The Balance Between Dhamma and Meditation

I’m a Christian who follows the Franciscan tradition.

I’m trying to understand the role of texts in the Buddhist tradition.

As an external observer it seems to me that there are some significant differences in the importance given to study of scriptures between Zen and other schools of Buddhism. Is this the case? Or do I have this completely wrong?

I’m also exploring the idea that some of us are naturally drawn to study and application of the mind, whilst others are passionate about contemplation, emptying of the mind.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.


I can’t speak to your question about Zen Buddhism as it is not my specialty at all, but here I can say that there are many early Buddhist texts that recommend both learning (‘bahussuto hoti’) and mastering deep meditation (4 jhanas and so on).

Back in the Buddha’s days learning meant basically reciting the texts to learn them by heart or engaging in series of questions and answers. This was because writing was not yet widely used, especially not for religious purposes. Nowadays the situation is quite different since it was decided at some point that the language of the texts (Pali) should remain as it was and stop evolving to avoid detetioration. The situation is quite similar with Latin for Christians, except it is generally believed that Pali is closer to the language the Buddha spoke than Latin is to Jesus Christ’s. So people who want to be knowledgeable have to learn all the declensions, conjugations and so on. Plus there has been some developments on the theoretical side (Abhidhamma etc.) that give yet more opportunities for intellectual entertainment.

But there have been various trends, some going all the way into deep, complex studies, some on the contrary rejecting them and focusing on the practical aspects, and some recommending a mixture of both.

Note that I am here talking only about the Theravada tradition, as I am not knowledgeable enough in other branches of Buddhism to comment on them.

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Welcome IanG. I also have the same impression.

With the Early Buddhist Texts (EBTs/Pali suttas), an important starting point is knowing these texts contain two types of teachings: (i) supramundane or transcendent teachings; and (ii) worldly or meritorious teachings. The word ‘supramundane’ is from the Pali ‘lokuttara’, which means ‘above/beyond the world’; similar to the New Testament teachings about transcending the world.

Therefore, to discuss your inquiry, I assume we should set aside the worldly/meritorious texts and only focus in the supramundane/transcendent texts. In other words, if we restrict the other schools to supramundane texts; then they can be compared to Zen.

To take a ‘middle’ position, the supramundane texts are for knowing how to empty the mind. However, once the mind is empty, this state can be fraught with ‘bright delusion’. Therefore, the EBTs help direct the mind towards avoiding this bright delusion and discerning reality more accurately, in finer detail.

For me, this is the difference between the Teaching of the Buddha and Zen/Mahayana. At least for me, Zen/Mahayana contain at least two perverted doctrines of emptiness: (i) non-conceptuality; and (ii) non-duality. This doctrines arise from ‘bright delusion’, which is similar to the blindness from looking into the sun. In the Buddha’s EBTs, the doctrine of ‘emptiness’ merely refers to the mind empty of ‘self-views’ rather than empty of concepts & empty of dualism. If Zen emptiness means empty of concepts/thought & if Zen emptiness is Zen enlightenment then such ‘enlightenment’ can never be permanent therefore it cannot be true enlightenment. :slightly_smiling_face:


Welcome, IanG. :slightly_smiling_face:

Having practiced Zen for many years before moving to a practice based on the early Buddhist texts (EBTs), some reflections are offered:

  • Zen practitioners and teachers acknowledge the Pali Canon as legitimate, but believe the later Mahayana Sutras and teachings supersede many of the earlier teachings. Or, at least, that the later texts and teachings necessarily expand upon them.

  • Sutras/texts that are revered in the Zen tradition include the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and the Vimalakirti sutra, for example. Scholars believe these sutras (as they’re called in the Mahayana, rather than the Pāli, suttas), were written 400-500 years after the life of the Buddha. Theravadin practitioners and those who follow the EBTs may respect these texts, but there are several profound doctrinal differences between the EBTs and the Mahayana teachings. Won’t go into the differences here…but, as an aside, were the reason this person chose to leave the Mahayana for a practice based on the EBTs.

  • In Zen, emphasis is placed on direct experience while minimizing the application of discussion and thoughtful contemplation. This applies to the teachings in the EBTs too, at least to some extent, although the Buddha included thoughtful discussion and reflection on the Dhamma as skillful – as long as it was followed up and grounded in actual daily practice, including insight meditative techniques, cultivation of the Brahmaviharas, like loving-friendliness, and jhana. So, a matter of emphasis and de-emphasis in these traditions.

