May 14, 2014

How Do We Learn the Dharma?

As 4th-century Indian master Vasubandhu counselled, “practice hearing, reflecting, and meditating”Lama Jampa Thaye

These days those who aren’t born into it seem to arrive at the dharma from many different directions. Some are forced to enter dharma after an overwhelming experience shatters their world and leaves them no other choice. Others arrive more gently, perhaps through disillusionment with the shallowness of contemporary culture. Encountering the dharma, they find meaning and purpose.

Others come because they are wounded in some way, whether by love or hatred or just by the bitter dance of loneliness. In dharma they discover a salve for their ills.

Then there are those who come looking for answers—answers they couldn’t get from science or philosophy. For them, Buddha’s teaching speaks compellingly of mysteries to be solved and truths to be unveiled.

Yet for dharma to fulfill any of these promises, we need to know how to learn it. While this point may at first seem unnecessary, we are regularly unprepared for the actual task of discovering that which the dharma offers. First, we must have a readiness to learn. It’s unlikely an arrogant and closed mind could gain anything from the dharma. What’s more, we need to acknowledge that the process of learning will take a lifetime. At its heart, this process will form the triad of hearing, reflecting, and meditating.


“Hearing” indicates that dharma has always been received from others. It is others who connect us to the chain of transmission that stretches back to the garden in Sarnath where the Buddha instructed his first disciples. To disregard this and forage instead for information on Buddhism in books or the Internet can only help so much. If we adopt this method of “consuming” the dharma, we are all too likely to select those fragments that appear congenial and unthreatening to our already entrenched opinions and more subtle emotional and cognitive imprints. This is surely one of the principal reasons that there are so many distorted versions of the dharma in the spiritual marketplace right now.

It’s best to listen to the dharma from educated masters who can share the buddhadharma with us. However, care must be taken in choosing one’s teachers, since there have always been those who would attempt to sell us a dharma of their own fabrication, passing it off as something genuine. Back in the 13th century, Sakya Pandita characterized such behaviour aptly enough: “After showing the tail of a deer, the shameless one sells donkey meat.” After all these years, the Shameless One is still in business.

Since those who invent their own dharma have only their own opinions upon which to draw, we need to rely on those masters who are anchored in a tradition. Whether that tradition be Theravada, one of the many schools of East Asia, or Tibetan—Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug, or Nyingma—the point is that there is a fundamental sanity to the dharma carried in these traditions, borne out of their presence in the lives of men and women generation after generation. Such a grounding in accumulated experience and tested knowledge contrasts the deracinated and weightless prescriptions of the self-appointed.

In any case, one may well wonder whether there’s anything truly innovative or daringly revolutionary about the so-called “new Buddhism” taught by so many new teachers. One could easily see it as the marketing of the same old conventional set of secular opinions under the guise of Buddhism by people who either disagree with fundamental aspects of the dharma or feel the need to supplement it with withered versions of reheated existentialism or the “Oprahfied” psychotherapy peddled by those not half as sharp as Freud or Jung.

Such a toothless Buddhism can’t transform us. Rather than coming to resemble what is set forth in Buddha’s teachings, this Buddhism only grows to resemble us. In this respect, attempts to render Buddhism more accessible can steal its power. The medicine becomes diluted. Are we so smart today that we need less teaching and practice?


We need to approach the undiluted teaching in a spirit of openness and humility and let it speak to us. Subsequently, in the second stage of relating to the dharma, that of reflecting, a real connection between the student’s innate intelligence and the actual unmodified dharma can take place.

Through the magic of reflecting on the teachings, their force—sometimes clear, sometimes obscure—will cause ferment in our minds from which we can gradually distill the wisdom of reflection. This requires discipline, but also bravery—the bravery to dig deep down to uncover our confusion. Here we cannot progress unless we shun the easy evasion of blind faith. For when did blind faith ever lead to wisdom? Instead we can arrive at certainty of the truth of dharma only though inferential reasoning and direct experience.

At this point, some may ask whether such stress on certainty leaves Buddhism in the category of religion or philosophy. Actually, this question is misplaced, since the great divorce between religion and philosophy that occurred in the West in the 17th century never happened in Asia, where everything from theism to materialism to nontheistic dharma coexisted as views of the nature of reality.


