Wisdom In My Own Words

The 10-day course developed by U Ba Kin and Goenka has successfully travelled around the world teaching the fundamentals of dhamma to all walks of life. It’s amazing that the combinations of rules, instructions, and discourses that Geonka put together has been translated into so many different languages to conduct successful courses. I understand the desire to solidify this teaching that has been so successful, but I feel like that also limits the growth potential of everyone else.

As a high school physics teacher, I consider what school would be like if every physics student in the world learned physics by watching the videos of a single Harvard professor. The professor is an amazing teacher who connects with 90% of his students on the first viewing. Another 9% must watch the video 3 or 4 times to understand it, but eventually get the main concepts. But the final 1% of students who watch the videos simply don’t understand.

If physics students had questions, they would go to their local Physics assistant teacher who would repeat the wisdom of the Harvard professor, but the phrasing would be almost identical to the professor because the teacher wouldn’t want to make a mistake or mislead the student. The students take several messages away from this interaction. 1) The Harvard professor is perfect and has it all figured out. 2) The assistant Physics teachers are so devoted to the Harvard professor, that questioning or rephrasing his teachings is perceived as having doubt in his teachings. 3) Students should just keep doing practice problems over and over again using the same strategies introduced in the videos because the teaching is perfect and will eventually work for them.

Unfortunately, this is just not how science works. Sure, for introductory survey classes, big lecture halls are effective at introducing the basics, but as someone takes more advanced classes, the class size must shrink so the teachers can give more personalized guidance. Eventually, the students must learn how to become teachers thinking for themselves and putting the teachings into their own words. Mistakes are identified by comparing new teacher theories to nature. It’s not the Harvard professor who is the gatekeeper of truth, but the reality that manifests itself moment to moment. By elevating Goenka’s teachings to the level of absolute truth, we’re losing our connection to reality itself, and preventing students from aligning their experiences with their own lives.

I admire Goenka as a great spiritual teacher of our time, and I’m grateful for everything that I’ve learned from him. In the same way, I admire Isaac Newton for his scientific discoveries in the 1600s, but if we refused to question Newton’s laws, the evolution of science would have stopped over 300 years ago. I’m willing to concede that the Buddha’s teachings are complete and perfect, but there are over 10,000 suttas in the Pali Canon. How can ten to twelve Goenka discourses, or even several hundred Goenka discourses from all of his long courses possibly carry all of the personalized wisdom of all the Buddha’s teachings? I believe it’s very important that we, as students, continue trying to apply the Buddha’s teachings into our own lives and to put it into our own words, because that’s part of the learning process for individuals and for a community. Individuals will make mistakes, but by asking one another questions and compare our beliefs to the realities in our world while keeping a respectful and collaborative intention, we will continue to progress towards absolute truth. We are very lucky to have the Buddha’s teachings to help guide this journey.

3 thoughts on “Wisdom In My Own Words

  1. Zach

    I would be careful about thinking what we have today as the Buddha’s words as ‘perfect’. There are certainly core teachings that have survived and are consistent across different sources, and there are also a lot of things that were added later in the suttas, and it is highly likely that the entire abhidhamma was not taught by the Buddha. The 32 marks of a great man for example contradict several stories in the suttas that the Buddha was not readily distinguishable from the other monks. Certainly if he had long ears, a lump on the top of his head, and arms that could touch his knees while standing straight, there would be no mistaking him from among the other monks. What we have today has been influenced over the millenia by the sectarian influences of the Theravada school. This can be readily seen when compared to extant parallels from other schools. I highly recommend getting familiar with the more consistent core teachings in order to discern whether or not any of the later additions are in line with this core or not.

    The Buddha did not require any teacher to repeat his exact words, but when they do teach in their own way, with their own anecdotes, similes, and from their own wisdom, it should be in line with what he taught.

  2. Anonymous

    Hi Ryan, A young child ran toward fire and got burn. It is an experience and lesson that no teacher or suttas can give. Take away that opportunity is wise?

    I was a scientist. I did hundreds of experiments in my whole career. 99.9 % were failure, due to missing the target. I recorded every steps and conditions in detail. So I learned a lot from them and I was one step forward to the target.

    When I face my practice, I just keep doing my experiments. I do not throw away bad results into trash.

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