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Buddhist Attitude to Education

Bhikkhuni Dhammananda Nguyen-Huong

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 According to Oxford Advantaged Genie Dictionary, education means a process of teaching, training and learning, especially in schools, or colleges, to improve knowledge and develop skills. Here we will examine in brief how much Buddhism has taught, and done as regards to this.

Buddhism gives the highest regard for wisdom (paññā) and purity (visuddhi) of the mind from mental defilements, and the worst condemn for ignorance. In Buddhism wisdom is the sharpest means to cut off all impurities. But what we are talking here is knowledge (ñāṇa), of course, knowledge and wisdom are not equivalent terms. For one can collect knowledge by learning, but not wisdom. Wisdom is not something that is accumulated, but it comes from a deep reflection. Therefore, of the three roads, to wit: Suta- learning, Cinta- thinking, Bhāvana- meditation, only the third one gives rise to wisdom. But Buddhism does not overlook the fist two steps. It always emphasizes on learning and teaching as the way to dispel ignorance. And some times the two terms knowledge and wisdom are interchangeable.

 First, the Buddha is an extraordinary Teacher (sattha). He is endowed with the five qualities:

1- Attaññū: He knows what is good/ beneficial;
2- Dhammaññū: He knows what is true/righteous;
3- Mattaññū: He knows the measure;
4- Kālaññū: He knows the right time;
5- Parisaññū: He knows the assemblage or the person.

Among his nine precious attributes one is "Anuttaro purisadammasarathi" which means an excellent tamer of who should be tamed; and another epithet is "Satthā devamanussānam" which means the teacher of gods and men.

The Buddha said he had enlightened by himself without a teacher but it does not means that he had never learnt. Actually he had trained to be mastered of all the skills of statecrafts and sciences of the day. He also had a proficient religious knowledge of Brahmanic and Samana traditions. What he said is that he had realized the unrealizable of the Samanas' experiences, and he proclaimed the unheard Dhamma that were lacking in the Vedic scriptures, and he gave a new interpretation for the ancient knowledge.

He is a skilful teacher and strongly believed in the power of transferring knowledge to convince people to change their way of life. Once, the Buddha and his large company of monks were in the city of Nalanda, a lay follower named Kevaṭṭa came to pay respect to him and requested the Buddha commending his great disciples to exhibit miracles so that the entire inhabitants of prosperous Nalanda city would become his followers. The Buddha rejected his request and said that of the miracles, the miracle of instruction is the best -anusāsanī-pāṭihāriya [1]. And only this miracle he himself used and encouraged his disciples to use. After he has trained the first group of disciples, the Buddha sent them to different directions to teach the Dhamma "for the good of the many, for the benefit of the many, for the happiness and welfare of the world."[2] He himself went to Uruvella and converted one thousand fire-worship ascetics by famous "Aditta sutta"- the discourse on fire.

 The Buddha expounded Dharma in many ways to fit the different types of individuals. He used many different methods and devices to transfer his knowledge to people: similes, parables, analogies, analyses, synthetic, etc. By his ability of reading other's minds and their past experiences, he gave a suitable discourse so that his listeners would easily understand and put into practice. Now we see some discourses are lengthy, some are medium size and some are very short; some are rich of lofty philosophy, some are with deep and nuanced psychology, some are simple and common day to day life for the peasants.

He requested his listeners to pay close attention at what is being taught (Tena hi bhikkhave sunātha, sādhukam manasi kārotha...), willingly to learn, and remember it well, then folder and examine it's meaning. (sutvā dhāreti dhātānam dhammānam attham upaparikkhati attham upparikkhato dhammā nijjhanakkhamanti; or: Dhammam sotukāmo sutānam dhammānam dhārakajātiko. Dhātānam dhammānam atthūpaparikkhāyi..).

In Sammosa sutta of the SN it is stated: Idha bhikkhave bhikkhū na dhammam pariyāpunanti suttam geyyam veyyākaranam gatham udānam itivuttam jātakam abbhutadhammam vedallam ayam pathamo dhammo saddhammassa sammorāya antarādhānaya pavattati.- Herein, bhikkhus , if the bhikkhus do not master the dhamma: the discourses, mixed prose, expositions, verses, inspired utterances, brief saying, birth stories, marvelous accounts, miscellanies, this is the first cause of the disappearance of the true teaching." Thus the Buddha emphasized on the learning and mastering the Dhamma, made it a crucial factor which constitutes the longevity of the Dhamma.

