I’m a big reader. I have been since I can remember. I was first introduced to Buddhist meditation via a book, as many people are. My parents gave me a copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. I read it and really enjoyed it. I liked the ideas, but I really didn’t apply them in my own life. My experience with Buddhism carried on like that for years. I read quite a bit, but rarely meditated or incorporated any other practice.
Reading really planted the seed for me. Although it took years for the seed to sprout into anything, I’m very grateful for my passionate reading. When I did come to practice, I had some understanding of the teachings. I knew the basics, and when teachers gave talks I could follow along. However, reading was absolutely not a substitute for personal practice. I still read a lot of Buddhist literature today, but I’ve found the importance of actually practicing and investigating the teachings for myself.
The Buddha once said if he is pointing to the moon, to not mistake his finger for the moon. We can’t just hear or read the teachings. We must have our own experience of the teachings (or the moon). Reading is a great way to learn, but Buddhism and meditation rely on actual practice. There is a huge difference between understanding something we read in a book and knowing it in our own experience. We gain insight through meditation practice, hence the name “insight meditation.”
When we sit in meditation, our knowledge from reading may be beneficial. When we read, our experience in practice may help clarify what we’re reading. They work very well together. In my experience, they can be quite mutually beneficial. But we do need the practice portion. Although the teachings are wise and helpful, it’s simply not experiencing it for ourselves.