Monthly Archives: December 2015

Scholarship as Spiritual Practice

In my own path as a scholar, I’ve come upon the challenges of integrating spirituality and scholarship. This is both because I’m in a spiritually-oriented graduate program 1, and because my own interest in spirituality entails bringing spiritual practice to all aspects of life.2 This essay is just some of my reflections on scholarship as a spiritual path, and how that is distinct from a more conventional sense of scholarship. I’ve come across a little of what others have written on this topic before 3 4, but here’s what I have to offer.

Three Main Qualities

Humility

One of the most important aspects of my own spiritual development through scholarship is a sense of humility. Through exposure to others’ scholarly work, I see the fruits of thousands of minds through the centuries and understand the smallness and simplicity of my place in that community. In attempting to encompass that vastness of mind, heart, and effort through activities such as literature reviews, critical engagement, and simply pulling the threads on the books and articles I read, I begin to understand the vastness of scholarship, the limitless potential of the mind, and the inconceivable variety of creativity in the universe. By recognizing my own limitations, and in particular my incapacity to intellectually encompass all those ideas (or even just the ideas in one literature review), I cultivate humility and begin to reckon with how to work with my own limitations.
Humility also comes through seeing where my own skills and discipline are lacking, and how much more development my ideas need to pass muster. So many of the skills of scholarship are built upon earlier foundations of reading, writing, and critical thinking, so anywhere my development has skipped a few steps, I need to go back and trace over them to make sure they’re okay. Even where my foundational skills are strong, there’s much more to learn in terms of managing larger projects, sifting through bigger piles of data, and finding my own voice and location in relation to these many realms. In this sense, scholarship and professionalization by doing is where it’s really at— doing the slow, hard work of building my skills by finding my growth edges and engaging them. There is a toilsome quality to this that is humbling, engaging, and wholesome.

Integrity

Being true to myself, true to the ideas, and true to knowledge are essential points of scholarly integrity. In this sense, scholarship echoes and embodies the spiritual path. Scholarly work requires a commitment to truth and knowledge, both for its own sake and in relation to the values it embodies and enacts. Rather than a supposedly values-free science, scholarship as spiritual path demands engagement with values and ethics, and the continual searching out of new value formulations and scholarly embodiments of that. A living spirituality implies an ongoing evaluation and evolution of ethics, and a penetration of deeper meaning and values in a lifetime of service. Scholarship can be one form of that service, and for it to be so demands ongoing integrity to the process of bringing forth that which flows from one’s spiritual values.
Integrity also demands being true to oneself, as an embodiment of spirituality and a living spiritual process. Knowing one’s own limits and preferences, trusting oneself, and yet being willing to go beyond one’s limits and preconceptions— these are paradoxical demands of integrity to oneself.
Integrity towards the ideas means not twisting other’s ideas to serve one’s own interpretations, but meeting them with a fresh gaze and on their own terms. This is similar to Gadamer’s hermeneutics5– we will always bring our perspective and our interpretation, but if we are to have integrity, we must still approach the voice of a text in terms of what that voice might want to convey, in a process of honest conversation. Such an approach is also valid on the spiritual path— meeting texts, practices, and sources of spiritual authority requires a similar kind of integrity.

Honesty

If we are honest with ourselves, we don’t have any idea what is going on, but we are still going to give it our best shot. For me, this message is existentially accurate, and also comes from the lived experience of doing scholarship and training in being an academic. The entire process of writing a dissertation (and I am only at the proposal stage!) seems to be an exercise in not-knowing, and in having to face up to one’s own truths and demons about knowledge, discipline, integrity, community, and working with others. In this sense, the scholarly process can be one of unmasking— seeing oneself more clearly as one is, seeing the world more as it is. Rather than hiding behind ideas or rote knowledge, there can be an ongoing engagement with the scholarly process in a way that is radically honest— about not-knowing as well as one’s own shortcomings.
Honesty also extends to our relationship with others— colleagues, committee members, students, and future readers and consumers of our research. To the degree that we are honest about our intentions and earnest in following through on them, to that degree our posterity will be able to find their own relationship to our ideas and research. By being forthcoming, we ease the way for future generations to make their own way as scholars and spiritual practitioners.

