I have been thinking about the proliferation of modern lay teachers, and wondering about the tradition’s take on when one should teach Dhamma.
Do the suttas outline specific ‘qualifications’, i.e. attainments, required before one begins to teach?
I know there is a traditional monastic custom that one should not take on students or become an abbot until after stream-entry. What is this rooted in? And are there other competing monastic customs in the commentaries, or in modern times?
Here is what Ajahn Jayasaro writes about the matter in Stillness Flowing, p. 170-171.
Luang Por [Chah] was strongly influenced by teachings of Luang Pu Mun and of the Buddha himself, cautioning monks from teaching before they were truly ready to do so. A Dhammapada verse, for example, states:
One should first establish oneself in what is proper, then only should one instruct others. Such a wise person is not liable to be reproached. As he instructs others, so should he act himself. Dhp 158-9
The Buddha taught that unenlightened beings are severely restricted in the degree to which they may offer spiritual sustenance to others. On one occasion, he compared it to a person mired in a cesspit trying to pull another person free. Only when the compassionate person is on firm footing himself can he truly help anyone else. Luang Pu Mun would sometimes speak of the bad kamma that can be created by one still prey to defilements who teaches others. Amongst his disciples, the most common interpretation of this warning was that only stream-entry provides a monk with the unshakeable Right View that will guard against him leading students astray. In practice, this did not mean that Luang Pu Mun forbade unenlightened monks from all kinds of teaching. Indeed, he encouraged his monks to give Dhamma talks to the villagers they met with on their tudong wanderings. It was the establishment of a monastery, and the formalization of the teaching role, that seems to have been the step too far.
The idea of a monk completing the final three stages of his own practice while fulfilling the role of a teacher was, however, sanctioned by the Buddha. He compared such a monk to the leader of a herd of animals, who is able to take care of his herd without neglecting his own need for grazing.
Maybe that answers my question
I am curious, though, to identify the suttas referenced above, and any additional commentarial or customary perspectives…
It’s important we differentiate teaching in the sense of inspiring others to take refuge, learn and practice for themselves from teaching in the sense of assuming an authority of spiritual guide or guru, who becomes the only link to awakening.
I am skeptical of how spiritual guidance can occur between lay disciples given that they dont’ have the Vinaya to set boundaries and bars for the level of dedication and seriousness needed to guarantee a most wholesome relationship is established.
For suttas in which the Buddha praise lay disciples for inspiring others in the path see SN17.24 and SN17.23.
Key individuals were Hatthaka Ālavaka, Citta, Khujjuttara and Velunkantaki.
Thanks for those @Gabriel_L. Great to read about the foremost of lay disciples – I quite like the two suttas you linked, and the unexpectedly sweet admonishment to avoid popularity!
I’m less with you, though, on the point about spiritual authorities. Yes, it makes sense to avoid bad teachers, but the monastic model seems predicated on wise authority.
Consider, for instance, that a junior monastic formally requests dependence on their teacher, and asks to be admonished for their wrongdoings and shortcomings. I don’t have a sutta reference for that, but certainly AN 8.2 leans in that direction, describing “causes and conditions that lead to obtaining the wisdom fundamental to the spiritual life”:
(1) “Here, a bhikkhu lives in dependence on the Teacher or on a certain fellow monk in the position of a teacher, toward whom he has set up a keen sense of moral shame and moral dread, affection and reverence. This is the first cause and condition that leads to obtaining the wisdom fundamental to the spiritual life when it has not been obtained and to its increase, maturation, and fulfillment by development after it has been obtained.
(2) “As he is living in dependence on the Teacher or on a certain fellow monk in the position of a teacher, toward whom he has set up a keen sense of moral shame and moral dread, affection and reverence, he approaches them from time to time and inquires: ‘How is this, Bhante? What is the meaning of this?’ Those venerable ones then disclose to him what has not been disclosed, clear up what is obscure, and dispel his perplexity about numerous perplexing points. This is the second cause and condition that leads to obtaining the wisdom fundamental to the spiritual life….
Ah, got it. I thought you were talking about teachers in general – monastics and lay alike.
I certainly won’t be taking dependence on your run-of-the-mill lay teacher… But I could see rare exceptions: would students of Dipa Ma, Godwin Samararatne, or Mae Chee Kaew describe that kind of dedication?
I believe retreats in the style of U S.N. Goenka begin with the student taking a kind of dependence on the teacher.
It makes me wonder about a more general EBT question, which is whether ancient India had the same culture of surrendering to the teacher, as is found in modern India? And was there a consistent practice of “going for refuge” to a teacher (not just the Buddha)?
I believe that it’s better to get to know one teacher and follow their method well rather than having a mixed bag of teachers in serious practice. It’s different however in that you can learn buddhism from anyone.
To me the way the Buddha describes his own trajectory, learning with some meditation masters before going solo for the (fruitless) self-mortification practices in the forest, indicate it was indeed a possible venue.
From his awakening nevertheless he rejected any refuge and established a mode of practice in which the triple gem is to serve as a refuge and mutual support is to be sought by joining either the bhikkhu or bhikkhuni sanghas.
4.…When they were seated, the Blessed One asked them: “Householders, is there any teacher agreeable to you in whom you have acquired faith supported by reasons?”
No, venerable sir, there is no teacher agreeable to us in whom we have acquired faith supported by reasons.
