Daniel Whistler, The Theory/Practice Relation in Buddhism

20 07 2013

[Continuing the discussion from the University of Chester’s workshop, Buddhism and Human Flourishing (report of the day available here), Daniel Whistler reflects on the workshop.]

 

One of the crucial themes that emerged for me from the Buddhism and Human Flourishing workshop was the different models for the relation between theory and practice that can co-exist within a religion – and, indeed, this is an absolutely central problematic at stake in the Philosophy and Religious Practices network generally: what relation does abstract reflection have to religious practices? And what relation should it have?

In Ratnaguna’s wonderful opening keynote, for example, there were at least three models for the theory/practice relation at play:

  1. The Model of Distraction: Ratnaguna seemed to speak of theoretical intellectualism as something that can get in the way of Buddhist practices – that is, arguing too much about the precise nature of the beliefs one ought to hold as a Buddhist distracts one from getting on with living a good Buddhist life and from actually and concretely seeing the path to Enlightenment.
  2. The Theory-First Model: Later in his talk, Ratnaguna spoke of theory as a helpful first step on the way to practical understanding and human flourishing. Thus, understanding the significance of compassion is a good way to motivate oneself to being compassion in one’s everyday life. Religious beliefs are, to put it more philosophically, action-guiding.
  3. The Practice-First Model: Finally, Ratnaguna talked of practice as the path to genuine understanding, i.e. one can only genuinely claim to understand something once one has experienced it concretely, practically and existentially.

All these models seem plausible. Moreover, even if on first glance they might be said to contradict or stand in tension with each other (especially 2 and 3), to discount any of these models on that account is surely too quick. For example, it could well be that different types of beliefs and understanding are being referenced in each of these models or, more obviously still, that there is a hermeneutic process of oscillation between belief and practice that underlie each of these models.

The task of the philosopher of religion here is not to reduce these models into one logically-coherent narrative of what takes place in ‘religion’ (there is no religion of course, only religions – and even then, many of what we call ‘religions’ are only inadequately labelled such). Rather, the philosopher of religion must tarry with the richness and diversity of these models without succumbing to reductivism or condescension.

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