Is special knowledge and advanced learning required to practice Buddhism?This is an ambiguous question that can easily cause confusion. First of all, we basically agree with Confucius’ saying, “People can be taught to act, but not necessarily to understand.” This implies that ordinary people, especially those who are not too knowledgeable, are more likely to follow simple instructions on a single subject, practice diligently, and gain great benefit. Therefore, people who are limited in learning, or are even illiterate, can indeed benefit from learning Dharma. Master Huineng (638–713) is a good example; according to legend, he was a woodcutter who never received any formal education, and yet ultimately became the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School of Chinese Buddhism. But based on the content of the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch and research by scholars, although Huineng was not a learned scholar, he could not have been illiterate. Moreover, if illiterate, he would be the only illiterate master in the history of Chinese Buddhism to become patriarch of a school with such far-reaching impact.
From Shakyamuni Buddha to the later patriarchs in China, there were many learned scholars with comprehensive knowledge and inner understanding of the five learnings (Skt. pancavidya) of language, logic, medicine, arts and crafts, and spirituality. Very intelligent people do not need formal education or specific cultural training; they have a natural ability to understand, and when they grasp one thing, they will grasp many other things. They can grasp the underlying principle and have a thorough understanding of the whole; so, they do not need to seek the unifying principle through separate studies of the myriad individual objects and phenomena. It is as Master Yongjia (665–713) claimed in his “Song of Enlightenment”: “[To sever the roots of karma]…no point searching for branches or plucking leaves,” and “I only made trouble for myself counting the sands in the sea.” This is to stress that understanding the fundamental principle can solve a hundred other problems; there is no need to frivolously split hairs. To study the Dharma is to understand the principles and the bases; to emulate the Buddha is to unveil one’s true nature in buddhahood. Therefore, studying the Dharma does not require knowledge and high learning. Yet, even after realizing one’s nature and achieving enlightenment, one should still be fully equipped with knowledge of the Dharma and the sutras, and to continue to enhance one’s knowledge, a vehicle for benefitting sentient beings.
People of moderate intellect need to follow the Dharma and the sutras, and visit and learn from enlightened masters to acquire the principles and direction for their practice; otherwise it would be like a person groping around in the dark. Before finding an enlightened master or after meeting one, one should use the Dharma and the sutras as the basis to know if the teacher is qualified. If the teacher follows the Dharma and sutras, delves deeply into the principles of Dharma, and thoroughly understands its meanings, then they would be a good teacher. If a person vilifies the Three Jewels and the patriarchs and great masters, or interprets the Dharma and the sutras based on their own speculations and experiences, they would be not a good teacher or even be a depraved one.
Therefore, if you don’t yet know how to identify a good teacher, you should first study the sutras extensively and have a correct understanding of the Dharma before looking for one. A good teacher can enhance your study and practice by inspiring you in a critical manner, much like the way an artist brings a picture of dragon to life by a special touching up of its eyes. If the master can give you timely guidance, resolving the myriad questions you have accumulated with some critical words, then that teacher is right for you. If you visit a master when you have no knowledge of Dharma, you would likely consider the master an ordinary person. If you already have a good understanding of the Dharma, even if you fail to find a teacher after traveling all over the world, you will be still on the right track without going astray. As long as you stay on the right path, what you need is to gradually chip off the layers of preconceptions and the ignorance in your mind. It may take some time through the dark tunnel to see the light, figuratively speaking, but you are still in a better and safer place than following an unqualified teacher.
For people who due to time constraints and circumstances, mainly practice reciting the Buddha’s name, it is sufficient to practice reciting “Namo Amituofo” (“Homage to Amitabha”). However, generations of patriarchs and great masters in the past, such as Huiyuan (334–416) at Lushan, as well as Tanluan (476–542) of the Northern Wei Dynasty; Daochuo (562–645), Shandao (613–681) and Jiacai (d.u.) of the Tang Dynasty; Lianchi (1535–1615) and Ouyi (1599–1655) of the late Ming Dynasty; and Yinguang (1861–1941) of the early Chinese Republic, were all well-learned in Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and were profound thinkers in Buddhist history. How can we say that it is enough to only chant the Buddha’s name, without the need to study the Dharma and the sutras? How do we know that just chanting would lead us to the Pure Land without understanding the principles and meanings of Dharma? And how many kinds of Pure Land are out there?
Although people of most modest intellectual capacity may indeed just follow instructions without being able to ask deep questions, it is important for those who are intellectually curious, and who frequently help others study, practice, and believe in the Dharma, to understand its principles and meaning. If one does not understand the Dharma and the sutras, how could one influence others? It would be like the blind leading blind, practicing in the dark without direction, not knowing right from wrong, without a clear mind, or with an impure purpose. How would this kind of practice benefit oneself and others, while enabling one to attain rebirth in the Pure Land?
Whether one is meditating, chanting, or practicing an esoteric or ordinary method, one should do it with concentration. It would be distracting to contemplate the Dharma and sutras while engaging in meditative practices, nor should one constantly reflect on the Dharma to check on one’s practice; these would be diversions and obstacles. Studying sutras, however, is essential to identifying and clarifying direction and goals before starting the practice, and to confirming if one is on the right track and is ready to guide others.