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
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
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
(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
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
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