  • Texts in all forms of Buddhism are inspirational, instructional, expound on core doctrinal teachings, and can serve as a basis for chanting and devotion, amongst other things.
    However, contrary to the texts of the Abrahamic religions, they are not dogmas that cite the words and commandments of a deity as the basis of their authority. They are expressions of the Buddha’s teachings based on his direct realization of, and teachings about, dukkha (suffering, let’s say), and the utter cessation of suffering. The Buddha never claimed to be an all-knowing, all-powerful deity – exceptional as he was.

Hope this is helpful! :pray:


I think the Buddha’s intention was to emphasize meditation. I think this is clear in what is arguably the oldest of scriptures. Unfortunately, I think institutions need big narratives and who doesn’t like to leave their mark by adding commentary and other “improvements”.

Less is more with dharma. I try to keep Snp 4.2 and Snp 4.3 at the center of my practice now. IMHO a great deal of the canon is a distraction and obscures what is important.

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Tension between those who emphasize Dhamma learning and those who emphasize meditation practice is mentioned in AN 6.46 where it is said that monks who learn Dhamma disparage monks who practise meditation and vice versa. This cause both sides are not inspired and they are said not acting for happiness and welfare of many people. So Ven. Mahacunda here adviced both should praise each other…


Study is essentially fruitless without practice. I mean, you can become a valuable resource of information, and even become well-known for it, but if you aren’t putting forth any actual effort to become the Dhamma, nothing will change for you. Even in the case of AN 6.46 above, both “types” of monastics are putting forth effort - neither has halted at theory alone.

In the same way, meditation is fruitless without virtue. If your conduct is not generating an ongoing supply of non-regret (avippaṭisāra), there is no basis for mindfulness, not to mention, samadhi (AN 10.1-5). Too often meditation is employed to bring calm, but if there is no virtue, no amount of sitting will ever bring what is truly valuable. Virtue is the basis for joy, happiness and tranquility, but many modern notions of meditation would put that order in reverse. The choice to avoid bad conduct, practice restraint, and learning to make use of the resulting renunciation - that is the basis for calm.

So, while there are many different approaches to this balance, the non-negotiable factor is virtue, and eventually restraint and mindfulness, if any significant development is to be expected. This is what those inclined towards contemplation will always have in common with those inclined towards samadhi.

More generally speaking, however, it comes down to one’s level of involvement. For some, mere affiliation is more than enough to remain inspired and satisfied. For others, more needs to be on the line in order for things to move. Depending on where you stand will determine how far you push, and how that balance is arranged. In short, you have to have a firm theoretical basis prior to making your effort, but the former does not imply the latter. At some point there needs to be a departure; the intentional choice to begin to rely on faith that what you’ve understood is worth the effort that will be required to discern it. That is why the Buddha said that the Dhamma is not developed by “mere reason” (MN 26) - after a reasonable understanding has been reached, repeated effort must follow.



My patron saint, St. Francis, wouldn’t allow his Brothers to have any books other than the Gospels. Instead he directed his followers to learning through doing - social action and meditation/prayer.

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Thank you for your reply which I found very interesting. Your division of teachings into supra-mundane and worldly was very helpful.

A small point I need to clarify - are you saying that the Zen concept of monism is not universal in Buddhism?

Please forgive my ignorance - I am just starting to piece together various strands which I have picked up from friends and reading.

Thank you all for your kind and helpful replies.

It seems that, like in my own tradition, the ideal is to find a balance between thought and contemplation, respecting the value of both.

In spiritual direction we use something called the spirituality wheel, a circle which is divided into four quadrants - head spirituality, fed by study and teaching; heart spirituality nurtured through music and spontaneous expression; mystical spirituality, which is supported by meditation and silent retreats; and social action spirituality, where connection with God through service and justice seeking.

Our work is the integration of the opposite quadrant and finding a balance across all four quadrants.

I wonder if this has parallels in Buddhism?


Thank you. I found your reply very helpful.

I think your point about the Abrahamic faiths use of dogma linked to the authority of a deity is a good one.

I may be wrong, but I have come to the conclusion that this evolved as a form of social control. People in the West these days are very individualistic and the thought of social control is anathema to many. Yet all societies need some form of social control to prevent anarchy.

My understanding (as explained by my wife who is Chinese) is that in many Asian countries it is Confucian philosophy which exerts social control through the family hierarchy and obedience to elected leaders. We have also discussed the difference between shame based cultures and guilt based cultures.

I don’t think there’s any value in trying to argue which is better - I simply believe they are alternative approaches to achieving the same ends.

Any thoughts?

Perhaps. Not being a sociologist or political philosopher, I’ll pass on delving into this except to offer that, of course, human groups tend to remain more stable when existing within agreed upon rules and regulations. Heck, this also applies to partners and friendships.

imho, it’s a matter of intention:

In some groups/societies these are developed and used coercively to allow a select few to retain control over the many.

