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Why are Buddhist concepts so challenging for people to understand? What do people who understand know that average people don't know? What are some of the barriers to the understanding of Dharma? What facilitates understanding of Dharma?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ChrisW Oct 16 at 14:19
  • part of the reason is that there's so many conflicting opinions – sorta_buddhist Oct 23 at 12:06
  • The concepts are difficult because of the nature of Reality. It's not something that can be blamed on anyone. – PeterJ Oct 23 at 15:00
  • when reading, anything not just buddhism, best ask yourself what you are trying to achieve from doing so, whatever it is, even if that's slow reading and verbal comprehension – sorta_buddhist Oct 23 at 22:03

12 Answers 12

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They both "are" and "are not" difficult to understand?

For example I just told my mum what the four or five precept are, starting with "no killing" -- because when we met in the morning we agreed that it had been a full moon overnight, and I mentioned it's a Buddhist holiday world-wide on full moon days, and she asked how Buddhist celebrate -- so I explained the five and the eight precepts, that monks have 227 rules, that lay people practice 5 all the time, and practice 8 on holy days, to be like monks -- some lay people practice the 8 all the time, many practice just on holy days (like, Christians go to church on Sundays, while Christian priests go to church every day).

She said she wouldn't be able to remember 227 rules -- I told her that people are trained, before and after ordination! -- and that for lay people, there are only 5.

The 5 are easy to remember! "No killing", "no lying", "no sexual misconduct", etc. I think those are easy to understand, someone will do that anyway even without being Buddhist.

And after that: generosity, kindness, reserve, maybe prudence, good social behaviour. Not rocket science, amirite?

And then the noble truths and so on.

I find two or three big difficulties. Two are linguistic:

  1. Some people or texts use words like "mindfulness" without explaining them, like I'm supposed to know already what they're talking about, but perhaps the word means something different to each person. Normally when you learn a word like "cat" or "dog" it might be with reference to an example (of a cat or dog) -- demonstrating "mindfulness" isn't so easy, it's a bit intangible/abstract or requiring definition, and/or examples.

  2. My mum at least won't put up with Pali. Couldn't you explain it in English? :-) Not that she's never learned another language, but it isn't easy (to do so) and why should she.

The third of course are the real difficulties, i.e. what you might call Mara or something ...


... which I'd also know as: ignorance, foolishness, lack of discipline, bad habits, rationalisation ('voice of temptation'), and what not -- projection, identification -- denial -- and what might be understood as logical mistakes such false dilemmas, faulty generalisation. Also lack of energy, lack of joy, and so on ...

... these (like "the seven factors of enlightenment" and so on) are, kind of, the diagnoses or prescriptions of the Buddhist teaching. I guess they're "difficult" in the same way as it's "difficult" to be doctor! Different beings, seemingly with different problems ... and the general advice doesn't always work for them, and "concepts" can be difficult to convey (perhaps especially at moments when people think they have real problems).

We're not all trying to be full-time doctors though, maybe, so, perhaps it's not that difficult?

Or maybe it doesn't seem as difficult as it used to, when you're relatively well, "not so bad".

I'm a bit mindful of this advice I got from MatthewMartin, the last time I asked about this topic -- How to explain what Buddhism is? -- one bit of it was,

If someone really has no problems, that's great, they are Enlightened! The historical Buddha (According to Stephen Batchelor's retelling) said as much on his death bed, when he asked if anyone had any questions left, no one did, so he said, well you all must be enlightened then. People need Buddhism when their current raft has sunk. If there is food on the table, a comfortable place to sleep, and they have no complaints about their daily routine, then our jobs as Buddhists is to rejoice in their success (mudita).

You may or may not agree, I think it helps me to reconcile the difficult Buddhist concepts with the daily life of people who aren't overtly Buddhist.

  • Yeah, the teaching can seem so contradictory. I agree, especially with the value of reconciliation. – Lowbrow Oct 15 at 20:11
  • Who defines what "sexual misconduct" is? A bunch of virgins in a mountain? – Davor Oct 18 at 9:44
  • @Davor I think it's defined in the Dhamma (the doctrine) as for example, something like, somebody seducing your wife, or your children -- harming families. – ChrisW Oct 18 at 9:48
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    @Davor, a pretty good rule of thumb is "If you're asking yourself whether or not it's sexual misconduct, it probably is." ;) – Jason Oct 18 at 12:37
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Agreed with Dhammadhatu.

Buddhism is incomprehensible when it is based on hearsay, cargo cult, and book knowledge.

Buddhism is simple and clear when you learn from the first-hand experience of the basic principles.

If your teacher shows you how to practice "no ego" and "suchness", and if you really "get" the practice, then all theories - both from the Pali Canon as well as from Mahayana - make perfect sense.

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    +1 this is the first answer to mention a teacher -- which is relevant to the question. Also the OP's profile says, "Looking for a teacher". – ChrisW Oct 15 at 19:11
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If you understand it as gradual training it is much easier to follow Buddha's teaching. The only way you can eat an elephant is only one bite at a time. some people think that they have to eat the elephant in one bite. The journey is more important than the destination.

