In our third episode, Catherine and I talked about how the Buddha used different methods to teach different people. This makes sense, as there’s never a one-size-fit-all solution in education, and while some students learn from just reading the textbook, others learn best when participating in a discussion, or when they work with the material in a hands-on sort of fashion. Aside from learning styles, we all struggle with different parts of the content. I remember struggling with math growing up while my classmates zoomed by. My parents would always compare me to a younger cousin whose mental math was quicker than my calculator. Although it seemed like I was a sore failure, we were simply acclimated towards different fields. While I was able to write essays with deft, they were the bane of my cousin’s existence.
We all have different backgrounds, and so it would be ridiculous to think that we all learn the same way. The Buddha understood this and incorporated it into his teachings. And so as we mentioned in the podcast, the Buddha gave different instructions to his students—Nidhi was shown warmth and acceptance, Rahula was taught using the metaphor of a foot-washing basin, and Angulimala was transformed by just a few lines regarding violence. While we aren’t the individuals in these stories, we can still learn something from them, although they might not all be quite as powerful to us. The volumes and volumes of Buddhist texts hold stories of the Buddha teaching a wide range of students, and there really is something for everybody.
In a Buddhist context, some of us may prefer sitting meditation, while others may prefer more active practices like community service and volunteering, others yet (like myself) may prefer chanting and participating in Dharma services. While it is advisable to have a broad range of experiences in various practices, we will all prefer some practice over another. But just because we have an affinity towards one practice doesn’t mean we should avoid other practices—or worse, criticize other practices. We can think of our path in Buddhism as being similar to a holistic education—we start by learning a wide range of subjects to build a solid foundation. After we’ve acquired some breadth and the foundation is stable, we can start gaining depth and focusing on the practice that we feel is most effective for us.
When practicing Buddhism though, it’s easy for us to become impatient and want to jump into specializing as soon as possible.
I often compare this to a person who wants to take upper-division classes before understanding the basics of the field. Trying to teach someone who never learned algebra how to do calculus would be a mess, but when it comes to Buddhism—for whatever strange reason—people seem to think it’s fine to try and understand emptiness through reading a few books and skip all of the teachings necessary to really understand Buddhism. This ends up leading to either absolute confusion and frustration, or a smug thought that we’ve sped through Buddhism and left others in the dust when in fact we haven’t even begun to understand what Buddhism is about. Both are terrible outcomes.
All of these teachings are taught by the Buddha and, at their core, lead to awakening. So ultimately, as long as we are becoming more compassionate and more wise, less angry and less desirous, the teachings are very effective indeed.
On the other end of the equation, we can learn from the Buddha’s compassion and wisdom when we’re trying to help others as well. We firstly have to keep in mind that we are all in unique situations, and just because something works for you doesn’t mean it works for everybody. The other thing we have to understand is that while we are often well-intentioned and want to help, if we don’t have the capacity to do so, then we are just adding to the problem. If you see somebody drowning but you don’t know how to swim, jumping into the water will not be much of a help. If anything, it will just add to the problem. Call for help or find someone who can swim instead.
To prepare for these situations, we can bolster our capacities by learning how to swim and gaining the skill and insight required to help others. We can always help others, but the amount of help we can give and the ways in which we help will vary. As we continue practicing in Buddhism and gaining a broader foundation, we often develop the skills necessary to help others, and we are put in situations where those skills come into play. Through continual practice and refinement, we continue developing our capacities to help, and we are able to be more effective bodhisattvas.
But that doesn’t mean that our troubles are done—all roads lead to awakening, but that doesn’t mean the roads are short. It will take what may seem like an eternity, and there will be plenty of trials and tribulations along the way, but with each challenge, we grow. And as we grow wiser and more compassionate, we inch closer and closer to being able to help all sentient beings.