Four Ways of the Wise

– by Shamar Rinpoche, taken from a teaching on Phowa given at Bodhi Path Virginia, June 20, 2004 –


I would like to share a traditional teaching about how to cultivate good judgment. This is a teaching to help us trust our common sense and avoid being misled. The four reminders here apply to dharma as well as all aspects of our daily lives. I believe that many problems in modern society could be solved if people would just follow this simple advice.

I call this teaching the “Four Ways of the Wise.” The wise know who and what they can depend upon. Thus, they avoid many traps of sloppy thinking.

This teaching consists of four simple maxims:

  • Depend on the teaching and not on the teacher
  • Depend on the meaning and not on the words
  • Depend on the depth and not on the surface
  • Depend on wisdom and not on concepts

1. Depend on the teaching and not on the teacher

We are often impressed by speakers who dazzle us with their charisma. Powerful personalities can bring out strong emotions in their audiences. Speakers or teachers who are entertaining, provocative or engaging can motivate us to act. Today, it seems as if a teacher must become a “motivational speaker” to have any students at all.

This can cause problems. Is it necessary to name the charismatic leaders of the past who have led people into great suffering? Appearances can be misleading. Charisma does not tell us whether someone’s knowledge is correct or not.

Choose a spiritual teacher as carefully as you would choose a surgeon. Your life depends on the skill of the surgeon. And something infinitely more important depends on the skill of the spiritual guide.

Of course, many people interested in Buddhism do not yet feel that they are ready to have a personal relationship with a teacher. Perhaps for them it is enough to read dharma books by different teachers. At the beginning, it is helpful to explore. But if we want our practice to go beyond the superficial, if we want to make some progress, then at some point we have to find a teacher.

I suggest that you put as much care into selecting a dharma teacher as you would into choosing a cancer surgeon. Before committing to one teacher, you should investigate. Research several teachers first. Then, select one for you based on the most important criteria: skill at teaching, meditative awareness and knowledge of dharma.

Traditionally, teachers of Buddhist philosophy are separate from teachers of meditation. It is not easy to find someone truly qualified in either area of course. But teachers skilled in meditation are even harder to find than those with a good academic knowledge of philosophy. Philosophy teachers may even be able to teach basic meditation. But more advanced practices can only be taught by someone who has made some progress on the Buddhist path him or herself.

Buddhist teachers should teach the teaching of Buddha, not their own teaching. So it is helpful to know something of the Buddha’s teaching. Read books about the historical Buddha and other great teachers of the past such as the Buddha’s disciples and Tibetan masters like Milarepa. This will help you judge whether a teacher seems to be conveying the genuine dharma.

2. Depend on the meaning and not on the words

People like to follow fine words. Impressive language can be very convincing. Wording can be skillful to make meaning clear or it can help to make something more beautiful, as in a poem or a song, or wording can be used to impress your audience, to let them know you are educated and adept at prose style and turns of phrase. But the meaning is the most important: it should be the correct meaning.

What is correct meaning in spiritual teaching? First, to be correct, a teaching must give some benefit. Second, it must tell the truth. Once these two criteria are met, then wording is less important. But good wording can make correct teachings easier to read and more interesting, so it is useful.

Yet, if you use good wording but tell lies, not only does your good wording give no value, but it is actually harmful, because you may cause people to fall into harmful beliefs and errors.

Here’s an example. Legend says that once upon a time there was a Brahmin scholar with a very beautiful wife. At an advanced age, this Brahmin got sick and knew that he would soon die. He was a jealous man, and he became terrified that another man would marry his wife after his death. So, being a scholar who was also very determined, he did something quite extreme. He mustered all his strength to write a self-serving book to convince to convince his wife to jump into his funeral pyre. In this book, the Brahmin said that when his body is offered to the god Shiva it will be transformed from a burning body into a “liberated” body. He went on to write that since a Brahmin’s wife is not just a wife, but a goddess taking part in a holy union, that she should join her husband and become liberated as well. The style and language of this book were perfect, since the Brahmin was a master of rhetoric. Indeed, so the legend goes, the book was so convincing that the wife jumped in the fire. And thus was the hateful practice of sati begun in India. It was widespread until outlawed by the British and continues in some places even today.

