Studying the Teachings

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The teachings are important to us, not because they were given by Shakyamuni Buddha, but because the Buddha realized the significance of the teachings in himself and then passed that down to us.

The Buddha was not in a privileged position to access the content and the significance of the teachings, nor are we at a disadvantage. We cannot say that the Buddha achieved a total assimilation of the teachings so that there is a completely direct connection of the truth to him. We are distant from the Buddha in every way — in terms of time and in terms of our existential condition — but by developing the correct view and practicing meditation, we can learn to assimilate the content and significance of the teachings. As a consequence, we can also become liberated.

While Buddhism offers many analogies highlighting the importance of studying the teachings, these have to be understood in the context of the path. The Buddha said that the teachings are like a raft for crossing a river. Once you have reached the other shore, you do not need to carry the raft anymore. There is also the Zen story that suggests the teachings are like a finger pointing to the moon, where once you see the moon, you no longer need to rely on the finger any more. However, people misunderstand these metaphors when they perceive them to mean that people should reject all belief systems. The point of both these stories is that the boat and the finger are necessary initially, because they provide the spiritual vehicle that we desperately need.

It is only after the content and the significance of the teachings have been assimilated into one's mindstream — so that there is no separation between the teachings and oneself — that one no longer has a need for conceptual tools. Up to that point, conceptual tools are completely necessary, just as it is necessary to have a boat in order to cross a river. These conceptual tools — the world views and belief systems — are our means of transport. Like with any kind of transport, one has already embarked on a journey as soon as one has entered that vehicle. Similarly, as soon as one has assimilated a certain kind of spiritual world view, the effect has already taken place. One has already been liberated. The understanding that one develops, through appropriating the teachings into one's being, is liberating in itself. It is not the case that we first have the understand the teachings, then do certain practices and then find liberation. The assimilation of the teachings is the same as liberation — that is enlightenment, that is the goal.