torstai 1. kesäkuuta 2017

Pedagogy of Dharma

Pedagogy of Dharma

In many of my posts I have discussed problems related to the teaching methods of dharma. In constructive spirit, I am here continuing on dharma pedagogy in a casual manner.

Room for improvement

I often wonder how it is possible that there is very low pedagogical standards in transmitting of the dharma. When seeing how poorly teachings and practice instructions are delivered, anyone with some exposure to pedagogical studies probably wonders the same. If we think of any field of study, there are explicit requirements what the students are excepted to learn but unfortunately this doesn't seem to be the case in buddhism. Fortunately there are some exceptions to this rule but in general it can be said that dharma teachers would have a lot to improve in their skills. 

Practical example of poor pedagogy are extensive yet vague theoretical expositions with little or no relation at all to actual practice. Students listen to their teachers talk hour after hour, year after year and yet their understanding does not grow. I have joined many dharma events where teachers speak extensively yet never explain properly how the given theory is supposed to relate to the practice and have an effect on the minds of the students. I have seen people with over 20 years of diligent study inquire their teachers about the meaning of emptiness to which they were answered the same jargon of emptiness and compassion that is too symbolic to understand, just like it was 20 years before, and every year since.

If students weren't learning, that would make the bells go off in the head of an educated teacher of any other field of study but this doesn't seem to be the case in buddhism. Traditional teachers rarely seem to be able to think outside the box which is a great shame.

If the old ways and methods are not making practitioners (in plural) fully enlightened, or even making a notable number of practitioners evolved, then there is a need for comprehensive re-evaluation. If the old ways worked we would surely see a very different culture of dharma than we are seeing now. 

Like all old religions, buddhism also has the problem of having imbibed much cultural influences from the ancient cultures of the East. While these external influences give each tradition their distinctive outlook through ways, forms, rituals and religious and institutionalised features, this evolution of the outlook can make the core of dharma very unclear and murky. For many Westerners it is easy to see this in their native religion of Christianity but difficult in their chosen form of Eastern buddhism. 

While vagueness of instructions in buddhist meditation is common, at the same time teachers emphasize that the training deals with the mind. That is a valid point but at the same time is not helpful if the instructions actually are vague. Observing these two factors have lead me to think whether various teachers are able to comprehend the profundity of the teachings of the past masters, for example emptiness or the nature of mind which both are the bedrock of buddhist meditation. Vagueness of instructions indicates lack of first hand experience. If one has first hand eperience, one should be able to describe what theoretically seems complex, in a simple and straightforward language without any vagueness whatsoever. Scholarly jargon and excessive theoretical details only get in the way of direct understanding and experience.

Another example of bad teaching habits is talking voluminously yet not addressing the actual topic. It is amazing how some teachers give extensive series's of talks lasting days or even weeks and manage not to talk about anything that would actually be useful. Here the teacher only wastes the time of the students.

Some years ago I bought a set of DVD's on analytical meditation by a famous Tibetan buddhist teacher. The recordings contained 7 hours of talks. However, in all five discs, the actual topic was discussed for only 15 minutes.
On average, the teacher, adressed the topic for one minute about every half and hour. What did he talk about then? Praise and hype about the tradition, exciting and illustrative stories of past masters and their great efforts, and loads of silly jokes. Imagine if a school teacher did that. He would get kicked out in weeks or months because there are certain and strict standards.

Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche states: When I went to the United States for the first time, I was in New York and over that period Dudjom Rinpoche was also there giving a teaching. In the newspaper, there was an announcement saying, 
”Dudjom Rinpoche is giving the supreme teaching of Dzogchen”. Then some of my students went to receive the teaching and we discovered that Dudjom Rinpoche was actually giving a teaching about Refuge, Bodhicitta and other such things. He was teaching on the Four Teachings of Gampopa. He taught (the first) three, but he didn't give the fourth one. The fourth one shows how illusion is tranformed into wisdom. This kind of teaching is more commonly applied in Tantra but it is not necessary in Dzogchen. Many teachers give this teaching, and it is an example of how something can misleadingly be given the title of Dzogchen. It is not so difficult to understand. When you give the title of Dzogchen to something and then teach some technique of practice, how to do Puja, or how to do different kinds of visualisation and transformation, then it is not Dzogchen.”

Giving hasty and poorly defined practice instructions is another common problem. Especially in Tibetan buddhism teachers deliver long talks about the theory. These talks can last hours but when they get to practice instructions, they are too hasty and without the needed detail. I don't mean pithy or concise. After hours or even days of explanation, the teacher can explain the technique in few short sentences and never repeat what he said. I've seen geshes (doctors) and high lamas do this. This causes the students problems because they don't exactly know what they are supposed to do and how. I have met people who practiced for years on the basis of such instructions doing the practice wrong and without getting much benefits. Also, in ”guided sessions” teacher's verbal instructions can be of no use whatsoever again due to vagueness and carelessness. The teacher should always put himself in the place of the listeners, considering what they need to know in order to do the practice correctly. The position of a teacher is a highly responsible one because others rely on his or her instructions. For this reason, a teacher cannot assume that everyone knows what he is talking about, without asking them. The teacher should always make sure the students understand what is taught.

