The Wealth of Learning

By Ernest Chi-Hin Ng
Buddhistdoor Global | 2020-11-27 |

The 21st century has been recognized as the era of knowledge. Learning has become much more accessible with the advent of technology, but the race for quality is also intense. The encroachment of artificial intelligence makes the challenge even more imminent. The rise of technology and its potential threats to human existence and self-worth are not new, but we definitely need to think about how to devote our resources to the process of learning.* And we need to think about what to learn and how we learn when machines are learning at lightspeed.

In the prevailing academic and empirical research on education, the concept of a “growth mindset” proposed by Dweck (2016) has drawn much attention because of its significant implications for education, corporate strategies, and social development. From the cultivation of a growth mindset at the individual level to the development of a learning organization, or a knowledge-based society, everyone inarguably invests in learning as if it is a real form of wealth. Nonetheless, there are many misconceptions about the real meanings of a “growth mindset.” For example, Dweck clarifies that people confuse being flexible and open-minded as having a “growth mindset,” or they treat the concept as a magic wand that can make everyone appreciative or wonderful. However, as this article argues, it is important to distinguish the pursuit of learning from being “learned,” just as we distinguish the pursuit of wealth from being wealthy, and the pursuit of happiness from being happy.

Learning has always been an important part of the Buddhist teachings. As Bodhi (NDB 2012) explains, learning is greatly emphasized in the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (NDB) among the four Nikayas. Together with reflection and practice, (AN 5.154) learning is one of the three components in developing wisdom, including the the Four Noble Truths and the Doctrine of Dependent Arising. These teachings are praised by the Buddha as those “that are good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end, with the right meaning and phrasing, which proclaim the perfectly complete and pure spiritual life,” (NDB. AN 7.67) i.e. the cessation of suffering.

In the Buddhist texts, learning is well regarded as one of the five kinds of wealth (NDB. AN 5.47) or seven kinds of wealth; (NDB. AN 7.6) it is also recognized as one of the 10 qualities that serve as a protector (NDB. AN 10.17) and one of the 10 qualities of a protector, which the elder practitioners (bhikkhus) should teach and monitor in the juniors. (NDB. AN 10.18) It is also one of the valuable 10 things that practitioners saw as “wished for, desired, agreeable, and rarely gained in the world.” (NDB. AN 10.73) Success in learning is also considered one of the five accomplishments. (NDB. AN 5.46; NDB. AN 5.91) The benefits of one who listens to the Dhamma include: (1) hearing what has not been heard; (2) clarifying what has been heard; (3) clearing from perplexity; (4) straightening out one’s view; and (5) not easily being upset or excited. (NDB. AN 5.202) A keen learner should also approach the learned ones and the experts, and clarify the teachings and the practices with them. In this way one can learn what has not been disclosed, clear up what is obscure, and dispel any perplexities in the teachings. (NDB. AN 3.20) The learned should teach the Dhamma, recite it, examine it, and enter into retreats with other elders who are learned and experts in the teachings so that one could keep learning and hold the knowledge. (NDB. AN 6.51)

The Buddha taught specifically how learning could be achieved and be beneficial to oneself and others. He suggested that recitation is a “nutriment” for leaning. (NDB. AN. 10.73) Learning is a process that comprises: (NDB. AN 8.62) (1) quick apprehension; (2) retaining the teachings in mind; (3) investigating the meaning of the teachings retained in mind; (4) understanding the meaning; (5) practicing the teaching accordingly; (6) becoming a good speaker with a good delivery of the teachings with speech that is “polished, clear, articulate, expressive of the meaning;” (7) motivating his fellow practitioners with instructions, encouragements, inspirations, and so forth. In other texts, (NDB. AN 7.6; NDB. AN 7.67) the learning process is comprised of: (1) learning the teachings thoroughly; (2) retaining in mind; (3) reciting verbally; (4) mentally investigating; (5) penetrating by view. Accordingly, learning can also become the “weaponry” or the “fortress” to guard practitioners against unwholesome qualities, to let go of blameworthy qualities, and to maintain the practitioners in purity.

From the above, the process of learning taught by the Buddha is therefore a process of embodiment, integration, and sharing. One must retain the learning in mind, cultivate it internally by practicin in daily life, and be prepared to share with others. The Buddha taught that “one of little learning” is someone “who is not intent on what he has learned.” It means one who does not understand or practice the teachings (NDB. AN 4.6) and one who neglects seclusion and the development of “internal serenity of mind.” (NDB. AN 5.73) A person of little learning also “loses his temper and becomes irritated, hostile, and stubborn; he displays anger, hatred, and bitterness.” (NDB. AN 5.157) Virtuous behavior and learning should go hand in hand. The Buddha proclaims that one who practices in accordance with his teachings may be considered “a learned expert on the Dhamma.” (NDB. AN 186) For those who understand the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha recognizes them as ones learned of “penetrative wisdom.” For one who “does not intend for his own affliction or that of the others, but thinks of the welfare of his own or that of the others, and of the whole world, the Buddha recognizes him as one learned of “great wisdom.” He is truly joyful, happy, and worthy of respect. Similarly, the Buddha practiced what he taught to the perfection: “Since he does as he speaks and speaks as he does, therefore he is called the Tathagata.” (NDB. AN 4.23)

The Buddha explicitly taught of “noble” growth, through which a male or female disciple “absorbs the essence and the best of this life”—learning is one of the five ways to achieve this. (NDB. AN 5.63; NDB. AN 5.64) The Buddha “praise[s] only growth in wholesome qualities, not a standstill or deterioration.” He encourages continuous cultivation until perfection. (NDB. AN 10.53) As Karunadasa (2015) illustrates, growth in wholesome qualities is possible because of the insight of impermanence that, “only when there is change, there is possibility of changeability.” Human wisdom is “plastic and pliable and therefore wieldable and amenable to change.”

The Buddhist teachings appreciate that learning is a process instead of an idealistic quick-fix to perfection. It is a graduated discipline (Pāli: anupubba-sikkhā), a graduated course of conduct (Pāli: anupubba-cariyā), and a graduated mode of progress (Pāli: anupubba-paṭipadā) of our mind and bodily behaviors:

Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch; in the same way this Dhamma & Vinaya has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual practice, with a penetration to gnosis only after a long stretch. (Ud 5.5)

Dweck reminds us that developing a “growth mindset” is definitely not easy and our environments are full of fixed-mindset triggers. Our personality traits or even “personas” will show up to inhibit learning and growth. It would be worthwhile to further explore Buddhist perspective on addressing these fixed-mindset triggers and identities.

* The Rise of Artificial Intelligence and What it Means for Our Jobs and Taxing the Robots and Other Externalities (Buddhistdoor Global)


Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.). 2012. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.

Dweck, Carol. 2016. “What Having a ‘Growth Mindset’ Actually Means.” Harvard Business Review. Accessed on 1 November 2020. https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means  

Karunadasa, Yakupitiyage. 2015. “Theory of Moral Life.” In Teachings: The Middle Position in Theory and Practice in Early Buddhism, 79–94. Hong Kong: Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (trans.). 2012. Ud 5.5. “Uposatha Sutta: Uposatha.” Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 3 September 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.5.05.than.html

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