Another interesting event recorded in Mahaparinibbana sutta (DN) is that the Mara- evil one requested the Buddha terminated his life right after he attained enlightenment, the Buddha refused this unreasonable request with the consideration that until the Tathagata's fourfold disciples (Bhikkhus-monks, bhikkhunis-nuns, Upasaka-laymen followers, Upasika-lay women followers) have mastered the Dhamma taught by him, he will not enter into eternal peace of Nibbana. This incident reveals that the Buddha had dedicated his time for teaching, instructing and enlightening people. During forty-five years of his Buddha's career he was the noblest example of a Teacher.

In Buddhist terms, the knowledge acquired by learning is called 'sutamaya ñāṇa'. The other two are 'cintamaya ñāṇa'- the knowledge acquired by thinking, and 'bhavanāmaya ñāṇa'- the knowledge acquired through practicing meditation.

One of the factors that give rise to right view is named 'paratoghosa' which literally means hearing the sound of other. This is not a kind of revelation secretly revealed by the God or gods. It simply means one listens to the wise and gains some knowledge or suddenly realizes some essential there in. Another word to describe the person of much knowledge is 'buhussuta'. A person who is endowed with 'heard much' is regarded as a blessing. (Mangala sutta). 'Sutadhanam' is the treasure of having 'heard much', sutadharo is remembering a lot, and 'sutasanniccaya is collection of hearing. 'Suta' is one of the five treasures-(dhana). To wit: confidence-saddha, virtue-sīla, learned-suta, benevolence-cāga, and wisdom-paññā for lay persons, and it is among the seven treasures of bhikkhus-monks and bhikkhuni- nuns.

But the Buddha also reminded his audiences to be careful about accepting what were being taught. " Nay, Kālāma[3], do not be led by revelation, or by tradition, or by hearsay, not by authority of the secret scriptures, or by mere reasoning, not by seeming logical, not by mere believing in the person who spoke it,..". In another occasion, the Buddha pointed out five things[4] that should not be taken for granted. They are saddha- faith, ruci- liking (emotional inclination), anussava- oral tradition, akāraparivitakka- reasoned cogitation, and diṭṭhi nijjhānakkhanti- reflective acceptance of view. "These five things can turn into different ways here and now. Now some thing may be fully accepted out of faith, yet, it may be empty, hollow, and false, but some thing else may be not accepted but it may be factual, true and unmistaken..."

There are three stages in the course of Buddhist Education: Pariyatti- learning, Paṭipatti- practicing, and Paṭivedha- realization. Thus learning is the first step on the way to Nibbāna.

The four aspects of knowledge:

(1) Diṭṭha- what is seen.
(2) Suta- what is heard.
(3) Muta- what is thought of.
(4) Viññāta- what is understood.

Suta- learning is the first step to acquire knowledge. Another term for learning is 'ugganhatam'.

Sikkhā is the higher training. Three kinds of trainings are essential in Buddhism. They are: Sila sikkhā- The higher training of morality; Samādhi sikkhā- the higher training of concentration; and Paññā sikkhā- the higher training of wisdom.

In Singāla sutta (DN), the Buddha taught the young Sigāla about five duties of students toward teacher as follows:

(1) Uṭṭhānena- Rising up to show respect ( when the teacher comes).
(2) Uppatthānena- supporting the teacher.
(3) Sussūsāya- listening to him carefully or showing obeisance.
(4) Pāricariyāya- attending on the teacher.
(5) Sakkaccam sippapaṭiggahanena- duly comprehending the accepted teaching.

The word sippa means skill/ knowledge in crafts or arts, this surely denotes the worldly knowledge. Thus the fifth duty of a pupil is to be carefully/ attentively learning whatever he is taught. In Mangala sutta it is stated: 'bāhu-saccañ-ca sippañca, vinayo ca susikkhito- learned and perfect in skills, disciplined and well trained.'

On the part of teachers, they have to:

(1) Suvinitam vinenti- trains him in whatever discipline well trained.
(2) Suggahitam gāhāpenti- makes him hold fast that which must be well held.
(3) Sabba sippassutam samakkhāyino bhavanti- thoroughly instructs him in every skill of the art.
(4) Mitta maccesu patiyādenti- speak well of him among his friends and companions.
(5) Disāsu parittānam karoti- do protect him in every direction.

