1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

How to Investigate the Dharma

By January 30, 2013

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I've been working on an article about investigating dharma. This is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, so it's quite important. But it's hard to explain how to do it. It's very different from the way we normally learn things.

I've written in the past about the Zen "sink or swim" method, in which one is tossed into a deep pool of Mu with not much in the way of preparation. It appears to me that other schools walk practitioners through a system of analysis in which concepts eventually cancel each other out, so that nothing is left but the empty space of clarity (which is where the zennie may end up, too, if he doesn't drown. Or maybe it's if he does drown).

It's very hard for westerners steeped in the Abrahamic traditions to not approach dharma as a belief system. It's possibly even harder to not approach dharma as something we can 'figure out" intellectually. However, the dharma that can be grasped conceptually is not the Buddha dharma.

My best advice, for what it's worth, is to just practice. Take the Eightfold Path very seriously. Endeavor to keep the Precepts. Meditate or chant, or both, daily. Be mindful. Then, as you learn doctrine, neither believe  nor disbelieve. Don't treat dharma as ordinary knowledge. Take it in, and in a ripe moment it will reveal itself, although probably not all at once.

That may not make sense, and maybe there's a better way to express it, and I'm very open to suggestions.

It strikes me that many of the people pushing "natural" or "secular" Buddhism are, basically, cutting out of the dharma whatever they can't grasp intellectually.  They're cutting out the best parts, but this is what happens when you don't get the hang of dharma investigation.

February 1, 2013 at 8:22 am
(1) George Deane says:

I wonder how many “believers” of Western religions really believe. It’s easy to say “I believe” but…where’s the beef? Belief is meaningless unless it transforms and purifies the the ordinary mind, saturated as it is with a multitude of prejudices, materialistic small mindedness, ego self absorption, a negative mindset and the whole range of pejorative features which characterize the ordinary mind. Just as one can tell a good actor at a glance from the pretenders, so can spot one with a transformed mind by the disappearance of all of the above. One can be a so-called believer yet maintain intact a very ordinary mind. How easy it is to spot them!

I think that the dharma is less investigated than lived. Less investigated than revealed. Seeing our faults is a true dharma practice.

February 1, 2013 at 8:51 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

George — As a native of the Bible Belt, I assure you that plenty of folks BELIEVE with hair-on-fire intensity. Their belief system is completely “real” for them and impacts everything they think, say, and do. Not necessarily in a good way.

February 2, 2013 at 10:46 pm
(3) Darwida says:

I personally have found faith very useful in getting results with teachers and with specific chants. They say that we can get superb results from even a bad master by having deep faith in that master. It is also true that there are quite a few seemingly contradictory things about the Dharma, but it is good to recall that there are at least 84,000 different doors to the Dharma, many were based on a person’s specific body type, though I wonder if that knowledge is still around. And as for the Bible, for those who really study it hard, they will find some contradictions as well, say between the Old and New Testaments. So as for the contradictions in the Buddha Dharma or elsewhere, that might try one’s faith, I like the teaching of “Taking Contradictions as the Path” which I found in the Buddhist text, BUDDHA’S LIONS.

February 17, 2013 at 7:19 am
(4) Ellen Steadman says:

Re – Investigating the Dhamma / Dharma :

According to one Taiwanese Buddhist monk who gives regular weekly Dharma “classes” in Joburg, South Africa, one cannot say you are really investigating the Dharma, unless you read the Sutras , because they are the closest thing we have to what the historical Buddha Sakyamuni personally spoke .

Many of us seem to enjoy learning about what others think about the Dharma , through books / Training courses / Seminars / Websites etc… And sometimes we even read what others think, about what others think, about the Dharma ….Nothing wrong with that – we need to communicate … it is our human nature…. it is an essential aspect of what makes modern Buddhists a part of the (now worldwide) Sangha of ‘Buddhas in training’

But, read a direct translation of a Sutta / Sutra, and you experience the point this Taiwanese teacher is making …in my opinion anyway …..
You experience no frills, no theory, … just a simple grounding moment of truth….as you witness the Master of Masters verbally expressing his own complete enlightenment, in an encounter with another being.

What an astonishing joy it must have been to witness these discourses in person !
…to see His facial and bodily expression,
…to hear His tone of voice,
…to stand in awe of His Awareness ,
…to be brought to respectful silence by His Wisdom, Joy and Peace …..

Reading the Suttas / Sutras is a good way to constantly remind ourselves to practise the Dharma.

With Metta

February 17, 2013 at 8:07 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Ellen — There are various schools of thought regarding the sutras. In most of the meditative schools of Buddhism, direct insight into dharma comes from practice, in particular from concentration (samadhi). The sutras support practice, but merely reading sutras is reading about someone else’s practice. It’s not your own practice or your own insight. So it’s not really investigating dharma, just reading about it. And it’s pretty much impossible to not conceptualize what one reads.

Further, the only suttas that arguably are from the historical Buddha are those in the sutta pitika of the Tipitika, and even those have been revised and edited over the years. The Abhidhamma and all of the Mahayana sutras (i.e., the Lotus, the Diamond, the Heart, the Vimalakirti, etc.) were written later, by unknown authors. They’re the words of the Buddha in a mystical sense, but not a literal one.

Don’t worship the Buddha’s awareness. His awareness won’t do you a dadblamed bit of good until it’s your awareness. That was his primary teaching.

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