Chùa Bửu Minh

1. Buddha as an Educator

Born 2600 years ago in India, Buddha Shakyamuni was best educated by selected scholars and teachers for all the curricula needed as a prince. After leaving home to seek the path to enlightenment, he looked for the best teachers and learned from them. But he was not satisfied with what he had learned, and found his own way and attained enlightenment.

In the 80 years of his life, he spent 35 years in the preparation for enlightenment, and after his realization, devoted the rest 45 years for delivering the people, that is, educating the people. In short, he devoted all his life to education. His willingness to educate people is more than a wonder. Regardless of location, time and people, he taught them to deliver the truth. Sometimes, he didn't care about his own health and illness. Even at the last  moment of his life, he gave a solemn and careful lesson. After thousands years, the impressive last scene makes his modern followers reconsider their attitude and their life as a whole.

Worrying over the losing of their leader, the beloved disciple, Ananda, asked his teacher, "Whom should we rely on when Bhagavan has gone?" Upon listening to the serious question, Buddha answered in a devout posture, "You should rely on nothing except yourself and the Dharma." This is the important teaching well-known as "Be a lamp unto yourself, and use the Dharma as your lamp", listed in Nirvana Sutra.  A lamp is useful when walking in the dark night. Buddha teaches that one should rely on oneself and the Dharma to navigate the breakneck road of life. The original word 'island' was replaced with 'lamp' in the course of Chinese translation to consult the Chinese taste. For the navigators in the high seas or the survivors of a ship-wreck, it is surely a great relief to find an island to drop anchor and rest.

We can appreciate and understand the meaning of 'island' in the original sutra. However, in the deep inland of China, the situation was different. The expression 'lamp' must had been more appealing to the Chinese feeling. The substitution by 'lamp' should be considered as a decision out of an educational concern.  Buddha also requested his disciples to abide by the precepts provided for them, and to keep vigilance throughout their lives. Then he passed away form this world.

2.  Why was the Teaching necessary?

When Buddha was once asked why he came to this world,  he answered his disciple. "Tathagata (Thus Come One) has come to this world for the Great Enterprise of Causality (一大事因缘): To open the Buddha-Wisdom (开), to teach it to the people (示), to get them enlightened to the Wisdom (悟), and to let them be in the Buddha World(入).”  This is a famous story in the Lotus Sutra.

The meaning is clear when the word  'Tathagata' is substituted by 'teacher' in the following story to express the same in another way. Suppose that a pupil in the elementary school asks his teacher, "Why are you remaining in school after you have graduated?" The teacher answers, "I teach you the lessons I had learned so that you may have as much knowledge as I have now. That's the reason I remain in school after I have graduated from it." The story suggests why Buddha is teaching. The goal of Buddhist education is the same, to enhance the quality of the living beings' mentality up to the World of Buddha, like the elementary school teacher aiming at elevating the pupil's intellectual capacity. The teacher should have self-esteem in that he is educating the staff in the industrial fields and even in the educational institutions. In Buddhism, such a figure is called Bodhisattva.

3.  In What Posture the Teaching was given

After enlightenment, Buddha taught his disciples the Middle Way (中道) and Four Noble Truth for the first time. Watching them grow for a while, he taught them how to educate people.

"You attained liberation (解脫) now. Therefore, please go on a mission work to propagate the truth for the benefit of people and their comfort. When you visit a village, it should not happen that two of you visit the same place. You should be compassionate to the people and accept them. Teach them the truth in a reasonable way so that they may understand it correctly. In the course of mission work, the first part should be good, and the middle part should be good, and the last part should be good." 《佛本行集经》

The advice that not two men go to the same place was to deliver the truth to as many people as possible. Buddha's teaching, 'Go alone like the horn of a rhinoceros' is conducive to the above proclamation of mission. It is interesting to find that Jesus Christ told to go in pair, but Buddha told his disciples to perform mission work alone. Buddha was convinced that his disciples realized the truth as he had and wanted them to deliver the truth to many people. On the other hand, Jesus thought that one man may fail to bring back his memories or, fail to give enough explanation on the truth. In that case his companion could supplement him and cooperate with the mission works.

