This is the second part of a series of posts on theory and practice. If you haven’t already, you might want to start with part one. Click here to access it.
Seeing Buddhism and spirituality evaluated through a wider lens can help a practitioner to open up the Buddhist Sufficiency bubble and peek outside onto vast vistas of opportunities to grow and mature one’s idea of practice: although potentially destabilising, it is a liberating act and highly recommended. Before we proceed in that direction, it might be worth starting this section proper by reviewing some of the common meanings associated with the terms theory and practice. Depending on where you look, each can carry a good deal of additional and more precise meanings and no doubt many useful applications of the terms will be left out below. Though theory is used slightly differently in the humanities or the sciences each way can be related to one’s own practice and theoretical assumptions, so there is plenty of ripe ground for exploration. We can also tailor such terms to fit specifically to Buddhism. In consulting several dictionaries, we can find a wide range of useful definitions offered. You might like to read through the list and apply each to your own sense of Buddhism. Each of these definitions can be used to unlock a practice or theory and provide a simple means for gaining space from what may be a very personal and intimate thought or habit.
1. practical action
2. action geared towards change
3. the actual application or use of an idea
4. contemplation of belief, ideas or methods
5. the embodiment or enacting of theory
6. the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing something
7. repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it
2. a set of ideas
3. abstract or generalised thinking
4. the outcome of the process of thought
5. a body of knowledge
6. a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based
7. speculative understanding
8. an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action
9. an analytical tool for understanding and making predictions about specific matters
10. a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained
I will apply the terms more specifically to Buddhism below, but if we were to simplify the two terms dramatically for a moment, we might simply say that;
Practice is what you do.
Theory is what you think and believe about what you do.
These simplifications are workable as reset points, but although a simplistic definition is desirable, to stop there would be to miss out on a richer understanding of the roles these two play in our relationship with Buddhism, or spirituality.
Performing Buddhism, Performing Identity
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…”
(Shakespeare, via Edwardes, via Petronius)
There is an associated meaning left out by the dictionary definitions above that is of great importance: the notion of practice as performance. Performance is evident in the ritualised nature of sitting meditation, tantric practices or dharma centre behaviour, to name a few. Practice is additionally the repeated identification with a style of being (i.e. equanimous, compassionate, caring, concentrated) and the navigation of identities (i.e. Dzogchen practitioner, Zen Buddhist, non-Buddhist). Do we identify as Buddhist? Are we engaging with Buddhist practices but refuse that label? Either way, an identity is being practiced: “I am this, I am not that, and I know this because of X.”
Identity is fundamental to understanding much of the dysfunctional behaviour that takes place within Buddhist circles and within our own relationship to theory and practice and is bound up in enduring questions such as, “Who am I?”, “Who do I want to be?”, “How can I fix this thing about myself?”, “How am I supposed to be?”, etc. The truth is that there are many ways to answer each question and the potential decent answers all have something to add to a more complete vision of ourselves in the world. Opening to each chips away at the impulse to solidify the world and our sense of ourselves in it.
If identity is a form of practice, then we can change the practice of identity formation into exploration, and in many cases doing so will end up being one of the most liberating steps we could possibly take. Rather than attempt to mould ourselves into an idealised image of what we should be, we might start from the bottom up and see what we currently are. Rather than adopt a given identity that is in vogue, we might question the whole procedure of identity formation and its explicit and implicit payoffs. What happens if we begin to let go of practice in terms of identity and becoming? What purpose can it serve if separated from the creation of a new you?
The Buddhist identity is essentially an act of performance; if undertaken unconsciously and reactively, it becomes a form of spiritual materialism and more often than not a retreat from the world. Being intuitively aware of this, many of those new to Buddhism shun the label, and yet, if they are hovering around Buddhism and unwilling to get their feet wet, then what purpose is Buddhism actually serving, and to what degree are any of its significant depths being discovered? Even the spiritual but not religious crowd can end up playing the identity game by stating; “I am rational, secular and not into that woo-woo stuff! I don’t do religion.” Either way, we are bound to an uncomfortable game of push and pull. The risk with adopting an identity that claims to exit the game is that it merely pulls us into a new version of it.
A solution for many committed practitioners to this complexity is to retreat into the safety of the highly personal by making a distinction between their regular and private lives, but that itself is simply an avoidance of the issue. How do we get to radical openness then? How can Buddhist theory and practice serve a route that leads us out of the need to build and form ourselves in idealised images? How do we avoid the traps on the way? Such questions can open the way and get the ball rolling, then it is the case of trotting on and seeing what happens.