Buddhism More Specifically

This section relates scholarship more specifically to the Buddhist path, although some of what I have to say may well be useful to folks who practice in other traditions.

Acknowledging Conceptual Limitations

A major part of my own path is scholarship is understanding my own conceptual limitations. Knowledge and traditions are so vast that it is inconceivable that a person could master conceptual knowledge. Spiritual and scholarly lineage streams crisscross unendingly, and the orderly genealogical trees in some of our academic and Buddhist lineages belie the complicated and untrackable interaction of thousands of minds upon each other, many of whom might not even make it into the footnotes.
Going beyond conceptual mind is, in some sense, the foundational practice of the Buddhist path— “don’t believe everything you think,” as a popular dharma bumper sticker proclaims. Getting caught in believing in thoughts as real is a big problem, because it traps us in our preconceptions and makes us vulnerable to acting out whatever idea comes along. If we really look at our mind in the way that meditation and other practices train us to, we have to acknowledge that there’s a lot that’s going on that has very little to do with these ideas that swim through like so many minnows shimmering in the light. But to mistake the fish for the ocean is a great misunderstanding; so too to try to use practice to achieve a fishless ocean, a mind without thoughts. Thus, it is not that ideas are limited and therefore they are bad and we should get rid of them, but rather that ideas are merely one aspect of experience or awareness, and we should not mistake ideas or thoughts for all of experience.
Scholarly work also achieves this because the sheer cognitive load of scholarship exhausts the conceptual mind. Doing the heavy lifting of so much reading, writing, and synthesizing can be like lifting weights to exhaustion, and while this strengthens one’s scholarly skills, it can bring that rush of blissful calm that also comes to the gym rat— finally, the exhausted conceptual mind can rest. After a suitable recovery period, it’s time for the next session.

Aspirational Bodhicitta

Scholarship is good training in aspirational bodhicitta— the compassionate wish to be of benefit to all sentient beings. On one hand, the work of scholarly training, continually refining one’s skills and expertise in order to be able to help, is an ongoing practice that can be fueled by this profound wish. On the other hand, scholarship itself is in many ways an aspirational practice. Many scholars never implement their ideas or see concrete projects realized from them; to a large degree, idea generation and research is separate from practice and application in the contemporary organization of scholarship and knowledge production. Insomuch as this is true, scholarship is an aspirational practice, and a good training in aspirational bodhicitta6.

Actually Helping Other Beings

At the same time, many scholarly skills entail developing the capacity to actually help other beings. Clear writing, for example, can convey ideas much better than convoluted prose, but it requires work to develop. In this sense, the writer takes on the task of helping other beings up front, by having the discipline to write well so that others can understand more easily. In this sense, every effort the scholar has made at honing their skills pays off in the present, in presenting ideas clearly and powerfully so that others may benefit. My own academic training, then, is something of an accrual process— development and mastery of skills culminates in greater flexibility and capacity to be of service.
Another traditional aspect of academic work, along with research and teaching, is service. Although service is often less respected by a university’s administration and tenure committees, it is a real opportunity for scholars to put their expertise to work in order to bring benefit. I’m speaking a bit out of my league here, because at this point in my scholarly career I haven’t really engaged in service in this sense. Still, volunteer posts, internships, fellowships, advising student groups, and serving as a community resource in other ways are excellent ways to practice action bodhicitta.
Still another way to actually help other beings is in one’s social world of personal relationships, colleagues, students, and staff. By being a basically kind and nonviolent person one undercuts many of the sources of suffering that arise in the world. Continual scrutiny of and emancipatory practice of engaging with socialized forms of oppression— sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, and all the rest— is a powerful way to benefit beings by confronting the social forces that do harm. Such practice is a continual growth edge, no matter one’s position or stage of development as an emancipatory practitioner, and represents a vital way to be of benefit and reduce harm. Emancipatory practices are applicable in written scholarship, research design, relations with colleagues near and far, and in working with students, staff, faculty, labor decisions, the wider community, and all beings.

Training in the Practice

Training in the practice of scholarship as a spiritual path may benefit from a few key points. (These are written as much as reminders for myself, as well as for what benefit they may bring to you, dear reader.)