Even more important point in the Buddha's proclamation of mission is, "In the course of mission work, the first part should be good, the middle part should be good, and the last part should be good." Buddha didn't believe in the slogan, 'If the end is good, all's good.' Buddha thought the process of mission project is as important as the result.  Further, the teacher's art of linguistic sense, facial expression count.

There is a teaching on this theme in the Lotus Sutra 《法华经 法师品》. “When you teach people, enter the room of Tathagata, and dress yourself in Tathagata's apparel, and take the seat of Tathagata. (入如来室著如来衣坐如来座).” To enter the room of Tathagata means to treat all living beings with great compassion. To dress in Tathagata's apparel means to have a gentle and cooperative mind and patience. To take the seat of Tathagata means to deliver message in the spirit of the Emptiness (Sunyata, 空) that there is no real substance in the ephemeral beings.

Buddha described the ideal image of a teacher as follows. First, the teacher should love his students equally. Second, the teacher is expected to use gentle expressions and in patience, regardless of the status of the students. Third, the teacher should prepare himself with useful knowledge and information, and take efforts to collect them.

4. What was taught?

Buddha taught people to practice Middle Way (中道) to grade up their mental power, that all beings and phenomena are originated by inter-dependence. Therefore, they have no absolute substance of their own. It is formulated in Four Noble Truth.

"There are Four Noble Truths. If you master it, you shall be called the King of Physicians. The first is to know about the disease, the second is to know about the cause of the disease, the third is to cure the disease, and the fourth is to know about the means to cure the disease and to block the come-back of the disease. In the same way, Tathagata mastered the art of Four Noble Truths to become King of Physicians and cures the disease of all living beings.  What is the four? Tathagata really knows that this is the truth about suffering (苦), this is the truth about the gathering of the components of suffering (集), this is the truth about the extermination of suffering (灭), and this is the truth about the means to exterminate suffering(道). 见良医经, Digha Nikaya 15-389

Buddha is telling us to recognize the status of living beings first, to find out the reason if undesirable situations are present, to draw the picture of an ideal situation, and to try to present means to realize it. This is a logical and easy-to-understand theory to lead the living beings toward the Buddha World. The problem of suffering (duhkha) in our life is an age-old difficult one since the human history began. Someone says it is due to the original sin that Adam and Eve committed, some say man and woman are born destined to suffer, and some say there is no specific reason for human suffering.

But Buddha Shakyamuni declares flatly that human suffering is caused by the fact that our body and the mental phenomena are the result of the gatherings of many different elements which are constantly changing, and therefore, ephemeral. Cohesion means sticking power to the same material and adhesion means the power to stick to different material. Our existence is affected by the power of cohesion and adhesion of many factors. The harmony and collision of cohesion and adhesion in our existence generate our happiness and sufferings.

There is a world called nirvana (涅盘) in which we are totally liberated from the suffering. There is eight-fold path to reach it: Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Vocation, Right Endeavour, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration of Mind (samyak-sambodhi).

5. In What Educational Method was used?

1) Non-verbal Teaching

Buddha's way of teaching can be divided in two categories: Non-verbal Teaching and Verbal Teaching. Non-verbal education includes keeping silence at a question, facial expression and some sort of action. These kind of behaviors may be called the 'Education by Dignified Mien'. Later in China, the non-verbal teaching was valued high in the Zen practitioners' society. In the Sutra, it is written that when Buddha, before his enlightenment, was on his way to call on a master, his walking posture was so dignified and gentle that King Bimbisara approached him and promised that he will take refuge in Buddha later.

