By Enkei Joseph Mendyka
As a graduate student in Buddhist doctrine, I work closely with professors who have a great deal of experience studying the teachings of the Buddha. We spend a lot of time reading and writing about these teachings. Because I am at Naropa University, I also am given a unique opportunity to apply the teachings to my spiritual practice and explore the connections. I’ll be graduating next May, at which point I’ll have a “Masters of Divinity” degree.
There’s something almost humorous to me about the title of this degree. They have to call it something and it goes along with the titles used for other degrees, but somehow it’s also entirely inappropriate. Have I “mastered” the Dharma? Hardly. I don’t think it’s just me either. I also don’t think there’s any way that a 3 year–or even a 30 year–academic course of study could guarantee that a person had mastered the teachings.
The irony isn’t that a person needs even more time than that to master the teachings, but that the whole of the buddha-dharma can be realized in a single moment. But we should be clear, this realization is not mastery. It is not the kind of knowledge that can be uploaded to the hard drives of our brain with the certainty that it will be there when we want it. This moment-to-moment understanding arises with our own application of awareness. In other words, we know when we see and we see when we look.
Am I, in my studies as a graduate student, really investigating the nature of reality from one moment to the next? Or am I participating in the kinds of head games and word plays of academia? It’s not only professional scholars that get caught in this cycle. Any one of us who thinks we’re “learning” something by spending time reading about the dharma or attending workshops and teachings might be running as fast from actual realization as possible.
I’ve met people who have studied the sutras and commentaries for decades who have very little insight to offer about the path. Yet, I’ve met people who have barely heard of the Buddha provide clearer practice instructions than some respected lineage holders. This knowledge is directly accessible for each one of us as we cultivate clear seeing through any of the practices of shi-kan (Sanskrit: shamatha-vipashyana). As the Chinese Tian-Tai master, Zhiyi, taught in his Mohe Zhiguan(Japanese: Maka Shi-kan), the stability of shi and the clear insight of kan, can be developed through sitting, walking, lying down and many actions in between. The wisdom of the Buddha can be realized by applying the intention to build up these qualities in any of our activities. Knowing the Middle Way through any experience is the sort of expertise Buddhists can attain and offer to the world.