The Dharma of Instruction

In Gakudo Yojin-sho (“Guidelines for Studying the Way”), Dogen wrote,

Practicing [Buddhism], studying the way, is the great matter of a lifetime. You should not belittle it or be hasty with it.

To do almost anything in life requires learning. From taking our first steps to driving a car, someone had to teach us, guide us, show us the way. In most cases, we understand this and do not resent receiving instruction. To cook a meal it is often necessary to follow a recipe. To arrive at a particular destination, you may need a map. When it comes to spiritual practice, however, some people act as if the reverse applied. They seem overly eager to disregard the recipe, throw away the map, and they disparage those who would guide them, unconcerned that teachers may have more experience and knowledge, which qualifies them to be teachers in the first place.

In Buddhism, particularly, as soon as some people have a modicum of exposure to the teachings, they become experts. Regarding this phenomenon, Dogen wrote,

Nowadays, there are foolish people who memorize the words of texts or accumulate sayings and try to match these words with the teacher’s explanation. In this case, they have only their own views and old words, and have not yet merged with the teacher’s words.

For some people their own views are primary; they open a sutra, memorize a word or two, and consider this to be buddha-dharma, later, when they visit with an awakened teacher or a skilled master and hear the teaching, if it agrees with their own view they consider the teaching right, and if it does not agree with their old fixed standards they consider his words wrong. They do not know how to abandon their mistaken tendencies, so how could they ascend and return to the true way? For ages numberless as particles of dust and sand, they will remain deluded. It is most pitiable. Is it not sad?

Why are so many resentful when it comes to receiving instruction? Most people understand that in learning meditation, for instance, they are steps to follow, do’s and don’ts. No problem. But as soon as a teacher says, “The Buddha taught this” or  “You should try to practice in this way” or anything similar that goes beyond the most basic, they become James Dean for a day, rebels without a cause.

Chih-i said,

Only when you become skilled at churning, can you obtain butter. Likewise, you cannot ascend to the stage of wondrous realization without practice.

Before you can practice, you must learn how. You must receive instruction. Practice in Buddhism is more than just learning how to sit properly in meditation. Buddhist practice is learning how to think anew, to change your mind. If we were thinking correctly to start with, there would be no need for practice at all. Meditation is calming the mind but it’s also training the mind. Training is the skill, knowledge and experience of one who is trained, and in order to be trained one must be taught. But how is that possible when one is unwilling or constantly looking for the loopholes in a teacher’s words?

I’m not suggesting that we should never question the teachings or teachers. What I am suggesting is that there is a way to go about it that is constructive and a way that is destructive. Criticism or rejection of a teachers words simply because they are framed in a way that does not conform to one’s personal tastes does not belong in the former category. Neither does fashioning convoluted rationalizations, or even going so far as to coin new terms to describe what is believed to be the dictations of those with more knowledge and experience. This, to borrow a Japanese literary term, is what I would call kyogen kigo or “foolish talk and dazzling rhetoric.”

No one would try to operate a car without first learning how to drive. No one with an ounce of sense, that is. Why do we think we can operate a spiritual vehicle without instruction or without learning which views conform to the core teachings and which do not?

Here are some instructions: Talk less, listen more. Think better, judge less.

Take it from me. I know what I am talking about. I have to learn this many times. I am still learning it.

While reading or listening, don’t work too hard. Be like the earth. When the rain comes, the earth only has to open herself up to the rain. Allow the rain of the Dharma to come in and penetrate the seeds that are buried deep in your consciousness. A teacher cannot give you the trruth. The truth is already in you. You only need to open yourself — body, mind, and heart — so that his or her teachings will penetrate your own seeds of understanding and enlightenment. If you let the words enter you, the soil and the seeds will do the rest of the work.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

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One thought on “The Dharma of Instruction

  1. You say “They seem overly eager to disregard the recipe, throw away the map, and they disparage those who would guide them, unconcerned that teachers may have more experience and knowledge, which qualifies them to be teachers in the first place.”
    It seems you want to believe there is a recipe for understanding your own mind. A “real” teacher will show you that, not recipes. There are a growing amount of so called Buddhist teachers who are teaching all kinds of scripture, and postures, and how to’s that never reach into the students mind and heart. If one is satisfied with religious Buddhism then it abounds all over America. If you are interested in truly waking up, you will still your mind and learn to keep it still, so that your original face will evolve. But most Americans do not have the will for this, or they are too accustomed to their present lifestyle.
    Buddhist teachers in general dumb down the message of the Buddha so they remain teachers. A real teacher does not want to make dependents of anyone, including “students”. There is a big difference with “new age buddhism”, and waking up to ones’ own Buddha mind. 🙂

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