Wording is a flower, it is an adornment. Meaning is the real body. Good wording without meaning is like precious jewels on a corpse. The power of meaning will come through even if words are not impressive, like a beautiful woman who is unadorned, whose natural beauty shines through. Skillful wording allied with good meaning is like a beautiful woman whose natural allure is enhanced by beautiful jewels.

3. Depend on the depth and not on the surface

No one intentionally tries to be shallow, but many of us allow haste or lack of confidence in our own judgment to cause us to rely on received ideas, prejudices and clichés. Particularly when it comes to your spiritual life, it is important to investigate any teaching for yourself. There is no call for blind faith in Buddhism. On the contrary, you cannot make progress on the Buddhist path unless you are willing to go beyond popular notions.

In Buddhism, it is particularly important to try to see below the surface. Buddha gave teachings at different levels depending on the aptitude of his audience, whether beginners or advanced practitioners. Yet, even beginning teachings can express profound messages for the highly qualified practitioners who are able to de-code them.

More importantly, you need to be able to think deeply to get any benefit from dharma at all. Let me explain.

If you have a problem, you should seek a solution appropriate to the problem. If your problem is simple, you can find a quick, easy solution. But if your problem is complex, you will need a powerful remedy. And if your problem is the most profound problem that humans or living beings can experience—the problem of suffering and existence—then you will need a deep solution, the most profound remedy available.

If you have no ignorance, then you don’t need to deal with ignorance. Buddhadharma gives us the directions to get to enlightenment. To draw the quality of enlightenment out of the stuff of our everyday ignorance, dharma has to be applied to every aspect of that ignorance itself. In this way, the solution will come directly out of our problems. A famous Buddhist text by the ancient Indian philosopher Vasubandhu, the Abhidharmakosha (“The Treasury of Manifest Dharma”), says that if you practice using remedies for small problems, then eventually you will chip away at your biggest problem, ignorance itself.

Thus, the strongest confusion can be cured by the simplest meditation. For example, you can decrease sexual desire by meditating on dead bodies. Yet, the most subtle confusion can only be solved by the most profound wisdom. Thus, it requires the profound Diamond Samadhi, the final level of meditative absorption before enlightenment, to end the tiny obscuration that remains at the end of the Buddhist path.

Following this precept means that you yourself should not be satisfied with shallow thinking and that you should encourage others to judge deeply as well.

4. Depend on wisdom and not on concepts

I will be very brief here. This final maxim is the most profound, but we can say very little about it.

It is mainly intended for serious meditators. Gaining wisdom means realizing the nature of mind. To do this, you cannot rely on dualistic consciousness; you will go through to the non-dualistic mind, which we call wisdom. Meditators depend on the non-dualistic mind and not on the normal dualistic mind. They know that language, logic and reason are limited and cannot give access to ultimate reality, so they do not put much stock in these.

Depend not on dualistic or logical and conceptual mind, which is illusion, this maxim says, but on non-dualistic mind. Go underneath, don’t follow illusion as usual. Please do not forget that no matter how impressive or convincing our thoughts are, ultimate reality is beyond their reach.


So these are the four Ways of the Wise. Is it a sign of a decadent age that most people today behave in a way opposite to these precepts? They pile up one mistake on top of another without respite. People mislead themselves and then one person misleads another who in turn passes on wrong thinking to yet others, creating an endless chain of error. Please, don’t let yourself get caught in this chain. Rely on these four maxims, and you will cut through the bonds of illusion just as the great bodhisattva Manjushri, who has realized the perfection of wisdom, cuts through obscurations with his sword of wisdom.

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