Another common problem is to use too little (or too much) time for the actual practice during dharma events. I've seen both examples. I recently joined a weekend dzogchen seminar of a famous Tibetan lama where literally 1 minute of a 90 minute session was used for practice that was hastily described the previous evening and was never reviewed. After I had survived my dumbfoundedness it was hard for me to comprehend what had just happened because it was both a pedagogical and practical disaster. How is it possible that a lama with decades of exposure to dharma would use his time for travelling to another country and then as a teacher do so poorly in making the crowd interested in the actual practice? I question this because after all that is said, it is the practice that matters, right? How can anyone practice correctly after one single minute of practice based on poor instructions? 

Ngak'chang Rinpoche: "I think that people who are associated with Shambhala center, may not know that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the first lama ever to teach silent sitting as a group practice in the Tibetan tradition. This was really quite a radical move. It doesn't seem so radical from the perspective of theravada or zen but certainly from the Tibetan buddhist perspective. Khandro Dechen and I are always very happy if there are zen students who attend our retreats because they know how to sit. The Tibetan students tend to fidget because they are not used to silent sitting. So the reason why Trungpa Rinpoche introduced silent sitting as a group practice is because he wanted to establish a solid foundation for what came afterwards. In the dzogchen tradition we don't have group silent sitting because in the dzogchen tradition there are these ancillary practices. So for example when you sit and come across some obstacle then there are things you can do to that obstacle. There are certain syllables that are enunciated forcefully. Now as you can imagine if there is a whole room full of people who are all occasionally uttering forceful syllables its somewhat distracting. There are also changes in physical posture and there are also exercises that are sometimes quite athletic. However we have taken on this practice of group silent sitting because its extremely valuable in a supportive way as a sangha." from:

Some years ago I heard that there are no group meditations in Tibetan monasteries. For someone with a zen training history, this was a shock and I still don't understand how the Tibetans reasoned that sitting meditation was to be done alone at retreats, or by each person himself in the monastery. Surely sitting together with the sangha for a few hours a day would be (is) highly beneficial.

When teaching dzogchen, the teacher needs to be very careful and skillful in communicating, demonstrating and transmitting the natural state to the students. Ample time in practice together is an absolute requirement for that is the core of it all. All else is just support to this. This is the only way to properly pass the lamp of dharma, the lamp of the natural state. When this is achieved it is the recognition of the natural state that motivates the student, instead of secondary motives like the popularity of the teacher or his lineage.

Starting to do other things immediately after prayer recitation or mantras, without even a moment of conscious recognition, is another common fault. I have seen how teachers and students recite long prayers, from 10-60 minutes, but the moment they are done reading they stand up and get busy with other things. This  indicates a very poor understanding of the energetic side of dharma practice. If the blessings of the guru, The Three Jewels, Bodhisattva Vows, the deities (yidam, ishtadevata) or the energies of prayers are not well recognised by experiencing them in one's own body, heart and mind, then one is not really receiving the blessings, connecting to the lineage and therefore cannot get the proper benefit of the practice. The blessings and energetic charges, that do come about in all kinds of dharma practice from theravada, to mahayana and vajrayana, should be recognised and connected with with one's own body. Not doing this is like wanting to listen to a special radio show and carefully tuning to the right channel but then after tuning in, instead of listening to the special broadcast, beginning to do other things. I have seen dorje lopons (skt. vajracharya) with over 40 years of history do this. I think it is extremely unfortunate because this energetic aspect is the foundation of all dharma, and it is always there regardless of tradition or the vehicle.

Keeping it real

Dharma is about the mind, and mind is an abstract thing. But despite of its abstractness it is possible to speak, transmit and understand it in simple and common terms. If I look at buddhism, more specifically tantric buddhism and dzogchen, in the world today, there are many obvious issues there that would be easy to fix.

I do not claim to be omniscient but here I have discussed some problems that would be easy to fix, if the teachers wanted to. We cannot be too self-sufficient and merely rely on ancient ways. If we are willing to see and can admit, buddhism is not doing too well in terms of releasing suffering. 

We must always question fearlessly and analyse our ways so that we can see our faults. We also should listen and learn from others. Answering questions in a proper manner leads to more thorough understanding, real experiential knowledge. That is the only way to keep dharma alive.

- Kim Katami, 1.6.2017

Open Heart,