Resolving hesitations and uncertainties through intelligent and repeated reflection on the teachings that we’ve heard leads us to meditation, the final part of the threefold path to wisdom. Here, “to meditate” is to cultivate a direct experience of the truth, heard and examined in the prior two stages. In the final analysis, the truth revealed in meditation is the self-cognizing wisdom through which the mind knows its own nature without intermediaries of concept or language. The ultimate truth that is realized through meditation is not the generic or mental image of reality accessible through hearing and reflecting but the definitive nondual realization to which we give the name “primordial wisdom.” This becomes a decisive knowledge, since it is now firsthand. Yet such wisdom could not arise without the use of language and analytical thinking in the two preceding stages of hearing and reflecting. It is for this reason that those who eschew the work of hearing and reflection and attempt to rely upon meditation alone will only further entangle themselves in the fabrications of ignorant mind. As Mipham Rinpoche says, “If you do not know the nature of phenomena, however much you meditate, you are still meditating on ordinary concepts.”

As has already been made clear, to embark upon this process of hearing, reflection and meditation, we need to rely upon suitably qualified masters. In some sense, however, our teachers should be transparent so that we may see through them to the teachings of the Buddha. Teachers themselves are there to assist us in hearing, reflecting, and meditating on the dharma, just as a skilled master craftsman trains his apprentices in mastery of a given craft. In this way, the authentic master distinguishes him or herself from the snake oil salesman, Asian or Westerner, who points only to him or herself and not to the Buddha and his teaching.

It might seem that there’s a great distance between us and the days when the traditions of dharma held uncontested sway over the culture of much of Asia. However, although external circumstances may change, the way in which realization into the nature of mind develops is still essentially the same. Even today there are great masters and people who want to engage with the dharma through the threefold method of hearing, reflecting, and meditating. And as the hour is getting late, maybe it’s time to make a start.

Lama Jampa Thaye is a scholar, author, and meditation teacher trained in both the Karma Kagyu and Sakya traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

Further reading: Parting from the Four Attachments | We Are Not Kind MachinesWho's Zoomin' Who? The Commodification of Buddhism in the American Marketplace

Image courtesy of Flickr/russloar.


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IzzyFargo's picture

Good Evening-

I am a student of buddhism. I've been practicing (as the author states) the 'new buddhism' for about 6 years. In the sense that I'd meditate from time to time, practice mindfulness and attempt to be a buddhist thinker. My exposure to religion has been on the surface, but I've been exposed to quite a few religions. Religion is a comfort and a source of suffering for many people. Some people practice, some identify, some shield, some abuse and some light up a room with their connection to a god/consciousness/humanity/community.... Six months ago I decided to go deeper with buddhism. I understood the difference between buddhism as a psychology and buddhism as a religion. Religion has turned me off for many reasons and I thought buddhism would be different. Since beginning down this path, I see that buddhism is truly a RELIGION. As with many, it is full of truths and half-truths, opinions, guesses, fractions, human interpretation, leaders, fakes and those who abuse power (and often don't even know they're doing it). Although this article has helpful concepts, it seems elitist. Where does a student find compassion in the buddhist community? Where is the door? It seems that 'toothless buddhism' has more heart and soul than can be seen. I understand self-preservation, but where is the door? Thank you Kindly, thank you.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I started my practice of Buddhism in 1973 in San Francisco. At the time it was like walking down a supermarket aisle of religions. Americans (especially the youth) were shopping for alternative spiritual practices and almost every form from every part of the globe was being offered (much like today). I had the good fortune to meet and become friends with members of Soka Gakkai International-USA. The group was very supportive and understanding of my particular situation and has been my spiritual foundation ever since.

geovock's picture

The door is your breathing. Do you see the light you are unto yourself shining through? Keep looking and you will.

IzzyFargo's picture

Thank you geovock. I interconnect with buddhism often- with simple study, meditation and practicing core concepts such as the eight fold path. As I attempt to deepen my understanding, buddhism changes shape for me. The connection to consciousness gets lost in the human debate on what is truth. Maybe Im too impatient with religion. I'll keep up with my studies.

I'm struggling with rejecting some core concepts of buddhism. I guess that applies to all religions. Most people don't accept or practice all aspects of their religion. How have you found peace with this?

geovock's picture

Sometimes, sometimes not. At best the exploration of beliefs/concepts/doctrine serves for me as motivation for practice, (neti neti) and at worst as a distraction from that. Good Luck!

a door swings open
light unto oneself shines through
with every breath

IzzyFargo's picture

Hello- still would like your feedback, but I'm in a better head space now. I've been reading Chodron's text, the complete guide to buddhist path, and my head has been spinning for months. Too much too fast... going back to simplicity for a couple weeks. Just listened to Mocine podcast and was reminded to "dance, grow things, and try not to be a dick". Want to remember to pair my studies with a bit of humor. The middle way.

