The Buddha taught for 49 years because people wanted something to hear, not because he had anything to say.
He did deliberate a long, long while after his enlightenment wondering whether to remain silent or speak.
As we know, he decided to dig his bare feet in India’s Bihari sands to begin what was to become the longest teaching career of any sage in history. Were the Buddha here today, we might ask him the interesting question of whether he thinks he made the right decision by speaking, or whether silence may have been the better choice.
The question the Buddha faced is not peculiar to the Buddha. Many modern-day masters who teach often wonder and even lament while teaching whether teaching the dharma is possible at all, or worse yet, if it separates listeners from their inherent enlightened nature.
Because of the inherent contradiction teaching entails, not all capable teachers end up teaching. Many live in seclusion or in obscurity in temples. Those who do choose to teach skillfully minimalize the contradictory consequence of teaching.
But what is the negative consequence of teaching? It has to do with the possibility that teaching might only interfere with the enlightening nature of the mind. Have you ever watched what happens when a child absorbed in some task receives a helping hand from a well-meaning parent or an elder sibling? How their shoulders pull in and they ignore the help they receive?
The reason is that the child would rather get it all wrong his way than right our way. The old adage, “Learning from our mistakes,” comes to mind here.
The “I would rather do it myself” attitude is no accident; it is ingrained in our psyche, and it has much to do with the enlightening nature of our mind. It is this self-illuminating quality of our mind that causes those who have realized it to pause and wonder if they might serve us better by not interfering and letting us discover the way ourselves, like a good parent who exercises self-restraint while looking over the shoulder of their struggling child.
Despite the inherent contradiction teaching involves and because we still ask for teachers, capable teachers end up teaching, but so do incapable ones—albeit for different reasons.
If we were spiritually mature enough, the teachers might simply advise us to lock ourselves up in a closet for an hour a day, be silent and still, and come back in a year. But sadly, we are afraid of such simple practices because of what we believe meditation or teaching should be like.
So, to accommodate us, the teachers offer us something we can sink our teeth into, while crossing their fingers that we are not getting further away from the truth by their instructions.
Ideally, a teacher could say to those wishing to receive instruction, “Sit still, be silent, and watch your mind every day for a year at the same time, for the same amount of time, then let’s discuss meditation.” The student who does this makes himself vulnerable and ready to receive instructions far more than if he had practiced some meditation method, be it Chan, Tantra, Mahamudra, Secret Mantra, or any one of the many other techniques available.
The reason for this is simple. When we don’t impose specific teaching on the mind, the mind naturally reveals the path for us. This fact is buried and woven in all spiritual classics—a disclaimer that says we are being taught because we want to be, not because we need to be.
Obviously, the considerate thing for a dharma practitioner to do is to make himself vulnerable to receive instructions by making an uncontrived effort on his own, and patiently doing it alone, until the time comes when he can honor the teacher by presenting himself as a ready vessel to receive instructions.
The student who presents himself to a teacher after cleansing himself of coarseness and becomes humbler is going to evoke greater respect from his teacher who knows the sacrifice and fearlessness the effort entailed. In return, the teacher will have greater sympathy for his new student and respond accordingly.
We must humble ourselves enough to recognize that the teachings are only as useful as our capacity to receive them. That if we waited before forcing our unripe selves onto our teachers and testing their tolerance, we would have instead taken the low road of doing it alone, disciplined, unwavering, and resolute no matter how inadequate our attempts may be.
Making it easy on the Buddha is to recognize that he has nothing to say to us until our ears can hear. We can hear the Buddha once we can hear ourselves, and we can hear ourselves best by learning to sit, be still, and listen to ourselves in an uncontrived way—without fear or imposing anything on our minds.