Theorists vs. Practitioners - who is better?

On the request of a good person, I am reposting the text of my old post in Suttacentral. I have made a little editing in it and then added some further information that I collected later.

The battle between meditators and scholars, if you let me to call them so, has been there since the Buddha’s time and prevails until today.

Just yesterday I spoke with a monk and told him that there is a small group of monks known as “Mahavihara” in Myanmar, who are very strict in Vinaya rules and dedicate their lives to study, rather than meditation. He immediately rejected their value as those who do not follow the Buddha’s will.

The Mahacunda Sutta, however, shows that we (meditators) are not supposed to talk like this. One of my reasons to write this topic is a suggestion that the word “dhammayogā bhikkhū” now translated by venerable Sujāto as “mendicants who practice discernment of principles” seems to me somewhat inaccurate. The Commentaries explain that dhammayoga here means dhammakathika, i.e., those who recite Dhamma (scholars, theorists) -

“Dhamme yogo anuyogo etesanti dhammayogā. Dhammakathikānaṃ etaṃ nāmaṃ.”

“Because they engage in Dhamma, they are those who engage in Dhamma. It is the word for reciters of Dhamma.” (my simplified translation)

Maybe if the English translation followed the Commentaries (as all Burmese translations of Mula Pali do) it would be easier to appreciate the meaning. (Just a personal opinion.) Otherwise, some may doubt whether ven. Sujato @sujato is perhaps also one of the two groups and doesn’t feel enthusiastic to praise the other… :wink: (only hypothetically)

Another interesting teaching of the Buddha where the Buddha warns against scholars criticizing meditators is Dvesahāyakabhikkhuvatthu, DhpA story no.14, for verses 19 and 20.

In this discourse the Buddha actually suggests that indeed those who just follow pariyatti (scriptural studies) would benefit from meditation… There are many more suttas where patipatti (practice) is elevated above pariyatti, but my main point is related to the “monks” and their “peace.”

The pariyatti monks apparently later, in defense against the danger of being blamed for their lack of meditation experience, “created” (and yes, here I do accuse them of “creating”) a Buddha’s verse which the Buddha has never said. The verse appears only a single time, in an Anguttara Nikaya Commentary, but it is famous throughout the pariyatti world in South-East Asia.

"Yāva tiṭṭhanti suttantā, vinayo yāva dippati;
Tāva dakkhanti ālokaṃ, sūriye abbhuṭṭhite yathā.
"Suttantesu asantesu, pamuṭṭhe vinayamhi ca;
Tamo bhavissati loke, sūriye atthaṅgate yathā.
"Suttante rakkhite sante, paṭipatti hoti rakkhitā;
Paṭipattiyaṃ ṭhito dhīro, yogakkhemā na dhaṃsatī’ti. (MM ANA 1.72)

The masters here argue that until there are suttas, there will be vinaya. This verse apparently, unfortunately, led to a prevalent modern Buddhist community of monks who dedicate themselves to sutta studies but do not follow Vinaya rules.

Let me know anybody and everybody your thoughts, please. :heart:

Anyway, recently I realized that maybe the quote from the theorists about the importance of theory for the existence of the Buddha’s Teachings is based on Verañjakaṇda, a story that appears in the very beginning of Vinaya Piṭaka. The Buddha there explains that the Dhamma of the Buddhas Vipassī, Sikhī, and Vessabhū did not last long simply because they didn’t teach enough discourses. However, Dhamma of the Buddhas Kakusandha, Koṇāgamana, Kasapa stayed longer because they explained it in various ways. The amount of Dhamma that is available to the students seems to decide how long time the Legacy (Sāsana) will survive after the Buddha’s Parinibbāna. However, couldn’t it be that the Sāsana stays longer because the Buddha taught Dhamma in detail and then monks, after they achieved one of the first three levels of Enlightenment would carefully learn and preserve it, like the Arahants in our first three Councils? Thinking that unenlightened monks who touch money and eat dinner are those who preserve Dhamma is very much in contradiction to the Saddhammappaṭirūpaka Sutta that says Dhamma will disappear when monks do not respect (Commentary: follow) precepts. According to Kimila Sutta in AN 7, it is respect to the Buddha, Dhamma, Saṃgha, Virtue, Absorption, Mindfulness, and to our fellow Buddhists that decides the life-span of Sāsana.

