Study versus practice is a debate in some centers and sanghas. The usual retreat structure that is modeled on the Goenka method or at centers like Insight Meditation Society typically lean heavily towards practice without much study. This approach certainly has merit and can create big breakthroughs for practitioners, but it has its limitations, too.
When I first began vipassana practice, the first several years of practice felt as though they were happening in a vacuum. Without a regular teacher and no sangha for my solo practice, I had no very clear idea about what insights I should be looking for. Sure, I watched my breath and made gains in mindfulness, but until I studied the texts and worked with teachers, I didn’t get very far.
I’ve found study to be a useful complement to practice, because it provides context, although it’s important to remember “not to mistake the pointing finger for the moon.” That is, intellectual understanding can be helpful, but it is not a substitute for direct experience. Practice takes precedence over study every time.
Still, study can point the way. Two decades ago, when my teacher, Santikaro, introduced me to the teaching on dependent co-origination (paticca-samuppada), it was a life-changing event. Over the years, I’ve refined my understanding thanks to Christina Feldman and John Peacock. This study has truly transfigured and guided my practice ever since. In the twenty years leading up to the transmission of this teaching from Santi, I’d neither heard nor read about it. In the last twenty years, though, there have been many new translations of the teachings and materials on this topic are readily available.
According to Andrew Olendzki, in the Buddha’s time the Sangha balanced study and teaching with practice. Study is not at odds with practice, but instead provides context for the experience of practice. Study, then see how the teachings work within the laboratory of your own experience.