The Buddha taught the Dhamma as a means to liberation, to achieve lasting happiness and peace, to become free from dissatisfaction, or to become free from all kinds of suffering. The essence of his teaching can be summarized as follows: suffering and the end of suffering.
All the teachings that the Buddha gave during his ‘career’ of being a spiritual teacher, which was for 45 years, were handed down from generation to generation. At first it was an oral tradition as has been the case for other spiritual teachings at that time. Only later, after the fourth Buddhist Council held in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE, the teachings were written down on palm leaves and stored in three baskets. That is why the Pāḷi canon is called Tipitaka, the three baskets.
Throughout the ages nuns, monks, and lay people have committed themselves to study and practise the Buddha’s teachings. Already at the time of the Buddha, five different approaches were distinguished:
- Learning and studying the teachings (memorizing)
- Teaching the discourses (suttas), monastic rules (vinaya), and higher teachings (abhidhamma) to others
- Reciting, chanting the texts (for recollection or to commit to memory)
- Pondering, intellectual thinking, analysing
- Actual practice of meditation (samatha or vipassanā)
In one of his discourses (AN V:73), the Buddha said that only one who actually applies him- or herself to the practice of meditation can be said to be a Dhammavihārī, one who lives by the Dhamma or one who dwells in the Dhamma.
If one just studies and learns the teachings for the sake of studying and passing exams, one is not a Dhammavihārī. A Bhutanese nun I once met at a Buddhist conference in Lumbini had said that such a person is like a donkey carrying the Buddhist scriptures on its back. Even if a person holds a PhD in Buddhist Philosophy, the person is not necessarily a Dhammavihārī.
If one just teaches the Dhamma by giving nice, impressive, or entertaining talks on the Dhamma, one is not necessarily a Dhammavihārī. Of course, it is much easier to entertain people with pleasing subjects than to confront them with the challenging facts of life and reality. For example: to talk about the happiness and freedom that can be attained without mentioning that this involves facing and overcoming anger, greed, jealousy, or ill-will within oneself. And even if it is explained that the unwholesome mental states need to be weakened and overcome, this does not mean that the practice is actually done.
If one just recites or chants the texts for the sake of enjoying the recitation or for the sake of showing off, one is not a Dhammavihārī. For many people, meditators included, it is much easier to feed the mind with anything than to face the reality of the often wild, restless, and capricious mind. Hours of recitation can be an elegant way for avoiding to face the unpleasant or challenging thoughts and emotions.
If one simply ponders on the Dhamma, thinks about it, analyses it, or speculates about it, one is not a Dhammavihārī. If an analytical and intellectual approach were possible to become free from all forms of dissatisfaction, I am sure that the Buddha would have told us! Our modern scientists have made incredible discoveries; like the discovery that there is no lasting material unit that is unchanging and eternal. The Buddha had made the same discovery which led to an inner freedom that is unequalled. Unfortunately, we cannot say this from our modern scientists. Because their discoveries are not based on a direct and personal understanding, they do not have the power for inner transformation.
Only if one actually puts the teachings and instructions into practice, if one applies oneself to meditation practice, only then is one a Dhammavihārī, one living by the Dhamma or one dwelling in the Dhamma.
With this discourse, the Buddha stressed the fact that his teaching is one that needs to be applied and seriously practised. The transformation and liberation of the mind does not come about by simply learning, teaching, reciting, or thinking about it. The teachings need to be applied in such a way that a deep and penetrating understanding of reality comes about. Only then is liberation possible.
However, this is not to say that learning, teaching, reciting, and thinking about the teachings are all futile and completely unnecessary. On the contrary, the Buddha also said that learning, teaching, reciting, or thinking about the teachings can be a base of liberation (AN V:26).
But the learning or the recitation must be done with the understanding that the final goal is the release from all kinds of dissatisfaction or suffering. One should not be content by simply having memorised the whole Tipitaka. By the way, in Burma there are still a few monks who have memorised the entire Tipitaka. If they are realized practitioners, Dhammavihārī, I do not know.
The Buddha was only satisfied when the nuns, monks, and lay disciples actually applied and practised the teachings in such a way that they became liberated from all bondage.
For me it is always incredibly heartening to see people who actually attend a meditation retreat, be it for a weekend or a month-long retreat. With their presence they show a willingness to face and understand the true nature of all things and to transform their heart and mind. During a retreat a meditator is inevitably confronted with her body-heart-mind processes, sometimes pleasant and exhilarating, at other times unpleasant and painful. However, if one is able to be mindful of these experiences and understand their nature, then one develops liberating insights. In this way, one becomes a Dhammavihārī, one who lives by the Dhamma or one who dwells in the Dhamma.
Ariya Baumann (formerly Ariya Ñani) is a long time visiting teacher to BMIMC. Ariya will be leading a one month retreat at BMIMC in August.