpRiNG 2 01 0 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly they balance and support one another creates a strong ground for developing your understanding of the dharma and progressing along the path. Having established that ground, look into how to study the teachings. Dharma study is not simply about acquiring infor- mation; it is a process of transformation and deep reflection. Instead of reading one book after another, amassing more and more information, you might go over the same text, or even the same short pas- sage, over and over again, and come back to it year after year. Each time you go over it, question what is really being said, its relevance, how it can be applied, and whether it rings true to your own experi- ence and observation of the world. Traditionally, it is said that dharmic understanding develops in three stages: hearing, contemplating, and meditating. Developing an intellectual understand- ing of a text or presentation is just the first step, called hearing. You then need to wrestle with the material so that it begins to sink in, so in the practice of contemplation, you make a direct, per- sonal, and quite intimate relationship with the material you are studying. When your understanding deepens to the point of mastery—when it’s in your bones— that is the third stage, meditating. Once you have examined what it means to study, how do you choose what to study? A smorgasbord of options awaits, and you could begin almost anywhere. You could choose to explore a particular tradition such as Zen, or you could begin with an overview of the Buddhist tradition in general, or the life of the founder, Shakyamuni Bud- dha. You could explore the many differ- ent styles of teaching, from traditional sutras and commentaries, to biographies and life stories, to works by contempo- rary Asian meditation masters or West- ern Buddhist teachers. You could listen to talks online, read poetry, look at art. There are many different teachers, many different styles of dharma teach- ing, and many different media for pre- senting the teaching. You could begin by exploring widely, and in the process you may discover an affinity for one or another teacher, tradition, or approach, which may help you to narrow your search and guide your studies in a certain direction. It is also possible that as you are looking for the right book, unexpect- edly, the tables are turned and the right book finds you. At this point in history, there is a greater abundance of dharma available to ordinary practitioners than in any pre- vious era. That is a great blessing, and at the same time, quite overwhelming. But no matter how much you read, how many talks you hear, or how many web- sites you visit, there is no guarantee that there will be any real benefit. It is good to accumulate knowledge, but it is bet- ter to let that knowledge transform you. The benefit comes in the meeting point between you and the dharma, when a seemingly outer teaching strikes a deep inner chord. Only you know how you are approach- ing your studies. Only you can decide the Buddhist tradition in general, or the life of the founder, Shakyamuni Bud- dha. You could explore the many differ- ent styles of teaching, from traditional sutras and commentaries, to biographies and life stories, to works by contempo- rary Asian meditation masters or West- ern Buddhist teachers. You could listen to talks online, read poetry, look at art. There are many different teachers, many different styles of dharma teach- ing, and many different media for pre- senting the teaching. You could begin by exploring widely, and in the process you may discover an affinity for one or another teacher, tradition, or approach, what kind of relationship you want to have with the dharma, how deep or how shallow you want it to be. Basically, how much you put into it, is how much ben- efit will you derive—no more, no less. And as you progress, the effect of your study will be determined not simply by your learnedness, but by the changes in your character, by your further gentle- ness and sanity. The dharma is like an ocean, which is too big to consume and too heavy to carry along as your accoutrement. You cannot put it into your book bag or capture it in your DVD player. No matter where you begin, or whether you are an independent practitioner or affili- ated with a particular tradition, there is plenty of room for you there. All you have to do is to dive in. JuDy lIeF is an acharya, or senior teacher, in the shambhala Buddhist tradition and the author of Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality. lIzaMattheWsChUCKlIeF