Keeping silence at a question was used in a situation when silence was much better than giving a direct answer on the spot. There are two types of keeping silence. In the first case, silence was used as an answer to avoid pedantic discussion by which it was impossible to make the questioner understand the substance. This is to prevent useless wordplay. This silence is called 'avyakrta' (无记) in Buddhist term. The actions in silence is called 'Confronting with Silent Frown' (黙摈对处). In the Agama Sutra, we can find 14 examples of avyakrta. The second case is shown in Vimalakirti Sutra where Vimalakirti expresses his whole story through silence, for which Manjushri Bodhisattva admires it as  'A Silence like a Thunder'.

2) Verbal Teaching

The teachings of Buddha by verbal saying is classified into 12 types. Regarding this subject, there are slight differences between sutras in content and sequence, and also between Mahayana and Hinayana Sutras. The following sequence is quoted from  《大安般守意经》

    (1) Sutra: These are the orthodox textbooks of Buddhism. Practitioners follow the ordinary procedure of study with these texts - reading and interpreting.

    (2) Geya: While sutras are written in prose, Geya is composed in verse partially. In Geya, the story begins with prose and continues for some length. Then a piece of verse in a conducive content follows. Usually, students have a poetic temperament, and so, applying poetical expression in teaching is effective compared to the monotonous repetition of prose.

    (3) Gatha: This is the sutra wholly composed of verse. Usually, beginning a class with the recitation  of a verse helps focus the attention of students.

    (4) Nidana: This sutra is based on the theme of cause & effect of events and their background. It is important to adopt a logical way of thinking for today's students as they are more self-centered and logic-oriented compared to their elders. The delineation of Nidana Sutra is very effective as it accounts the nature and the developments of an event in the framework of the principle of cause & effect.

    (5) Itivrttaka: This is the story of ancient days where heroes are Boddhisattvas or honored disciples other than Buddha Shakyamuni. It would be disappointing if a student think that only Shakyamuni is eligible to become Buddha while they cannot attain Buddhahood, however hard they may study and discipline themselves. It is like telling the students they cannot become a teacher, or a leader of a sect in spite of their abundant effort. Thus, the aim of Itivrttaka Sutra is to boost up the motives of students to achieve their goals.

    (6) Jataka: This is the sutra about the former lives of Buddha Shakyamuni. Buddha tells about his many existences in this world in various forms over a span of eons. He says he didn't become a Buddha overnight, and also points that every walk of life and every moment of activity contribute to the achievement of Buddhahood, so as to have students accept their daily lives with an affirmative stance. A student who knows Buddha achieved enlightenment in six years may be frustrated by the gloomy prospect when he realizes it is an impossible feat for him. Therefore, the stories in Jakata delineates the consistent efforts of Buddha Shakyamuni through a long series of reborn existences and a variety of activities, to encourage the student and general people to have confidence in the potential for attaining Buddhahood through their efforts.

    (7) Adbhutadharma: Its original meaning is 'the unprecedented'. This sutra delivers the stories of actions and events engaged with Buddha Shakyamnuni, mainly, unprecedented, wonderful, new, mysterious, meritorious deeds and events about him. The word 'the unprecedented' is translated into Chinese as '未曾有 'which perfectly reflects the Chinese sentiments. When students learn about the mysterious and miraculous events, they are very interested in deciphering the real meaning of the events. It's an effective educational means.

    (8) Avadana: The word 'avadana' means 'metaphor', 'simile' or 'parable'. In case a man does not readily understand a complex story, it is wise to express it in parable for easier understanding. Through his educational activities of 45 years, Buddha was well versed in effectively utilizing this technique for the students. In case  of a Western thinker of modern times, Kierkegaard used the parable in describing the story of a parrot who caught fire on stage, in his book 'The Disease leading to Death' which is almost exactly in the same context with the parable of 'Triloka in Fire' (三界火宅喻) in Lotus Sutra.

    (9) Upadesa: The primary meaning of this word is 'discussion'. In this type of sutra, questions and answers on the important issues of sutras are recorded. After teacher and class members perform the usual ceremony in the Dharma Hall, the teacher gives a discourse on the subjects of a certain sutra to prepare the ground for questions and answers. In later days, the discussions with the member of other religions were also included in this type of sutra.