Here are my further notes on the topic pariyatti (theoretical studies) vs. paṭipatti (meditation)

  • Paṭipattikkamaṭīkā p.441/422: Sayadaw Paṇḍābhivaṃsa in PaṭipattikkamaṬīkā explains that students of Pariyatti, those who have memorized Pali texts, have difficulties in meditation not because of the texts but because they are attached to their perceptions instead of observing by wisdom. “အချို့ ပုဂ္ဂိုလ်တို့ကား (စာ)မတတ်သော ပုဂ္ဂိုလ်များတရား အားထုတ်ပါက ပို၍ ကောင်းသည်၊ လွယ်ကူသည်၊ တရားပေါက်မြန်သည်၊ (စာ) တတ်သော ပုဂ္ဂိုလ်တွေက (စာ) ခံနေသည်ဟု ပြောဆိုလျှက် ယူဆထားချက် ရှိကြလေသည်။ ထိုယူဆချက်များသည် သေသေချာချာ တစ်တစ်ခွခွ မှားနေကြလေသည်၊ အဘယ့်ကြောင့်နည်းဟူမူ တရားအလုပ်အားထုတ်ရ၌ (စာ)ခံသည်မဟုတ်၊ မိမိတို့၏ အမှတ်အသားဖြစ်သော သညာကသာ ခံနေလေသည်။ ထိုကြောင့် အာဒိကမ္မိကနေယျ ပုဂ္ဂိုလ်တို့သည် တရားတော်ကို ကြားနာ မှတ်သား သင်ယူရာအခါ၌ သညာပြဋ္ဌာန်းသည်၊ သညာဦးစီးသည်၊ တရားအလုပ်အားထုတ်ရာအခါ၌ ပညာပြဋ္ဌာန်းသည်၊ ပညာဦးစီးသည်၊ ဝိညာဉ်ကား ပါရှိသည်ချည်းပင်တည်း။ ထိုသို့ ဖြစ်လေရာကား သညာဦးစီးရသော အရာဌာန၌ သညာ ဦးစားပေး၍ ပညာဦးစီးရော အရာဌာန၌ ပညာကို ဦးစားပေးလျှက် ကျင့်သုံးကြလေရာသည်။”

  • If one doesn’t meditate and doesn’t attain Enlightenment, just follows pariyatti studies in this life he/she still may be reborn in a heaven and upon hearing the Teachings they may become Enlightened; attaining Enlightenment as a deity/god while in heaven is possible through the teaching of Dhamma by a monk of psychic powers/potency who visits that realm/sphere/deva world. - AN 4 (20) 5. Mahāvaggo - 1. Sotānugata S. , MM AN 1.504. - Tassa tattha sukhino dhammapadā plavanti [pilapanti (sī. syā. kaṃ. pī.)]. Dandho, bhikkhave, satuppādo; atha so satto khippaṃyeva visesagāmī hoti. BUT no way to attain Magga Phala, Nibbana, Enlightenment without vipassana - “Vipassanāsote patitattā pana vipassanāti saṅkhaṃ gacchati. … Tattha paṭhamamaggañāṇaṃ tāva sampādetukāmena aññaṃ kiñci kātabbaṃ nāma natthi. Yañhi anena kātabbaṃ siyā, taṃ anulomāvasānaṃ vipassanaṃ uppādentena katameva.” (VismA 2.311)

  • Suttanipāta Commentary by Bhikkhu Bodhi, p.279-280: /Comy for v.58 : eight paccekabodhisattas trained under Buddha Kassapa, were later born as devas, and then they were born in Bārāṇasī, seven out of them went forth and one became a king. The seven visited the king and when asked what they are they said: “Great king, we are called the learned ones.” The king invited one after another to teach Dhamma, but they just said “May you be happy, great king. Let there be the destruction of lust/hatred/delusion/rebirth/round/acquisitions/craving.” He thought they are not learned if they gave so short Dhamma talk, but later he understood that when lust is destroyed, the other defilements are also destroyed./ “These ascetics are learned in the direct sense. Just as a person who points out the great earth or space with his finger does not point out a region merely the size of his finger but points out the entire earth and the whole of space, so too, when they pointed out one principle, unlimited principles were pointed out.” Then he thought: “When will I too become learned in such a way?” Desiring such a state of learning, he abandoned his kingdom, went forth, and developing insight, he realized pacceka enlightenment.

