Problem with the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching Dhamma?

In a paper by John L. Kelly, The Buddha’s Teachings to Lay People, which I’ve found incredibly helpful, it’s shown that the Buddha’s teachings varied according to the background of the listener(s). He didn’t give the exact same instructions to everyone.

Taking this into consideration, when teaching the laity today, perhaps it would be more appropriate to focus more on the teachings directed to them, and less on the teachings directed to monastics. Personally, as a lay follower, I’ve found the teachings to lay people to be far more pertinent.

What are your thoughts?


In a perfect world, teaching the Dhamma would be tailored to the specific listener. I am very new to the practice but have had the good fortune to find teachers who have taken the time to show interest in my specific life situation and which aspects of the Dhamma are of greatest help to me beginning my practice.

It’s sort of like secular teaching; it is more effective to tutor one person or teach a seminar of twenty students than to lecture an auditorium of five hundred. Ever look out over the faces of students in a large lecture hall at a big public university in the United States (where I happen to live)? You will find a lot of blank expressions, compared to what you find in a small seminar room with twenty students who have the ability to engage with the instructor on a personal level.


I agree. my personal experience is that lay people, at least the majority of them, do not want to get into deep Dhamma. They are pre-occupied with worldly affairs. In a way this is very unfortunate, in that they miss out on the opportunity that they have to practise Dhamma. By teaching them teachings directed to lay people, if they at least observe the five precepts, that will be an achievement.

On the other hand, it also avoids the possibility of lay people getting frustrated about the idea of letting go of worldly possessions because they are not ready for it like the monastics. This frustration may lead to the unintended consequence of them avoiding the teaching altogether.

In short, something is better than nothing.
With Metta


=) But the tailoring is perhaps a non solo activity, and automatic? Because a learner filters what is heard, what is understood, with what is remembered or previously experienced or into context…

Thus we have Excellent. Excellent. Excellent! rather than Perfect? Perfect?? Perfect??!


Yes, this is unfortunate. For many, Buddhism is just a means to alleviate stress, which isn’t a bad thing. Though, perhaps, there’d be more interest in Buddhism if people could also see the benefits of faith, virtue, and generosity in the context of the household life.


To be perfectly honest, my initial reaction to discovering Buddhist practice was that it reduced my stress level. But it did not take long for me to recognize that it is also making me a more emotionally generous person. The wife of a cousin of mine recently remarked to me (after I started practicing Buddhism) that she perceives me as a “gentle” person. That is one of the nicest things anyone has said to me recently. I think her perception has a lot to do with my newfound Buddhist practice.


That’s great to hear. Buddhism seems to have a softening effect on the practitioner. In my own experience, I’m not as angry or impulsive as I used to be, and superficial things don’t upset me as easily. After about 15 years of study and practice, I changed in subtle ways that I didn’t fully notice until other people pointed them out to me.

This is why I feel that it’s important to provide resources for the full scope of the Buddha’s teachings, and not just focus on select aspects of it like Anapanasati and Satipatthana. In covering more ground, more people with an interest in Buddhism could benefit from it. What works for some, or even most, doesn’t work for everyone.

At the onset of my journey, practice was a struggle for me because nearly every English language resource was on breath meditation. As someone with respiratory issues, and limited access to teachers, the breath was an uncomfortable object for me to focus on. With a lot of digging, I was able to find instruction on metta and the elements, and from there work my way to the breath. Today, Buddhanusati is my primary meditation object.

Many people struggle with breath meditation—and understandably so. It’s very difficult to focus on such a subtle object without controlling it, which may explain why the Buddha himself didn’t routinely prescribe breath meditation to lay followers. People won’t see this distinction if they continue to blur the lines between the suttas given to monastics and the laity.

Further, we need to think practically about practice. There are ten fetters that bind us to samsara: identity view, doubt, the distorted grasp of rules and vows, sensual desire, ill will, lust for form, lust for the formless, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. If we try to completely abandon the fourth fetter, sense desire, we’ll likely become awkward members of society, unproductive at work, and bad romantic partners. I believe that the Buddha—or the universe; however you wish to see it—knew this, and subsequently guided lay followers to paths that only required the elimination or weakening of the first three fetters to attain a higher rebirth or stream-entry.


I would just like to remind that the suttas are transmitted texts, not the verbatim recorded words of the Buddha. Interpretations vary about how many of these texts are actually authentic (I would say less, others say more) but it’s something to keep in mind.

It might be that the Buddha was a nibbana-oriented teacher to monastics and a ‘life-coach’ aiming at ‘self-development’ to lay people. Or the latter is to a certain extent an historical development not by the Buddha. Transmitted texts just have the nature of concealing the context of their time. Same with the Bible, the Gita or the Book of Mormon…


I’m well aware of this. My point is that there’s a relatively clear and consistent contrast between how the Buddha addressed the laity and monastics in those texts. As Kelly’s paper highlights, 71% of the teachings addressed to lay followers outline paths for happiness in this life, a good rebirth, stream-entry, or the goal is unspecified. The Buddha didn’t object to lay followers taking up Satipatthana practice (MN 51), but he didn’t regularly prescribe this practice to us, nor was this the only practice that he prescribed.