    Today's traditional educational system in the temple, 'Lecture Institute’ (讲院) is to carry out the education in 'upadesa' type. Beginning with a usual ceremony to enhance the piety and the solidarity of the class members for whom no specific qualifications required to participate, a temporary teacher is appointed and indiscriminate questions and answers are allowed to develop the participants' capacity of announcing their opinions.

    (10) Udana: This is translated as 'Voluntary Discourse' or 'Voluntary Discourse at No Request'. There are sutras given by the request of disciples, and given at no request. It is the same with the procedures of modern school. Udana is the discourse Buddha felt should be given to his disciples although they didn't request.

    (11) Vaipulya: This is translated into Chinese as’方广'. This type of sutra contains expanded interpretation on the teachings of Buddha, in a logically well-trimmed format.

    (12) Vyakarana: Translated as '受記' in Chinese, this is about Buddha's prediction of enlightenment given to his disciples. When a practitioner is progressing well in discipline, Buddha gives him a prediction that he shall be a Buddha in the future. For outsiders, it may seem mysterious or nonsensical, but this ceremony enables the seeker to hold fast to his goal and to have his own prospect. It also helps to standardize the enlightenment schedule.

So far, 12 types if educational means by verbal teaching are confirmed. Among them, 'sutra' and 'geya' are classified by the style of narration, and the rest are classified according to their contents. In short, the pedagogy of Buddha reduces to 'Teaching in conformity with the mental capacity of listeners' (随机说法, 对机说法) or, in modern terms, 'Educating with the same eye-level'. To meet the concern and the intellectual level of students, a variety of educational methods were brought to use. In Buddhist term, those methods are called 'means' (方便).  In Sanskrit, the 'means' is 'upaya'  meaning  'get close', approach' or 'reach'. Thus, above 12 types are summing up the pedagogy of Buddha as a whole, verbal-wise.


In his 80 years of life, Buddha Shakyamuni spent 35 years in preparation for enlightenment, i.e. disciplining himself, and after he reached enlightenment, devoted the rest 45 years for delivering people, that is, educating people. When he was asked why he came to this world, he answered his disciples, "Tathagata  has come to this world for the Great Enterprise of Causality: To open the Buddha-Wisdom, to teach it for the people, to get them enlightened to the Wisdom, to let them become Buddhas."

Buddha took precautions against the popular belief that all's good if the end is good, telling his disciples that the process is as important as the result. Also, he insisted on the importance of linguistic sense and facial expressions for teaching. He advised, "When you teach people, enter the room of Tathagata, dress in Tathagata's apparel, and take the seat of Tathagata." To enter the room of Tathagata means to treat all living beings with a great compassion. To dress in Tathagats's apparel means to have a gentle, cooperative mind and patience. To take the seat of Tathagata means to be rooted in the principle of Sunyata that there is no real substance in the ephemeral beings.

Buddha is telling us to recognize the present status of living beings first, to find out the reason if undesirable situations are present, to draw a picture of an ideal situation, and try to present means to realize it. This is the logical and easy-to-understand principle to lead the living beings toward the Buddha World.

Buddha's way of teaching is divided into two categories: Verbal teachings and non-verbal teachings. Non-verbal teaching includes keeping silence at a question, facial expression and some sort of action. These kinds of behaviors may be called the 'Education by Dignified Mien' (威仪教化). Verbal teaching is represented by 12 types of sutras that is classified by the style of narration or contents. The pedagogy of Buddha is reduced to 'Education with the same Eye-level' which is known as 'teaching in conformity with the mental capacity of listeners' (随机说法,对机说法) in Buddhist terms.

To meet the intellectual level of students and their concern, a variety of educational methods were brought to use, known as 'means' (方便). In Sanscrit, the word (方便 )is 'upaya' indicating 'get close', 'approach', or 'reach'. So, it is the 'device' used to reach the goal. Thus, the 12 types of sutras are summing up the verbal pedagogy of Buddha as a whole

©2010 -2023  Chùa Bửu Minh | Homepage