Why did the Buddha bother to teach? Why does anyone teach today? Is there evidence (a charged word) or scriptural support that it really does any good? I read here many things that accord with my experience, but it also seems to "multiply entities" and so we wind up with lots of words when perhaps fewer would be better. Perhaps it would be more effective to simply have places of teaching, and those who wish to know would go there. A friend was saying to me recently that describing advanced experiences or ideas to family or friends only makes them think that one is deranged, it does not "light the way" for them if they are not looking.

  • Background to my question: I am actually a teacher, of computer programming. I find that there are so many possibilities, ways of doing things, subtle distinctions, pitfalls and so on even in a practical subject like programming that I wonder if all I am doing is watching while they accumulate their own experiences, like how I self-taught back in the early 80s with early computers. If it is all self-teaching anyway, why stand up there and lecture? How much more so with spiritual progress!
    – user759
    Sep 4, 2014 at 12:06
  • 1
    It seems that you support constructivism, that is, the view that every learner constructs knowledge on their own. This is opposed to cognitivism, which saw the teacher as the source of some objective knowledge, which is then transferred to the student. It does indeed seem that constructivism better describes the reality of learning, but it doesn't mean that there is no room for teachers. It means that teachers must facilitate the student's own development. And you say that there should be some places of teaching, so you do already see that students won't figure everything out on their own.
    – michau
    Sep 5, 2014 at 6:51
  • How do we interest people in attending the school?
    – user759
    Sep 5, 2014 at 10:52
  • well... i dont know about you but im glad everyone who ever taught me something useful bothered to teach. Just sayin.
    – A Nonimous
    Sep 6, 2014 at 5:48
  • @ANonimous: did a teacher ever rouse your interest when you did not have any to start with? That is really my question. Does teaching "bring them in", or just give them something to work with after they have already shown up unbidden? If not, then I must reconsider teaching.
    – user759
    Sep 7, 2014 at 23:51

6 Answers 6


It's possible worth adding that there is the tradition of direct transmission as evoked by the flower sermon. This is an important sutra within Zen Buddhism stressing wordless insight and perhaps the ineffability of the teaching. In this the Buddha holds up a flower and only Mahakashyapa understands, smiles then laughs. From here

When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakasyapa, the disciple suddenly understood. He smiled and began to laugh. Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakasyapa and began to speak. “What can be said I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa."

It's not always the Buddha sitting in front of his disciples exorting then to be a bit more mindful.

But to address the question directly, even here (or especially here) the emphasis seems to be on the receptivity of the individual. It's the right word at the right time. I've heard it been compare to being struck by lightening. You got to be on the hill waiting in the thunderstorm and lightening might strike. You could be struck at home (i.e. not really looking for the Dharma) but you are far more likely to the struck if you are out looking and standing on that hill.

If someone isn't interested in the Dharma then they are unlikely to benefit from the teachings. But if someone is (they might have had an real feeling of dhukka for instance) then teaching will benefit them greatly.

  • One of the non-dual teachers on the retreat I attended recently said something like this about putting oneself in the right place to be "struck". But I am not allowed to drag my family and friends out into the storm... It is up to them : ) There is no "advertisement" or "general teaching" that will appeal. We rely on self-selection, and in my experience, that is rare.
    – user759
    Sep 5, 2014 at 10:50
  • @Avaloka the (non?)evangelical nature of Buddhism is interesting. I think as far as family and friends go just them seeing you and your engagement with Buddhist practice is enough really and people sometimes become interested on that basis (IMHO of course) Sep 5, 2014 at 12:16

To use your own analogy, if you were trying to learn how to implement an OO design pattern in JavaScript, would it be more expedient for you to try and figure it out for yourself or to learn it from someone who had already mastered the concept? Buddhism can be a very technical religion. There are some problems that will arise (and meditation alone is chock full of them) that you just won't be able to get past without someone there to guide you along. What's worse, sometimes you don't even know what questions you should even be asking! You might be doing something totally wrong, but without a teacher there to point it out, you'd never be the wiser. You likewise might master somethings, but not know where to turn your attention next.