I think there are monks who tailor teachings to lay people. Thich Nhat Hanh comes to mind.

I also heard recordings of Ajahn Brahm made for his students/monks and they were very different from his Friday night talks.

1 Like

… i suspect only a Buddha could define this… and would not; the future is not immutable AFAIK. I think suttas were given to break boundaries, not cement divisions or conceits of ability and disability.

Also… i actually find breath meditation for myself informed and supported by physical impairments affecting breath. So POV varies…

Yes, @jhana4 the Ajahn Brahm from the Friday night talksis a very different Ajahn Brahm when one hears his recorded teachings to the novices and anagarikas. I recall that a Bhikkhu that knew him from the early days said his Dhamma talks were “grim,” if I recall the description accurately. I feel that Ajahn Brahm embraced the idea that in order to disseminate the Dhamma as widely as possible, he needed to package it and present it in an appealing way. I recall he saidonce that when someone’s mouth was open laughing at a joke, you could feed them a bit of Dhamma. :slight_smile:

More seriously, though, the Dhamma itself in its fullest form should be widely available and available in a comfortable and accessible form. Thus, the brilliance of Sutta Central.

I do think people need the full Dhamma, just as someone turning to a doctor for a health and fitness plan wouldn’t just want to be told to eat more vegetables and less meat. In the modern world, we need the entire package: physical training, cardio, weights, dietary advice, supplements, medicines, meditation and sports therapy/motivation training. In the same way, the Buddha offers a full panoply of practices and trainings to cure the mental, emotional, ethical, and behavioral ills of modern lay life. I feel that the skilled teachers, people like Bhante Sujato, Ajahn Brahmali, Ayya Khema, Bhikkhu Bodhi ( to name just a few) can really deliver the full training to lay people in a way that is complete and accessible. I feel this is the high bar that these teachers have set for lay instruction in the Dhamma.

Hello to everyone at D&D from Taipei; on my way to Chiang Mai today. Yay! My home away from home. :slight_smile:


And, importantly, they do it without dismissing the foundations, without setting up a false dichotomy between dana/sila and “real practice”. To use your analogy, they give the full workout, but don’t neglect the nutrition without which the workout may well be worthless…


Snp 2.14

I agree.

1 Like

I really love and appreciate what this site is doing. For one, as far as I know, it’s the only place where a complete and modern English translation of the Digha Nikaya is available.


To clarify, I don’t see a problem with studying the advanced teachings. I just believe that it could be of benefit if more of the teachings that were specifically and frequently given to lay followers—such as anussati—were discussed and covered more.


In the Buddha’s time, when all the teachings were oral, it might have been possible to maintain separate bodies of teaching for lay people and renunciant wanderers. But now that everything is written down, literacy and critical thinking skills are commonplace, and the whole of the teachings are available to anyone who can read, I wonder if such a division is still viable.


… perhaps you misunderstood my post; or perhaps i do not yet understand yours.

i see nothing in the EBTs which establishes "lines between the suttas given to monastics and the laity."
Are there different practices established, is there a 4 fold sangha established? Certainly. But that is, i think, something qualitatively different than establishing restrictions on what suttas can be shared with laity vs monastics, which seemed to be a key point of concern in your comment.

The division can be clear if we just paid more attention to who the Buddha was addressing in the texts. :smile: But a hard line doesn’t absolutely need to be drawn between the suttas given to bhikkhus and lay followers.

My view on this question can be summarized in two points: 1) Breath meditation and Satipatthana may not be a good starting point for everyone. 2) The practices that the Buddha often prescribed to lay followers may be a better starting point for some people.

With enough digging, you can find a couple YouTube videos and podcasts on the protective meditations and recollectons, but you really have to dig for it, and know what you’re looking for. Resources on these topics aren’t readily available, and it may be awkward to ask a teacher to introduce these in a group setting.


I may not have explained my point clearly enough. The discourses that were given to monastics shouldn’t be avoided. But the discourses that were given to lay followers shouldn’t be avoided either.

For instance, the suttas with Mahānāma the Sakyan are so underrated in the West. There’s a lot of good Dhamma nutriment in those discourses that a lot of people could potentially benefit from.

1 Like

To be clear, the recordings of his talks to his monks I heard were not that long ago and they were not grim.

They were just different from what AB does on Friday nights, more direct from the suttas and more direct to the Buddhist mission.

Like you, I have heard that in his younger days he was “grim”.

That would just make him like many other Theravada monks, some who are a similar age to him now( and still grim ).

I listened to a lot of AB’s earlier talks via an archive site. He went through many profound experiences as a young monk.

I like to think through those experiences, his contemplations, and who he is he got to an advanced place where he realized there was room for smiling, humor, and not having to be grim.

So many Theravada monks on YouTube seem like miserable people.

1 Like