…Since, householders, you have not found an agreeable teacher, you may undertake and practise this sure teaching; for when the sure teaching is accepted and undertaken, it will lead to your welfare and happiness for a long time. And what is the sure teaching?.. M 60
A: Seeing oneself clearly
This is a good question, and while I can’t point to any particular texts that answer it exactly, I go back to the Buddha’s admonition to his Sangha prior to his passing (they were lamenting “who will be our teacher?”), which is to look to the Dhamma as the teacher. Thus, the importance of studying the EBTs and having a meditation practice. Then, with this foundation, we have some clear sense of which among the lay teachers is actually teaching well grounded Dhamma, and which are promoting something else.
In some other traditions, there is the guru-centric model, and the models where some teachers perform a “transmission” of teaching authority to their chosen students. These models have, as we have seen, created a number of problems and issues in western Buddhisms.
Within the Thai Forest tradition, I’ve not heard of Stream entry as being a necessary qualification for teaching. Again, it seems to me the idea is to cultivate within oneself a measure of knowledge and wisdom, and then venture forth to see which monastics or lay teachers have the kind of knowledge, experience,scholarship, and passion for teaching such that they distinguish themselves in the field. I know that within the Forest tradition it’s not unusual for abbots to send their students away to other wats, so that the student gets a broad training from other perspectives. In the wat where I ordained (anagarika, samanera temp.), one of my colleagues who fully ordained has been sent all over Chiang Mai region to train at other wats, and then, time to time, comes back to the “home wat” to teach and train. The abbot acts not as his “guru” or root teacher, but as a mentor, coach, or supervisor of his training.
Furthermore, it may be that neither the Teacher nor … the mendicant teaches Dhamma … nor does the mendicant recite the teaching … or think about it.
But a meditation subject as a foundation of immersion is properly grasped, attended, borne in mind, and comprehended with wisdom.
That mendicant feels inspired by the meaning and the teaching in that Dhamma, no matter how a meditation subject as a foundation of immersion is properly grasped, attended, borne in mind, and comprehended with wisdom.
Feeling inspired, joy springs up.
Being joyful, rapture springs up.
When the mind is full of rapture, the body becomes tranquil.
When the body is tranquil, one feels bliss.
And when blissful, the mind becomes immersed in samādhi.
This is the fifth opportunity for freedom. …
Because of this, I’d say that any lay person might “teach” others to read the suttas so that they could decide for themselves how to find a Teacher. There is a huge difference between quoting the suttas and giving a Dhamma talk.
With regard to this I’d say that such a person would be a kalyanamitta (spiritual friend) and not have the status of a ‘teacher.’
With regard to the topic in general it’s worth bearing in mind the difference between the considerable status accorded ‘teacher’ in Asian traditions and its rather less valued position in in the modern West.
This passage from the Sallekha Sutta (MN 8, Ven Bodhi translation) may help answer your question.
Cunda, that one who is himself sinking in the mud should pull out another who is sinking in the mud is impossible; that one who is not himself sinking in the mud should pull out another who is sinking in the mud is possible. That one who is himself untamed, undisciplined, with defilements unextinguished, should tame another, discipline him, and help extinguish his defilements is impossible; that one who is himself tamed, disciplined, with defilements extinguished, should tame another, discipline him, and help extinguish his defilements is possible.
The question about going for refuge… consider SN36.21, where the wanderer Moḷiyasīvaka approaches the Buddha to ask a few questions, and is so impressed by the Buddha’s answers, that he spontaneously utters what is a stock phrase in the suttas: "From today let Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone for refuge for life.”
Now, how did Moḷiyasīvaka know to say this? Maybe at some point the Buddha told Moḷiyasīvaka, 'hey dude, if you like my answers, there’s this cool option called taking refuge, all you gotta do is utter this phrase and BAM! you’re one of my disciples." Or perhaps the custom of “taking refuge” was a more universal practice in ancient India - people took refuge in various teachers and teachings? For instance, did Jains take refuge in Mahavira?
The above passage I quoted, which is from the lineage’s official biography of Ajahn Chah – written by Ajahn Jayasaro, former abbot of Wat Pa Nanachat – states that as a “common interpretation” among Luang Pu Mun’s students.
This is a tricky question and I think that the EBT system is problematic.
On the one side monks are not supposed to tell about their attainments; on the other they are supposed to teach with confidence the Dhamma (I can’t remember the sutta but somewhere I read that Dhamma teachers are supposed to exhibit great confidence in what they teach).
So initially someone listening to them will believe that they teach something authentic, because they put so much confidence in what they say.
You later realize that there will never be any guarantee that what they teach is actually something they have experienced (even though they speak with so much confidence), because they are not allowed to say.
So this makes the whole thing very tricky.
And yet, confidence should remain truthful. As the Buddha said, bearing witness truthfully means:
Not knowing, they say ‘I don’t know.’ Knowing, they say ‘I know.’ Not seeing, they say ‘I don’t see.’ And seeing, they say ‘I see.’
This is why the suttas start with “Thus have I heard”: we weren’t there. We didn’t see. But we have “heard” about it.
When some monk has attained, they can speak about truth directly because they know it. I think (<= note the verb!) many monks, trying to imitate the great masters, overreach rhetorically when they start to teach, and end up (accidentally) bearing false witness (in the sense of, not knowing, they imply ‘I know.’)