Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  How to teach Dharma

(5.89) I should teach the vast and profound Dharma with a pure intention,
Free from any wish to acquire wealth or reputation;
And I should always maintain a pure motivation of bodhichitta
And make great effort to put Dharma into practice.

The Dharma we teach is the vast and profound Dharma.  The vast path principally teaches how to strengthen the mind with which we meditate, such as developing a motivation of bodhichitta, tranquil abiding or the mind of great bliss.  The profound path principally teaches which objects of mind we should meditate on, such as the existence of past and future lives, the laws of karma, the twelve dependent-related links, and most importantly the wisdom realizing emptiness.

Our motivation for teaching should be pure, free from worldly concerns.  Pure in this context means primarily concerned with the interests of future lives.  Impure means primarily concerned with interests of this life.  It is very easy to have impure motivations for teaching, such as pride thinking we are better than our students, attachment to our own views trying to convince others to adopt them, craving praise and respect from those listening, a power rush thinking your actions are echoing in eternity.  We might be attached to our students coming back next week, or we might be trying to subtly manipulate them into doing more work for the center to fulfill our wish for the center to flourish.  Some pursue the celebrity of it all, others feel the correct place for others is bowing down at our feet.  Some quest for higher position, others struggle for acceptance.  Some are out to prove others wrong, others teach to uphold an inner fiction of being better than we are.  There is not a single delusion that cannot find its way into our motivation for teaching, and we need to be on the lookout for all of them.

The correct motivation for teaching should be bodhichitta.  Bodhichitta is the wish to become a Buddha for the benefit of others.  As with all things, Shantideva points the way.  At the beginning of his Guide, he stated his motivation for writing it was to clarify his own thinking and to familiarize his own mind with the Dharma, and if others receive benefit as well, all the better.  We should adopt a similar attitude while teaching.  We do not presume to think we are anybody special, nor that what we are explaining is definitive or correct.  When we have to put something into writing, we are forced to clarify our thoughts.  The same is true when we prepare a teaching.  Every teacher of any subject agrees, they only really start to understand the subject matter once they begin to teach it.  We consolidate our own thinking on the subject and then we share our understanding in the hopes it might be helpful to others.  We try give the best teachings we can because we want to create the causes to receive qualified teachings ourselves in future lives.  We know ultimately that we are responsible for all the people in the room, but we are keenly aware we are vastly unprepared for the task, so we view all things through the long-term perspective of becoming a Buddha so that then we might be of some assistance.  We are grateful to our students for showing up and giving us the opportunity to share what we have learned, but we have no expectation or need whatsoever that those listening take on board what we have to say.  We set out the best buffet of Dharma we can, but we leave others free to take or leave whatever they wish.

Above all, we should make effort to put the Dharma into practice.  Kadam Lucy once told me a story where she was meeting with Geshe-la and said, “I know that my main job is to help the center and teach Dharma, but …” she was leading up to asking him about doing retreat; and he then interrupted to say “No, your main job is to practice Dharma.  Everything else flows naturally from this.”  Geshe-la explains in Great Treasury of Merit that it is the personal experience of the teacher that make the teachings powerful for the students.  When somebody is speaking from personal experience, it naturally moves the minds of the listeners far more than if the person if speaking purely from intellectual understanding – even if the exact same words are used.  The inner explanation of this is lineage blessings only flow through personal experience, the outer explanation for this is people are not stupid – they can tell if somebody knows what they are talking about.

(5.90) I should explain Dharma to release those who are listening
From samsara, the cycle of suffering,
And to lead them to the ultimate goal –
The attainment of full enlightenment.

This is our main intention in teaching Dharma – to lead others out of samsara.  So we need a lot of skill in introducing them and leading them to nirvana. Dharma must be presented in a way that the people of our area will find appealing. They need to be able to connect with it.  We need great confidence in the Dharma as it is presented by Geshe-la, but also we need confidence in presenting that Dharma ourselves.  Geshe-la is empowering us to do this.  He receives a lot of criticism from other traditions for putting inexperienced people on the throne and giving them license to teach.  But such criticism misses the point entirely – modern people learn by doing.  We are not pretending to be great yogis, just simple practitioners bumbling along like everyone else, sharing our experience in the hopes others might learn from our mistakes.  Geshe-la says it is very important we have teachers from many different backgrounds so that we can appropriately present the Dharma to many different types of people.  Asking us fools to teach Dharma is one of Geshe-la’s great deeds. One of the most beneficial actions he has performed in this world.

4 thoughts on “Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  How to teach Dharma

  1. Not quite the right quote. It was more “I know that my main job is to help the center and teach Dharma, but …” because I was only leading up to asking him about doing retreat; and it was then he interrupted to say “No, your main job is to practice Dharma … ” (the rest is correct).

  2. Thank you a suspiciously well-timed teaching for me. I suspect the collaborative work of the Buddhas are at play here 😊.

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