Blending Theory and Practice

by Peter Fenner

“The Great Teaching … is easy to enter for those with sharp faculties and quick wits and broad penetration who don’t use their intellectual brilliance to try to comprehend it.” From the Chinese Zen master Yuanwu.

“To reason about uncreated Reality is just to play with words. Yet from this coherent, playful reasoning, lightening bolts flash forth as gnostic intuition-totally insubstantial, not coming into being even for an instant, yet diamond sharp and clear.”

From the Perfect Wisdom Discourses (Prajnaparamita-sutra) of Buddhism.

Various structures have been established over the centuries for transmitting the contentless wisdom of traditions like Taoism, Vedanta, Buddhism, and Zen. At one extreme are large teaching institutes devoted to the study of sacred literatures. At the other extreme are solitary contemplatives who in the course of a lifetime might casually awaken the minds of one or two disciples.

In between these two extremes are numerous spiritual centers that attempt to integrate study and practice by regulating their calendars around a repeating cycle of study, work and contemplation. In these centers, students listen-then talk-then implement-then listen again to their teachers. In this way, the distinct activities of theorizing and practicing become formally enshrined in the structural fabric of most spiritual traditions.

What is common to all these structures is a separation between theory and practice. In the more extreme expressions, either theory or practice is effectively rejected. Pure contemplatives often hold up philosophers and scholars for ridicule and scorn. The Chinese Zen master Yuanwu, accused spiritual intellectuals of “peeing in bed with their eyes open.” Conversely, teaching institutes often only pay lip service to practice.

Theory and practice

In spiritual traditions, theory and practice are often distinguished in the following way.

Theorizing Practicing
knowing experiencing
thinking not thinking
studying contemplating
locating dislocating
describing disclosing
communicating remaining silent

However, segmenting our experience in this way runs contrary to the wisdom contained in traditions like Zen, Taoism and Vedanta, which transcends the spheres of the intellect and meditative experience. As the great Buddhist bodhisattva Subuti says: “Perfect Wisdom does not present any graspable or thinkable doctrine and offers no describable method of contemplation.” In other words, real wisdom isn’t segmented into a theoretical and an applied component. The contentless wisdom that is referred to as prajna, jnana, and vidya, is consistent and continuous with thinking and not thinking, knowing and not knowing, contemplating and not contemplating. By displaying a prefer- ence for either study or practice, we signal that we are still able to fully appreciate the timeless wisdom of the ancient masters.

Whilst we may periodically acknowledge our preference for study or practice, when we are actually listening to a stimulating discourse or enjoying our meditation, we often fail to appreciate how these preferences reflect our personal biases and habits. We just assume that meditation is valuable, or that study is necessary for spiritual development. When a bias in favor of “theorizing” or “practicing” is institutionalized into the fabric of a spiritual system, we can indulge our predisposi- tions without becoming aware of how we reject practice in favor of theorizing, or vice versa.

Trapped in our interpretations

The simplest way to discover our attachment to “theorizing” or “practicing” is to reflect on our experience. If we enjoy spiritual discourses, consume spiritual books, and frequent forums at which “experts” offer their “wisdom”, we are clearly attracted to analysis and interpretation. For us, this is where the action is. If we are obsessed with acquiring information, we may actively avoid experiential workshops, meditation, or other forms of practice, since they do not add to our body of knowledge. If something is missing in our lives we run to find “another” book, or attend “another” seminar, without reflecting on our need to acquire more information, or further validate our beliefs. Also, in reading books and attending presentations we tend to take it for granted that these will help us. Even if we aren’t sure about the value of our specific sources, at least we know that this is where we might discover that we are wrong.

When reading books and listening to presenters we are constantly active-agreeing and disagree- ing with what is being said: “That is important.” “Yes, that sounds right.” “I agree with that.” “That’s wrong.” “They are misrepresenting the tradition.” etc, etc. We “assume” that writers and speakers “know” what they are talking about, even if we “know” better. We get caught up in developing elaborate theories about “reality”, “liberation”, “the path”, “realization”, etc. In no time we think that we are actually talking about “something”, even if we say that this “something” is “nothing”. Rarely do we ask: “What am I thinking about?” in a way that actually questions whether we are thinking or talking about anything at all.

