The study of the Dhamma is another area that often requires us to venture outside of our comfort zones. Pariyatti—which is the Pali word for the theoretical comprehension of the Dhamma acquired through reading and study—is an important part of Theravada Buddhism. For anyone intent on pursuing the Noble Eightfold Path, there has to be a deep curiosity about the Buddha’s teachings and how they might be applied to one’s life. It is not enough to just come at it from one’s own perspective on what needs to be done. Although it’s fine for us to have our own agendas in terms of spiritual learning and practice, those agendas are often grounded in popular cultural norms. But the Buddha’s teachings on freedom from suffering are actually quite radical and entail a complete transformation of consciousness. Therefore, an in-depth study of his teachings is necessary.
When I say this, I don’t mean that you just read the easier, more popular books on Buddhism—the ones that only present little bits and pieces of the teachings. Rather, I’m suggesting that you really take the time to engage with the more difficult texts from the Buddha’s own discourses, and then ask yourself, “What did the Buddha really mean by that?” There has to be some kind of challenge to the intellect taking place, some form of rigorous intellectual inquiry. For example, truly ponder the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, dependent origination, and the cessation of suffering. In addition, ask yourself, “What are the five khandhas and how do they relate to my own conscious experience?” And carefully consider what the terms dukkha-vedanā (unpleasant sensations), dukkha-lakkhaṇa (suffering as one of the three universal characteristics of existence), and dukkha-saccã (the First Noble Truth of suffering) mean within the larger framework of Buddhist ideas.
If you don’t have an understanding of the basic Pali formulas, you’re not able to see how the various theoretical structures fit together and support one another. They’re all one piece. The Four Noble Truths correspond to the teachings of dependent origination, which in turn correlate with the three universal characteristics of existence. These concepts and constructs also connect with the five khandhas, which subsequently link with the ten fetters. Taken as a whole, the Buddha’s teachings present a brilliant analysis of the human condition; but more importantly, they offer a clear strategy for the personal realization of profound peace. So you need to internalize these structures by patiently reflecting on them, memorizing them, and then letting them arise in your consciousness. For instance, spend a year contemplating the khandha of perception. Instead of thinking, “Oh yeah, I know what that means,” ask yourself, “What is perception?” Since the Buddha talks quite a bit about perception, it’s important to know what it means. In order to answer this question, you start by consulting the suttas. But eventually you refer to your own mind to see and ultimately understand how perception works. In this way, Buddhist theory becomes an avenue for highly fruitful investigation.
Engaging in this mode of study is more difficult than reading those lighter, popular books and magazines on spirituality that make us feel good. There’s nothing wrong with this type of reading material. However, some degree of intellectual rigour greatly helps to guide the investigative work that’s such a vital part of Theravada Buddhist practice. This process of intellectual inquiry also serves to counter any intellectual doubt that can crop up around, for example, the trustworthiness of the Buddha’s teachings or even one’s own progress on the Path. It’s rather like having studied a road map of a journey you’ve embarked on. The journey will have obstacles, but because you’ve scrutinized the map and know the overall terrain, even if you do get a bit lost, you can return to your recollection of the map to regain your sense of direction and carry on. You don’t have to wander around in aimless circles of doubt and uncertainty.
This reflection by Ajahn Viradhammo is from the book, The Contemplative’s Craft, pp. 159-160.