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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > Approaches to the Dharma – Intellectual, Emotional, and Devotional

Approaches to the Dharma –
Intellectual, Emotional, and Devotional

Alexander Berzin, October 2001

Three Approaches

Some people in the West come to Dharma

  • to satisfy their wish for exotica,
  • for miracle cures,
  • to be trendy,
  • to get high on the charisma of an entertaining teacher, like a "Dharma junkie,"
  • even if they start in one of these ways, for sincere interest in what Dharma has to offer.

Even if we wish at first simply to gain information, there are three different approaches to the Dharma:

  1. intellectual,
  2. emotional,
  3. devotional.

Which one or ones we follow depends on

  • the spiritual teacher,
  • what and how he or she teaches,
  • culture,
  • individual inclination.

Each of the three approaches can be mature or immature from a Dharma point of view.

Intellectual

Those who have an immature intellectual approach are often fascinated with the beauty of the Buddhist systems. They want to learn the facts and intricacies of the philosophy and psychology, in a sense, to get "high" on them, but they do not integrate the teachings into themselves or feel anything. Such persons are often the insensitive types or have emotional blocks.

Those with a mature intellectual approach learn the intricacies and details of the Dharma so that they can more fully understand the teachings and can integrate and apply them correctly.

Emotional

With an immature emotional approach, people want to meditate merely to calm down or to feel good, such as meditating on love toward everyone. Such persons typically want to look at only the "nice" parts of Dharma, not at suffering, worse rebirths, the filthiness of the insides of the body, and so on. They neither want to recognize nor to work on ridding themselves of disturbing emotions and attitudes, and they have little understanding of the teachings. Such persons tend to be the overemotional, oversensitive types.

Those with a mature emotional approach work with their emotions to rid themselves of the disturbing ones and to enhance the positive ones.

Devotional

An immature devotional approach thinks how wonderful the Buddhas, Buddha-figures, and teachers are and how lowly I am. Thus, persons with this approach pray for help from them, as if to Buddhist "saints," and do not want to take responsibility for their own developments.

Those with a mature devotional approach attend and perform rituals to gain inspiration to work on themselves.

Balancing the Three

We need to balance all three approaches, so that we understand the Dharma, feel something on an emotional level, and gain inspiration.

For example, emotional persons need to learn the intellectual approach. To do this, they need to realize that when, for instance, they do not feel like loving others, they can work themselves up to feeling love by understanding and relying on a line of reasoning.

Intellectual persons need to learn the emotional approach. To do this, they need to realize that their mental tightness leaves them cold and this makes not only others, but even themselves feel uncomfortable. Thus, they need to quiet down to access their natural warmth.

Nondevotional persons need to learn the devotion approach. To do this, they need to realize that they need to be able to develop energy when they are feeling low.

Devotional persons, on the other hand, need to grow intellectually. To do this, they need to realize that when they cannot understand what is happening in life, they need more than comfort and uplifting from ritual.

The Three Approaches and Ritual

For emotional types, ritual gives expression and form to feeling.

For intellectual types, ritual gives regularity and a sense of continuity. Also, engaging in rituals before gaining understanding, as when reciting a tantric sadhana practice in Tibetan when not knowing the language, lowers arrogance. That arrogance often takes the form of "I am not going to practice anything, unless you explain it to me and I understand it."

In Relating to a Spiritual Teacher

We may have each of the three approaches to our spiritual teachers in an immature or mature manner.

In an immature manner, intellectual types argue with their teachers; emotional types fall in love with them; and devotional types become mindless slaves, wanting their teachers to tell them what to do and think.

In a mature manner, intellectual types find their teachers intellectually stimulating and challenging; emotional types find them emotionally moving; and devotional types find them inspiring.

Mature persons may have a balance of all three approaches whether practicing "Dharma-Lite" (watered-down, provisional Dharma) for this lifetime alone, or "The Real Thing" Dharma (authentic traditional Dharma) for liberation from rebirth and enlightenment.

[See: "Dharma-Lite" Versus "The Real Thing" Dharma.]