We build fancy and elaborate theories based on flimsy experiential foundations. The little “practice” we might engage in is milked for every concept we can squeeze out of it. We develop complex descriptions about spiritual paths and enlightened goals. As a result of our study and think- ing we become learned and knowledgeable-and often quite opinionated as well.

Trapped in our experience

If we are attached to “practicing”, we will display a bias for meditation, workshops, or other practical activities. In fact, if we actively reject intellectual inquiry we will probably be attracted to the more non-cognitive forms of contemplation such as simply sitting (zazen), remaining serene (shamatha), cultivating bare awareness (vidya), or being mindful (satipatthana).

Perhaps we believe that “realization” can only occur while meditating, or at least that medita- tion manifestly increases the possibility for illumination. I mean, everyone knows that the “actual realization” is more likely to occur while meditating! In fact, most “practices” validate their exist- ence through a discourse that this is where the real work occurs. In thinking this way we easily forget that this is just a “story” about realization acquired through listening to talks and reading books. However, when our practice is disconnected from a descriptive framework we end up drifting in an inchoate haze of thoughts and ill-defined feelings. Left to itself, private reflection quickly loses its edge. We get caught up in the elaborate story-lines of our memories, fears and fantasies. The thread of our thoughts unravels indefinitely because we lack the skills to bring it to a natural closure. Consequently, our meditations often end up in a space where we just witness our stream of consciousness in a totally passive and unstructured way. The only difference between day dreaming and meditation is that in the latter our eyes are generally closed. Meditation signifies nothing more than a preference to be stimulated by the mind rather than the world. Instead of seeing through the fabricated and ephemeral nature of our experience, we just become very familiar with the ebb and flow of our internal landscape.

Attraction and aversion to speech and silence

Most spiritual systems recognize the potential for people to become trapped in intellectual activity and introspective quietude. Many systems attempt to correct a possible imbalance between study and practice by alternating periods of study with periods of practice. Most centers, for ex- ample, institute a daily routine of private meditation, physical work (karma yoga), study, discourses, question and answer sessions, etc. While this structure helps to break down our extreme fixations with either learning or practicing, it doesn’t deal with our need to “know” what we are doing. We learn to segment each day into periods of well-defined activities, and quickly feel comfortable with our predictable and stable “routine”. We hang out for the stillness and quiet of our meditation, or alternatively, look forward to the stimulation of discourses and group discussions, which, of course, is something very different from cultivating impartial wisdom that accommodates to reality, as-it-is. In fact, if a scheduled lecture or practice session is canceled or replaced by something else, people can become quite upset or put out. When our need for information or quite reflection isn’t met we feel cheated and annoyed. In extreme cases people walk out of lectures and practices ses- sions, just as they walked out on the Buddha’s enlightened discourses on Perfect Wisdom. Instead, of seeing the “unexpected” as an opportunity to observe our attraction and aversion to speech and silence, we just want to get back to our “preferred” activity. Spirituality becomes a mechnical and routinized lifestyle, rather than a way of being that transcends all attraction and aversion with “inner and outer”, “waiting and arriving”, “speech and silence”, “movement and stillness”, or “getting it and losing it”. Thus, the disclosure of our preferences for “movement and stillness”, “speech and silence”, “waiting and arriving” and “thinking and not thinking”, requires a more penetrating and refined process than simply throwing together separate periods of study, work, and practice in the one day.


One format that has been used for millennia, and still continues to be favored by many tradi- tions and teachers is “dialoging”. Traditionally this has taken many different forms, such as the encounter between gurus and disciples in Hinduism (upadesha), the intense and dynamic exchanges between master and student in Zen (dokasan), or formal monastic debate which is still very alive in Tibetan Buddhism. Dialoging attempts to take the integration of theory and practice one step further, by stimulating a direct spiritual experience in the midst of dynamic verbal exchanges. The assump- tion here is that analysis and practice need not be two distinct events. But here too, people continue to display a clear preference for the periods of talking and silence that naturally punctuate a dia- logue. At the same time that some students feel compelled to rupture a period of silence with their interpretation of “what is happening”, others will complain that they were really enjoying the space. Similarly, while some people prefer informal and open-ended dialogues, others are more comfortable when dialogues occur to a fixed and predictable schedule. Also, dialogues often revert to sessions in which people share their stories about their experience “on the path”. Or, alternatively, dialogues become a venue for teachers to give advice, or make suggestions, about what their students can do (i.e. practice) at some time in the future.