  • Suttanipāta Commentary by Bhikkhu Bodhi, p.280: “Learned”: learned in a twofold way: completely learned in the scriptures, by knowing the three Piṭakas by way of their meaning, and learned in penetration, by having penetrated the paths, the fruits, the clear knowledges, and the superknowledges. The same for a bearer of Dhamma.

May you all be happy and healthy. :sun_with_face:

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If ‘better’ is to walk the path then practitioners are ‘better’. As the story goes in the dnammapada the unschooled compared to the scholar, the scholar is found wanting.

In the Chachakka Sutta : The Buddha doesn’t say maybe, he says impossible :

With regard to feelings that arise from contact :

“Bhikkhus, that one should here and now make an end of suffering without abandoning the underlying tendency to lust for pleasant mind (or any sense organ) -feeling, without abolishing the underlying tendency to aversion towards mind-painful feeling, without extirpating the underlying tendency to ignorance in regard to neither-pleasant-nor-painful mind-feeling, without abandoning ignorance and arousing true knowledge - this is impossible.”

This is a teaching to hear and then one practices (recognising and developing continuous awareness of the constant flux of feelings) and thus comes to understand (true knowledge manifesting). While being correctly continuously aware of anicca of feelings in the present moment any book knowledge is of no consequence.

It is possible that depending on conditions a minimal hearing of The Dhamma by an illiterate leads to enlightenment. It is not possible that without practice a scholar who can recite the entire teaching will become enlightened.

Further, the scholar inclined to attachment to mind and dhamma and the process of memory as sankhara as something ‘I’ will have a handicap when it comes to letting go.

I hold the opinion that both Pariyatti monks and meditative monks should not dispute with one another.

But if there is a wrong view arises from either Pariyatti monk side or meditative monk side, the other side should give corrections.

For example, if meditative monk, due to misconceptions, thinking that the Jhanas are true “Self” or “Original Mind”, then Pariyatti monk side has the right to correct them. If Pariyatti monk side facing difficulty in explaining meditation experience, meditative monk side should help to explain and give corrections.

Neither of them should quarrel or dismiss with one another.

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I find that this argument comes up a lot. A similar one is the subtle arguments between faith-followers and wisdom-followers, where the former are criticized for lacking discernment and having faith arbitrarily and the latter are criticized as creating discord and schism when they ask questions.

But to address the question I have a simile: before I was into Buddhism I was into Western philosophy (hence my user name). I even did 1.5 years in university for a philosophy degree before I realized the folly in it. The philosophy community would drive me up a wall. There were almost no actual philosophers among them, but plenty of scholars of philosophy. The difference is that the former were actually investigating reality for themselves. The classical texts of philosophy were but a helper for these people. For the latter, the classical texts were the thing; they saw their job as learning what all the philosophers said so they had ready made answers.

Buddhism has a similar situation. You will not make progress toward achieving the goal without investigating reality. Notice I’m not saying meditation or scholarship; I’m saying you will not make progress without investigating reality. The exercises we do in meditation are a great help to this, and in some cases, are an investigative practice in themselves. The scriptures are a great help to this, and in some cases, are an investigative practice in themselves.

But I’ve seen meditators blindly apply techniques and look for insights they’re “supposed to have” instead of just, well, seeing what is as it is. And I’ve seen folks of all stripes, least of all scholars, dogmatically memorize suttas…suttas where, you could say, Mara has had 2600 years to corrupt them and their interpretations…as if they were Christian theologians reading the Bible.

