“There are four kinds of people who study.
The highest are those with practice, with understanding, and with realization.
Next are those with understanding, and with realization but without practice.
Next are those with practice and understanding but without realization.
Lowest are those with practice, but without understanding or realization.”
Zen Dawn, J. C. Cleary
Practice, understanding and realisation are all important, but we can deduce from the quote above that of these realisation is the most important. Next in importance is understanding, and least important is practice.
How can this be? How can understanding be more important than practice? Isn’t it often said that an drop of practice is worth an ocean of theory?
Yes, this is also true, but all too often people practice without understanding, and this all too often leads nowhere. I often see so many people who are practicing, practicing, practicing, but they are ignoring the understanding aspect of the teachings. If this is ignored, then the practice often does not lead to ending suffering (although it can). Supplemented with understanding the teachings and how they work, the effectiveness of practice is hugely amplified, hence the third line of the quote above states that practice and understanding (without realisation) is better than practice alone.
Don’t forget, realisation doesn’t require practice. It can happen spontaneously. It can happen through just understanding without practice (see the 2nd line in the quote). It cannot happen through practice alone. Practice can trigger understanding which can in turn trigger realisation and the freedom that comes alongside it, but this rarely happens unless there is a conceptual framework in which practice occurs. This conceptual framework varies from teaching tradition to teaching tradition, but is important for the practices to work most effectively.
So, whatever your chosen ‘path’, strive to practice, but also strive to understand the teachings. In most cases it can be broken down as follows:
Q. What is the aim of practice?
A. To reduce thoughts so the mind becomes more calm and still. This creates the mental space in which things can be seen as they actually are.
Q. What is the aim of understanding?
A. To understand that we do not see things as they really are – this is called delusion or illusion or ignorance. Specifically we have an idea of who we are, a self-concept, that is not based on reality. This self-concept gives rise to egotistical desire which is the cause of unnecessary suffering and is in itself suffering (ie. desire is a subtle form of suffering)
Q. What is realisation?
A. Seeing things as they actually are, specifically seeing that the sense of self that we commonly identify with is not real, and what actually is cannot be spoken of but is always spontaneously expressing and experiencing itself.
Q. What is practice after realisation?
A. This is just realisation. Realisation happening and purifying itself spontaneously. In this sense it is not really a practice. Even when realisation has occurred there can be latent self-centred tendencies and habits that continue, like an electric fan that continues to rotate even when the power has been cut off. Post-realisation practice cuts these off at the root, the naturally arising insight purifies itself. This is post-realisation ‘practice’. It is a practice and is also not a practice.