If you want to have a strong Buddhist practice, how important is it to study Buddhist teachings? A library consisting solely of classic Buddhist and Zen teachings and texts would still contain hundreds of volumes. It’s difficult to know where to begin studying, let alone hope to read and understand even a fraction of what’s available! Is study really necessary, and if so, how much?
I’m going to answer this question from a Zen point of view. Zen had its beginnings in China, where it was called Chan, and it quickly claimed it was a lineage tradition involving a “special transmission outside the scriptures.” An ancient Zen saying puts it this way:
A special transmission outside the teachings,
do not depend on written words,
directly point to the human mind,
see one’s nature and become Buddha.
So, that’s the good news! You don’t have to study in order to get Zen.
However… (isn’t there always a “however” in Zen?) study is a powerful, traditional, and possibly indispensable practice tool – but not in the way many of us might think. Study in Zen or Buddhism isn’t about acquiring knowledge. We study in order to challenge the ideas we already have.
This means we can engage Zen and Buddhist study in a very immediate, personal, and open-handed way. Unless we want to teach Buddhism someday, there’s no need to retain anything. We can just explore the teachings we come across, or the ones that intrigue or challenge us, let them do their work on us, and move on. Any time a teaching makes you question your views, opens your mind or heart, humbles you, or inspires you, it’s doing its job.
Also, Zen and Buddhist teachings are holographic, in that every individual teaching, at least to some extent, contains all of the other teachings. So there’s no need to gain an encyclopedic knowledge of all of them; just going deeply into a few that particularly attract you, or that your teacher recommends for you, is enough. Follow your nose through the Zen and Buddhist teachings, creating your own path.
 This is a widely quote poem but few people give any sources for it. Here’s one that discusses its origins: http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/40b.5-Transmission-outside-the-scriptures.pdf