Buddha's teaching methods

I like to discuss teachings methods used by the Buddha (‘the teacher of men and gods’) for his disciples. Rarely he gave a sermon or two on the topic itself but he utilised many means to convey his message to different people.

Differing methods of framing the path seems to have been one of them, for example AN3.87 (which is not part of the 37 factors of enlightenment). A simpler formulation may help some grasp the concept easily while others might find a more detailed classification beneficial, such as the Noble Eightfold Path (N8FP). The latter makes certain that as many of the practice factors are in one place.

Sutta quotes and discussion welcome.

With metta


One thing I’ve noticed is that the suttas contain a lot of analogies and similes. And more so, these analogies and similes still bring home the point beautifully 2500 years later.

On the sheer number of similes, it wouldn’t surprise me if the suttas contain the most analogies/similies per sentence of any collection of text in human history.

I would say that the use of analogies is a distinctive teaching method used by the Buddha; both in how often they are used and that they are well-crafted, i.e. able to illustrate a point ~2500 years later.


Besides the similes @Erik_ODonnell mentions, I would also note the abundance of stories and fairy tales.

That’s true. He comments on his own similies here: “Then these three similes — spontaneous, never before heard — appeared to me…” MN36. This happened before he became fully enlightened.

He has asked the monks to remember some of his similies as a practice tool. The similie of the saw, for example, is mentioned in discourses other than the original one. With its particularly graphic imagery of limbs being sawn off, it seems to facilitate recollection of the teachings of not being angry, when angry (ie when it is most difficult to remember the teachings).

With metta

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I think he utilised powerful myths and cultural beliefs to drive home the dhamma and bring about change in his listeners.

I wondered if in the current age scientific descriptions could be used in the same way. Emptiness, impermanence and not-self are scientifically accurate of course.

With metta

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Yes, I think that’s an interesting point.

Perhaps, if the Buddha lived now, the discourses would be filled with stories about the Buddha vanishing and reappearing, as a fast as a strong man can extend his arm, in the board rooms of powerful bank executives, or among the gatherings of wealthy and powerful pleasure seekers in Monaco, or in the harems of modern playboys, to give them teachings on the illusory and unsatisfactory nature of their attainments.

I completely agree with Erik on about the importance of analogies and similes (I also salute him for using the word ‘analogy’ as I think it might be the first time I’ve seen someone else do it - to my mind, except for the cases which really are similes, ‘analogy’ is a much more appropriate word because it is expressly concerned with illustrating how a thing functions rather than with being poetic).

I once came across a Manga bible and thought it was an interesting way to approach the Christian narratives. Had I remotest artistic capability I might set about a project engaging with the incredible visuality of the Buddha’s teaching.

Anyway, coming to my actual point: I think questions are also have a very significant role in the Buddha’s teaching style. It strikes me the Buddha is very keen to lead students to seeing for themselves - obviously we know this is so in the bigger ‘vision of the Dhamma’ sense, but I think a more mundane illustration of this would be in the “What do you think, monks, …?” set up found innumerable times.

Then we have:

There are these four ways of answering questions. Which four? There are questions that should be answered categorically [straightforwardly yes, no, this, that]. There are questions that should be answered with an analytical (qualified) answer [defining or redefining the terms]. There are questions that should be answered with a counter-question. There are questions that should be put aside. These are the four ways of answering questions.”

(AN 4.42)

(As an aside, I think the last point of above quote also highlights another characteristic of his teaching style: only dealing with what matters (ie. leads to liberation) and totally disregarding all else.)


Than-Geoff wrote a hefty book on related topic: “Skill in Questions – How the Buddha Taught

At this page, down near the bottom, are links to download or acess PDF, EBook or Mobi (for mobile smart phones?) versions:


Since the suttas were memorized and recited orally and then written down with the style of the times and cultures, the personality of the man Gautama is lost. I like to think that he was not only extremely intelligent and sharply insightful, but magnetic, personable and approachable. Sometimes when I am sitting and grappling with something, I’ll imagine the Buddha sitting next to me as my teacher and his character of care and compassion fosters a sense of composure and confidence in me.


It seems of something required a direct yes or no answer (‘is sila important In the path’) the first method of answering would be sufficient (and efficient) to answer the question immediately, perhaps opening the door to a more detailed explanation of it.

If the answer depended on an analysis (‘does energy always need to be developed?’) it would require further qualification. ‘Does the Self exist’ is a subtlety different question as the answer has the potential to confuse, and the question may need to be corrected re its underlying (incorrect) assumptions.

‘Is keeping precepts good?’ could be answered with a simple yes or no, but it might be more beneficial to the questioner to have her understanding made explicit by asking ‘what do you mean by saying something is good?’ Then the questioner can decide for themselves (‘teach a man to fish…’). If the teacher asks ‘what do you feel now?’ though a question is not asked, it can direct attention in useful ways.

‘What is your level of attainment’ might be a question to put aside, as well as people trying to be difficult, more obviously and less obviously those who aren’t going to benefit from the answer.

With metta

Interesting. These softer interpersonal qualities are features of a good teacher and not just ‘teaching methods’. I was particularly interested in the word ‘magnetic’ (as a quality of a sincere teacher). What makes someone magnetic and draw another?

With metta

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Yes, I think you’re likely to be absolutely right in the sense that the context would determine the approach.

