People who did not come to practice through Buddhist study perhaps know that to study Buddhism is to practice. However, maybe they think practice is about prostration, or occasionally offering incense or chanting the sutras, etc., which is more on the formality of religious ceremonies. Sometimes they may also visit temples and talk with monastics, believing that this has a flavor of practice. Of course, it is better for them to be willing to go to the temple instead of karaoke club or various places where desires or greed are easily stimulated.
Some people think that it is necessary to read more books on Buddhism, believing that having more knowledge on Buddhism is a way of practice. But some others would say it is useless to possess too much theory but not actually follow the teachings. Is it useful to study Buddhism? Of course. Even if one cannot act upon it completely, one can do more or less accordingly. When you study Buddhism, you are actually being exposed to and are receiving the Dharma. As you read more on Buddhism, you can sense the difference in your mind and heart. The more you absorb the teachings, the deeper your understanding will grow.
Perhaps you have had similar experiences. For example, when you feel anxious or disturbed by something, or cannot put down what has been bothering you, as you pick up a Dharma book and begin to read, your attention is turned to the book and to a certain degree the troubled feeling is temporarily put aside, or you even feel the problem has been resolved. Maybe you happen to turn to a page and read some passages that seem to be the key in seeing the problem clearly so you know now how to handle it. At least you have found something to settle the mind. Therefore it is useful to study Buddhism. It has the function of purifying the mind while being exposed to the Dharma.
When you feel the need for mind purification or self-cultivation, regardless if what you follow is ethical discipline or religious doctrine or even just through interpersonal relationship, you will find improvement in your attitude and actions towards others, and you will do a better job at workplace. For instance, as a teacher, if you wish to be a good one, most often you must be a good example of what you teach. If you like to smoke but you want your students to understand the harm of smoking, you will not likely to succeed. On the other hand, if you yourself do not have the habit of smoking, students are more likely to accept your teaching. If you have had some bad habits in the past, but for the sake of students, and for students to believe what you say, you resolve to change yourself and give up the habit, this action of self-restraint is an improvement that is in harmony with the environment.
Did we often restrain, reflect, or elevate and purify ourselves? If we did, then we can say we are practicing. In fact, from the perspective of religion, it is very important to improve our behavior and elevate our mind. This is practice. Different religions teach different methods of practice. For example, although religions of theism do not have specific or obvious techniques for practice, they know the principles of what they should or should not do. In Buddhism, there is a complete and systematic teaching on different phases of practice and self-improvement, on how to change from unwholesome to wholesome, from good to better or incomplete to complete in our practice. If everyone who studies Buddhism strives to improve themselves, they can benefit from the study and are considered to be truly practicing.
(Teachings during retreat at Ipoh, Malaysia, Originally published in Chinese by Fa Lu Yuen Publications, 1998)