I don't think the importance of a teacher can be overstated. One of the qualities of the Buddha is that he is an anuttaro purisadammasarathi - an unsurpassed teacher of persons to be tamed! That wouldn't be in the Buddhanussati Gatha if it wasn't important!

  • So it seems that "tutoring" (individual instruction) is necessary, but that general instruction might be much less useful. I guess I am facing the problem of lacking a tutor (when my Guru is not nearby). General instruction is less useful for me at this point, and I wonder how useful it is overall: Are people more advanced than they were in the Buddha's time? Are people in general making progress?
    – user759
    Sep 4, 2014 at 14:24

There are two side to this. The teaching works when there is a eager recipient ready to receive the Dhamma. (Ripened in perfections.) And the recipient practices the Dhamma to reap benefit.

Also Buddhism is a practical religion where you have to practice the 3 fold training to reach Nirvana. As you said the best is that you choose a meditation center and star the practice with lesser discussion.

  • I appreciate your straightforward answer. In my experience, being in the presence of realized people is helpful, and other things, including reading, is not as beneficial or even makes me feel lost. I have not seen my Guru in 10 years (she lives far away) and there is much I could learn by being around her, without even asking questions. If I am not such a person, what could I teach? Where I live now, I don't know of anyone such, that I could spend time with. "Transmission" and teaching are different...
    – user759
    Sep 4, 2014 at 12:18

As Buddha himself said (AN 3.22), there are three types of people:

  1. Those who can figure it out themselves, without a teacher.
  2. Those who can't get it, even after having received the teaching.
  3. Those who can get it, but only with teacher's help.

It is for the sake of the third category, however small, that we teach.

  • I was thinking of a 4th class of people: those we wish to help, who are not yet interested. Only by presenting it to them can I tell which of the other three classes they fall in to. Or, I can wait. Is a greater proportion of people seeking the teaching now than formerly? Is Humanity at large "getting the message"? I ask because I am trying to decide what is best to do. Pushing the river usually does not work, so I am testing it.
    – user759
    Sep 5, 2014 at 1:05
  • If we shine, someone will notice :) This "shining" is being awesome mixed 50/50 with hints useful to them. That's my practice these days.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Sep 5, 2014 at 1:17
  • I like this description of your practice. I find it awkward that the people I wish to reach are far away, and my hints are probably too cryptic, or unwanted. I wonder if others experience the same thing?
    – user759
    Sep 5, 2014 at 1:54
  • Enlightenment is ultimate disenchantment.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Sep 5, 2014 at 2:02
  • Chogyam Trungpa? I thought he said, "For the ego, enlightenment is the ultimate and final disappointment" But I read that about 13 years ago.
    – user759
    Sep 5, 2014 at 2:57

It is called the "miracle of instruction" for a good reason; it is easy to impart information; it is much more difficult to actually teach:

‘And what is the miracle of instruction? Here, Kevaddha, a monk gives instruction as follows: “Consider in this way, don’t consider in that, direct your mind this way, not that way, give up that, gain this and persevere in it.” That, Kevaddha, is called the miracle of instruction.

‘Again, Kevaddha, a Tathāgata arises in the world, an Arahant, fully-enlightened Buddha, endowed with wisdom and conduct, Well-Farer, Knower of the worlds, incomparable Trainer of men to be tamed, Teacher of gods and humans, enlightened and blessed. He, having realised it by his own super-knowledge, proclaims this world with its devas, māras and Brahmās, its princes and people. He preaches the Dhamma which is lovely in its beginning, lovely in its middle, lovely in its ending, in the spirit and in the letter, and displays the fully-perfected and purified holy life. A disciple goes forth and practises the moralities (Sutta 2, verses 41 — 63). He guards the sense-doors and attains the four jhānas (Sutta 2, verses 64 — 82); he attains various insights (Sutta 2, verses 83-84); he realises the Four Noble Truths, the path and the cessation of the corruptions (Sutta 2, verses 85-97),236 and he knows: “...There is nothing further here.” That, Kevaddha, is called the miracle of instruction.

