Our lives are not too short
to find time to learn the Dharma well.
Our lives are too short
not to learn well, so as to practise better.
It is of course important to learn the Buddha’s teachings properly, since realising their truths are crucial for our goal of True Happiness, to be enlightened, liberated from all suffering. In fact, to master any skill, it is important to learn well, so as to be able to practise accordingly for the intended results. When it comes to the Dharma, what would constitute ‘learning properly’? The source of the teachings should first be mindfully selected. However, as beginners, it is natural for difficulties in choosing to arise. All teachings arise from teachers. As the Buddha, being the original and best teacher is not physically present now, we need to learn from teachers whose teachings align to the Buddha’s teachings, as recorded in the Buddhist scriptures (sutras). Any teachings that seldom refer to specific and authentic sutras is cause for extra caution – for that taught might be deluded opinions and fabricated lies instead of enlightened truths.
Even when sutras are referenced, their interpretations might vary, which makes it important to seek second or third opinions, and to study those and related sutras personally, so as to confirm their true messages. When in doubt of any unfamiliar or ‘strangely’ portrayed teachings, the teacher should be asked for their sutra sources. If unable or unwilling to answer appropriately, even evading questions, including those on personal background or conduct, it is time to question that teacher’s moral integrity. The teacher might be misrepresenting the Buddha’s teachings, concealing breaking of precepts (especially by lying and stealing), by refusing to do what every good teacher would – to answer reasonable questions. In fact, good teachers encourage active query, as true learning is not merely about accepting sound teachings, but about discerning questionable teachings too. Even if responsible teachers do not have the answers, they would seek them to facilitate their students’ understanding.
It is wise to learn aspects of the Dharma through specialised teachers too. For example, it does not make sense to learn and ask about the Pure Land teachings from a teacher who neither truly understands nor practises them. While good teachers will honestly admit their ignorance or lack of understanding, egoistic ones might pretend or assume themselves to be knowledgeable enough, and misrepresent the actual teachings asked about, leading students to possibly misunderstand and belittle those teachings. This is why it can be dangerous to learn exclusively from only one teacher, who might offer constricted, partial and even lopsided understanding, which essentially becomes misunderstanding. Good teachers are not possessive too. They will not demand blind faith, to be above questioning, to have cults of personality form around to deify them (with offerings of wealth, status and even sex), while discounting the worth of every other teacher and teaching. Such are the very ‘teachers’ to directly avoid.
The precious and profound teachings of the Buddha should also be learned as systematically and completely as possible, ideally via ‘live’ classes personally. This is way superior to learning merely via encountered articles, audio or video recordings, which might be learnt from partially, in random bits and pieces. This does not do justice to the Dharma, while it can confuse one into thinking the teachings are hard to understand or already adequately understood. Sincere ‘live’ learning allows participation by clarification of doubts too. Effective teachers can also rectify students’ faults expressed by the nature of their queries. Even hearing others’ questions being answered can prove educational. However, asking of random questions that come to mind during occasionally attended general talks or via similarly confused friends hardly completes the big picture. Erroneous or irrelevant ideas might still be deludedly clung to, while still being ignorant of the key important concepts shared detailedly in class!
Although there already
are many ancient sutras and sastras,
good Dharma teachers can offer
contemporary commentaries on them,
to aid understanding of their timeless truths.
Understanding Amituofo Via The Amitabha Sutra (16th Run)