Home » Features » Why We Should Ask & Answer Dharma Queries Well

Ask well
to be answered well.
Ask better
to be answered better.

– Stonepeace

In the last line of ‘[The] Twenty-Third [Light] Precept [Against] Arrogant [And] Biased Speaking [Of The Dharma]’ (第二十三憍慢僻说[轻]戒) in the ‘Brahmā Net Sūtra’s Bodhisattvas’ Prātimokṣa’ [or Precepts] (梵网经菩萨戒本), the following is stated, ‘If Dharma teachers [or masters], relying [upon] personal understanding [of the] Sūtras, Vinaya [and the] Great Vehicle’s [i.e. Mahāyāna] study [of the] precepts, with kings, crown princes [and] hundreds [of various] officials, act as [their] good friends, yet, [when] newly learning Bodhisattvas come [to] enquire, perhaps [of] Sūtras’ meanings, [or the] Vinaya’s meanings, [with a] disdainful mind, evil mind [and/or] conceited mind, not one [by] one answering [their questions] well, they commit [a] light defiled misgiving.’ (若法师,自倚解经律,大乘学戒,与国王太子百官以为善友,而新学菩萨来问若经义律义,轻心恶心慢心,不一一好答者,犯轻垢罪。) The general spirit of this can also be applied to any Buddhist when sharing the Dharma and answering queries about it.

To summarise, the above indirectly speaks of how Buddhist teachers should not rely solely on their own limited comprehension or interpretation of the Buddha’s Dharma [teachings in the Sūtras] and the Discipline [on the precepts in the Vinaya and beyond]. It reminds of the need, even for all teachers (who are yet to be perfect teachers like the Buddha), to also be students, to keep learning from other more learned teachers, lest they misunderstand, and misrepresent the Buddha’s intended lessons – which also breaks this precept. It also says there should be equanimity and not favouritism in teaching. There should not be preferred friendly association with the rich and powerful, at the expense of those who are neither. While some practical prioritisation is occasionally needed, there should not be indulgence in company of the socially ‘elite’, while unkindly neglecting or hurriedly patronising other sincere learners.

Responsible Dharma teachers are truly good-knowing advisors, spiritual friends to all, even to perfect strangers who suddenly show up with a bunch of questions. They would make themselves regularly accessible, never shirking reasonable questions about Buddhism, even patiently explaining why some questions might be unreasonable or unsensible, as part of their teaching. They will answer all questions systematically, comprehensively and skilfully, according to the capacities and needs of the enquirers, never looking down upon them or ignoring their queries. Every teacher should remember too, that when they are fed questions, how well they respond (or not respond) will straighten out or distort their listeners’ perception of Buddhism on the whole! Thus should every question be handled with mindful care, with as much compassion and wisdom as possible.

The worst kind of ‘teachers’ discourage active enquiry, while teaching it to be wrong or even ‘slanderous’ to raise reasonable doubts. They have forgotten that the Buddha did not want any to believe in his teachings with blind faith. In fact, he was the one who first urged us to doubt the doubtful. Wondering aloud is surely the other half of absorbing silently in the process of learning. In fact, many if not most Sūtras originated from their audiences’ queries to the Buddha! In the absence of the Buddha, Buddhist teachers, being trusted by their students, should do their best to stand in, to offer answers to their questions, properly and timely. After all, who else should they ask? Even when teachers are uncertain of how to answer some difficult questions, they ought to make the necessary efforts to research, to personally learn more, before returning to share their findings.

In the last line of ‘[The] Sixteenth [Light] Precept [Against] For Benefits Invertedly Speaking [The Dharma]’ (第十六为利倒说[轻]戒), is this related teaching, ‘Bodhisattvas, [if] for [personal] benefits thus, [on asked Buddhist questions that] should [be] answered not answering, [to] invertedly speak [of] Sūtras [and the] Vinaya’s words’ [meanings], without beginning [and] without end, slandering [the] Triple Gem [of the Buddhas, Dharma and Saṅgha], they commit [a] light defiled misgiving.‘ (菩萨为利益故,应答不答,倒说经律文字,无前无后,谤三宝说者,犯轻垢罪。) Teachings via answering should thus be offered readily, correctly and completely to benefit others, so as to not misrepresent Buddhism. 

Contemplate well
to comprehend well.
Contemplate better
to comprehend better.

– Stonepeace

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