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The Buddhadhamma as a Fount of Creative Education

Lay female donors and monastic donors at the base of the <i>Preaching Buddha (First Sermon)</i>, c. buff sandstone, fifth century, ASI Site Museum. From
Lay female donors and monastic donors at the base of the Preaching Buddha (First Sermon), c. buff sandstone, fifth century, ASI Site Museum. From

The Buddha’s teachings are for the purpose of liberating oneself from the cycle of birth and death. This cannot be achieved through intellectual understanding alone, however refined. The human predicament is that there is, in everyone, always a conflict between reason on the one hand and emotion on the other; what one knows to be wholesome or unwholesome is one thing, what one actually does is another.

Buddhism suggests that this human predicament is the result of our intrinsic and existential—in the sense of being rooted in human existence itself—inability to see things as they truly are (Pali: yathabhutam). This is due to the inherent mode of operation of our consciousness, which has been conditioned from beginningless time by the negativities succinctly described as greed (raga), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha). This is the Buddhist view of conditioned human nature.

In traditional Buddhist terms, liberation from this existential predicament cannot be achieved by sheer will, nor through “intelligence” or knowledge. It is possible only through the attainment of panna or prajna, which is often rendered as “spiritual insight.” This is an insight that fully harmonizes reason and emotion, so that one’s being is perfectly in line with one’s knowing. It frees us from all negative conditioning and indeed all conditioning. It transforms our consciousness from the reactive mode to the creative mode. Then one is empowered to truly “abstain from doing evil, do what is wholesome, and purify one’s mind.” (Sabba-papassa akaranam. Kusalassa upasampada. Sacitta-pariyodapanam. Etam buddhana sasanam)

All this amounts to a fundamental transformation or a revolution of consciousness. For Buddhists, this is not possible through the education system or a philosophy, or even a thorough ethical system. It is only possible through training in the Dhamma. This spiritual system helps a person to grow spiritually, to progressively unfold his human potentialities. This progressive transformation and unfolding of human potential is the closest Buddhism comes to a spiritual anthropology. In this sense, Buddhism is a humanistic religion and we call this system of spiritual transformation “creative education.”

I am reminded of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s remark that modern education should incorporate the development of the heart: “When educating the minds of our youths, we must not forget to educate their hearts.” (The Star) When I refer to creative education, I am thinking of a system of education that is openly aimed at transforming a person psychologically and intellectually. Involving the heart and direct inspiration is important, or the student will at best be a scholar absorbing information without psychological and spiritual change.

As a humanistic religion, Buddhism finds many affinities with several schools of psychology and psychotherapy. Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, and Abraham Maslow are often respected as the founders of humanistic psychology and psychotherapy. Fromm and Maslow define the term creativity as “productiveness” and “self-actualization.” Fromm explains productiveness as: “man’s ability to use his powers and to realize the potentialities inherent in him. If we say he must use his powers, we imply that he must be free and not dependent on someone who controls his powers. We imply, furthermore, that he is guided by reason, since he can make use of his powers only if he knows what they are, how to use them, and what to use them for. Productiveness means that he experiences himself as the embodiment of his powers and as the “actor;” that he feels himself one with his powers and at the same time that they are not masked and alienated from him.” (Fromm 1947, 84)

To these authors, a creative person is defined as someone able to bring out or manifest good qualities such as kindness, compassion, and love through self-actualization and productiveness. Modern education provides students with intellectual knowledge, which is primarily geared toward material acquisition. In contrast, Buddhist creative education prioritizes the emotional, intellectual, and ethical development of a student from an integrated perspective. Buddhist creative education generally works on the principle of “meta-motivation,” which was firstly coined by Maslow, while “typical” education is governed by materialistic motivations, such as career advancement, financial stability, and professionalization and industry specialization.

Angulimala attempts to kill the Buddha. From
Angulimala attempts to kill the Buddha. From

Buddhism has a long history of maintaining the dynamic interaction between teacher and student. Ideally, the teacher takes full responsibility for imparting knowledge and providing spiritual training to the student. Having absorbed the learning from the teacher, the student lives accordingly, transforming his personality. This transformative efficacy is what distinguishes the Buddha’s teaching as “creative education,” in contrast to ordinary education, where skills are more or less simply accumulated.