When our talking or remaining silent aren’t legitimated by a theory, their occurrence or absence can be intense and unsettling. In fact, some teachers off-set this uncertainty by formally punctuating their dialogues with short periods of private reflection. Thus, while dialogues can disclose certain biases towards speech and silence, movement and stillness, structure and a lack of structure, they usually don’t reveal our moment-by-moment preference to continue, or slow down our thinking. They typically don’t reveal how we create experiences of lack and fulfillment, as these are happening.

Transcending theory and practice

One way to break down our reified habit of thinking about practicing and theorizing as distinct, and often mutually excluding activities, is to reflect on what we are doing right now. So what are you doing right now? Are you theorizing or practicing at this very moment? Many readers will probably say that this is a purely theoretical exercise because, at least up to this point, we have been “thinking about and describing” the structures that separate and integrate theory and practice. We haven’t actually “revealed” any biases in the here-and-now. Perhaps this is true. But when we ask the question: “Is this theoretical or practical?” we mean: “Is thinking about whether this is a theoretical or practical exercise, itself theoretical or practical?”

Some possibilities

1.One suggestion about what distinguishes theory and practice is that practice consists of thinking about the “right” things, namely, the things that our theories tell us we should be thinking about. This will usually be things like reality, truth, love, the movements of our breath, or even what constitutes real practice. An assumption here is that some types of thinking are theoretical and others are practical. In this case, spiritual theorizing consists of thinking about what we should be thinking about when we are practicing. Practice occurs when we actually think about what we should be thinking about when we are practicing.

However, if we don’t refer back to what we should be thinking about, we won’t know if we are thinking about what we are meant to be thinking about. So, in the absence of thinking about what we should be thinking about we can never know if we are thinking about what we should be thinking about. Hence, we can never practice unless we are theorizing at the same time. As such, there is no such thing as practicing, as separate from theorizing.

A variation on the above theory is that practice consists of “experiencing” love, wisdom, our breath, etc. while theorizing consists of thinking about these. The implication here is that when we are experiencing love or wisdom, we aren’t actually thinking about these. Perhaps we are thinking about other things, but we aren’t thinking above love or wisdom.

But this isn’t accurate either, since when we are experiencing love, wisdom, our breath, etc. there is no need to practice. “Practicing” must consist of trying to be loving, etc., while “theorizing” consists of trying to work out how to be loving, wise, or attentive to our breath. Also, it is impossible to experience love if we don’t have a concept of it. We may be manifesting behavior that others call “loving” but this would be completely transparent and inconsequential to ourselves. Why else do saints and sages say that we need to transcend the concepts of self and other, love and hate, and suffering and liberation.

2.Given that we can’t determine if we are theorizing or practicing on the basis of how we are thinking, we might say that what we are doing right now is still theoretical, purely in virtue of the fact that we are thinking. We might subscribe to the ultra radical view that “practice” consists of not thinking. This is an experience that Hindu saints call seedless absorption (nirvikalpa-samadhi). But in this state there is no practice for nothing at all is happening. To practice is to enter the domain of thinking, since we “know” what we are doing. From this point of view, if we “know” that we are practicing then we are theorizing. In fact, “practice” is a theoretical activity. So, given that thinking doesn’t allow us to decide if we are practicing or theorizing right now, what are we doing?

3.At this point we might declare that although what we are doing right now is a somewhat unfamiliar way of thinking, it must still be theoretical because the act of “judging or deciding” (if this is theoretical or practical) isn’t a part of real practice. Perhaps we have listened to teachings which say that when we practice we “suspend the judging mind.” But if this is so, then we can never begin, or re-enter, a practice because the “decision” to begin lies outside the domain of practice. Furthermore, we can never decide to continue to practice, because “deciding” can’t be part of that practice. As soon as we think we should continue, we have stopped, in which case we can’t continue. In fact, as soon as we decide that we are practicing, we cease to practice. But, nor can we stop practicing because the “decision” to stop simply cannot occur while we are practicing. But if we can’t stop, and we can’t continue, then what are we doing? Certainly we can never be practicing in contrast to theorizing. So given that “deciding” doesn’t allow us to stop or continue-what are you doing right now?

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