What is a Buddhist Education? In the Spirit of Master Hsuan Hua

Martin Verhoeven
Nov 14, 2021

"Although this was put together some years ago, it does capture the spirit of what Master Hua felt was true education. It was first presented at a UNESCO gathering in France. At the last minute, Master Hua called me up to speak on this topic for him and the group. It was a test; I was quite nervous and unprepared. I must have passed the test, because later he instructed me to write it down. I thus took it to mean that this brief snippet was okay, or at least not too far off the mark." — Martin Verhoeven

Buddhist education, simply stated, is the teaching of wisdom and compassion. It seeks for the liberation of human potential through the study and understanding of the mind and all its states. “Buddha,” a title of honor and respect, means “awakened,” or “enlightened one.” Hence, Buddhism is the study and practice of awakening—the direct and clear understanding of things as they really are.
Such study necessarily begins with self-knowledge. The premise that all beings possess an innate capacity for wisdom and enlightened reason underlies all Buddhist thought. The goal of teaching, therefore, is to arouse this innate potential; the goal of learning, to actualize and embody that inherent wisdom—a wisdom characterized by an unattached, unbound, liberated mind and a compassionate regard for all that lives.

The philosophy and methodology of Buddhist education, thus, by necessity must be non-dogmatic as it teaches “from the inside out.” Its aim is to animate the intrinsic wisdom and nurture the seeds of compassion in each individual. This is accomplished not so much by filling students’ minds with a prescribed body of knowledge and beliefs as by providing them the tools with which they gain self-knowledge and activate their own inherent potential. The goal is not to dictate established beliefs without, but to kindle and illuminate abiding truths within. This accords with one of the original meanings of education, or educere, is to draw out. Such education, properly conducted, does not indoctrinate but simply disentangles; it enables one to see through and remove the ignorance obscuring inborn wholesome qualities. In short, a Buddhist education should provide the means and milieu that favor self-discovery, encourage genuine and direct understanding, and foster a wish to benefit the world.

A compassionate concern for all humankind is a natural outgrowth of a Buddhist education because wisdom and compassion intertwine. Wisdom without compassion is fallow; but compassion lacking wisdom is often blind. The Buddhist-educated person thus demonstrates an unflagging commitment to work for the betterment of humanity, to give untiringly in the effort to alleviate suffering and bring peace and happiness to all living beings. Kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity are the hallmarks of individuals educated in the Buddhist way.

Buddhist education grows out of a 2,500-year-old tradition whose basic tenets remain unchanged and ever-relevant to the human condition. A process rather than a product, learning in the Buddhist tradition is engaging, lively, challenging, and rigorous. It is philosophically profound, yet rich in its practical applications. Guided and informed by time-honored axioms of education both East and West, it holds virtue to be the basis of self-knowledge, goodness to be its outcome, and benefiting others to be its application. Such “true knowledge” bestows freedom, but it is a liberation and autonomy born of disciplined self-mastery rather than license from impulses and passions unexamined and unrestrained.

Thus, the central defining characteristic of Buddhist education is expressed in the classical three-fold approach to higher learning: ethics, a centered equanimity, and insight. The discernment of truth results from a lucid and concentrated mind. Such mental clarity and focus, in turn, arise naturally from an untroubled conscience gained from leading a humane and blameless life. Morality, concentration, and wisdom, therefore, are the very heart and soul of the meaning, methods, and achievements of education in the Buddhist tradition.