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Barbara O'Brien

Skillful Teaching

By July 24, 2012

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The historical Buddha taught in different ways for different audiences. Of course, what he taught was, in many ways, radically different from anything the people of his time had heard before. He knew that much of what he had to say might sound like nonsense.

So, rather than preach over people's heads, in his sermons he built upon the capacities and assumptions of the people in front of him, listening to his words. In effect, he met them where they stood, in a thicket of illusions, and gave them as much instruction as they could handle so that they could find their way out of the thicket. To do this, he had to be skillful at sizing up the audience.

"Sizing up the audience" is something we all have to do sometime. At Nyoho Zen, Koun Franz writes about playing with his three-year old son, and about misunderstanding his son because he failed to see the world through his eyes.  He writes,

"So much of teaching is putting oneself in the place of the student, anticipating that person's difficulties and addressing them. That's the start of skillful means, and it's hard to remember it sometimes, much less to get it right. For some reason, I have the hardest time standing in my little guy's shoes. I'm so busy celebrating for him (and congratulating myself) that I lose sight of what he sees, which is a world made of high walls, impossible dexterity tests, and cruel oral exams."

Do read he whole post; it's very sweet.

Elsewhere I found someone's account of liberating a lizard from his bathroom. The lizard needed to be outside where she could find things to eat, but she scampered away whenever the human tried to catch her. Only when the human began to consider how the lizard experienced things was the human able to guide her outside.

I've found that when giving people instructions it is sometimes helpful to tell them only so much at once. For example: I've been voluntarily assisting a jukai class in sewing new rakusus. A rakusu is many little pieces of cloth sewn together in a very exacting way, and there are infinite ways to make mistakes or for the thing to turn out lopsided. Making one is a challenge for an experienced sewer, never mind a sewing newbie.

At one point I was explaining the next two or three steps to someone, and I saw panic in her eyes. It was too much at once. So I said, forget that. Just do this one thing, and when that's done we'll go on to the next thing. And then all was well.

When the Buddha taught, he didn't explain everything at once. Often he was addressing just one thing that was most perplexing his listeners. And because his audience lived with a whole different set of cultural assumptions and perspectives, some parts of the sutras may need skillful re-contextualizing to be accessible to modern students.

Today, people often pick up one or two "things" about Buddhism and build an entire Grand Theory of Dharma around those things, not realizing that what they've learned is one step, not the whole ladder. This is why it's important to stay open to expanding one's understanding.

It's also good practice for all of us, as we communicate with anybody about anything, to try to put ourselves in the place of the person we are talking to. At the very least, we'll be bringing a little more clarity to the world.

July 24, 2012 at 4:24 pm
(1) Hein says:

Barbara you are touching upon an important topic,; skillful teaching.
When itcomes to Buddhism i feel like a three-year old.
I go for sumi-e classes and learning the strokes is daunting, but taking ‘baby steps’, i.e. one step @ a time gets things done.
Perhaps somewhat off-topic; is buddhism in general and zen in particular not taught in a manner (in the West) this appears nihilistic i.e. “if you do not get enlightened in this lifetime you are just ‘deadmeat’”. Thus for the average guy buddhism and zen seems to have no soteriology and thus it seems that theism or atheism is perhaps the psystems’ to opt for.
In my dailynlife and in the kind of society i life in i have learned to keep things simple and simply tells people buddhism/zen is about ‘change’. Z

July 25, 2012 at 1:28 am
(2) Rajeev G says:

Hi Barbara..a great confusion of the present Buddhist teacher is what to say when. Buddha was clear on what he is saying to whom..you are absolutely right.

Whenever somebody asks about “existence of God”, “life after death” etc to be dealt the same way Buddha did. First think of the sufferings around and find a solution to it then while you graduate, think the above. Teaching of “Buddhism” to a hard core religionist is almost impossible since they have jammed all their doors and strongly believes the “Hell” “Heaven” concept to live this life. If one is not ready to learn simple maths first, how can they learn complex calculus, logarithm etc? Moreover, no one can teach an unwilling person. Buddha taught only those who has come to him, he clarified things to those who had doubt. We are trying to do a “teaching” to unwilling clear about everything lot. They are comfortable in their illusions and perceived knowledge based judgements. We will definitely fail. But, if someone gets confused through our blogs and writings, they may be ready to take a different vehicle. But, then…still we don’t know what his real intention is….and at the end…when we say, do not even “try” for “enlightenment” will make them run away…hahha

July 27, 2012 at 11:28 pm
(3) George Deane says:

A slight paraphrase if you please:

“One must be skillfiul in sizing up the “other” to whom one is talking.

If people listened to each other, sympathetically, with the intent of truly understanding each other it is possible that all the problems of the human race would vanish. But dialogue more often assumes the form of one ego with all its baggage confronting and battling another.

July 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

George — yes, there’s a difference between addressing an “other” and an audience, or an “other” and someone who needs instruction. I would hope that we never address an “other.” The biggest reason people fail at teaching or communicating is that they can’t put themselves in the place of the people they want to reach. Skillful teaching requires putting down our own agendas and issues and seeing through the eyes of those we are teaching.

July 28, 2012 at 12:27 am
(5) Tanukisan says:

What astonishing synchronicity! I have just this week started teaching my first tertiary class at my old university; this article really speaks to me about how to approach the task of teaching young adults. Many thanks :)

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