Is Buddhism something that you should consider as a field that you should endeavour to study and develop a deep understanding of or is it enough just to simply sit, just as the Zen tradition seems to suggest?

To elaborate a bit more, is it worthwhile to study the Sutras and other Buddhist texts or would someone be able to attain enlightenment by simply sitting without developing an in-depth knowledge of Buddhism?

  • 3
    Yes! Do study the suttas, it really makes a difference!
    – konrad01
    Mar 3, 2015 at 22:33
  • 2
    Wanna know what mozart sounds like? There's only one way: listen to mozart. Wanna know what the Buddha taught? Only one way: read the Buddha's words. Even to understand Dōgen Zengi's "simply sitting" one has to read what Dōgen said. (or, in both cases, be fortunate enough to learn from someone who really knows)
    – user382
    Mar 4, 2015 at 4:34
  • @ThiagoSilva thanks, great comment. I just worry that, by going too deep into an intellectual understanding of Buddhism I might lose sight of what it actually is about; in a way I don't want to lose the beginner's mind. I guess the answer is to follow the middle path between practice and study.
    – Jose B
    Mar 4, 2015 at 10:57
  • Being a Hindu, I have doubts in accepting some core Buddhist concepts (like anatman). However, I'm very fond of the Meditation aspect of Buddhism. Vipassana is a remarkable innovation and it could be easily studied and practiced on its own without the baggage of the religion its associated with. Mar 5, 2015 at 19:31

5 Answers 5


To succeed on the path, you need both study and practice in equal amounts.

Sometimes you will need more of the one than the other, but in general try to have a balance of Study and Practice, they are the two basic ingredients.

Even after attainment of samadhi and initial Awakening, there are advanced sutras and texts designed for such Awakened people to study so that they can reach the next levels.

Below is a relevant excerpt from the first chapter of "How to Measure and Deepen Your Spiritual Realization", a book that completely discusses Buddhism's various theoretical models as well as other religions... emphasizing the importance of not mistakening theory/good learning for practice and Attainment" and especially not criticizing others who do not know what you know because you haven't attained it for yourself anyway.

The emphasis on a direct personal experience of cultivation in order to attain true understanding does not mean we can discard the theoretical aspect of cultivation. If you do not know the principles and theory of cultivation practice, you will not know what stage you have attained through your efforts and you will always continue to remain in the dark. Thus, the actual accomplishment of spiritual attainment is just as important as theory, but the two have to be mixed together just as flour and water must be mixed together to produce dough. Spiritual theory and dogma needs practice for the proof of authentication, and practice needs theory for guidance. Taking everything together, we can say that if you cannot already attain the nine samadhi concentration states in your meditation practice, see all the beings in the ten directions, travel the universe at will, see from your ears and hear through your nose, or produce all sorts of supernatural transformations, you had better refrain from publicly claiming to know who has attained certain levels of attainment and who has not. What we are revealing is to help you make further progress on the path rather than to supply you with any ammunition for criticizing others. Worry about yourself and whether you are continuing to make cultivation progress rather than spend any time criticizing or ranking someone else. We therefore hope our readers avoid this serious mistake and devote all their energies towards making personal progress along the lines of spiritual attainment. Examine your own behavior to choose what is good and shun what is evil, and refrain from criticizing others. That is the first rule in spiritual cultivation practice, and the place where everything starts.


At least in the Theravada tradition, it is emphasized that the role of the Buddha (technically the Samyaksambuddha) was to teach and establish the dhamma. And he was also the most qualified person to do it.

The dhamma (teachings) is like a shortcut that we received from the Buddha, which we need to first study and understand. Studying involves understanding the Four Noble Truths, the Three Marks of Existence, and other teachings found in the suttas.

Practice includes the Five Precepts and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path includes Right View and Right Intention (which comes in part through studying), as well as Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration and Right Effort (which is meditation and practice). The remaining three are also part of practice.

So, if you do not want to study, but only want to practise meditation, then you are not making use of the "shortcut" teachings of the Buddha and instead want to find enlightenment by yourself.

For a good introduction on the teachings, I recommend What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula. You can find the PDF version here. There is also a very short collection of the suttas at the back of the book.

The Tripitakas are rather huge. But a good anthology or selection of suttas can be found in In the Buddha's Words by Bhikku Bodhi. You can find the PDF version here.

If you find studying Buddhism potentially daunting, then these two books should help you get started.


Zen is very hard. Specially without a great teacher. A popular idea is that Zen could "get away" from emphasis on study because it produced great teachers who did not "need" to refer to scriptures -- when they could simply refer their disciples to reality, using whatever means (including Buddha's words).

This Zen attitude is believed to come from many things. One of them is it's origin in the flower sermon. Another is the culture it developed around accusing exclusive intellectual/abstract understanding of the dhamma -- carried out famously by the "finger and the moon" metaphor. Like a person who spends his/her life studying sex but no amount of study got him/her close to lose the virginity.

But shikantaza has a flip side of the coin that is as devoid of value as studying Buddhism for Buddhism sake (if nibbāna is of concern). And that is, by "just sitting", it's quite possible one's life is spent "just sitting" and nothing really happens, ever. Like drawing lines and random symbols on a canvas and hoping to arrive at language and poetry.

In my understanding, the critical point is: in a learning process of any kind, there must be an evaluation process (ad-hoc, implicit, explicit, formal,... whatever), done by yourself, your teacher, or both (when one has a teacher). And evaluation is always a function of one's goal and one's current distance to that goal. It's evaluation that tells where you ware, if you are moving, and towards what you ware moving. Otherwise, it's just random walking around and hoping to stumble on a goal that became a taboo(*) to acknowledge.

(*) it seems every once in a while this idea becomes popular: that "enlightenment" is not something to strive for. What was once a pedagogical instruction towards specific people overly attached to a goal keeping them from progress, is now a full doctrine.

On a final note: the major risk of not reading the Buddha's word is, years later, find out that what you were doing had little to do with what he proposed.


I find this helpful (Ajahn Tong: Path to Nibbana, complete edition, pg. [some thai numeral, sorry!]):

The two ways of learning meditation

Learning through theory: The meditator both studies and practices the theories of meditation (i.e. the six fields listed previously [5 aggregates, 12 sense-spheres, 18 elements, 22 faculties, 4 noble truths, 12 steps of dependent origination]). This is like medical students who study medicine and then cure their own sickness. This method of learning is good for those with a lot of time.

Learning through practice: The meditator learns about meditation without theoretical knowledge, simply through practice. This is like patients who, without medical studies, treat and cure themselves by learning about themselves and examining their sickness. This method of meditation is good for those without much time.

My approach personally is lot of practice (daily & retreats), and picking up theory if/as needed. Otherwise it is just dry scholasticism, and I've had enough of that already.


It is something that you should study well and put to practice. It is not something that you learn like a right, ritual, custom, theory, pure science, logic or philosophy

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