This is the second part of a series of posts on theory and practice. If you haven’t already, you might want to start with part one. Click here to access it.
Seeing Buddhism and spirituality evaluated through a wider lens can help a practitioner to open up the Buddhist Sufficiency bubble and peek outside onto vast vistas of opportunities to grow and mature one’s idea of practice: although potentially destabilising, it is a liberating act and highly recommended. Before we proceed in that direction, it might be worth starting this section proper by reviewing some of the common meanings associated with the terms theory and practice. Depending on where you look, each can carry a good deal of additional and more precise meanings and no doubt many useful applications of the terms will be left out below. Though theory is used slightly differently in the humanities or the sciences each way can be related to one’s own practice and theoretical assumptions, so there is plenty of ripe ground for exploration. We can also tailor such terms to fit specifically to Buddhism. In consulting several dictionaries, we can find a wide range of useful definitions offered. You might like to read through the list and apply each to your own sense of Buddhism. Each of these definitions can be used to unlock a practice or theory and provide a simple means for gaining space from what may be a very personal and intimate thought or habit.
1. practical action
2. action geared towards change
3. the actual application or use of an idea
4. contemplation of belief, ideas or methods
5. the embodiment or enacting of theory
6. the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing something
7. repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it
2. a set of ideas
3. abstract or generalised thinking
4. the outcome of the process of thought
5. a body of knowledge
6. a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based
7. speculative understanding
8. an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action
9. an analytical tool for understanding and making predictions about specific matters
10. a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained
I will apply the terms more specifically to Buddhism below, but if we were to simplify the two terms dramatically for a moment, we might simply say that;
Practice is what you do.
Theory is what you think and believe about what you do.
These simplifications are workable as reset points, but although a simplistic definition is desirable, to stop there would be to miss out on a richer understanding of the roles these two play in our relationship with Buddhism, or spirituality.
Performing Buddhism, Performing Identity
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…”
(Shakespeare, via Edwardes, via Petronius)
There is an associated meaning left out by the dictionary definitions above that is of great importance: the notion of practice as performance. Performance is evident in the ritualised nature of sitting meditation, tantric practices or dharma centre behaviour, to name a few. Practice is additionally the repeated identification with a style of being (i.e. equanimous, compassionate, caring, concentrated) and the navigation of identities (i.e. Dzogchen practitioner, Zen Buddhist, non-Buddhist). Do we identify as Buddhist? Are we engaging with Buddhist practices but refuse that label? Either way, an identity is being practiced: “I am this, I am not that, and I know this because of X.”