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The Purpose of Study
A TEACHER TELLS US WHY
Long-time student Ven. George Churinoff (Gelong Thubten Tsultrim) has taught and studied in FPMT centers around the world. Since attending his first November Course in Kopan in 1974 and ordaining in 1975, he has studied extensively, including at the former FPMT Geshe Studies Program at Manjushri Institute, England, and at the University of Delhi, India, where he eventually received a Masters in Buddhist Studies degree. His extensive teaching and retreat experience make him a valuable resource for beginner and advanced students alike.
Mandala spoke with Ven. George in early February 2013 between his classes as a visiting instructor at Maitripa College in Portland, Oregon, U.S.
Mandala: What is the benefit of in-depth Buddhist study?
Ven. George Churinoff: All of our lamas, almost without exception, have great educations. So if you look from the outside, there must be something there, some importance.
There are three kinds of wisdom that you have to build up sequentially. The first is the wisdom of hearing – hearing the teachings, reading and studying. Next is the wisdom that arises after having heard and understood the words and contemplating their meaning, fine tuning your understanding through debate, questions and answers, and thinking deeply about these things again and again. Finally, there’s the wisdom that comes when you’ve got a clear understanding and you meditate on that and you place the mind on that single-pointedly. When we talk about the three kinds of wisdom, we would like to have the wisdom that arises from meditation. There’s this famous adage that you’ve probably heard that to try to meditate without having heard or studied is like someone trying to climb up a craggy cliff with no arms.
Sometimes when people get excited about Buddhism and meditation, they think, “I’m just going to meditate. All that study is for scholars.” But in order to meditate, you have to have something to meditate about. And hopefully what we’re going to meditate on is a correct understanding, not a blurry, or, even worse, a wrong understanding.
I was inspired many years ago at Kopan. One of the very first courses I took was with Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Kopan in 1974-1975. Rinpoche was saying that in order to understand emptiness, you have to study the great texts. There was no other way. To really understand emptiness in the Theravada tradition, in the traditions that lead to nirvana, it’s sufficient to have a general understanding. You have to have a correct understanding of emptiness – selflessness and eventually emptiness – but it doesn’t have to be as comprehensive as the bodhisattva’s need in the Mahayana tradition.
In the bodhisattva path working for sentient beings, you need infinite forms of logic to understand emptiness quickly and the many different “coming and going” processes – not just emptiness of the self, but of others and the aggregates; processes like production and birth and coming and going, etc. To understand that is very, very important for the bodhisattva practice. In order to understand that, you need to study about that. And in order to do that study, you need to have studied those subjects that these great masters took as the lower tenets and ideas about cause and effect that were the general teachings of Buddha, perhaps in even more depth than we find in the general lam-rim teachings (they just assumed you knew these things already). So that’s why we study tenets and lo-rig and all of these other subjects. And of course there is other side of it: the behavior of the bodhisattva, how we think of bodhichitta, and what bodhichitta is.
I remember once when I was in Taiwan, Lama Yeshe had asked me to go to some conference there. (This was a long, long time ago, before we had FPMT centers in Taiwan.) There were a lot of monks and nuns at this monastery who were Chinese and who spoke English. At lunch, I was asking them questions: “What are the four noble truths?” No, problem, they knew this very well. “What are the 16 aspects of the four noble truths?” That’s something maybe not everyone knows. And they got that pretty well. And then I’d say something like “What is bodhichitta?” Now this is not talking about emptiness, this is talking about the relative bodhichitta – the method side of practice. And the answers were all over the place. “Oh, it’s something like…” and they’d put their hands in the air like they were thinking of something mystical. “Oh, it’s a wonderful mind. … It’s this or that.” And I thought, “This is very interesting.”
We are so fortunate in the Tibetan tradition to have access not only to the study of the wisdom side of things but also the great meaning of the bodhisattva path, what the definition of bodhichitta is. The texts in an in-depth study program might say something like, “Bodhichitta is a special Mahayana main mind, preceded by compassion for sentient beings, motivated to achieve enlightenment for the sake of sentient beings, and that serves as a doorway to the Mahayana path.” It’s very, very precise. If you wanted to try to develop bodhichitta but you just had a vague idea of what it was, like the Chinese monastics saying, “Oh, it’s a wonderful mind” with their hands in the air, sort of wiggling around like it’s something they see up in the sky, it would be very difficult. How can you achieve bodhichitta? “May I achieve bodhichitta” – that’s all you could say.
As aspiring practitioners, if we’d like to do a long retreat, say a three-year tantric retreat, without method and wisdom, there’s no essence. To develop those, especially bodhichitta, you need renunciation. For that, you need to know what the faults of samsara are. You need to think about it and be helped by your fellow students and teachers. In short, you need to study.
I remember in 1978-79 Lama Yeshe had asked me to go to Manjushri Institute in England to be the spiritual coordinator there. (At that time in England we had the Geshe Studies Program, but the Gelugpa Society eventually said they wouldn’t grant us a geshe degree. Now it’s called the Masters Program.) I was going off to study there and I was kind of excited. I went to Lama in his room at Kopan and made three prostrations, put my robe over my shoulder and asked with my hands at my heart, “Lama, do you have any advice for when I go to the West, when I go to Manjushri?” And Lama thought for a minute, tilted his head back and said, “Intellectual Mount Meru isn’t worth kaka.” He used the Tibetan word that children say for excrement; it was very succinct.
We have so many people in the West who become scholars of Buddhism, but just the intellectual knowledge of Buddhism isn’t even as useful as kaka, which you can at least use as fertilizer for the fields. Okay, it leaves some imprints. But the study done by the scholars who have a motivation to rise up in the hierarchy of the university, be praised by others, and write books that are well known is limited. The real purpose of studying is not for fame or fortune or the eight worldly dharmas, it’s to make realizations. It’s to use as grist for your meditation, to have that correct wisdom of hearing, wisdom of contemplation and the wisdom arising from meditation. With those, you can have realizations and help yourself and also help other sentient beings.
UPDATE: Ven. George shares the rest of his story with Lama Yeshe in “The Purpose of Study (continued): Ven. George Churinoff Finishes His Story with Lama Yeshe and Tenzin Ösel Hita” in the online edition of Mandala July-September 2013.
Ven. George Churinoff is the homestudy teacher for two modules of FPMT’s Basic Program: “Mind and Cognition” and “Mahayana Mind Training.” You can find more information about this in-depth Buddhist course on the Education Services pages on fpmt.org.
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