Pedagogy of Dharma
In many of my posts I have discussed of problems related to the teaching methods of dharma. In constructive spirit, I am here continuing on dharma pedagogy in a casual manner.
Room for a lot of improvement
I often wonder how it is possible that there seems to be very little pedagogical standards in transmitting of dharma. When seeing how badly teachings and practice instructions are delivered, anyone with history in pedagogical studies probably wonders the same. If we think of any field of study dharma, there are explicit requirements what the students are excepted to learn but unfortunately this doesn't seem to be the case in buddhism at large. Fortunately there are some exceptions to this rule but in general it can be said that dharma teachers would have a lot in honing their skills. And yes, I think that it is the teaching individuals who are responsible for making it better, as it is individuals who create a cultures and procedures.
Practical example of poor pedagogy are extensive yet vague theoretical expositions with little or no relation at all with actual practice. Students listen to their teachers talk hour after hour, year after year and yet their understanding keeps stalling. I have joined many dharma events where teachers speak extensively yet never explain in lucid language how the theory relates to the practice and to the minds of the students. I have seen people with over 20 years of diligent study inquire their lama about the meaning of emptiness to which they are answered the usual jargon that is too symbolic to understand, just like it was 20 years earlier, and every year since... When students aren't learning even after so many years of study and practice, that would make the bells go off in the heads of teachers of other fields but this doesn't seem to happen in buddhism. Orthodox teachers rarely change the methods and views they have adopted. But like I often ask if the old ways are not making people buddhas, then there surely is a need for re-evaluation. If the old ways worked and the view of mahayana buddhism would be realised by people, we would surely see a very different culture of dharma than what we are seeing now. Like all religions, buddhism too has the same problem of having imbibed too much cultural influences which always changes a pragmatical dharma method into a religion.
While vagueness of instructions of buddhist meditation is common, at the same time teachers often emphasize that the training deals with the mind. That is of course a valid point but at the same time it doesn't help that the instructions really are vague. Observing these two factors have lead me to think whether the proponents of buddhism can actually realise the profound points of the past masters in their own case. Bhumi-analyses based on the Open Heart Bhumi Model clearly indicate that this largely is not the case. Vagueness of instructions indicates lack of practical experience. If one knows things first hand, then one is able to describe it in lucind common language, without useless theoretical details. It is not a coincidence that the greatest buddhist masters of all times, often talk in simple yet direct parables full of meaning, instead of scholarly jargon.
Another example of bad teaching habits is talking voluminously yet not addressing the actual topic. It is actually amazing how some teachers deliver long talks or even series's of talks lasting days or even weeks and not talk about anything useful. It only wastes time of the listeners. Some years ago I bought a DVD-set of vipashyana meditation by a famous Tibetan buddhist lama. The recordings contained about 7 hours of talks. However, the whole package addressed the actual topic for only 15 minutes. He talked of the topic for one minute about every half and hour... Imagine sitting there hoping to learn something useful. The material was off-topic hype, stories of past masters and jokes, and couldn't be directly applied to anyone's practice. Such a school teacher would get kicked out of the education system in 6 months tops!
”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.”
- Namkhai Norbu
Giving hasty, vague or poorly defined practice instructions is another common problem. Especially in Tibetan buddhism it is common for teachers to deliver long talks about the theoretical view. These talks can last hours but when they get to practice instructions, they are too short and hastily given. By short I don't mean pithy or concise. After hours or even days of explaining the teaching and the purpose of the practice, a lama 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 puts the students in a problematic situation where they don't know exactly what they are supposed to do and how. In ”guided sessions” teacher's verbal instructions can be of no use whatsoever again due to vagueness and carelessness. The teacher should always think of the event from the perspective of the listeners despite if he has given the same teachings many times before. The teacher should never assume that everyone knows what he is talking about, the terms and descriptions, unless he knows everyone present.
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 lama where literally 1 minute of a 90 minute session was used for practice (that was hastily described the previous evening). After I had survived my dumbfoundedness it was hard for me to comprehend what and why had just happened. What could possibly be the reason why a lama with decades of history would use his time and energy to travel to another country and then perform so poorly as a teacher whose very purpose is to motivate people practicing? I wonder how anyone could get properly motivated by such sillyness. It should be the carefully delivered direct transmission from the lama and experience gained from that which should be the main motivator for the practitioners but if this is not the case, it becomes a farce, a dzogchen pancake.
Starting to do other things immediately after prayer recitation or mantras, without even a small moment of conscious recognition, is another common mistake. I have seen how lamas and students recite long prayers, from 10-60 minutes, and the moment they are done reading they stand up and start doing other things. This is an indicator of very poor understanding of how tantric/energetic practices function. If the blessings of the Guru, The Three Jewels, the deities (yidam, ishtadevata) or the energies of prayers are not well recognised by experiencing them in one's own bodymind, then one is not really receiving the blessing and therefore cannot get the proper benefit of the practice. It's 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 broadcast, beginning to read the newspaper instead. I have seen (Western) dorje lopons (skt. vajracharya, high position in Tibetan buddhism) with over 40 years of history do this. I think it is both extremely unfortunate and miserable because very few people have karmic connections with the diamond vehicle (vajrayana buddhism) which is the fastest of all buddhist methods but then there are such stoopid rookie mistakes in the teachings. This is a mistake of the teachers.
Keeping it real
Even though dharma is about the mind which is an abstract thing, it is possible to transmit it in common terms but not everyone seems to be ready to accept this simple truth. However, if proper communication is achieved there opens up an opportunity for the dharma to be realised and embodied which is of course why it exists in the first place.
Years ago when I had recently arrived at a Japanese zen-temple, I witnessed something that was strange to me. I saw local laypeople came to the temple on Sundays to hear a dharma talk given by the abbott. It was strange to me because the vibe was ”churchlike” in the same way I had seen in Christian churches in my home country. I hadn't seen in the West that rinzai zen buddhism could be viewed religiously. It had never crossed my mind. Since then I have witnessed how buddhism is largely viewed as a belief based faith in all old buddhist cultures.
It is somewhat common that buddhist teachings are viewed as religious in the West as well. People become ”buddhists”, adopt a faith and it's doctrines. But this is hardly any better or any more useful than what we have in faith-based Christianity already. In case you found it useful, you wouldn't be here reading this, wouldn't you? The real refuge in the Three Jewels, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha essentially is in the direct recognition of the natural state, and not in anything else like reading books or reciting vows.
If I look at tantric buddhism and dzogchen in the world today, there are many obvious issues there which would be easy to fix, simply if teachers have some cojones (regardless of gender) to look in the mirror and do some honest introspection. After all the present and the future of humanity largely lies on the shoulders of dharma teachers. If we don't help and assist the people of the world properly, who does?
- Kim Katami, 1.6.2017
Open Heart, www.openheart.fi