I always grin gaily at the line from MN18 when the Buddha is asked what he teaches by someone who wants to get into a pointless debate with him:

[I teach the] sort of doctrine, friend, where one does not keep quarreling with anyone in the cosmos

For myself, I’ve had to conclude that all teachings the Buddha is found to give, are teachings delivered in a situation in which at least someone in attendance will ‘get it’ and their practice will benefit from it in some way. Working the point from a slightly different angle we also have the ‘handful of leaves’ (SN 56.31) line.



From a more mundane perspective, handing the whole tipitaka in response to a question is likely to be counterproductive. So there’s something about knowing the listener’s capacity. It is less is more in some cases.

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He must have personified, lived and presented the dharma in such a way that people would want to follow him.

"Since that is so, Upavaṇa, the Dhamma is directly visible, immediate, inviting one to come and see, applicable, to be personally experienced by the wise.”
SN 35



All the same, with respect to the mentioned sutta, the point seems to be more that if the Buddha taught everything that he knew then the texts we have today would be inconceivably more voluminous than what the Tipitiaka has evolved into - the teachings probably wouldn’t fit into all the world’s university library space combined (and certainly wouldn’t by the time the Abhidhamma folks set to work ;-)). But he didn’t.

From this we might deduce that the Buddha’s teaching style was to stay very tightly to the sole objective of guiding listeners closer to liberation (in whatever such way as was suitable for where a given listener was at, be it a fantastically pragmatic teaching on kamma for people who weren’t followers - eg. MN60 - or instruction on refined states of meditation for monastic communities that consisted “purely of heartwood” - eg. MN 118).

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He was a monastic and lived simply, often not staying in one dwelling, not burdening one doner for too long. We know he liked quietness. He was humble but not afraid of the role of the leader of the sangha and being the ‘teacher of men and gods’. He also liked being close to nature, but not so much that he couldn’t teach (being isolated). He also kept a distance; from getting too involved in the affairs of families as well. An observer commented in wonder that his complexion grew brighter as he was attacked by an argumentative opponent! He was very ‘cool’ when answering those who wanted to attack him - once he seemed to even display that he wasn’t sweating or trembling under pressure- all thanks to his enlightenment. He was also compassionate. This would have shone through and people do pick up on this.

With metta


“Analogies… similes… stories… fairy tales…” Also a term s/t appropriate is “metaphor”.

Another topic mentioned above – the Buddha’s apparent ability to adapt his language and level of teaching to match the audience… I’ve noticed this also in how certain, mostly monastic, teachers talk to, answer questions from different audiences. They can speak at times quite to the depth of dhamma; other times, mostly to lay devotees, simply see into and address their concerns giving appropriate mundane advice, without citing suttas or explicit dhamma points. One could say teaching in a way by example, rather than didactically. That may be a matter of training – in some lineages, the title “Sayadaw” implies long-term, advanced study, including skill in teaching. (Nyanponika Thera – in his book “Abhidhamma Studies” – mentions that (at least in some Burmese lineages) ‘Sayadaw’ means 20+ years study, including abhidhamma; not for the sake of teaching abhidhamma per se, but rather because such study can engender a precision of insight and expression that makes for effective teaching.) On the other hand, an ability to adapt exactly to the listener’s needs might also be a factor of attainment, of seeing with the ‘Dhamma-eye’, as, presumably, in the case of the Buddha himself.

Yet another aspect that I’ve found striking is how some, e.g. in retreat dhamma-talks, can bring out and explain significant dhamma themes, but in a way that is informative, even inspiring to everyone present – beginners as well as the more experienced. This in contrast with many lay “dharma” teachers, who at times tend to dumb it down a bit, to sort of match the lowest common denominator level of understanding in the audience.

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“Abhiññāyāhaṃ, bhikkhave, dhammaṃ desemi, no anabhiññāya. Sanidānāhaṃ, bhikkhave, dhammaṃ desemi, no anidānaṃ. Sap­pā­ṭihā­ri­yā­haṃ, bhikkhave, dhammaṃ desemi, no appāṭihāriyaṃ. AN3.125

The Blessed One said, “It’s through direct knowledge that I teach the Dhamma, not without direct knowledge. It’s with a cause that I teach the Dhamma, not without a cause. It’s with marvels that I teach the Dhamma, not without marvels. Because I teach the Dhamma through direct knowledge and not without direct knowledge, because I teach the Dhamma with a cause and not without a cause, because I teach the Dhamma with marvels and not without marvels, there is good reason for my instruction, good reason for my admonition.

Direct knowledge (abhinna -isn’t it in-depth knowledge or deep knowledge?) is clear enough. It is required to teach something, to be skilled in knowing the best way to teach.

Teaching ‘with a cause’ is not so clear -it might mean teaching explaining the causes… or the bigger context in which the teaching sits. The Buddha said this was on of the 4 things required to teach the Dhamma, to Ven Ananda. With a cause might mean, teaching at the correct time (kalena Dhamma sacacca), or ‘timely’ teachings ie - there is a trigger and the Buddha teaches using that opportunity.

‘Teaching with Marvels’ isn’t clear- does that mean he performed miracles while teaching… or that the teaching itself was an example of a miracle, or something meant in an idiomatic way?

with metta

Behold! The life of the Buddha as a graphic novel.


I suppose the Buddha might use manga to reach some people if he lived now. Using visuals could be quite impactful method of communication.

With metta