-- DN 11 (Walshe, Trans)

Still, I find this question baffling. Unless you think that Buddhists have gained nothing from the past 2500 years of following the Buddha's teachings, how could one think it not useful to teach?

Admittedly, some people (perhaps like yourself) are able to find the path to enlightenment themselves; a far greater number of people follow the wrong path simply because it agrees with their predisposition, mistaking it for the true path and mistaking a non-enlightened state for an enlightened one. Many such people, upon meeting and conversing with an enlightened Buddha or one of his enlightened disciples were able to correct their practice and attain the right path and final goal. That, in a nutshell, is what teaching is for.

At any rate, the Buddha himself seemed to think teaching was a good thing, and that discouraging those who have realized the truth from sharing it was a very bad thing:

‘In the same way, Lohicca, if anyone should say: “Suppose an ascetic or Brahmin were to discover some good doctrine and thought he ought not to declare it to anyone else, for what can one man do for another?” he would be a source of danger to those young men of good family who, following the Dhamma and discipline taught by the Tathāgata, attain to such excellent distinction as to realise the fruit of Stream-Entry, of Once-Returning, of Non-Returning, of Arahantship — and to all who ripen the seeds of a rebirth in the deva-world. Being a source of danger to them, he is uncompassionate, and his heart is grounded in hostility, and that constitutes wrong view, which leads to ... hell or an animal rebirth.

-- DN 12 (Walshe, Trans)

  • Thank you. I suppose my question was more to ask whether interest can be roused in people who are not predisposed, which I suppose would be "no" in any field. I was hoping to interest people that I know, but was advised that it could wind up driving them away from the teaching instead.
    – user759
    Sep 4, 2014 at 23:39
  • @Avaloka I would think the answer would be "yes" in any field... with the right impetus (in Buddhism, suffering is that impetus). Sep 4, 2014 at 23:44
  • apparently the Truth of Suffering has not come to the attention of the people I am wishing to talk with. I attempted to Delete, but it was not allowed.
    – user759
    Sep 4, 2014 at 23:47
  • @yuttadhammo Let's not forget that even the Buddha himself didn't want to teach initially - "As I reflected thus [on how hard it would be to convey his realization to those overcome by passion], my mind inclined to dwelling at ease, not to teaching the Dhamma (MN 26)..." so I think Avaloka concern isn't without precedent. Sadly, not everyone has a Brahma Sahampati to twist their arm! :-)
    – user698
    Sep 5, 2014 at 0:03

What a beautiful and profound question. As a fellow teacher (Middle School) I share your wonder. Can we ever really learn from each other? Can we really ease another's path by sharing what we have learned so far?

There are some moments when I think I might have made a significant difference in another's life, but it was not solely my doing. I was fortunate enough to be the right person, at the right time, in the right mood, and with the right turn of phrase. That is all. Teachers live for such moments, but they are painfully rare and unpredictable. They can not be engineered.

The example of the Buddha shows that having a teacher is not essential for learning, and that it is the dedication of the seeker that matters most. In fact, I think there is no hope if this is not true, simply because if having a teacher were essential, then the first teacher would have already needed a teacher, ad absurdum.

As far as I can see, learning begins when the student is ready, and painful as it may be, would we really want it any other way?

  • Thank you Ron, for your lovely answer. The question "can we ever really learn from each other?" is basically the question that would unask my life at this point. Like Byron Katie's beautiful "Is it true?" Perhaps this is why it was so important to me. I see it as not simply conveying information, but more like insight, as in the answer referring to the Flower Sermon. My thought is: If I cannot represent the truth of the Flower Sermon to someone (note that I did not say explain it) so as to interest them, then I cannot see what I am really doing here. I want to invite people to "be ready". <3
    – user759
    Sep 7, 2014 at 23:42

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