The Buddha’s Teaching Style

I have returned from a conference in Penang, Malaysia since last Friday. It was a big conference with more than 10 parallel sessions for three days and more than three hundred papers (I think). The theme is “Exploring Learning and Leadership Theories in Asia” (www.ellta.org). It was quite strange that they put leadership and learning as themes of the conference, and from the beginning it appeared that the two did not quite blend with each other, so what happened was that the conference was divided into two halves. People who talked about learning were mostly from education, and those who discussed leadership were from management. Perhaps there was a reason behind this, but in fact they conference could have been divided into two according to these main topics.

The main question of the conference was that they would like to look at how Asia could come up with their own theories or perspectives on either leadership or learning. On the first day there was a panel discussion on the perspectives of the main Asian religions on these topics. This gave me an opportunity to think a little about the Buddha’s own style of teaching, so I would like to share what I have been thinking on this topic.

The Buddha were first and foremost a teacher. This was what he did for his entire forty-five year career after he attained Enlightenment. So it was interesting to how the Buddha taught. We have been talking a lot about what the Buddha taught, but not as much on how he did it. Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of his way of teaching was that he taught according to the needs and backgrounds of those he was teaching. The Buddha knew the person he was going to teach and adapted his way of teaching accordingly. This could be the most important lessons for educators – teaching should be custom made for each individual learner. Since each learner is different, the way he or she is taught should be adapted according to his or her own individual propensity.

This can be an antidote to the situation at present where education has become a mass enterprise and custom education has been all but lost. I think, however, that the room is still there for custom teaching, and we can still learn from the Buddha on how this is done. It does not look as difficult or impracticable as it appears.

Let us look at some of the stories of the Buddha’s teachings that appeared in the text. One of the Buddha’s students-monks used to be a musician. He was having a problem concentrating and meditating. The Buddha asked him what he was before he became a monk and he answered that he was a musician. The Buddha then asked him what happened when he tightened his stringed instrument too much. The monk answered that the string would not sound good and it would break. The Buddha then asked him what would happen if the strings were too lax, and the monk answered that they would not sound good at all. The Buddha then told the monk that meditation was the same — you should not be too tight or too lax, just find a middle way where the tune is just right. The monk followed the Buddha’s advice and then became an arahat.

In another story, the Buddha was teaching his cousin Nanda. Nanda was very attached to sensual pleasure. He told the Buddha that he wanted to get to heaven in order to enjoy all the pleasures there. The Buddha wanted to wean him from this addiction so he could finally attain Liberation. The Buddha took him to see the heavens, which Nanda liked very much, but then the Buddha showed what happened after someone like Nanda enjoyed his time in heaven – they eventually fell down to hell and suffered intense pain. Nanda then became disillusioned with all the pleasures and took the monk’s duties seriously. He also became an arahat afterwards,

This shows that the Buddha always know the character and the backgrounds of those he was teaching very well. And this is his teaching style that we should emulate. We might not be as good as he is in knowing our students, but we can certainly start doing this.

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