Dominic Gomez's picture

For those of us practicing Buddhism in busy cities, the Law is there as well. In fact, it is within every human being we pass on the streets.

sanghadass's picture

Thankyou Lamala! For your kind and wise teachings. Lets keep the Dharma wheel rolling. xxoo

speakerfone's picture

What a wonderful article that reminds us that hearing, thinking and meditating is the way we truly give dharma the opportunity to change us. The alternative arrangement, in which we take what we want from those who make it palatable, robs dharma of its transformational power, and makes it no more than an intellectual possession.

The thing that always most attracted the sceptic in me to dharma is the engaging of the critical faculties. The assertion of Buddha that we must test the teachings (and indeed the teachers) as we would a gold coin. To follow a teacher blindly because of a vague vibe or warm fuzzy feeling can only lead to disenchantment further down the line, when the initial charm wears off.

Sure, there are characters who trade off the fact they have exotic names, or know this person or that person. There's lots of cases of naive westerners being taken advantage of by such characters. But this just further makes it clear that to engage in the Buddhist path you are required to keep an open questioning mind, and focus on the teachings rather than the teacher's charisma, clothes, personality or other irrelevant trappings.

I think people have an issue with religion and authority, hence a certain backlash towards the authority held by qualified lamas. But the logical extension of saying you don't need a properly qualified Lama is that we didn't need the Buddha. What was the point of the Buddha teaching if people could just make up their own teaching any time and it have the same impact? I may as well become a disciple of Fred bloggs at number 17 instead. He seems like a nice bloke, and says he's enlightened.

sanghadass's picture

Well said! But I still reckon you should give old Fred the benefit of the doubt! I am sure he has something to share of real value. I think he is a bodhisattva in disguise. Though I have been wrong on these things before. It might be the 'bi-polar' talkin! xxoo

boiester's picture

I find it most helpful to relate Buddhism to my own culture, which includes science and materialism. Is this wrong? It is how I learned to make sense of my world. For example, B. Alan Wallace has scientific training and is a Buddhist monk.

In his book, Mind in the Balance, he suggests meditation practices along with the development of his argument. His premise connects cognitive inquiry and quantum mechanics. "He links Buddhist and Christian views to the provocative philosophical theories of Hilary Putnam, Charles Taylor, and Basvan Fraassen, and he seamlessly incorporates the work of such physicists as Anton Zeilinger, John Wheeler and Stephen Hawking."

I found this book to take me further into the mystery of our universe and our consciousness.

djhore's picture

It doesn't sound wrong to relate what you learn from hearing the teachings to what we receive from our own culture - it could be a part of reflecting on the teachings. Traditional Buddhism seems to be very comfortable with things like modern physics and the theory of evolution, and Lama Jampa Thaye has covered subjects such as the theory of evolution, cosmology, cloning, and so on.

But I just logged in to recommend a previous article by Lama Jampa on this site called "We Are Not Kind Machines", which might be of interest. (There's a link above.)

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Are we so smart today that we need less teaching and practice?" Shakyamuni addressed this concern when he said to Shariputra, his most intelligent student, "The wisdom of the Buddhas is infinitely profound and immeasurable. The door to this wisdom is difficult to understand and difficult to enter. Not one of the voice-hearers or pratyekabuddhas is able to comprehend it." But the present age is so characterized by a high degree of intelligence (such as Shariputra's) that intellectual arrogance is easy to fall prey to.

sanghadass's picture

i give them ten points for exuberance and a generous 3 for ambiguity!

Dominic Gomez's picture

These will be much appreciated when found in the collection baskets!

David Gould's picture

Wow! An insightful lecture about how we come to the Dharma and the tools that we need to deepen our engagement with it. Buddhism has been challenged by Oprah-isation in a thousand books in the self-help genre. Fundamental to the path is the decision to commit to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. While Buddhism can enhance any spiritual path, and we can value add even a religiously disconnected life, ultimately, Buddhism makes the best sense when we commit to it, as Buddhists.

iamdabu's picture

I found this to be an exceptionally competitive writing; with personal judgment abounding about what legitimizes someone as a "Dharma' teacher or a walk as a true Dharma walk. Buddhism is rife with modifications that arose as it merged with pre-existing cultures and religions. Unless I am mistaken there has been "new Buddhism" and new schools throughout the history of the teachings. And ultimately every "Dharma" is "our own Dharma" even as we walk in a Dharma that does not recognize the individual at all.

