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The Buddha's Methodological Approaches
for Teaching and Learning
Dr. Siddhi B. Indr

In Propagating his religion, the Buddha adopted various methodological approaches for teaching and learning, which may be summarized as follows:

1. Gradual Approach.[1]

For imparting instruction to beginners, the Buddha, utilizing a psychological principle, was very careful to take into consideration their particular background and not to peach to profound, detailed principles of the subject all at once as that would scare them away. It were the more elementary doctrine that were imparted to them at first. Those who intended to follow his teachings were urged to accept at first the tenets and practices that were suitable to their aptitudes, tendencies and interests, and then the more profound doctrines were placed before them by stages. In this way too, the Buddha did not kernel of his teaching, but he began by urging his listeners to the practice of virtues such as generosity and rectitude to behaviour in their worldly vocation. He spoke of heaven with its rewards awaiting those lead a life of earnest purpose here below; and as soon as he knew that his hearers were fit to learn something deeper and higher, he proceeded to instruct them in the higher doctrines of the Four Noble Truths, and so forth.[2]

Even in teaching the Four Noble Truths, he proceeded n stages, from the concrete to the abstract principle, from effect to cause, i.e. from the phenomenal element of suffering as the obvious, to its causes, its cessation and the ways leading to its cessation. This approach shows the Buddha’s attitude: " I do not maintain that the attainment of profound knowledge comes straightway; on the contrary , it comes by gradual learning, practice and progressive operation."[3]

2. Approach of Adaptation.

The present situation and circumstance where also used by the Buddha to impart his ideals to people. In order to gain over the hearers or the opponents to his view, the Buddha made use of a style which T.W.Rhys Davids characterized as ‘pouring new wine into the old bottles.’[4]

This consists in the Buddha’s giving a new meaning to words that were already current. He adapted traditional ideas and practices and adjusted his sermons to suit the temperaments of his hearers, a method that came to be known as ‘upaaya-kosalla"m,’ i.e. the skilful policy (expedient means) of converting people[5] by which is meant that the Buddha possessed as one of his intellectual faculties the ability to comprehend the dispositions or tendencies of his fellow men (naanaadhimuttikataa).[6] Here, he claimed to know ‘Brahma-God’ and also preached ‘the path leading to companionship with Brahma-God’, by cultivating ‘Brahmavihaaradhamma,’ i.e. the Four virtues for Excellent Abiding.[7] To mention another example, he also gave a brahmin an instruction in the ‘ritualistic tenet’ of washing away the sin. Instead of going into the river and washing it away by bathing, the latter was advised to take a bath in spiritual culture by harming no living beings, etc.[8]

3. Illustrative Approach.

By the expression ‘illustrative approach’ is meant the use of analogy, simile, parable (upamaa), the use of fable and story drawn from ordinary life, in the Buddha’s speeches along with beautiful verses in order to make them sweet, effective and attractive. It is often said in the texts: ‘I will give you an analogy, for by means of an analogy some people of intelligence (vi~n~nuupurisaa) understand the meaning of what is said"[9] and ‘a simile is employed in order to make the sense of a teaching clear.[10]

Thus, to teach the meaning of the ‘Middle Way’ (Majjhimaapa.tipadaa) to the Venerable Sona Kolivisa who was an expert in playing the lute in his earlier life, the Buddha made use of the analogy of playing the lute and observed that ‘only when the lute’ strings were neither overstrung nor overlaxed, it was tuneful and playable.’ Similarly, the analogy of ‘lust, hatred and delusion (raaga, dosa, moha) with fiery flames (aggi) was used to instruct the three brothers Jatilas, who, as the Buddha knew beforehand, believed in the ‘the Fire worship.’ He started: "Everything is in fiery flames: the eye, etc…are all in fiery flames.. By the fiery flames of lust, of hatred and of delusion by which all are kindled, produce and kindle the further fires of birth, etc.[11] Here and there in the Pali canon, especially in the Jaatakas, the Buddha is reported to teach his disciples by the use of fables and stories, and he added at the end of every instruction the moral the fable illustrated.

4. Analytical Approach.

The analytical approach of teaching is one of the most important characteristics found in the earlier texts. This is especially the case when the doctrine was meant for the more intelligent hearers or followers. The entire teaching of the Buddha is described as one which is of a critical outlook, to be verified and realized by the intelligent (vi~n~nuu, prudent, wise), who represent for the Buddha the impartial critic at the level of intellectual common sense.[12] As a matter of fact, almost the whole dialogue of the Buddha could possibly be included in this style of teaching. The Buddha himself claimed to be ‘an analyst’ (vibhajjavaada); when he was asked for his explanation of the truth of the proposition: ‘The householder is accomplishing the right path….; the monk is not accomplishing the right path; he answered that one could not make an absolute assertion as to the truth or falsity of some propositions, but one should first analytically examine the nature of the subject of the subject of the discussions; the proposition in question means that, if both the householder and the monk were guilty of wrong conduct, them they are to be blamed, but if both of them conducted themselves rightly, they are to be praised.[13] The Buddha analytically reasoned with those who, being dialectically minded, came to discuss and debate with him.[14] And this shows his approach of teaching in what Oldenberg called ‘Socratic fashion.’[15]

