Buddha’s Teaching Methodology

Dr. Tilokasunkari Kanyawasam

Published in Issue – I, June 2013

Buddhism is both a science and an art. As a science the Buddha teaches us the laws that govern our nature, our life. The Buddha teaches us the structure of the human mind, the working of our mind and how the mind can be systematically cultivated. Buddhism as a science teaches the laws that govern man’s behaviour based on the mind.

It teaches Dependent Origination, The Five Aggregates, structure of the Human Mind and Nibbana (The Deathless State) and Kamma the theory of cause and effect. Science also includes the coordination of human experience, in a systematic and logical form, the statements of general laws, their use in prediction and the further research on the basis of new experience. It is here as a mental science that Buddhism not only holds its own but even surpasses science. As an art the Buddha teaches us how to attain the goal expressed by the Science of Buddhism, how to perform good action and avoid ill-will, how to train ourselves so that the Noble Eightfold Path becomes to us a reality by realizing Nibbana. A study of the Commentaries and the Tripitaka are necessary to grasp the Buddha’s doctrine fully. Cosmologies by no means constitute the Buddha’s doctrine. They are only incidental additions.

It is a scientific teaching not contradicting but rather conforming to the demands of reason and confirming science and modern learning. There is an intimate interdependence, between science and art. Education is also based on psychology.

Rahulovada Sutta is a compendium of educational practices. A close scrutiny of this Sutta would expose a general methodology of teaching in Buddhism. This general methodology relates to accepted educational principles and psychological theories.

To direct the educational enterprise of Ven. Rahula in such a way as to bring about his optimum development and adjustment to his culture, the Buddha followed a general methodology of teaching, which is even ahead of modern day theories. When Ven. Rahula was 7– 11 years of age, the Buddha wanted to teach him Truthfulness and Mindfulness as he considered these as the corner–stones for building up character and for developing the faculties of mind. How did he do it? He took concrete examples and made use of aids which would appeal to children of 7-11 years.

The examples given were from the child’s own life experience. Mangoes, water in a basin, are what appeals to a child of that age. Ample use of similes, words and illustrations that would appeal and impress the child’s mind are the prominent teaching techniques he adopted. This discourse is named Ambalatthika Sutta or Boy’s Questions. These are given in the Khuddakapaina of the Sutta Pitaka. Piaget call the age of 7 -11 the period of concrete development which means that only with concrete things the child should be taught and a child can learn.

When Ven. Rahula was 18 years old the Buddha taught him more abstract concepts. Before teaching him, the Buddha thought like this: “Mature is Rahula in those qualities that bring deliverance to maturity. Should I not now give further guidance to Rahula for the extinction of suffering.” He taught him meditation, selflessness the five aggregates and the importance of equanimity. According to Piaget this is the formal developmental stage, when an individual could be taught by questioning and discussion. The Buddha used the exact method in teaching Ven. Rahula at this age. Ven. Rahula was obsessed with the idea that he was handsome and was the son of the Buddha. The two were going together with Ven. Rahula walking behind. At once, the Buddha by his extrasensory perception seized that moment and advised the young Bhikkhu, his son. This is the moment when the brain is in its maximum motivated state and that is the best time to teach a person. It is the best moment to rehabilitate a psychologically affected person. This technique is used in teaching languages. In teaching mentally ill people this is recognised as a curative method. Even today, it is in its experimental stage and expects us all to inquire into, test, experiment with and verify the truth of the Dhamma by direct knowledge. Isn’t this the scientific method? A scientist does not ask fellow scientists to accept a theory on faith. In the same way, the Buddha only shows us the way but it is we who have to do the work of Dhamma which is well proclaimed – sukhi hontu. It produces results without delay in this very life Sandittihiko. It invites anyone to verify it for himself – ehipassiko; it leads to the desired goal opanaiko, and it is to be realised by the wise, each person for –paccatam vedhitabbo vinnnuhiti. This appears as if the Buddha was addressing an intellectual group of the twentieth century, for the method that the Buddha recommends is what we today call the scientific method.

The following verse of the Buddha from the Tattvasangraha says “Just as experts test gold by burning it, cutting it and applying it on a touchstone, my statements should be accepted only after critical examination and not out of respect for me”.

In the Digha Nikaya too it is stated: This scientific method in the Buddha’s own words as given in the Samyutta Nikaya is “This the Tathagata discovers, having discovered and comprehended it, he points it out, teaches it, lays it down, establishes, reveals, analyses, clarifies it and says ‘Look’.”

The techniques used by the Buddha are very relevant for the topic and clientele he dealt with. He adopted a number of varied teaching methods – the analytical method, the psychotherapeutic method, the scientific method, the client – centered method, the discovery method, the question and answer method. His entire missionary enterprise was launched on three specific methods of Dhamma desana– the direct lecture method. When delivering a lecture the direct instructional function of learning is involved. Then comes Dhamma Savana – Attentive listening. This suggests the role of listening in the learner. Another is Dhamma Sakaccha– Discussion, the learning exercised through discussion.

To motivate a person he adopted the known to unknown method. He would find an opportunity to deliver a lecture to suit that particular audience. Sometimes he made use of super-wisdom for this purpose. One of the wisdom attributed to the Buddha is the super-wisdom. When he handled a large group his pedagogy varied. He took into consideration the individual differences and catered mostly to the average and always made use of the personal factor and techniques or simulation technique. e.g. the woman in the story is now Yasodhara. This is one way of motivating a crowd, using his ‘super-wisdom’ sustaining the interests and reinforcing what has been said. He used simple parables, similes, allegories, illustrations. With a large group the method most often adopted was narration. He was a consummate story-teller. He touched upon various topics and the five hundred and fifty Jataka stories were presented on such occasions. Khema an, individual obsessed with her beauty, was dealt in a completely different manner. He made use of visual aids to motivate her and change her. In dealing with abstract concepts he always used the formal logical operational method–question and answer was one. Discussion was another method. The learner is greatly aided by being questioned on positive terms and their opposites. This is one way of assessing the intelligence of the individual and appealing to his level of development. There is the way of intellectual and mnemonic method, the simplifying and unifying effect obtained by causing all the questions to refer to one topic. There was a formal pattern in answering questions put to the Buddha (1) Answering it straight away (ekamsa). (2) Giving an analytical explanation (vibhajja) or answering it through another series of relevant questions (patipuccha). (3) Malumkaya Putta was dealt by the silent method (thapaniya), where the Buddha refrained from answering. In psychology these methods of questioning other than the last are called the formal logical operations method.

It is when Ven. Rahula was 21 years that the Buddha taught him the profound theory of the Three Characteristics of conditioned existence namely suffering, impermanence and soul-lessness. So the Buddha made use of the mental development of Ven. Rahula to teach these abstract concepts by methods of questioning and discussing.

Finally, the Buddha’s last teaching to Ven. Rahula was Dhammadayada Sutta which explains the life of a monk. Thus the Buddha sought out Rahula’s own active interest in the world around him, stirred him into asking questions and then encouraged him in every possible way to search out his own answers and make his own progressive discoveries. These were methodologies adapted to the mental development of Ven. Rahula. He adopted a different methodology for every different developmental stage.


(Reproduced from website http://www.island.lk  in the interest of our readers)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *