Not Practice, But Understanding

by Rev. Nobuo Haneda

People usually say that it is easy to understand but it is difficult to practice. These are words of secular sentiment. They are words of untruth. The words of truth are quite opposite: “It is difficult to understand, but it is easy to practice.” If we can truly understand, then action will naturally follow. Action that is not based on understanding is simply deluded action. And how can we “easy-goingly” say that the understanding in “understanding the truth” is an easy matter? Understanding is indeed difficult. Buddhism as a teaching of the truth, or as an intellectual religion, maintains the position, “Understanding is difficult, but practice is easy”... Shinran says that among the difficult the most difficult is “genuine understanding (shin).” He talks about “Shin that is the most difficult (gokunan shin).”

(Shuichi Maida, Complete Works, I, pp. 341-42) 

In order to understand this unique feature of Buddhism, that it primarily emphasizes understanding (or wisdom), not practice (or discipline), let us first examine the process by which Shakyamuni attained Awakening.

After several years of ascetic practice--an attempt to eliminate passions through self­-discipline--Shakyamuni renounced it. Having left this practice, he started to meditate under a tree. Here it is important to note that simply meditating under a tree was not considered a full-fledged practice in his time. Thus the co-practitioners whom he had left behind mocked him, saying, “Siddhartha has become a backslider and taken to an easier lifestyle.” But it was this meditation, which seemed an idle action to the religious practitioners of his time, that led Shakyamuni to Awakening.

What, then, was the meditation which Shakyamuni took up under a tree and which led him to Awakening? It was “understanding”—understanding of the self. He was desperately asking one question, “What am I?” He wanted to understand the basic nature of the self; because he thought that his ignorance--his lack of understanding--of the self was the basic cause of suffering and that by clearly understanding it, he could eliminate suffering.

In examining the basic nature of the self; he investigated whether there was something permanent in the self After intense introspection he came to the conclusion that all things that made up the self were impermanent. That is, he recognized that not only physical elements such as muscle and blood but also mental elements such as volition and consciousness were constantly moving and changing. He recognized that impermanence was the only absolute reality (or truth) underlying his existence.

In this way he clearly discovered the cause of suffering and the way to eliminate it. He identified ignorance of the self (or misunderstanding of the self as something permanent and substantial) as the cause of suffering. Although the basic nature of the self was impermanence, he was attached to the self; he considered it permanent and desired to maintain it against the truth. Thus friction between his self-attachment and the truth was inevitable. This friction was the suffering he was experiencing.

But when he understood the absoluteness of impermanence, he recognized the mistake in his self-understanding. Now he totally identified with the truth of impermanence and loosened his grip on the self. Then the friction between the self and the truth disappeared. He experienced liberation from suffering.

This insight into the truth of impermanence was the content of Shakyamuni’s Awakening. It was by this insight alone that he became a Buddha.

As soon as he recognized that his entire being was impermanence itself; he identified himself with it. He became the truth and started to live his life as the truth. Here it is important to note that his “understanding the truth (or Awakening)” was simultaneously his “becoming the truth.”

Here a few words on the meaning of “becoming the truth.” Although “becoming the truth” may sound like he had just become the truth, that is not the case. Its true meaning is this:

Shakyamuni, who had always been the truth of impermanence but had not been cognizant of it, became awakened to the fact that he had always been the truth of impermanence. In that sense, he recovered (or discovered) what he really was rather than newly becoming what he had not been before. Thus “becoming the truth” was contained in “understanding the truth.”

In this way his “understanding the truth” contained in itself a total (both mental and physical) transformation of his life. Although “understanding” is usually construed only as mental transformation, his understanding was so thorough that it brought about total transformation of his life. Thus his mental transformation was simultaneously physical transformation.

Hence in Buddhism, “understanding” and “practice” cannot be discussed as two separate issues. Practice, which is usually identified with the physical (or lifestyle) aspects of human life, cannot be discussed in isolation from understanding the truth. Practice is fully contained in understanding the truth.

When we attain right understanding, right practice--a lifestyle that is based on the truth of impermanence--is simultaneously attained. Thus all our efforts in Buddhism should be focused on gaining right understanding, not on disciplinary practices. No matter how many disciplinary practices we may take up, they do not guarantee our attainment of right understanding. But attainment of right understanding immediately guarantees the attainment of right practice.