Thus the duties of teachers as instructed by the Buddha are heavier than nowadays. This is because the conditions of education in the Buddha's time were much difference than in the modern time. In the ancient time the pupils lived dependent on the teachers. They often learn with one teacher at a time. And there were no government schools. The Jataka stories reveal that Takkasita was the well- known center of learning and teaching in India. The youngsters were sent there and they found a teacher who possesses the knowledge that they want to learn, there they remain with the teacher for long time, under his care and protection.

The term for teachers are: sattha,  Acariya,  upajjhāya- preceptor, mentor; and antevāsiko is a pupil. The teacher should show compassion for the pupil. Cūḷa vagga Pali, vattakhanddhaka describes in details the duties of teachers (ācariya, upajjhāyā,...) to the pupils, and the duties of a pupil toward his mentor/ preceptor/ teacher.

A Sutta in Aṅguttara Nikaya vividly describes the method of monastic training as follows:

(1) Approach a teacher with due respect and conscientious;
(2) Interrogation to clear out the meaning;
(3) Having learnt sufficient knowledge, he lives in comfort (citta viveka & kayaviveka);
(4) He is virtuous, live by the training of the Patimokkha, restraining his sense organs, seeing danger in the slightest fault.
(5) Having learnt much, memorized, recited verbally, investigated with the mind, and penetrated well by right view.
(6) He is energetic;
(7) Does not engage in pointless talk, he talks only on the Dhamma, or keeping noble silence.
(8) He dwells contemplating on the rise and fall of the five aggregates.

Sangha, the community of monks and the community of nuns are not only the congregation of contemplatives, but also the religious training schools. In a traditional way the new comer has to remain with a teacher (upajjhaya) for as least five years in order to learn the way of monastic as well as scriptures, meditation subject, etc. The methods of learning are: listening, memorizing, reciting (verbally), investigating the meaning by himself or interrogating with dhamma friends or teacher to clear the meaning.

Many monasteries become the great centre of learning, even there were some large Buddhist university such as Nalanda in eastern India and Valabhi in Western India that lasted for centuries, dated back over one thousand five hundreds ago. It was reported that there were times Nalanda University hosted around twenty thousand students from many different countries.[6] In Sri Lanka, in ancient time there were Mahavihara, Abhayagiri (Anuradhapura period); in modern time there were Vidyalankara pirivena, Kaleniya Pirivena, Vajira Pirivena,… to name a few. In Myanmar in the past Pyu, Thaton, Bagan, Amarapura were the great centre of Buddhism where children were sent to monasteries to acquire knowledge. Before the colonial period, Buddhist monasteries were the main schools for children of countries of the Theravada Buddhist tradition (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Lao, Cambodia and some southern provinces of Vietnam).

In modern time, Buddhist monks and nuns still actively give their services in educational field. Building school, write and distributing books, giving lectures, supporting poor students, and giving Dhamma talks are the most popular way to educate people. Follow the Teacher's footsteps Buddhist monks and nuns wander place to place to awaken people to the reality of life. A typical progressive talk start from charity (dana), to morality (sila), to heavenly states (sagga), to renunciation (nekkhamma), and finally to the Four Noble Truths that embody the liberation from all form of suffering. Thus Buddhist education is the way leading upward, though it does not stress much on the skills and knowledge for material gains, but it always encourages people "to be able" in supporting oneself and one family, to benefit society, and above all, to be detached, liberated from greed, hatred, and delusion.

Ayyakhema Centre, January 2005
Bhikkhuni Dhammananda

[1] Kevatta sutta, DN; AN iii, 60. Three kinds of supernormal powers or miracles: Iddhipada- dive into the earth, fly on the sky, etc; paracitta ñāṇa- thought reading, and anussāsani- the miracle of instruction  "you should think in this way and not in that way! You should attend to this and not to that! You should give up this and should dwell in the attainment of that."

[2] Mahavagga pali, p14

[3] Kesamutti sutta, AN

[4] Canki sutta, MN

[5] A viii, 2.

[6] Huien Tsang record.


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last updated: 07-03-2005