Buddhism: Theory and Practice

People often think that there is a wide gap between theory and practice. Such a belief is particularly widespread when it comes to religion. Thus, among Chinese Buddhists, there are three terms — Buddhology(佛學), Buddhism(佛教) and cultivation(修行).

Buddhology refers to Buddhist studies and research. Buddhism typically refers to the Buddhist religion and philosophy. I interpret the term “Buddhism” a little differently, as the teachings of Buddha or Buddhist education. Cultivation refers to the practice and cultivation of what is taught. The people doing research and the people who are “cultivators” and practitioners are often seen as very different people. There is also a general sense that those doing research are not really practicing, and the common practitioners are not familiar with the research. There is often mutual suspicion among these different groups. It is no different from the fact that there is a big difference between theologians, Bible scholars, and rank-and-file Christians/churchgoers.

But this is curious — in order to practice, don’t we first need to have a solid understanding of what the teaching is and why a certain practice works? Isn’t it absurd to “practice” without understanding? If you don’t have a clear understanding of something, how can you practice it? Do you simply believe that it is the right way to do it without asking questions?

It is common to find researchers who are not practitioners. When this is the case, it is often believed that the researcher is “all talk,” or that s/he is too lazy to practice. Richard Gombrich, for example, is a distinguished Oxford scholar who has spent most of his life doing research in Buddhism. But he never identifies himself as a Buddhist. Such a case usually would raise eyebrows. Why doesn’t he become a Buddhist? Someone who has spent 30, 40, 50 years of his life researching a religion must have a much deeper understanding of that religion than other people. The fact that Gombrich does not identify himself as a Buddhist raises questions. Has he done his work and found that there is much falsehood in Buddhism? If he has found truth in Buddhism, then it seems that he would have become a Buddhist a long time ago. Another possibility is that Gombrich has done his research, but found that the way Buddhism is practiced is inconsistent with the original teachings. This is not so unthinkable. If we look at what the evangelical Christians practice and what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, we would find many disheartening discrepancies too. After all, religious institutions need money to finance themselves. How do you get people to donate money? The answer seems to be to appeal to the lowest common denominator. You’d need to tell people what they want to hear.

Among the three camps, I am often identified as a member of the first camp — I am a researcher in Buddhism. I am also a Buddhist lecturer and writer. I have published extensively on various Buddhist and philosophy-related topics. Some people call me a “Buddhist scholar.” I do practice what the Buddha taught. But my practice is very different from the practices in popular Buddhism. I have spent a big part of my life finding out what Buddha taught for the cultivation of spiritual life. I have found it totally inconsistent with what is practiced among the masses. To me, it is impossible to separate theory from practice. One’s practice has to be guided by one’s understanding of the teaching/theory. And one’s understanding of the teaching/theory has to be supported by what one experiences after putting the theory into practice. If the theory is not supported by empirical evidence, it is just speculation. Theory and practice are forever bonded if one is honest. It is no different from any scientific discipline. Can you imagine coming up with a scientific theory without verifying it with experimental results? Today, we have Evidence-Based Medicine and Evidence-Based Policymaking. I think it is reasonable to set a standard for Evidence-Based Buddhism.

The truth is that there is no necessary separation between theory and practice. Those who assert a separation have no understanding. For me, theory and practice blend together seamlessly. One supports the other.

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