Buddhism stands out from other major world religions because it says, “Come see for yourself.” It’s the weirdest thing that Western philosophers revere Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Chomsky, but they don’t seek the same thing these men sought…they just seek to revere Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Chomsky. And it’s the weirdest thing in Buddhism that Buddhists do essentially the same thing.

You have to own this journey for yourself. You have to investigate for yourself. Both sides of this debate, and the Mahayana even more so, fall into this trap of trying to imitate the Buddha, which is folly. If the scriptures said the Buddha liked to pick his nose and always sat facing south, would you start picking your nose 7 times a day while facing south? Of course not! But this mistake, represented by the fetter of attachment to rites and rituals, is extremely prevalent. Everyone is looking to practice “the perfect technique” or find the right scripture or follow the right teacher who has all the answers.

But it’s your head on the chopping block. You have to investigate for yourself; you have to seek what the Buddha sought. When you do this, you’re not a practitioner or a theorist and people from both groups that simply dismiss the other are the kinds of people you’ll see as foolish. To you, meditation and the scriptures are just tools, each with their own pitfalls to be mindful of, that help you on your journey. The Zen folks like to say, “If you meet the Buddha on the path, kill him,” and this is what they’re getting at. You have to be ready to throw it all out, abandon any or even all of it, when the time comes.


Welcome to the forum Philospophy!

This is true of course. Although without enough background in the theory of Dhamma there is bound to be a strong bias to self view- an idea of an observer for example- that distorts the investigation.

True again. In the Majjima Nikaya 64, we read: “An untaught, ordinary person … abides with a mind enslaved by adherence to rules and observances [silabbata-paramasa- pariyutthitena cetasa viharati].” Unknowingly, almost all efforts we make in the spiritual realm are tied in with this fetter.
As you indicate It is good to know this, because this knowing can condition dhamma-vicaya(investigation of Dhamma/dhammas) to learn what the right way is. .

Thank you! I kind of just jumped right on in and posted.

I both have to recognize that this is the case…uninstructed persons rarely have wisdom or insight that is useful on the path…

…but also recognize that it’s not strictly necessary. The person of the Buddha is most inspiring, imo, because he was just a man. If he can do it, so can you. Degradation of the Dhamma is no excuse! You can do this even between Buddha ages. You don’t know your past kamma unless you can see past lives.

In the end, the availability and quality of Dhamma is an efficiency boost, but knowing Dhamma is, strictly speaking, not absolutely necessary nor sufficient in itself. What is sufficient and necessary is looking at reality as it is.

@Philosophy Welcome to the group!
The practice is essential. However, knowing how to read the map is important as well.
You can be a great world class rower, but without the navigation knowledge, you are not likely to get anywhere on a large crossing, and the ocean of saṃsāra is much more difficult than crossing the ocean blue in a dinghy.

On the other hand, you can know all you want about the maps and navigation, but you won’t get anywhere without stepping in the boat and starting to row. You must practice in order to reach the end.

I have asked Ven. Sayadaw Kumarabhivamsa about those who finish the course and how to know if they are an Ariya or not. Getting to the end happens when the practitioner gets to a thing called “The Peaceful State” . This is a code word for something that “might” be Nibbāna. Both the practitioner and the teacher know this is a code word, but it may or may not be real.

I have asked the Sayadaw about what percentage of the “Peaceful State” is real…
He told me that the one who reaches this needs to stick around for 2 years before one can fully say it is real (and even then there are problems as well). There are symptoms, like never losing your attainment… However, he said that those who have pariyatti degrees usually get the real thing right away… or better to say, “When they say they have ‘The Peaceful State’ they usually really do have it.” He has seen enough cases where he can say that one is more likely than the other. However, nothing excludes or guarantees the other.

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Both are important. Practice is important as direct knowledge, abhinna, can only be experienced through practice. And the Buddha and the great ascetics and arahants learned their knowledge through abhinna. Theorists are also important because thats how you know what is right. Remember the 5 ascetics who practiced self mortification were practitioners, but they were practicing it wrong the whole time.

From the Dhammapada verses you mentioned. One who studies but does not practice is like a cowherd that herds other peoples cattle. But you can argue that one who practices but does not study is someone with a lot of cattle and no idea how to herd them. Both are important.

