Scholars and Meditators

Friday May 1, 2009

William Hogarth

Over the last few weeks, my life has consisted largely of doing things with bits of paper. Not only have I been working on redrafts for two books (another novel, and the long-promised philosophy book – expect an announcement about the latter here on thinkBuddha in the next few weeks), but I have also been working on the initial research for a further novel, shunting around ideas for various side projects, reading large piles of books, and marking great quantities of student essays, stories and projects. And just at the moment, I confess that I am feeling a bit full up. It gets like this sometimes. As I survey the great, teetering ziggurats of paper that surround me, I can sometimes wonder why it is that I got into this business of paper-mongery in the first place.

The answer, however, is simple: that the world is a fantastically interesting place, and many of those bits of paper – not all, alas, but certainly the bits of paper that I am interested in – are a means of exploring this interestingness of the world. Indeed, many of the bits of paper that I have been reading – the one example that stands out in the last month is Edward O. Wilson’s wonderful , a profoundly moving book the relationship that we human beings have with the natural world – have been richly satisfying and insightful.

In my dealings with Western Buddhists – and sometimes in the discussions on this blog – I have sometimes been surprised by how little time people have for bits of paper. There can sometimes be a tendency to dismiss ‘book learning’ as something somehow undignified and inferior. Sometimes the message seems to be this: throw out your books, burn down the libraries, empty your head and just sit in silent meditation!

But this seems to me to be a shame, if only because it cuts us off from so many rich sources of knowledge about the world and about ourselves, from so many fresh perspectives, from so many thoughts that we don’t yet know how to think, from so many questions we have not yet begun to ask, from so many paths that might lead us into seeing afresh the sheer poetry of the world.

The idea that we have to choose – either sit in silent meditation or labour over dry and arid tomes – is, I think, mistaken because our minds are not organs dedicated to performing only one particular task. There are different ways of thinking, and different ways of using the mind. Aristotle knew this, back in the day, when he saw that there was a difference between theoretical knowledge, practical wisdom, and that tricky-to-translate term poiesis – the kind of activity brings things forth things like books, perhaps, or blog posts, or even cakes (actually, as I write this, I’m not sure that the scholars would be with me when it comes to the cakes, but I’ll let it stand).

It is good, of course, to be aware when things are becoming unbalanced. I have met many scholars who could have done with a bit of meditation to loosen them up. I have met many meditators who could have done with a well-chosen book to really engage their critical faculties. And I have met both scholars and meditators who could have done with a bit more social contact, or with a drink down the pub, because meditation and scholarship are both activities that lead – when left unchecked – to unhealthy levels of weirdness and eccentricity.

And perhaps this is the crux: whilst there is much insight to be had from both meditation and scholarship, these are means to an end, and the end is the transformation of the relationship that we have the world. There is a wonderful passage in Michel Serres’s book where he says (and I am paraphrasing with a kind of wild abandon here) that one should read everything, one should swallow the dictionary and whilst one is at it the thesaurus, the encyclopedia and the rest of the library to boot… But then, when one has done this, one should leave the library behind, go out into the hills, walk through the woods, drink wine with friends, take a boat across the high seas. When this happens, you start to forget all the things that you have once learned. This knowledge that you have acquired over the months of labour amongst books and papers and documents begins to sink into your bones and into the body. And one day you wake up without a thought in your head, and all of that reading (most of which you can no longer bring to mind, or have no interest in bringing to mind) begins to at last bear fruit. And the same goes, I think, for meditation. This is advice to myself, masquerading as advice to others: it is good to meditate; it is good to read; but what is really good is to live with wisdom and sensitivity.

# · Lawrence


I’m trying to think of something insightful to say but all I’m really thinking is that this is a really good piece of writing.

For some reason the last paragraph made me think of this quote by Rainer Marie Wilkie: “It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.”

Very nice piece—thank you.

# · barbara

ACK! for some reason I just recently discovered your blog. You have tapped into one of my (bad) habits, you mentioned two books I haven’t read. I promptly requested them via my library online public catalog, googled the author of one, and emailed the person who maintains a web site devoted to him.

When I receive the books I will put them in my to be read pile, maybe pick them up and browse, realize that I need more time to devote to them than I have and know that there is no one with whom to discuss them anyway, and move on…

My path is not straight and there are many diversions along the way.

In any case, thank you. Sometimes I don’t remember who has suggested a book to me, but this time I will…

# · Apuleius Platonicus

One of my Dharma heroes is the Korean Buddhist sage/scholar Chinul who had three great awakenings during his lifetime, each of which came while he was reading. I would dissent, just a little, from saying that reading and meditation are only means to ends – they are that, but they can also be done for their own sake. In fact I think they should both be done for their own sake and for whatever benefit comes from them as well. I hope you write more on this topic!!

# · Dave Robinson

I am just reading a Red Pine translation of the Platform sutra. To paraphrase a part that comes to mind – the mind is vast, but only when we use it.

I think most would agree that both study and meditation are important on the path to wisdom. I think the throwing out of books is just advise not to get locked into more concepts without seeing one’s true nature.

Quite so, I think, your closing lines.

# · Mark

This quote in you blog is so, so true it really made me laugh!

“And I have met both scholars and meditators who could have done with a bit more social contact, or with a drink down the pub, because meditation and scholarship are both activities that lead – when left unchecked – to unhealthy levels of weirdness and eccentricity.”


# · Will

Thanks for the comments, folks. Sorry it’s been a bit of a while responding – I’ve been doing other things for the last couple of weeks.

Thanks for the Rilke quote, Lawrence, and enjoy the Serres and the Wilson, Barbara: they are both great books. And you are right, Apuleius (that was a great book you wrote, by the way, about the ass, or the donkey or whatever it was) – reading and meditation are not just a means to an end. Dave, if you are throwing out books, do send them my way! And finally, Mark, I’m glad that this made you chuckle.

Best wishes,

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