  • The journey is more important than the destination. - you sound almost like a taoist here chuckle – vaxquis Oct 17 at 17:06
  • If the destination is so important the Arahant will commit suicide immediately after his attainment. – SarathW Oct 17 at 21:08
  • I never said it is; I wholeheartedly believe it's the Road that counts. I only pointed that noticing the importance of the Road is a belief inherent to taoism (which, actually, predates Buddhism, and was a foundation for Gautama's views). – vaxquis Oct 17 at 21:54
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Mainstream Buddhism is often complex because many of the teachings are not about real things due to misinterpretions and embellishments. If a student starts with the right foundation, Buddhism won't be too difficult. The Buddha said:

Bhikkhus, the Dhamma well proclaimed by me thus is clear, open, evident and free of patchwork.

MN 22

  • i disliked Andrei's answer, but this is good plus one – sorta_buddhist Oct 23 at 22:04
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While Buddhist concepts do involve special technical concepts with its domain-specific lingo/vocabulary, I don't think it's as difficult as quantum physics or theoretical math. The part that is difficult is how to implement those theoretical concepts in one's daily life. One can recite all the teachings about greed, hatred, and delusion, but can s/he apply/incorporate those teachings into their daily life? That's the difficult part.

  • Physics and maths aren't too special -- they are a gradual training, given teachers, half the classroom time listening to the teacher lecturing, half supervised practice-exercise to learn to use the newly-taught techniques, plus homework. Buddhism is useful in a different way, and more often. Math tests at school are simple questions, usually designed to require/demonstrate a specific technique which you've just been taught, and designed to have a right answer. People don't explicitly use a lot of math in daily life except professionals and students. – ChrisW Oct 16 at 2:23
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Are they that difficult?

There are a variety of concepts in Buddhism, some easier to grasp "Don't kill" or "Don't steal" (which are hopefully easier to grasp), and some harder, as more profound (e.g. emptiness). One cannot say that all Buddhist concepts are hard as they are all different.

The moral prescriptions of Buddhism have parallels in other religions, and other religions have most likely equally difficult concepts; worldly religions have similar amounts of adherents. Thus, if such a great quantity of individuals follow moral paths, their concepts cannot be that hard.

As to profound concepts as emptiness: attachment and self-grasping might be a factor, as developing emptiness counters this. More so, if occidental civilization has a theist bias, emptiness -- which questions such independent, intrinsically existent entities -- goes against this bias. But, as emptiness even in Nagarjuna's day was misunderstood, leading to conclusions that 'nothing exists', one might wonder if there isn't something proper to emptiness hard to understand.

I will try to give an answer to the difficulty of emptiness and no-self as I believe it is one of the most difficult Buddhist concepts. Why do people mistake its meaning? What about emptiness is difficult to understand?

As the Dalai Lama and others suggest, one grasps emptiness by reflecting on all its meanings acquired via teachings. Thus, different sources may all provide an understanding of emptiness, suggesting the necessity for synthesis. If categories, which are often countered by non-dual approaches of emptiness, pose a barrier to seeing different teachings as reflecting the same thing, then the tendency to see things as very different, as categorical, might hinder understanding emptiness.

More so, in Stages of Meditation by Kamalashila, emptiness is at first considered analytically, but then one focuses on its feeling, focuses single-pointedly on the conclusion. This implies that emptiness is distinct from the words, the literal statements linked to its understanding. It appears rather that emptiness isn't the literal meaning, but rather the interpretative meaning required in all the suttas about emptiness itself, e.g. Heart Sutta, Lotus Sutta. This may be difficult for some because, if independent from the words themselves and the literal meaning, people have nothing concrete to understand emptiness by.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, emptiness is difficult to grasp perhaps because you cannot 'grasp' it in the normal sense. It develops in the mindstream, and even then. As Nagarjuna mentioned that those seizing emptiness as a view were hopeless, it seems that understanding emptiness is certainly not acquiring a fixated variant of it. Rather, emptiness itself is 'empty', lacks intrinsic essence.

Hence, overall, I believe the main cause of difficulty of understanding Buddhist concepts may be attachment which one doesn't want to relinquish, but also in a summary of the paragraph of emptiness, belief in a 'fixated' self. In a sense, the irony is that causes obstacles towards Buddhism's concepts appear to be the opposite of the three marks: attachment (not seeing things as suffering), permanence, and self-grasping. This, I believe, would make some sense, given it is what the concepts counter. I feel that difficulty in adopting concepts is proportional to the possession of mental traits these very concepts clash with.

Hope this helps!

  • Great Points! I found I made progress with some reading when I started taking "emptiness" and other terms non-literally. Still more in trying to avoid false-dichotomies. Sometimes I feel like I'm truly understanding some statement. Other times I very much do not. Upon revisiting something I thought I understood, I find still more. – R. Romero Oct 16 at 21:46
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The discourse at the Vipassana course (Goenka) I go to annually says you need equal parts knowledge and practice. Reading, learning, should be paired with an equal amount of meditation. This has helped me to learn and understand a lot of concepts at an experiential level.