In others, they function more as skillful ways for everyone to interact for the benefit of the group and the group’s purpose. This is closer to the way the rules regarding Buddhist monks and nuns were developed and how they are currently employed.

The Buddha never coerced or spiritually threatened anyone. He offered a Path to the ending of suffering, opened the gates to the Path, so to speak, and invited whoever wished to follow the Path to walk it. If folks decided to turn away or leave the group that was up to them. Same as now.

Yes, Ian. Indeed I am saying this. For example, the following is a Pali view of enlightenment but not necessarily “monism” or “oneness”:

  1. What are called “people” or “beings” (“satta”) are merely five aggregates (SN 23.2; SN 5.10).
  2. Merely comprised of five aggregates (SN 22.48), this is not-self (anatta; SN 22.59); mere natural elements (dhatu; MN 115).
  3. However, each set of not-self five aggregates have different qualities, virtues & dispositions; “beings” are conventionally defined differently by their acts (MN 98). The Pali Suttas even say different fully enlightened disciples have different qualities (SN 14.15).
  4. Having different qualities is a “dualism” or non-monism.
  5. Also, the Pali literally says there are “internal” & “external” sense organs & sense objects (MN 148; SN 12.19). There are countless supramundane suttas referring to ‘(conventional) self vs other’ (SN 47.19).

Therefore, if we read the Pali suttas, the Buddha himself engaged in a high level of attributing descriptions of things & differentiating between things. When the mind is free from greed, hatred & self-delusion, it can engage in dualistic conceptual activities when required without suffering.

In summary, the above reflects two experiences of “emptiness”. The true Pali experience of emptiness is discerning the absence of ‘self’ in things. The false Zen experience of emptiness is the mind empty of concepts, which in Pali would be considered a form of ‘samadhi’ (‘concentration’) rather than a form of ‘insight’ (‘panna’). :slightly_smiling_face:

Hello SDC. I doubt non-practice can co-exist with becoming a valuable source of information. In the context of AN 6.46, I imagine those monks who were teaching monks merely strictly repeated what the Buddha taught them. Today, the Buddha is not here with us for sutta study.

Similarly, as I already mentioned when referring to ‘bright delusion’, reasonable practice without studying will result in perversions of insight, such as the common mind-only solipsism. :slightly_smiling_face:


I have never heard a Confucian say this. Real Confucianism is something that a person practises and internalises, not something that is imposed on one by society. It is not possible to be a Confucian simply by living in a particular social or political structure. I would recommend “Confucius from the Heart” by Yu Dan of Beijing Normal University as an excellent English language Confucian primer. It had been a best seller in China.

The goal of Confucianism is to become something: a jūn zǐ, or refined person. While normally translated as “gentleman”, Yu Dan stress that this term is gender neutral. It is a cultivation of the heart. See Junzi - Wikipedia.

To be a refined person, one must have a particular quality, rén, i.e. benevolence, empathy or altruism. Confucius’s disciple, Mencius, believed in the innate goodness of humanity, which Mencius argued consisted of the fact that all normal adults would help a child who had fallen in a well- we all have sprouts of goodness. Nurturing these “sprouts of goodness” is a theme in Mencius’ philosophy, which he develops as an education in altruism, i.e. rén.

The social aspects of Confucianism come from a basis of being a good person. Later Confucians, like Mencius, saw each of the five Confucian social relations as an opportunity for the cultivation of particular qualities. For example, affection between parents and children, uprightness between ruler and subjects, differentiation between husband and wife, precedence between siblings, and honesty between friends. Later, in the 19th century, this schema was altered to stress loyalty and filial piety to the state. There are different versions: and yes, Confucians are aware that there is also affection between couples.

Some time ago, I was given a bookmark with a quote in classical Chinese from “The Imperial Standard for Governing the World”. It stated that if family members don’t treat each other with respect, there will be no-one to help when the need arises. To me, that isn’t about social control as much as bringing our attention away from our own egotism to awareness of the needs of the needs of others and the consequences of selfishness.

A person who has fallen prey to ego is called a xiăorén, or petty person. The consequences of petty selfishness in Confucianism, a relentlessly secular philosophy, aren’t hell or damnation. They are just that a person condemns themselves to a self centred and socially impoverished life which is awkward and out of step with their moral inheritance as a human being- they lack (etiquette) and (harmony). When they find that in turn that is they themselves who need help, nobody is there.

I am not a Confucian myself. From time to time in history, the fake Confucian intellectual elite has persecuted Buddhism in Asia. But I personally think a world without any Confucian values would be lonely, cold and miserable.


