Making the Dhamma Our Own

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Making the Dhamma Our Own

In Buddhism, we gain a type of experientially acquired knowledge that grows in our hearts through what we call “practice.” We use the word “practice” in Buddhism much more than we use the word “belief.” We don’t say to each other: “How’s your belief going?” Instead, we ask, “How’s your practice going?” It’s a different way of learning.

Intellectual learning gives us intellectual knowledge. Having an intellectual knowledge of Buddhism is akin to memorizing instructions on how to cook rice. Just because we’ve read or memorized the instructions doesn’t mean we’re going to be successful at cooking rice. To put it simply, we won’t really know how to cook rice until we’ve done it ourselves. To be successful at it, we need to put into practice the knowledge we’ve gained.

This second, more experiential way of learning is called “implicit learning,” which gives us “implicit knowledge.” Implicit knowledge is not the kind of superficial information that we can jot down on an examination paper as a result of having memorized it. It’s much deeper and harder to put into words than that. Implicit knowledge is something we learn for ourselves through practice, through trial and error. Implicit learning involves a particular type of process for acquiring knowledge. For example, we might read a set of instructions and then want to apply them. So we proceed to try to follow the instructions in real life, but then discover that things aren’t working out well. Consequently, we go back and reread the instructions to figure out what we may have done wrong. Eventually, there’s that “Aha!” moment when we’re able to carry out the instructions successfully. But to reach that point, we have to keep putting the instructions into practice until we get things right.

We develop insight into the Dhamma, or the truth of the ways things are, in the same way: through the implicit knowledge we acquire through practice…

Therefore, we try to apply our understanding of the teachings to our lives. As we do this more and more, different types of insights into the truth of the way things are start to arise that are very personal; they represent the kind of implicit knowledge we’ve been talking about…

As your practice deepens, the implicit knowledge you attain into the nature of what-is becomes even more profound. And even if you can’t articulate this knowledge, you certainly have it. You have it because you’ve done the work of observing your inner world, which has enabled you to glean insights into the workings of your mind…

Without insight into how things really are, life can appear to be little more than a series of random experiences of suffering from which we’re constantly trying to escape. But as our understanding and implicit knowledge of the Dhamma become more profound, we begin to make the Dhamma truly ours.

These reflections from Ajahn Viradhammo are from the book, The Contemplative’s Craft, pp. 19-22.