So who is it then that gave the Buddha the authority to teach?? He found his "own" authority and legitimized it for "himself." He did not seek the blessing of an elder or Master or the "right Master in the right tradition." Isn't this what he is asking of us?? To be the light. The coercion to be legitimized by the "Father" or by a "Master"; are they not one in the same and is this not the infinitely strong archetype that keeps us externalized and trapped in doubt?

It is beginning to sound like the one true Church.

iamdabu's picture

A reply to myself:

I don't know about all of this that is being said. All of the words including my own. Today I have read and re-read them.

The Lama has my attention. He said, "Listen. Reflect. Sit."

But I really do not understand. It's too technical, too theoretical. Using a language that is confusing, with which my head is not familiar in a religion that is not the marrow of my bones. I feel that I am looking for my heart.

So I went to the spring. It's on a beautiful country road. I gather my water there. It's wonderful water. Undiluted and from an unimaginable lineage. A true Master. So I sat and listened to it. I drank from it and splashed this water on my face. I said thank you. And then I felt the breeze come up. You know the breeze that makes room for the butterfly. It is slight and soft and lilting. I felt joy. I imagine some Truth is like this.

I wonder if this is what the Lama is talking about. I wonder if this is what the Buddha was talking about.

sanghadass's picture

Thank you for sharing your joy and insight. May you be able to find this freedom and beauty in the middle of a busy city as well. It is not bound by time and location. It is our very essence, soft and lilting like the breeze. love, peace and friendship. I hope you enjoy the following quote from the Buddha. I feel it honors your own vision.

So this holy life does not have gain, honour, renown for its benefit
Nor the attainment of virtue for its benefit
Nor knowledge and vision for its benefit

But it is this unshakable deliverance of mind
That is the goal of this holy life
Its heartwood and its end

Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 29

sanghadass's picture

The reflections that were here have transmigrated to 'Buddhism and Science'.

freeferalmonk's picture

I agree with iamdabu's observations of this article. The so-called "lama" who wrote the article seems now to be touting buddhIST credentials at the expense of BuddHAN credibility - perhaps because he is now in possession of much more of the former than of the latter.

Iamdabu correctly points out the feral disposition of Gautama Shakyamuni whose practice both transcended and transformed his training. This "lama's" point of view elevates the cultural detritus of believers above the full function of brain based mind, whose character has not actually evolved in 2000 centuries, but whose sapience operating system has undergone at least six upgrades that have each 'created' new civilizations from the decadent ruinations of their predecessors.

The languaging of the Shakymuni Buddha is culturally bound to the fourth transformation to which Jaspers, Bellah, and Armstrong refer as "The Axial Age", which pretty much ended with the Copernico-Newtonian age of 'objective' science. It is noteworthy that no less a 'lama' than the Dalai Lama is willing to cede the ground to any Scienistic (fifth transformation) demonstration that can lend objective rigor to the understanding of the mental phenomena of the brain in consciousness.

Even then, all feral and newly hatched spirits arising at the current (sixth transformational) time are already self-organizing complex-adaptive networks, and self-aligning their mental activity to create effective holographic-like responses to shifts in global constraints - such as climate change, unethical political economy, and state sponsored paranoia - whose formations are better explained by chaos/complexity theory than sacred philosophy.

Well, maybe what I have just said has filled too full the balloon this 'lama' has floated and this is not the best place to let it blow itself up. Let it suffice to say that most of the buddha-curious young people with whom I commune are looking for a rediscovery of the buddhan mind and are not interested in woodblocks that do not directly illuminate the perennial and ordinary practice.

Or let me put it another way. Some of us are not wishing for Maitreya to arise in a future time that is inaccessible to cultural archivists. We for whom the future is not remote but poised in the very next moment are not waiting for but are raising Maitreya. Yes, we are hearing, reflecting and meditating as Vasubandu suggested - but less upon the scholarship of venerables than the warmth of their actual presence.

sanghadass's picture

sweet prose my dear! why don't you tell us how you really feel xxoo

glenzorn's picture

Well put.