Lightly applying practice and theory to Buddhism
With all this in mind, we can now apply the term practice specifically to Buddhism with an additional general definition provided at (5) for comparative context;
- A discipline proceeded by the pronoun my; a personally significant activity carried out within a Buddhist framework. This is typically divided into ritualised activities undertaken on cushion and off cushion (i.e. to practice shamatha, to practice patience).
- The enactment of tradition.
- The enactment of a role within a Buddhist group and/or the support and facilitation of others in those roles.
- The enactment of a Buddhist identity.
- A tool kit.
- A broad term used to define any type of human behaviour that is constructed; used in philosophy, critical theory, and other fields and distinguished as apart from theory.
Theory in its more abstract applications often suffers a bad rap from experiential junkies as well as those who hold themselves to be highly spiritual and/or those possessing a desire for transcendence from ‘mere’ earthly concerns (as if spiritual concerns were not made of earthly stuff). How might we apply this term to Buddhist practice? Here are some applications to consider;
- The underlying concepts and justifications for why we do anything with Buddhism.
- Any thought, belief, idea, and concept that is apart from personal experience; an abstract and/or idealised dharma.
- Buddhist ideas, beliefs, concepts that are specifically formulated into deterministic phrases and aligned with abstract ideals.
- The perfect, fully realised image of the path, Buddhas, awakening, teachers, sangha, etc, as constructed by a tradition and accompanied by historical, cultural baggage.
- An ideational means for conceptualising the world, ourselves, and our experiences in it.
- A tool kit.
- A means for understanding phenomena in the world.
Where to now?
Placing practice and theory together is fundamental for thinking critically and creatively about Buddhism and our own relationship with what we call my practice: a practice that is constructed wittingly or unwittingly from many pieces of human history. Many of you will be pro-meditation, pro practice and some will be less interested in theory. You may believe that it has less importance or that somehow you can bypass it in order to get straight to the real thing; the essence at the heart of deep meditation practice. The problem is that Buddhism denies the existence of some essential self nature and in doing so necessarily recognises that there are no essences anywhere. This consequentially means that there are no fixed, eternal forms to rely on; knowledge, practice and theories are contextual and are always works in progress. Were this not so, we would be back to revealed, ultimate truth and Judaeo-Christian roots. To the best of our current knowledge, there is little in the way of ultimate, final truth anywhere. This is a wonderfully creative opportunity as well as a shock that is resisted again and again, and again. Recognising the ephemeral nature of all forms of knowledge and practice doesn’t have to lead to relativism and the inability to distinguish between choices in terms of effectiveness, power and depth; rather it recognises that change, relationship and fluidity are the nature of things in our world and that we resist these facts impulsively and doggedly. We seek to manage the unknown, death and uncertainty, we bracket such factors off, encase them in spiritual discourse and symbology, and hold onto the fantasy that we are heading somewhere and will arrive at some point.
In case it is not yet obvious, this means that the dharma, Buddhist practices and teachings are fluid, changeable and relational. They are either fixed forms and subject to decay and redundancy, or a living applied culture. This is an observation resisted by many a good Buddhist and despite being a perfectly understandable human inclination, needs to be faced if western Buddhism and our sense of practice is to mature further. My view of such maturity would involve radical openness leading practitioners out into the world to brave the challenges of wider circles of knowledge, to engage in living practice that responds more effectively, more deeply, more richly, to the world as it is now, and as it changes and morphs. This is obviously an idealised wish.
Does such a wish mean we should all abandon traditional forms of Buddhism? I certainly would not suggest that. There is a constant tension at play between tradition and innovation. Those pathways that are willing to allow that tension to lead to renewal and creative exploration can maintain their validity and potentially provide a culture and means for approaching the very human questions that people bring to them. It is a second question as to whether and to what degree different western traditions and teachers are aware enough to manage such a delicate act.
To conclude this section, I thought it might be helpful to include a few questions that build on what has been written. Coaching relies a great deal on decent questions. The best ones are a direct response to what is present and are generally tailored to the individual and their current state. I could write several hundred of them, each tailored to an aspect of this text, but for general purpose, those above and these below might be a useful to anyone. Feel free to use them for contemplative reflection on your relationship with Buddhist practice and theories, or reject them as poppycock.
- Why do I bother?
- What ideas are central to my personal relationship with Buddhism or aspects of it?
- Whose ideas are they? Did I borrow them from someone?
- To what degree do such ideas drive my motivation for practicing an aspect of Buddhism or other spiritual path?
- How do these ideas fit within the wider culture? Are they validated by it? Are they undermined by it? Does that matter to me?
- To what degree does this functional or dysfunctional relationship determine how I relate to practices and think about them?
The third part of this series will add a third category to the practice and theory pairing: experience. It should be up in a week.