Where does the heart of Buddhist practice live? Is it in zazen, or sitting practice? Is it in the rituals of practice? Is it in our texts? Over at The Zennist blog, I just read the following post. The post is primarily about the hermit monks interviewed in the documentary Amongst White Clouds, a wonderful film I viewed on my summer break in August. The Zennist writes the following commentary on "Western Buddhism," (a term I find very clunky, but will use for now because he is using it):
Not in any showy or pretentious manner, these hermits keep the tradition of Buddhism alive through their practice. From what I could see, their practice seems not to have succumbed to any of the modern tendencies which seem, regrettably, to have made inroads into Western Buddhist practice. One regrettable example is the enthronement of zazen or seated meditation over the text, not to mention the psychologization of Buddhism, in general, changing its focus to self-help.
For anyone who reads The Zennist's blog regularly, you'll know of his love of the Buddhist text. Texts are, for him, the heart of the practice.
Given that, I wonder the following questions. First, how does one work with texts knowing that oral tradition was a driving force of the practice for centuries?
Second, are the only texts worthy of study those of old, or will there continue to be texts added to the "canon"?
Third, are the many, many Buddhist practitioners across the world who either don't read texts, or whose practice is not text-based simply second class practitioners?
Fourth, how does an emphasis on text - on words - change the nature of our experience of, and interaction with, the world?
The way I see it currently, answering the question what is the heart of Buddhist practice? with any of the following answers - zazen, texts, rituals, work practice - it seems to miss the mark. In my opinion, emphasizing texts places too much value on literacy as a means to enlightenment. Think about it. Under this view, if you're illiterate, or lack the literacy skills needed to read these complex tomes, you're out of luck. (Of course, there is the practice of reciting and memorizing texts and dharma poems, which could remedy this problem to some degree. However, I don't think this is what people like The Zennist are getting at.) Overall, the emphasis on texts doesn't necessarily wash with the history of our practice, which is filled with all kinds of folks who, in various ways, came to enlightenment. Texts are one very good path, but there are many others as well. I think it's better to remain open about this kind of question, than to declare an answer strongly as the gospel truth.