Humans are the “mother” of all learners. No other species comes close to being able to learn like us. With the most complex brain and nervous system on the planet, we can do everything from creating a poem to walking on the moon. Truly, we are a wonder and miracle of the life process – yet seldom do we ever come close to realizing this.
We’re also the best creatures when it comes to any type of learning. Unlike most other animals that are “hard wired” with an extensive repertoire of instincts programmed into their DNA, we humans are much less behaviorally programmed. Yes, some things are coded genetically to help us survive as an individual and as a species, but a lot of our survival depends on our ability to learn new things quickly and adapt to an ever changing world. This is particularly important when our world and the things in it constantly change in way we could never predict.
There are various ways and different levels of learning things. Some are simple and some are very difficult and labor intensive. For example, learning the family members of your new neighbor might simply require a few repetitions of their names. On the other hand, learning to skate backwards when ice skating will take a lot more “learning” than watching your instructor demonstrate this skill to you a couple of times. We all know from experience that some learning is easy and some is hard. Whether easy or hard, what you’re learning is the determining factor of its difficulty.
One of the hardest types of learning deals with the development of skills and attitudes. This is because a skill is not just something to remember like a bunch of dates on a history exam, but rather something that has to be incorporated into you at a deeper level. This requires changes in your mind and behavior that are more complex than simple learning tasks. Learning new attitudes and beliefs is even more challenging, for now you must change what has already been learned. These beliefs, ideas, and attitudes may have been repeated and reinforced in our minds countless time for years or even decades. Undoing this is extremely difficult and it requires that we learn in a deeper and more powerful way. This is why trying to change people’s attitudes about ideologies, race, religion, and numerous “en-grained” beliefs is so difficult. Changing people at their “core” is not easy and frequently fails.
Contrast simple types of learning with more complex types such as learning to play tennis. In tennis, you not only have to learn how to hold the racket but must learn how to swing it so that is properly hits the ball and lands in the other side of the court. Learning this skill means a lot of practice. Practice in swinging the tennis racket. Practice holding the racket properly. Practice watching the full trajectory of the ball. Practice on how hard to hit the ball (when you can). All of this “stuff” needs to be learned if you want to play tennis. Learning tennis is something you practice a lot and work with its many elements from different perspectives until it “grows” on you.
So…. what’s all this got to do with Buddha and his teachings? Simple. Knowing what the Buddha said is not the same as doing what the Buddha taught or making his teachings a part of you at some core level of your being. Knowing and doing ain’t the same. Even doing something that you think you should do is different than doing something that originates from your “soul” or inner core. This means that simply learning what Buddha said is not going to make you a little Buddha. Learning his teachings can be the first step, but it is not what you need if you want to “practice” his teachings from the “inside out.” I guess it’s like watching a video of someone playing tennis and then expecting to go out on the court and play a few games when the video is over. Learning to be like Buddha doesn’t work this way. I think you need to “work” and “re-work” his teaching continuously within you until it becomes you. This is hard –very hard. But I believe it is the primary way that Buddha’s teaching truly become your and resonate with your true Buddha Nature.
So where does this leave us? Simple memory learning gives us the facts of Buddha’s teaching (the stories, anecdotes, doctrines, and sutras). But how do we take this information and move it to the next level of our learning and understanding? In other words, how do we incorporate his teaching into our gut – into our being? This I think is THE big challenge of learning “the way of Buddha. Basically, how do you make his teachings yours? How do you take his knowledge and wisdom and make it a part of you without it being simply a “cognitive exercise” or a “Simon Says” activity? How do you make his perspectives and understandings a genuine part of you? How do you get this stuff down in your gut so you can say that you understand his teachings at a truly “gut level?” This is the real and authentic goal of true Buddhism. This is also the rub….this is the problem….this is the challenge!!