According to the Buddha, a teacher who is possessed of the four analytical powers will be not at a loss as regards both the meaning and the letter or theory of what he teaches.[16] The refers to the teacher’s capacity for the analysis of meanings (attha) of reason or conditions (dhamma), of educational medium (nirutti), and of intellectual mastership (or, rather, presence of mind, self-confidence- pa.tibhaana): that is, he is capable of grasping the ‘analysis of meaning’, specifically and according to the letter, to explain the lesson in various ways, to teach it, expound it, lay it down, open it up, classify it and make it clear, and the same with the rest.[17]

5. Experimental Approach.

The Buddha did not want any body to accept his teachings without one’s critical spirit of experimentation. Since it is generally regarded as ‘pragmatism’ and ‘rationalism’ in the sense of ‘utilitarian pragmatism,[18] canonical Buddhism is a verifiable system of philosophy experimentally discovered by the Buddha in the light of both failure and success in his experimental quest for the truth,[19] which is synthesized on scientific principles regardless of past traditions: observation of actual life, experiments asceticism, final deduction of a way to end ills, seeking the knowledge of nature-the knowledge which may be characterized as scientific on account of its basis of verification, etc.[20] The Buddha showed the disciples the example, by having tried the various methods practised by various systems prevalent in his time.[21] Therefore, his success in achieving enlightenment is not considered to be a mysterious single act, but an achievement through the development of natural faculties. Even knowledge of salvation is achieved only as the final phase of a gradual process of practice. He also identified himself as one of the Experimentalists (di.t.thadhammaa-bhi~n~naavosaanapaaramippatta)[22] i.e. those who have a personal knowledge of the truth through their own experience. He closed his discourses tot he Kalamas,[23] and to Bhaddiya, the Licchave,[24] with the remark that one should accept a doctrine as true only when one had experimentally realized by oneself its practical validity. "Let an intelligent person come to me, sincere, honest and straightforward; I shall instruct him in the doctrine so that on my instruction he could practise by himself in such a way that before long he would himself know and himself realize….[25]

The Buddha did not want his own statements easily accepted on his authority nor easily rejected but he rather demanded that they should be tested and worked out in the light of one’s own experience, otherwise such statements would be fruitless. "Like a beautiful flower that possesses colour, but lacks perfume, so well-spoken words are fruitless to him who does not work them out:, the Buddha suggested: "on the other hand, well- spoken words are fruitful to him who sincerely practises them, like a beautiful flower that possesses both colour and perfume.[26] When asked to what extent one attained truth, he replied; "There is an attainment of the truth only by gradually following, developing, practising and experiencing the doctrines themselves"[27] practising, trying and experimenting with it, they may come to realize through their experience here and now the truth.[28]

Monks, what should be done by the Teacher for his disciples, seeking their good, out of compassion, that has been done by me for you…. concentrate on it and be not careless; do not reproach yourself afterwards. This is our command to you.[29]

When Ganaka-Maggallaana put a question to him: "Sir, what is the cause and reason why, though Nibbaana does exist, and even though you exist as adviser, some of your disciples on being exhorted and instructed thus by you, attain the goal, Nibbaana, but some do not,"[30] the Buddha replied: "…What can I do, brahmin, in this matter? (It must be always remembered that) a Tathaagata (only) shows the way."[31]

Notes and References

[1] This method comes in close relation to the ‘gradual course of training.'

[2] Cp. M. I. 379f.; D. I. 148; Commentary of the Dhammapada, p. 4f.

[3] M. I. 479f; S. II, p 28f.; A. I, p. 50f.; see also above not

[4] Cp. Rhys Davids, DB.I, p. 142

[5] D. III. 220.

[6] M. I. 70f.

[7] For more details, see M. II, p. 206ff.

[8] M. I, p. 39f.

[9] S.II. 114; M. I. 148.

[10] M. I. 155; III, p. 275; It., p. 114.

[11] Vin. I. 34f.

[12] Cp. D. I. 161ff.; II. 290ff.,; M. I. 400ff., 515f. A. II. 56.

[13] M. II. 197ff. cp. The similar approach with the same context, S. I. 80f.

[14] Cp. M. I. 376ff., 396ff.; D. I. 120ff; A. II. 190ff.

[15] Cp. Oldenberg, Buddha, p. 189

[16] A. II. 139.

[17] A. II. 160f.; cp. GS. II. 167

[18] See also A.C. Ewing, The Fundamental Questions of Philosophy, p. 56; De la Vallee Poussin, Bouddhisme, p. 129; S. Radhakrishanan, India Philosophy, I, p. 359; K.N. Jayatilleke: Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, p. 357

[19] Cp. Jayatilleke, op.cit., p. 464

[20] A.K. Warder, Early Buddhism and other contemporary System, Vol. 18, p. 57

[21] Cp. M. I. 77f., 81, 163f., 241f.

[22] M. II . 211f. This term is employed by Jayatilleke, op. cit., p. 172, 416

[23] A. I. 189ff.

[24] A. II. 190ff.

[25] M. II. 44; cp. MLS. II. 238

[26] Commentary of the Dhammapada. I. 383.

[27] M. II. 174; cp. MLS. II. 363

[28] M. II.22; III. 8f

[29] A. III. 87, 89; cp. GS. III. 72

[30] M. III. 4; cp. MLS. III. 53

[31] M. III. 6.


[Taken from Siddhi Butr-Indr,. The Social Philosophy of Buddhism. (Bangkok: Mahamakut Buddhist University, 1st ed. 1973), pp. 199-205].


Special thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for transcription of this article.


Updated: 3-6-2000

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