Thank you Suvira.

I am trying to gain a better understanding of this so thank you for your help.

I am very interested in how Buddhism works within a moral and spiritual framework alongside Confucianism, Daoism and folk religion,

Firstly, I think social ‘control’ may be putting things too strongly. Would a better term be social ‘order’?

My understanding from my wife, who is Hong Kong Chinese, is that behaviour is moderated by the head of the household, the father. Bad behaviour brings shame on the father, the family, and ancestors or the family name.

She grew up in public housing in Hong Kong, and tells stories of being made to stand outside the apartment so that all the neighbours would know that she had been naughty and had been temporarily banished from the family. She also recounts stories of being made to stand in front of their shrine at home and apologise to ancestors.

So it seems that shame for having been inconsiderate and selfish are big motivators in their family.That is how young people are shaped.

We have a good laugh about this. She tells me she was very naughty :joy:.

As you can imagine I have a very simple understanding of Confucianism, but it seems to me that Confucius placed great emphasis on the well being and orderliness of the family unit, and that the family unit was the building block for a well functioning society.

Thanks again for your help.


I didn’t associate the informational type with either case described in AN 6.46. Both types of monastics there were practicing rightly, and the dhammayoga type monks could hardly be described as only studying and gathering information.

To clarify, just because something is “of value”, does not imply it is on the level of invaluable Dhamma knowledge. I’m sure you value the person who can repair your bike and/or the manufacturer that produces bike repair tools. There are, without a doubt, people on the scene who possess valuable information that we can use as tools to pursue Dhamma even though they may not have much practical advice to offer in terms of development. Some of which even you’ve quoted here and elsewhere. I’ll leave it to you to decider who I’m referring to. :slightly_smiling_face:

I didn’t gain the above impression. The missionary monks were accused of: "excitable, boisterous, unsteady, mouthy, loose in their talk, muddled in their mindfulness, unalert, unconcentrated, their minds wandering, their senses uncontrolled ". While the sutta ends with the diplomatic praise: “gambhīraṁ atthapadaṁ paññāya ativijjha passantī: see the meaning of a deep saying with penetrating wisdom”, at least MN 95 says this stage is “not yet the arrival at the truth”.

The conclusion where both are practicing rightly and each have legitimate reasons to be praised:

So you should train like this: ‘As mendicants who practice discernment of principles, we will praise mendicants who practice absorption meditation.’ That’s how you should train. Why is that? Because it’s incredibly rare to find individuals in the world who have direct meditative experience of the deathless element.

So you should train like this: ‘As mendicants who practice absorption meditation, we will praise mendicants who practice discernment of principles.’ That’s how you should train. Why is that? Because it’s incredibly rare to find individuals in the world who see the meaning of a deep saying with penetrating wisdom.”

Merely pleasant speech to me by the big boss Venerable Mahācunda; keeping the missionary monks feel valued. The jhana monks touched the dhamma with their body. Per the progressive steps in MN 95, the missionary monks possibly have not yet arrived at final truth. :slightly_smiling_face:

Next, they place faith in them. When faith has arisen they approach the teacher. They pay homage, lend an ear, hear the teachings, remember the teachings, reflect on their meaning, and accept them after consideration. Then enthusiasm springs up; they make an effort, weigh up, and persevere. Persevering, they directly realize the ultimate truth, and see it with penetrating wisdom.

atha tamhi saddhaṁ niveseti, saddhājāto upasaṅkamati, upasaṅkamanto payirupāsati, payirupāsanto sotaṁ odahati, ohitasoto dhammaṁ suṇāti, sutvā dhammaṁ dhāreti, dhatānaṁ dhammānaṁ atthaṁ upaparikkhati, atthaṁ upaparikkhato dhammā nijjhānaṁ khamanti, dhammanijjhānakkhantiyā sati chando jāyati, chandajāto ussahati, ussahitvā tuleti, tulayitvā padahati, pahitatto samāno kāyena ceva paramasaccaṁ sacchikaroti paññāya ca naṁ ativijjha passati.

But Master Gotama, how do you define the arrival at the truth?”

Kittāvatā pana, bho gotama, saccānuppatti hoti, kittāvatā saccamanupāpuṇāti?
Saccānuppattiṁ mayaṁ bhavantaṁ gotamaṁ pucchāmā”ti.

“By the cultivation, development, and making much of these very same things there is the arrival at the truth.

“Tesaṁyeva, bhāradvāja, dhammānaṁ āsevanā bhāvanā bahulīkammaṁ saccānuppatti hoti.

MN 95

Doesn’t sound like a “missionary” monk to me.