If you go by efficiency, practice is obviously more important, as a practitioner who only does the basics of dana, sila and bhavana and has no knowledge of anything else, or even just dana and sila. is still vastly superior to even the most learned theorist who practices little or has little sila. A small amount of practice will go a lot further than a small amount of knowledge, but again. You do need both to excel. Like an engine and fuel. You need a bare minimum of both to get anywhere, but the more of both you have the better. Fuel is useless without an engine, an engine is useless without fuel. A lot of fuel with an inefficient engine will get you somewhere but will require a huge amount of fuel to get where you need to go, an efficient engine with little fuel will likewise get you somewhere but not far.

This is a related topic.

Another related topic

Ya, I don’t disagree with this. I think what I’m saying is that:

  1. The one thing that is necessary is looking at reality as it is. I guess this would be classified as a form of practice, so this specific form or practice is necessary.
  2. Scripture, a teacher, and other forms of practice…are not strictly necesssary. A Buddha of either type has no scripture, no teacher, and may have other forms of practice, but it’s ultimately direct looking that brings them to enlightenment.
  3. Scripture, a teacher, and other forms of practice…can help a lot. They’re an efficiency boost.

One should not compare typical practitioners to a Buddha. It is just too rare and out of context. It is like saying one can be an Olympic gold medalist without a trainer. It just is not possible for that, what more can be said about accomplishments of a SammasamBuddho without being one?

I find it inspiring. A rare accomplishment, yes, but it shows that deteriorated dhamma and lack of dhamma are never a complete block. I think the biggest mistake of the Mahayana (and where it’s parent, the Mahasangika, got started from what I understand) is making everyone aspire to Buddhahood. I don’t think that is the way…it’s just the extreme case that shows what is absolutely necessary and what is an efficiency boost.

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yes… don’t aspire to be a Buddha without reading the fine print.
The fine print would be Mingun Sayadaw’s The Great Chronicles of The Buddha.
pdf’s exist for free.

Hello MonkSarana, all,

It is my personal understanding that the way the path is structured is that sīla comes first. Ideally, it should be the sīla of a bhikkhu. This includes celibacy and all the other training rules. When a person lives this way they come face to face with their defilements, can see them, and comes to understand that they are not “me or mine” because one realizes that they cannot ever fully control them, although one may stop oneself from transgressing the rules.

After this is established, meditation also becomes important. However, meditation will never really go the right way without one coming face to face with their defilements. If one does however, then ones mediation (as long as it is one of the subjects given by Buddha) can take one in the right direction.

Study is important too, however, it is mainly to help one get rid of one’s wrong views (such as eternalism and nihilism, etc). I don’t think it is necessary for one to understand every single detail about vippassana, mind and matter, the six sense bases, and so on.

So therefore I think that while study is important, practice is the most important (the caveat being it must be informed by some study).

When we get the wrong views out of the way, I think our sīla and meditation can lead us in the right direction.

This is my current understanding.


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It’s actually straightforward:

“When a wise man, established well in virtue,
Develops consciousness and understanding,
Then as a bhikkhu ardent and sagacious
He succeeds in disentangling this tangle” (S I 13).

In order to disentangle the tangle, he must develop consciousness (concentration), and understanding, but he must be well established in virtue.

:pray: Kevin

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I thought your message was excellent. It is true that we can tend to believe that we have found an absolute source of knowledge (scripture, teacher), or at least we tend to actively seek to find one, when in truth we have none. In truth, we are all seekers. We are searching for something that we think is the right search. But we don’t absolutely know if our quest is right, and we don’t absolutely know how to get there. We try to figure it out, to find our way, but none of our actions are safe.

You mentioned that the scriptures may have been falsified over time. But the truth is, even if Siddhartha Gautama were in front of me teaching me his vision, I would not have an absolute source of knowledge, and I would still be a seeker of truth who cannot believe Gautama until I have verified his teaching for myself. But that doesn’t stop me from seriously trying to follow his path, and seriously trying to verify these ideas.