Philosophizing can be fun, for sure, but when I’m doing that I’m not being a teacher. Or a spiritual friend, or anything else. How often when we philosophize are we just trying to make ourselves feel smart and important?


By Daniel Scharpenburg


“I’d love to give you something, but what would help?”


I was giving a teaching on anatta, non-self, on Daily Dharma Gathering and it got me thinking.

There was nothing wrong with my teaching. It went really well—better than usual actually. But anatta is definitely one of those concepts that can be hard to teach and that’s something that I’ve been considering.

I believe that Buddhism has a specific purpose, and that purpose was expounded by the Buddha. He’s sometimes called the Great Physician because the truth is that his teaching rests on analyzing a problem and describing the way to relieve it. This is compared to the way a doctor diagnoses and illness and prescribes a treatment (although obviously medicine in the Buddha’s life was a lot different than it is now).

There’s a Fake Buddha quote that says, “I teach only two things: suffering and the way out of suffering.”  The Buddha didn’t say that and there are a lot of fake Buddha quotes out there. But this one does reference something important. The Dharma does have a purpose, so I am going to defer to the Fake Buddha and say he’s very wise here.

The purpose of the Dharma is to help us relieve the suffering of ourselves and others. I believe that when our teachings are centered on relieving suffering, we are on the right track.

I wonder, as a Dharma Teacher, where the line is between presenting teachings that are helpful and mere philosophizing.

One of my teachers, Karen Maezen Miller, said to me, “Don’t become a philosopher.” It took me a while to realize what that means. But I think I have a pretty good idea now.

There’s some debate between academics about whether we should consider Buddhism a religion or philosophy. I think it can easily be either one. People who emphatically say “Buddhism is not a religion.” are kidding themselves. Sometimes it is. And people who say it is don’t really have it right either.

It can be either one. And it can also be neither. To me it’s best when it’s neither. When the purpose of the teachings is to help us figure out how to live.

What do I mean?

Teachers can speak and write about all sorts of things.

Part of my practice, as with a lot of other teachers I assume, involves looking into deeper teachings and examining them myself. I am part of the rare group of people that actually enjoys that sort of thing.

I’ve been trying to write something about Indra’s Net for a while now. Indra’s Net is a way of looking at the interconnectedness of the universe by viewing everything as a reflective jewel in an infinitely vast net. Everything reflects not only itself but also everything else. We’re all connected and it’s only delusion that separates us.

That’s a beautiful teaching and I like it very much. It’s the fundamental teaching of Huayen Buddhism, which is considered one of the precursors of the Zen tradition (and I am coming to secretly like Huayen more than Zen—don’t tell anyone). That’s sort of how I see things. Everything is part of a vast whole.

As the Beatles would say, “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

It is something I think of a great deal—interbeing.

But I’ve struggled to present it in a way that’s useful, because usefulness matters. I saw someone online once trying to explain their re-formulation of the Five Skandhas. One of the readers just said, “I don’t understand and I don’t know why this is important.”

Philosophizing can be fun, for sure, but when I’m doing that I’m not being a teacher. Or a spiritual friend, or anything else. How often when we philosophize are we just trying to make ourselves feel smart and important? Yes, I can write something deconstructing emptiness, the Five Skandhas, the evolution of the different branches of Buddhism, etc., etc., etc.

But that’s not what my readers and students really want or need.

People want to read about how to keep their feet from falling asleep when they’re meditating. Or maybe how to think of their true nature as Basic Goodness (because we hear otherwise too often).

They want to know how to awaken their inherent wakefulness and learn how to focus and have a deeper life experience. Or personal stories about my life and how I’ve failed and (much less often) succeeded on the Buddhist path.

Or once in a while a story about a historical figure that we can take a lesson from (those are fun).

My personal hero Ikkyu said,

“Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon.”

I want to try to live by that. I don’t want to philosophize about the Dharma, I want to live it.

And I would like to show you how to live it too.


Photo: (source)

Editor: Dana Gornall