The Tripitaka provides many examples of people transformed by the Buddha’s teachings. Patacara was from a prosperous family but lost everyone dearest to her: her two sons, husband, parents, and brothers. She was depressed and mad. She would run through the street without clothes, as people chased after her. Then she entered the Buddha’s grove of Jetavana. When Buddha saw her he called her over, kindly saying, “Sister, be mindful.” After listening to the Buddha’s sermon, she became mindful and realized that she was naked. Somebody from the crowd gave her something to wear. Then the Buddha preached to her the Dhamma and she became a nun. She practiced diligently and was able to transform herself from a suffering being into a liberated arahant.

The extraordinary story of Angulimala shows how creative thinking and empathy tame even a dangerous bandit. The Buddha’s advice to Angulimala compelled him to become a monk. The Angulimala Sutta (MN 86) presents an account of his life as a serial killer. He was a bandit who was living in Kosala. The sutta explains the type of person he was:

He is murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings. Villages, towns, and districts were laid waste by him. He was constantly murdering people and he wore their fingers as a garland.  (Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi 1995, 710)

When the Buddha met him, it is said that he was just short of one finger to complete his personal target of collecting 1,000 fingers. Nobody wanted to cross paths with him. However, the Buddha saw with his divine eye that Angulimala had the potential to become an arahant if he heard the Dhamma. Had the Buddha not intervened, he would murder even his own mother, who was on her way to inform him that the king’s army was looking to arrest him. Angulimala was happy to see the Buddha because he could complete his 1,000 fingers (murders). He took his sword and chased after the Buddha. Through supernatural powers, the Buddha made it so that although the bandit was running as fast as he could, he was unable to catch the Buddha even though the Buddha was walking normally.

Angulimala was disappointed and shouted at the Buddha: “Stop, recluse! Stop, recluse!” The Buddha responded, “I have stopped.” Angulimala then addressed the blessed one:

“While you are walking, recluse, you tell me you have stopped;
But now, when I have stopped, you say I have not stopped.
I ask you now, O recluse, about the meaning:
How is it that you have stopped, and I have not?” 
(Bhikkhu Nanamoli, and Bhikkhu Bodhi 1995, 711)

The Buddha replied:

“Angulimala, I have stopped forever, I abstain from violence toward living beings; But you have no restraint toward things that live: That is why I have stopped and you have not.” (Bhikkhu Nanamoli, and Bhikkhu Bodhi 1995, 711)

The Buddha’s brief teaching immediately touched Angulimala’s heart. The Buddha told him that he was free from unwholesome actions, whereas Angulimala was running after unwholesomeness and performing wicked actions. After realizing the Buddha’s teaching, he threw away the sword, worshipped the Buddha, and requested to go forth as a monk. What a transformation! Initially he had wanted to kill the Buddha and now he worshipped the Buddha out of gratitude for showing him a different path. This episode further encourages us that an evil, harmful, and dangerous person can become good if he receives proper exposure to the Dhamma. He became a monk, found meaning in the Dhamma, and later became an arahant.

The case of Suppabuddhakutthi is another example of personal transformation. He was a beggar and concerned only about food. However, when he encountered the Dhamma during the Buddha’s sermon, Suppabuddhakutthi was inspired by the Buddha and proclaimed to himself: “Whatever is of the nature of arising all that is the nature of ceasing.” (Yam kinci samudayadhammam sabbam tam nirodhadhamman’ti) He realized this profound knowledge through simply processing the Buddha’s speech. He gained insight (panna) and went to see the Buddha as a transformed person.

Gandharan donors. From
Gandharan donors. From

The Samannaphala Sutta of the Digha-nikaya is about King Ajatasattu. According to the scripture, the king was unhappy and could not sleep well because he was depressed. He had consulted many religious teachers, but their answers had failed to satisfy him. He had committed many atrocities to maintain power, including patricide against his own father, the devout Buddhist king Bimbisara. The text describes him as enduring great psychological torment for these crimes. He visited teachers with the hope of consoling his mind.

