How to Study Buddhism

When the Buddha taught the Dharma, he gave the world an inexhaustible gift: the ability to find true freedom. The Dharma is a mirror that reflects the truth within us and shows us how to free ourselves from our own delusions. This truth is the same truth that governs the universe. As we examine our minds in the mirror of the Buddha’s teachings, we will discover a certain wisdom that has always been present.

The value of learning the Dharma is not something that can be easily measured. The first step we must take when we enter the gate of the Dharma is to look at ourselves. We must decide that we want to change, that we want to learn, and that we will really try to apply the Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives. The moment we embrace the Dharma, our lives will begin to change. The Dharma is like a light that dispels the darkness.

The process of learning the Dharma is the most exciting and wonderful kind of self-discovery. In the sections below, I will try to explain how to approach and practice the Dharma.

The Four Reliances

The truths that the Buddha taught are fundamental truths, which mean that they are true everywhere and at all times. As Buddhist practitioners searching for the Dharma, we must rely on four guidelines to keep us on the right path. These “four reliances” are to rely on the Dharma, not on an individual teacher; rely on wisdom, not on knowledge; rely on the meaning, not on the words; and rely on ultimate truth, not on relative truth.

Rely on the Dharma, Not on an Individual Teacher

To rely on the Dharma is to always rely on the truth. We cannot rely on people because everyone has different perceptions and interpretations. Any single teacher is subject to birth, aging, sickness, and death, but the Dharma has not changed since beginningless time. So in seeking the Way, we must always rely on the Dharma itself and not on the people who teach it.

Although there are people who can instruct us and help us along the path, we still must experience and understand it for ourselves in order to truly make it our own. When learning from others, we should examine everything under the lens of our own introspection. In a famous Chan story, a student once asked Chan Master Zhaozhou (778-897) how to learn the Dharma. Master Zhaozhou stood up and said, “I am going to go take a piss now. Ah, even trivial matters like taking a piss I must do myself.”

Sakyamuni Buddha once said that we should rely on ourselves and rely on the Dharma, not on others. We should believe in ourselves, rely on ourselves, believe in the Dharma, and rely on the Dharma. Therefore, while we should listen to the teachings of the Buddha and the instructions of our teachers, if we truly wish to gain wisdom we still must rely on ourselves to experience the truth.

Rely on Wisdom, Not on Knowledge

What is the difference between wisdom and knowledge? Wisdom is the truth that already lies within us. Knowledge is what we have gained through our experiences in the outside world.

So why must we rely on wisdom and not on knowledge? The knowledge that we acquire through our six sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind) is constantly shifting with the changes of phenomena. This is why knowledge is not perfect. On the other hand, wisdom is like a mirror of our true nature. When we use this mirror to look at all the phenomena of the universe, it will reflect things as they really are. As we walk down the path of cultivation, if we can see the reality of all things with our wisdom and not discriminate based on our knowledge, we will not be deluded by the illusions of the world.

Rely on Meaning, Not on Words

We often gain knowledge and realize the truth through the medium of language and words. While there are many different languages throughout the world, the truth that they express is essentially the same. By realizing this, we can seek to grasp the essential meaning of things rather than being mired in the words. If we are too attached to words, we end up with a superficial understanding and will not comprehend something’s real meaning.

The unusual behavior of Chan masters was calculated to open our minds to this point. In one story, a Chan master exclaimed, “Today, if I saw Sakyamuni Buddha teach the Dharma, I’d beat him to death with a stick and feed him to the dogs!” Another master said, “What of the sacred texts? Bring them here and I’ll use them as a rag!”

The wild words of the Chan masters may seem to slander the Buddha and the Dharma, but in fact, they want us to transcend the attachment to language and words, and realize the truth beyond them.

Rely on Ultimate Truth, Not on Relative Truth

When we say, “rely on ultimate truth,” this means that we rely on the definitive meaning and not on the various methods of teaching. Buddhism has divided into different traditions in order to teach the Dharma to as many sentient beings as possible. Within these traditions, many different schools have been established based on various methods of cultivation.

The various methods that the Buddha taught us are all “skillful means,” because they are tailored to the different needs and capacities of sentient beings. However, we cannot consider these skillful means as the ultimate way to learn the Dharma since they are relative truth, and they change with the person and the conditions. According to the Buddha, the ultimate way is to follow the definitive meaning of the Dharma, which is in accordance with the Buddha mind.

The Four States of Mind for Studying the Dharma

What state of mind should Buddhist practitioners have when they study the Dharma? To be able to receive the teachings, we must possess a mind with faith, a mind that questions, a mind of awakening, and finally, no mind at all.


We study Buddhism to purify and calm the body and mind, elevate our character, open up our world, and give us direction. Buddhism can help us discover that we are in charge of the mind. On this path to self-discovery, faith plays an important role.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), regarded as the Father of the Republic of China, once said, “Faith is strength.” The Treatise on the Perfection of Great Wisdom says, “The Dharma is as vast as the ocean. It can only be entered with faith.” The Flower Adornment Sutra says, “Faith is the origin of the Way and the mother of all virtue. It nourishes the roots of goodness.”

There is a story in Buddhism that illustrates how faith gives us strength. In the countryside, there was a little old lady who wished to learn the Dharma. Unfortunately, there was no one around to teach her. One day, a layman who did not have a good grasp of Buddhism came to this village. When he saw how much the little old lady wanted to learn the Dharma, he said, “I know a Buddhist mantra I can teach to you: ‘Om mani padme um.’” The layman had made a mistake, and mispronounced the last syllable as “um,” rather than “hum.”

The old lady did not know any better, so every day, she chanted “Om mani padme um.” Each time she chanted the mantra, she would pick up a bean and place it in a bowl. After many years of chanting in this way, she did not need to pick up the beans anymore. Whenever she chanted “Om mani padme um” in her mind, the beans would jump into the bowl on their own.

Several years later, a monastic was wandering through the village and heard the old lady chanting “Om mani padme um.” The monastic informed her that she had been chanting incorrectly, and that the correct mantra was “Om mani padme hum.”

The old lady thought, “Oh dear! I have been chanting wrong all these years!” Afterwards, she chanted the mantra correctly, with “hum,” but the beans no longer jumped into the bowl by themselves.

Whether we chant “hum” or “um” is unimportant. As long as we have faith, our faith will give us strength. Faith is as important to us as roots to a tree: without it we cannot accomplish anything, for it gives us our strength. As Buddhist practitioners, we should study the Dharma with a mindset of faith and sincerity.


In what state of mind should Buddhist practitioners approach the Dharma? Perhaps many of you have doubts and questions? The Buddha taught that we should study the Dharma with a questioning mind. This is how Buddhism differs from other religions, for in addition to emphasizing faith, it also tells us to doubt. In the Chan School of Buddhism, practitioners are encouraged to doubt and ask questions. This is why they say in the Chan School, “Small doubts lead to small awakenings. Great doubts lead to great awakenings. No doubt leads to no awakening.”

The Dharma is like a bell. If you tap it gently it will ring softly. If you strike it hard it will resound loudly. However, if you do not strike it at all, it will not ring. We must have questions in order to gain answers. In fact, the Buddhist sutras themselves are largely the questions of disciples, which the Buddha answers.

Chan Buddhism instructs practitioners to question and investigate. This method is called huatou, which literally means “speech head,” or essential words. For hundreds of years, Chan masters have used this method to achieve awakening. As a result, much of Chan literature is the pithy exchange of questions and answers between Chan masters and their students. These exchanges are often profound and difficult for most people to understand. In a Chan meditation hall you are likely to hear such questions as, “What was your original face before you were born?” “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the west?” and “Who is it that chants the Buddha’s name?” This questions require us to doubt, and from these doubts we can gain wisdom and awaken to the truth.


People go to school to gain knowledge. People study the Dharma to awaken. Awakening is not the process of accumulating knowledge; it is a moment of sudden realization. It is when we think, “Ah ha! I understand.” How then, do we reach the state of awakening?

Once there was a young student who went to ask a Chan master, “I just came to the monastery and do not understand anything. Master, please instruct me: how do I enter the Way?”

The Chan master replied, “Do you hear the birds singing in the trees? The crickets chirping? Can you see the water flowing in the stream? The flowers blooming?”

The young student replied, “Yes!”

Then the Chan master told him, “The Way is entered from all these things.”

We can see that the Dharma is not mysterious, nor is it separate from our lives. It is always a part of the world around us. When we “understand” the sound of the flowing water, that is the sound of the Buddha’s voice. When we see flowers blooming, it is the presence of the Buddha. When we awaken to the truth, everything we do is the Way. We do not need to go far away in search of the Way, for it is in our lives and in our minds.

There is another story that illustrates this point. Once a novice monk named Longtan went to study under Chan Master Tianhuang (748-807). Year after year passed, but Chan Master Tianhuang never gave any formal instruction. Longtan finally became frustrated and went to bid farewell to Chan Master Tianhuang. Surprised by this, Tianhuang said to him, “Where are you going?”

Longtan said, “I am going elsewhere to learn the Dharma.”

Chan Master Tianhuang replied, “There is the Dharma right here. Why do you need to go somewhere else to study?”

Longtan replied, “I’ve been here for a long time. Why have you never taught me the Dharma?”

Chan Master Tianhuang said, “When you bring me tea, I use my hands to take it from you. When you bring me food, I use my mouth to eat it. When you bow to me, I nod to you. When have I not taught the Dharma to you?”

Longtan bowed his head in thought.

Tianhuang then said, “Don’t think. Once you think, you’ve gone astray. You need to experience and directly bear responsibility.”

With these words, Longtan suddenly had a great awakening.

Actually, the Dharma is in our every action, just as Chan is in every flower, tree, and stone. We usually do not realize that the Dharma is in our mind, so we look for it outside of ourselves. Yet, the more we seek, the farther away we go. The Dharma teaches us that we must always look within. If we can do this, the Way will become very close to us.


Wuxin (無心) or “no-mind” is a Chinese expression to refer to a mind that is empty of discrimination. It is the true mind, and transcends the duality of existence and non-existence. When we study the Dharma we cannot approach it with a discriminating mind, because discrimination and differentiation are based on knowledge, and knowledge is constantly changing. “No-mind” is a mind that does not differentiate. Only with this kind of wisdom can we deeply penetrate the truths of the Dharma.

In the past, someone asked a Chan master, “Master, you usually meditate for a very long time. May I ask: do you enter samadhi with mind or no-mind?”

The Chan master answered, “When I enter samadhi, it is neither with mind nor with no-mind. I enter it with the mind that is beyond all duality.”

When we talk about this mind that transcends duality, it does not mean that we do not have any concept of right and wrong, or good and bad. We should have these concepts. However, in dealing with worldly affairs and dualities, we need to face them with the non-differentiating mind, the mind of wisdom.

Once a student asked Chan Master Guishan (771-853), “What is the Way?”

Chan Master Guishan replied, “No-mind is the Way.”

The student said, “I don’t know how!”

Guishan replied, “Go find someone who knows how.”

The student said, “Who knows how?”

The master said, “It is not someone else. It is you!”

No-mind allows us to see the world as it really is, not as our discriminating mind tells us it is. By applying no-mind to the world around us, we will gain the clarity to see the Buddha in everything and our Buddha nature within.