How Do We Learn The Dharma?

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

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 behavior 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.