4 x 4: How to Understand a Teaching

In order to properly understand a Dharma teaching, it is necessary to consider its Foundational Intent, Content, Applicability, and Form:

  1. Foundational Intent is defined as the overarching purpose, in the context of the entirety of the teaching: Is it provisional or definitive? How does it accord with the Three Wheels of the Dharma? Does it teach renunciation, abandonment of delusion, or right view of ultimate reality?
  2. Content refers to the subject of the teaching: is it eminently salvific (therapeutic) or illuminating? Does it recommend a practice or a view? Is it meant to lead to the accumulation of merit or wisdom?
  3. Applicability is ascertained both in terms of temporality (Is it a teaching for all time, or is it limited to a particular period?) and ubiquity (Is it universal, or specific?).
  4. Form is the expressive means used to convey the teaching. Is it literal and direct, or figurative, requiring interpretation? Are the language, examples, and metaphors accessible to us?

In conjunction with these four essential considerations, there are four modifying circumstances that must be ascertained:

  1. Place: Where was this teaching given? In a grove, a palace, the heavens, a monastery, or the street?
  2. Time: When was it given? Two thousand years ago, or yesterday?
  3. Audience: Who were the intended recipients? Were they powerful or common people? What was the level of their understanding? Were they monastics, lay followers, or persons of other persuasions?  Were they Bodhisattvas or Shravakas?
  4. Context: What were the conditions that elicited the teaching? Was it given in response to a specific question? Was it elicited by a particular action?

If a teaching (whether oral or written) is approached without these considerations, the probability of misunderstanding increases exponentially. All reading and listening require interpretation. Literalism is also an interpretation, and most often mistaken…

About Tashi Nyima

I am a Dharma student, and aspire to be a companion on the path. I trust that these texts can offer a general approach and basic tools for practicing the Buddha's way to enlightenment. ||| Soy un estudiante del Dharma, y aspiro a ser un compañero en el sendero. Espero que estos textos ofrezcan a algunos un mapa general y herramientas básicas para la práctica del sendero a la iluminación que nos ofrece el Buda.
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