The Mistake of Studying without Practicing

From Living Dharma by Ajahn Chah

This is a story about a Buddhist monk who had a sharp mind and impressive presentation skills. He gave the impression that he was highly advanced on the spiritual path and even he himself was convinced of that. Fortunately, the Buddha was around to point out his mistake to him.


black and white text print paper

In the time of the Buddha there was a monk known as Tuccho Pothila. Tuccho Pothila was very learned, thoroughly versed in the scriptures and texts. He was so famous that he was revered by people everywhere and had eighteen monasteries under his care. When people heard the name ‘Tuccho Pothila’ they were awe-struck and nobody would dare question anything he taught; so much did they revere his command of the teachings. Tuccho Pothila was one of the Buddha’s most learned disciples.

One day he went to pay respects to the Buddha. As he was paying his respects, the Buddha said, ‘Ah, hello, Venerable Empty Scripture!’ Just like that! They conversed for a while until it was time to go, and then, as he was taking leave of the Buddha, the Buddha said, ‘Oh, leaving now, Venerable Empty Scripture?’

That was all the Buddha said. On arriving, ‘Oh, hello, Venerable Empty Scripture.’ When it was time to go, ‘Ah, leaving now, Venerable Empty Scripture?’ The Buddha didn’t expand on it, that was all the teaching he gave. Tuccho Pothila, the eminent teacher, was puzzled, ‘Why did the Buddha say that? What did he mean?’ He thought and thought, turning over everything he had learned, until eventually he realized, ‘It’s true! Venerable Empty Scripture – a monk who studies but doesn’t practice.’

When he looked into his heart he saw that really he was no different from laypeople. Whatever they aspired to, he also aspired to; whatever they enjoyed he also enjoyed. There was no real ‘samaṇa’[1] within him, no truly profound quality capable of firmly establishing him in the Noble Way and providing true peace.

So he decided to practice. But there was nowhere for him to go to. All the teachers around were his own students, no-one would dare accept him. Usually when people meet their teacher they become timid and deferential, and so no-one would dare become his teacher.

Finally, he went to see a certain young novice, who was enlightened, and asked to practice under him. The novice said, ‘Yes, sure you can practice with me, but only if you’re sincere. If you’re not sincere then I won’t accept you.’ Tuccho Pothila pledged himself as a student of the novice.

The novice then told him to put on all his robes. Now there happened to be a muddy bog nearby. When Tuccho Pothila had neatly put on all his robes, expensive ones they were too, the novice said, ‘Okay, now run down into this muddy bog. If I don’t tell you to stop, don’t stop. If I don’t tell you to come out, don’t come out. Okay, run!’

Tuccho Pothila, neatly robed, plunged into the bog. The novice didn’t tell him to stop until he was completely covered in mud. Finally he said, ‘You can stop, now’ so he stopped. ‘Okay, come out now!’ and so he came out. This clearly showed the novice that Tuccho Pothila had given up his pride. He was ready to accept the teaching. If he wasn’t ready to learn, he wouldn’t have run into the bog like that, being such a famous teacher, but he did it. The young novice, seeing this, knew that Tuccho Pothila was sincerely determined to practice. When Tuccho Pothila had come out of the bog, the novice accepted him as his student.


[1] A person who abandons the conventional obligations of social life in order to find a way of life more “in tune” (sama) with the ways of nature.

%d bloggers like this: