Who Should We Learn The Dharma From?
Rely on what our fundamental teacher Sakyamuni Buddha taught. Rely on what the [Pure Land] Patriarchs accordingly explained. Rely on the Buddha’s words and the  Patriarchs’ teachings. Rely on the Dharma taught and not rely on the persons teaching.
(Although this article uses the Pure Land tradition as an example, its principles apply to all Buddhist traditions.) ‘Who should we learn the Dharma from?’ Of course, the best teachers are the Buddhas themselves, since they have realised the Dharma perfectly, and are perfectly capable of teaching it. Thus, we should always ‘rely on what our fundamental teacher Sakyamuni Buddha taught.’ With no Buddha in our defiled world now, this is why we aspire to reach a Pure Land, the easiest of which to enter being the one created by Amituofo (Amitabha Buddha). It is an ideal Dharma school with him, a Buddha as our main teacher, who guarantees our swiftest progress towards Buddhahood.
Thus, in the meantime, we should properly learn to practise how to reach Pure Land. Yet, this still begs the same question of ‘Who should we learn the Dharma from [now]?’ Next in line, which are still present in our world, that represents the Buddhas’ teachings, as taught by our historical teacher Sakyamuni Buddha, are the Pure Land sutras (scriptures). Idealistically, since they are words of the Buddha, they ought to be sufficient as our guide. Realistically and practically though, the Buddha’s words might seem too profound for the average person in our era to easily and fully digest.
This is where the Pure Land Patriarchs come in to help us interpret the Buddha’s teachings as they are meant to be understood. From as early as the year 401 (which was the era of the Chinese Pure Land Tradition’s 1st Patriarch Great Master Huiyuan [净土宗初祖慧远大师], when he set up the first formal Pure Land practice fellowship), to as recent as the year 1940 (which was when the 13th Patriarch Great Master Yinguang [净土宗十三祖印光大师] departed for Pure Land), 13 Patriarchs arose. With each one’s efforts building upon the previous, the influence of their teachings still perpetuate in our era.
Being steady ‘relay’ torchbearers of truth, who did their complete ‘laps’ of practice, each Patriarch received his honorific title posthumously from the Buddhist community, only after a lifetime of excellent practice and propagation of the Pure Land teachings. Of course, they all manifested clear auspicious signs of reaching Pure Land too. Being the great masters that they are, they clearly relied on what Sakyamuni Buddha taught, which is why we can ‘rely on what the [Pure Land] Patriarchs accordingly explained’ of the sutras through their commentaries (sastras). Thus do they form a qualified lineage connected to the Buddha.
When confused on the meaning of the Dharma encountered anywhere, we should always ‘rely on the Buddha’s words AND the  Patriarchs’ teachings’ in unison – to fact-check accuracy of that learnt with mindful analysis. The duo together form the time-tested benchmark for the genuine Pure Land Dharma with all its nuances. With the above understood properly, we should also understand why we must ‘rely on the Dharma taught and not rely on the persons teaching.’ ‘Persons’ here refer to non-Buddhas and non-Patriarchs, who are mostly unenlightened, and are thus lesser teachers.
The ‘persons’ above also refer to those whose charismatic personalities we are attached to – to the extent that we believe what we hear from them blindly, forgetting to rely on the Dharma taught by the Buddhas, as explained by the Patriarchs. Any ‘teacher’ who goes against the above teaching of relying on the Dharma as taught; who expresses the ‘Dharma’ with skewed personal preferences, that go against long-proven teachings, is not a true teacher who ‘improvises’, but a false ‘teacher’ who confuses. While teaching methods can vary, the essence of that taught should never stray.
False ‘teachers’ teach superficially (instead of in depth), selectively (instead of completely), differently (instead of consistently, with the Buddhas’ and Patriarchs’ teachings)… and thus inaccurately. This is to appear ‘special’ due to deluded egotism, which also deludes their students. They can even quote as if ‘extensively’ to offer listeners confidence. However, upon closer research, that taught is often quoted inappropriately and interpreted wrongly (断章取义). While some cases are accidents, some are deliberate and recurrent, as known by lack of repentance even when mistakes are clearly pointed out.
False ‘teachers’ thus slander the Triple Gem by misrepresenting the Buddhas, their Dharma and great Sangha masters’ teachings. Some even ‘pit’ one Patriarch’s teachings against other Patriarchs’ by taking and comparing them out of context, which distorts their true intentions. They present one Patriarch’s ‘teachings’ to be ‘pristine’ while suggesting the other Patriarchs’ are not, that not following the ‘chosen one’ is to be impure. Effectively stripping many Patriarchs of their well-deserved titles, these false ‘teachers’ ignore how all  Patriarchs’ teachings are harmonious despite varying approaches as skilfil means to reach out to more in their eras. Such schism-causing slander that confuses and splits the Buddhist community can lead to fall into the deepest hell (Aivci) for a VERY long time.
Unfortunately, relatively few of us are skilled enough to study sutras, even with commentaries by ourselves, due to their technical use of language and profound nature. Thus, with the absence of a living Patriarch, we still need other teachers’ explanations. Only qualified and proficient teachers specialised in that taught should be learnt from, who offer detailed study, referring to the sutras and commentaries directly for reference. Listening to more than one teacher’s explanations is useful too, for cross-referencing, to see which perspectives truly fit that in the sutras and commentaries. Of course, we must also have active enquiry when in doubt, and diligent practice to realise that learnt. – Shen Shi’an
Rely on the Dharma;
rely not on the person[ality of the teacher].
Rely on the meaning;
rely not on the words.
Rely on the ultimate meaning;
rely not on the provisional meaning.
Rely on the wisdom mind;
rely not on the ordinary mind.
– Sakyamuni Buddha
(The Great Parinirvana Sutra)
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