Letting Go

Letting go means letting go of a particular outcome, of clinging to a particular idea, or even being in control of the process of scholarship. Letting go means that creativity can occur and new understanding can arise. By holding only to what is known and what we can control, we limit the possibilities of reality and we constrain ourselves only to what is already established. In this we we prevent growth. By letting go of our positions, preferences, and need to know and be in control, it is possible to cultivate wakefulness, openness, and freshness. These are the ground of spiritually engaged scholarship.

Discipline

Discipline refers to habits that develop the skills of scholarly and spiritual development, as well as the habits of mind, body, heart, and spirit that let go of fixed forms and cultivate goodness. Discipline could look like getting up on time, sticking to a daily writing commitment, and maintaining one’s spiritual practice despite the ups and downs of committees and publishing deadlines. Discipline also relates to a sense of decency towards others— not letting one’s own hang-ups and bad moods upset others, but acting intentionally and forthrightly in one’s social sphere.
There is a relationship between letting go and discipline, in that they mutually encourage each other. Trungpa Rinpoche 7 emphasized the sense of letting go within discipline as an ideal process of development in meditation. I believe this logic extends to scholarship as a spiritual practice as well— letting go within discipline brings precision, and discipline within letting go provides rigor which is carefree and without struggle.
Discipline may be the path of scholarship as a spiritual path— both in the sense of cultivating what one wishes to bring about, and in the sense of coming back to letting go and trusting in a spiritual kind of knowing that is quite beyond concept.

Courage

Courage is what develops from letting go and discipline. It is the courage to live one’s values fully, and to confront injustice and oppression. It is related to fearlessness 8, in the sense of going beyond fear. Courage does not mean that fear does not occur, but rather that one is big-hearted enough to welcome fear and then do it anyhow. Courage also means having trust in one’s spiritual practice, that one can find one’s way. When a research project or piece of writing is not going as one planned, courage makes it possible to stay open-minded and big-hearted— rather than contracting and getting small-minded, one can relax and ride the situation, rather than be ridden by it. It also means owning up to one’s mistakes, and being accountable to others.
Courage is the activity of scholarship as a spiritual path— how one manifests one’s values and stays present to things as they are.

Don’t-Know-Mind

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”9

Learning to live the question, rather than search for answers; letting go of what you know, rather than only elaborating upon the known; turning towards the presently knowing openness of immediate experience, rather than clinging to thoughts— these have value. The essence, perhaps (and also, paradoxically, the fruition) of scholarship as a spiritual path is don’t-know-mind, the open empty mind of the beginner, the primordially fresh mind of present-moment wakefulness. Coming into honest relationship with that, having integrity with regard to that, and being humble about oneself in light of that, may be some keys to the spiritual path of scholarship.

Conclusion

I have presented some of my own ideas on scholarship as a spiritual path, based in large part on the inspiration I have received from others. I’d be happy to know more what your findings are, dear reader. Please feel free to get in touch.


  1. The East-West Psychology PhD at the California Institute of Integral Studies 
  2. Secular mindfulness as a ‘spiritual but not religious’ practice, Vajrayana Buddhism, and mahamudra/Dzogchen. 
  3. Simmer-Brown, J. & Grace, F. (Eds.) (2011). Meditation and the classroom: Contemplative pedagogy for religious studies. New York, NY: SUNY Press. 
  4. Ferrer, J. N., Romero, M. T., & Albareda, R. V. (2005). Integral transformative education: A participatory proposal. Journal of Transformative Eduction, 3(4). 
  5. Gadamer, H.-G., Weinsheimer, J., & Marshall, D. G. (2004). Truth and method (2nd, rev. ed). Originally published 1960. New York, NY: Continuum. 
  6. Gyatso, T. (2009). For the benefit of all beings: A commentary on The way of the Bodhisattva. Boston, MA: Shambhala. 
  7. Trungpa, C. T. (2005). The four foundations of mindfulness. In The sanity we are born with: A buddhist approach to psychology (pp. 24–42). Boston, MA: Shambhala. 
  8. Trungpa, C. T. (1984). Shambhala: The sacred path of the warrior. Boston, MA: Shambhala. 
  9. Suzuki, S. (1990). Zen mind, beginner’s mind. Originally published 1977. New York, NY: Weatherhill.