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    Welcome to BuddhismSE🙂 – Lowbrow Oct 15 at 16:40
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    @Lowbrow Thanks! :-) – Hyacin Oct 16 at 6:17
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Buddhist concepts are challenging for most people to understand, beacuse I think, when you say people, you have in mind people who have been trained/brought up in western categories of thinking (whose roots go back to Ancient greek). The western categories of thinking, for one, falls in either of the two extremes of reification (eternal substance, god, etc) or annihilation (nothingness, radical skepticism, etc.) For another, the purposes are very different- western thinking is aimed at knowledge, while buddhist thinking is just another (one of the most important and difficult certainly) skillfull means, which goes hand in hand with practice, aimed at the benefit of all beings. Therefore, the culture in which language develops and therefore the concepts, would seem very strange, odd, difficult, etc. to someone who suddenly encounters them, coming from an entirely differently conceptualized culture.

The people who understand, understand the same world as the people who don't understand, but in a conceptual scheme that does not fall in either of the two extremes. Therefore, they do no cling to those things which people who do no understand cling. The more one understands (through cultivation of wisdom and practice) the more unclinging one becomes, and the more one understands what other people who cling more don't. There is nothing mystical about it.

The barriers are only conditions that either make access to the Dhamma impossible or break up the practice of dhamma. All barriers are to be overcome by us as we walk on the path of dhamma. They are only barriers- not impasses. Philosophically, one could say that the two barriers are thinking in terms of a reified concept or thinking there is nothing. Meditatively, there are many barriers as such which can all be overcome by cultivating the paramitas. This is not in any way a systematic list. Certainly you can look at the works of Candrakirti (e.g. Four Illusions: Candrakirti's Advice to Travelers on the Bodhisattva Path) and likewise find many suttas in Abhidhamma Pitaka which make a mention of hindrances that a meditator faces and how to overcome them.

Persistent practice of the technique and generation of boddhi citta, by developing valid cognitions, greatly facilitate understanding of dhamma.

  • Sounds right to me but are the Abhidhamma scriptures called suttas? – Lowbrow Oct 15 at 20:23
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They are easy to understand and practice but if you want to "be a buddhist" then it comes with a lot of baggage which is complicated. Four precepts, living in the moment and a bit of meditation. That is all there is to it. Who said what in which translation is just a distraction that misses the whole point of buddhism.

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Buddhist concept is difficult.. You are saying right buddha want to don't flow his way beacuse his way croupt like river.

River is very pure but his way in the city so river are impure and dirty.. human make river so dirty so dirty.We can't drink water. Cloths,urine,toilet, in river

Buddhist path is impure like river

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Buddhist concepts are at a very high level of intelligence. On the Einstein level of intelligence. People who understand the teachings of Buddha can understand (actually, see) why and how are people suffering and how to help them.

Barriers to understanding Dharma are impurities in your heart. By cleansing your heart with Metta you gain intelligence for understanding the Dharma, and Dharma becomes attractive to you.

Metta facillitates the underatans od Dharma. Wihtout regular Metta, you will noly have mental speculations.

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If all phenomena are mind made then they are reasonably spawned in that their coming into play would be based on philosophical principles of mind.

Understanding the Dhamma requires a person to understand what can be understood about thinking and language by using thinking and language.

People try to look for phenomena like consciousness, trying to observe it but i would claim that the thing they are trying to observe is closer to a philosophical principle rather than an observable entity.

I think that obviously Intellectual capability plays a role and I think easily grasping the Dhamma requires a favorable pre-disposition and a lot of development along the lines of inquiry, critical thinking, general semantics and experimental physics if anything.

Dhamma isn't easy to understand and Buddha reprimanded Ananda when he expressed that Dhamma was easily grasped by him and "as clear as clear can be";

As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: "It's amazing, lord, it's astounding, how deep this dependent co-arising is, and how deep its appearance, and yet to me it seems as clear as clear can be."

[The Buddha:] "Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Deep is this dependent co-arising, and deep its appearance. It's because of not understanding and not penetrating this Dhamma that this generation is like a tangled skein, a knotted ball of string, like matted rushes and reeds, and does not go beyond transmigration, beyond the planes of deprivation, woe, and bad destinations.

Also here Buddha explains why Dhamma is hard to understand;

"Then the thought occurred to me, 'This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. [3] But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment, enjoys attachment. For a generation delighting in attachment, excited by attachment, enjoying attachment, this/that conditionality & dependent co-arising are hard to see. This state, too, is hard to see: the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding. And if I were to teach the Dhamma and others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me.'

At least to some extent i think people have a lot of preconceived notions about the world that they bring with when they come to study the Dhamma. If these notions are false in their nature they will hinder penetration of meaning until they are known as such.

On the comprehensible nature of the world;

“The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility…The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.”

protected by Andrei Volkov Oct 16 at 20:49

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