Jivaka, who was the Buddha’s personal physician, led the king to the temple where the Buddha was staying. The king became suspicious of everyone. DN Sutta 2 states:

And when the king Ajatasattu came near to the mango grove he felt fear and terror, and his hair stood on end. And feeling this fear and the rising of the hairs, the king said to Jivaka: “Friend Jivaka, you are not deceiving me? You are not tricking me? You are not delivering me up to an enemy? How is it from this great number of twelve hundred and fifty monks not a sneeze, a cough, or a shout is to be heard?”

“Have no fear, your majesty, I would not deceive you or trick you or deliver you up to an enemy. Approach, sire, approach. There are the lights burning in the round pavilion.” (Walshe 1995, 92)

After approaching and worshipping the Buddha, Ajatasattu asked: “Can you, Lord, point to such a reward visible here and now as a fruit of the homeless life?” (Walshe 1995, 93) The Buddha pointed out the visible fruit of a celibate life. The Buddha said that one comes to discipline oneself by following the Dhamma. As the king listened to the Buddha’s teaching, his heart began to shift. He exclaimed that he understood and confessed his transgressions. The Buddha gradually led him to see the benefit and visible fruit of following the Dhamma. The king confessed his faults and asked for forgiveness.

According to the Panna Sutta of the Anguttara-nikaya, a person will change their lifestyle after learning the Dhamma. When they amend their lifestyle they can ease into a daily practice of the Dhamma, with a positive feedback loop between everyday life and mental conditioning. The text says one will have “seclusion” in body and mind. That means one is not going to engage with anything that is in violation of the Dhamma, nor with mental activities that are unwholesome. They further understand that the Dhamma helps to discipline them in body, speech, and mind. When a student can control themselves physically, verbally, and mentally, they will experience fewer problems and control their interior impulsiveness or recklessness.

Creative education mostly focuses on innovative thinking. Students should be trained in skills geared toward problem-solving from new angles, rather than simply training in the old disciplines for economic gain. The challenge to each student is not so much the volume or content of the curriculum, but the methodology in which they must build on to develop originality. Instead of standardizing how students approach a problem, different responses are encouraged. As Sulak Sivraksa, one of the fathers of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), states: “Modern education deals almost exclusively with the heads and not the hearts of students; cleverness is recognized and rewarded materially, and generosity or awareness of social evils is not necessary for success. Indeed, it may be an impediment. Students are led to pursue wealth and power, rather than to understand that these do not lead to happiness, especially where, as in modern society, wealth and power rest on mass poverty and ecological destruction. This is indeed the fostering of avijja, ignorance, and moha, delusion, rather than real education.” (Sivraksa 1998, 66)

Creative education means not just throwing information at students, lest it end up being the same as other education systems. Learning the Dhamma is effective and fruitful only when one puts what has been absorbed into practice, after the aforementioned personal transformation. Indeed, the transformation is not auxiliary but essential to the entire approach. Otherwise, students will remain stuck at the level of intellectual understanding. Professors and lecturers are able to explain the Dhamma logically, but the ineffable nature of the Dhamma goes beyond logical categories and limitations. That is why the Buddha enigmatically described the Dhamma as profound, difficult to see, and difficult to understand.

The difficulty the Buddha spoke of was not an intellectual one, or else it would have been figured out by our formidable brains at one point or another. It is that even the best logic deployed cannot express it properly. Consciousness must first be transformed. Hence, gaining insight or wisdom, not intelligence, is the goal of Buddhist education. That is why Buddhist education is called creative education. It shows us how to deal with our psychological problems and fundamental interior being in the world. The Buddha’s teachings are creative because they are fundamentally aimed at re-creating a person; since the person does not possess a self, no one is rooted in their unskillful habits. The Buddha is the perfect creative teacher who is ideally placed to transform a student. Buddhist teachers, in emulating his example, should strive to understand the mentality of each individual student and tailor their methods according to the kinds of teachings that they need.


Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi. Trans. 1995. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.

Fromm, Erich. 1947. Man for Himself. New York: Holt Paperbacks.

Maslow, Abraham H. 2011. Toward a Psychology of Being. New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.

Sivraksa, Sulak. 1998. “Buddhism and Human Freedom.” Buddhist-Christian Studies. 18, 63–68.

Walshe, Maurice. Trans. 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications.

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Educate hearts and minds of youth (The Star)

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