Qualities of a Dhamma Teacher on the Path

Since I exited the eight week retreat at Section 5, Wat Mahadhatu, I’ve been spending a lot of time there in the afternoons and evenings helping Pi Yai teach meditation and answer questions about Buddhism. I regard teaching as a big responsibility.  I need to take great care. I am still learning so much myself. Even so, there is merit in teaching and helping people to understand the Dhamma. I try to keep the following five points in mind when teaching.

Anguttaaranikaaya AN 5.159   PTS: A iii 184
Udayi Sutta: About Udayin
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying at Kosambi, in Ghosita’s Park. Now at that time Ven. Udayin was sitting surrounded by a large assembly of householders, teaching the Dhamma. Ven. Ananda saw Ven. Udayin sitting surrounded by a large assembly of householders, teaching the Dhamma, and on seeing him went to the Blessed One. On arrival, he bowed down to the Blessed One and sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: “Ven. Udayin, lord, is sitting surrounded by a large assembly of householders, teaching the Dhamma.”

“It’s not easy to teach the Dhamma to others, Ananda. The Dhamma should be taught to others only when five qualities are established within the person teaching. Which five?
“[1] The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, ‘I will speak step-by-step.’
“[2] The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, ‘I will speak explaining the sequence [of cause and effect].’
“[3] The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, ‘I will speak out of compassion.’
“[4] The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, ‘I will speak not for the purpose of material reward.’
“[5] The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, ‘I will speak without hurting myself or others.’

“It’s not easy to teach the Dhamma to others, Ananda. The Dhamma should be taught to others only when these five qualities are established within the person teaching.”

Ven. Thannisaro also noted: According to the Commentary, “hurting oneself” means exalting oneself. “Hurting others” means putting other people down.

As I mentioned above, I am still learning. So in addition to the above five qualities, I reflect on the limits of my knowledge and while wishing to help others, I try to know when to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question”.

Furthermore, the Blessed One often advised disciples not to study the Dhamma (teachings) for the purpose of winning debates. The right grasp of the Dhamma leads to liberation from suffering.

MN22.10  Alaagadopama Sutta: The Simile of the Snake
Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

“Here, Bhikkhus some misguided men learn the Dhamma, discourses, stanzas, expositions, verses, explanations, sayings, birth stories, marvels, and answers to questions. But having learned the Dhamma they do not examine the meaning of those teachings with wisdom, not examining the meaning of those teachings with wisdom, they do not gain a reflective acceptance of them. Instead they learn the Dhamma only for criticising others and winning debates and do not experience the good for the sake of which they learned the Dhamma. Those teachings being wrongly grasped by them conduce to their harm and suffering for a long time. Why is this? Because of the wrong grasp of those teachings.”

Then the Blessed One uses the simile of grasping a snake wrongly to show the danger arising from wrongly grasping the Dhamma. 

When teaching or discussing the Dhamma with others, particularly with people who seem to hold strong views, I try to take care not to become competitive and become obsessed with converting others to my view. This is difficult when we have confidence that we are on the right path and have some degree of “right view”.  Sometimes, during Dhamma discussions, others have asked questions in such a way that they reveal assumptions and gaps in my understanding. I then follow-up by further study and ask questions of my teachers.

I have always hesitated to teach the Dhamma. As an unenlightened being, I don’t fully understand.  I am confident I have some degree of understanding. Even so, I am concerned not to spread wrong understanding to others. By cultivating mindfulness and other wholesome/skilful states of mind, I may teach well.

Certainly, a good Dhamma teacher will have a lot of experience in meditation and have developed wholesome/skilful mental states such as samaadhi-concentration and pannaa-wisdom.  A purely theoretical knowledge of the Dhamma is insufficient to be a good Dhamma teacher. A good Dhamma teacher needs to have both theoretical knowledge and experience in meditation.

Dhammanusari-Dhamma follower
I bolded the phrase “reflective acceptance” in the quote above. A reflective acceptance of the Dhamma is vital for beginning the path of liberation from suffering. The Dhammanusari-Dhamma follower, is someone who has gained a reflective acceptance of the Dhamma. In addition the Dhammanusari has developed the five controlling faculties “to a sufficient degree”. The five controlling faculties (panc’indriya) are: saddha-confidence, viriya-effort, sati-mindfulness, samaadhi-concentration and panna-wisdom. The five controlling faculties are developed in meditation.

Note: I plan to write more about the distinctions between a Dhammanusari, Saddhanusari-faith follower and the four noble ones (ariyapuggala) who have already opened the Dhamma eye (Dhammacakkha) and understood the state that can be known (Nibbana).

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