Teaching the dharma, avoiding ‘the ego trap’

July 23, 2020

Confession time. When I started giving talks at the secular Buddhist sangha in Wellington, New Zealand, One Mindful Breath, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had a rough outline of what I was supposed to do but decided that the best approach was to prepare and practice. I remember I spent the night before one of my talks carefully crafting a dharma talk on the more esoteric concepts found in the third of the fourfold tasks. (The fourfold task is Stephen Batchelor’s secular Buddhist reinterpretation of a core element of Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths.) In my own head I’d been sure that this talk would interest my audience.

Ego-based disappointment

However, I was disappointed to find that few people showed up that evening for the talk. Then, my audience were not engaged, stifling yawns and starring off with glazed expressions before occasionally snapping themselves back to looking attentive. I was further disappointed to find that donations for the teachings that night were a mere $10 New Zealand dollars, hardly worth the petrol for the drive to and from the meeting.

I felt a bit crushed. I’d organised the session, carefully prepared my talk, and I felt like the lack of engagement from the sangha reflected on me personally. My overwhelming sense was one of reluctance to try again. Looking back, I realise I had started to fall into what I’ve come to call ‘The ego trap’.

I was using the sangha and my talk as an opportunity to show-off my knowledge, and to boost my own ego. I wasn’t thinking of how my practice community might benefit from my talk. I expected praise and reward from my community, but they had never promised to give it. When that praise and reward didn’t materialise I took it personally, getting simultaneously annoyed at my listeners and demoralised in myself.

Fortunately, at the same time I was feeling the lingering sting of my ‘failed’ talk I was preparing for my next one by reading about the death of Gotama, the Buddha and his instructions on how a community should be run, and what should happen after his death.

Gotama’s lessons

In the final hours of his life Gotama is recorded as having made three important statements about his dharma, but it was the second statement which really resonated with me. Gotama said to his attendant Ānanda:

It may be that you will think: ‘the Buddha’s instruction has ceased, now we have no teacher!’ It should not be seen like this, Ānanda:, for what I have taught and explained to you as dharma and discipline will, at my passing, be your teacher.

Gotama insisted that his dharma and discipline will provide adequate direction for his followers.

Similarly, shortly before his death he told Ānanda:

You should live as islands unto yourselves, being your own refuge, with no other refuge, with the dharma as an island, with the dharma as your refuge, with no other refuge.

In reflecting on these quotes I realised I was looking at my relationship with my listeners all wrong: these were not students or paying customers and their disinterest in my talk didn’t mean that I’d failed them. These were individuals who are learning the dharma themselves at their own pace.

Trusting the dharma

It occurred to me that I really had to trust the dharma itself. As part of a sangha I have a role in making the dharma accessible and available to people in my community, but I had to take myself down a peg: I’m not a teacher and I’m not a spiritual leader. The members of my sangha are responsible for their own development and personal growth. To borrow the expression, I was there to lead horses to water, not get offended when they didn’t drink.

I also came to realise that a focus on myself and getting my own ego gratified would actually start to interfere with my own practice. How could I be fostering a sense of equanimity and non-reactivity if my sangha was becoming a place where I would inflame my own craving for praise and admiration and my aversion to failure?

Perhaps just as importantly, I had to realise that giving a dharma talk is not all about me. If people don’t react the way I expect them to, that doesn’t mean they dislike me. Nor does it mean they didn’t take away some thoughts or reflections from the talk. It might mean that it wasn’t an interesting talk, but there’s no reason to take it personally. I had to learn to separate my ego from my dharma talks.

Since I stopped making myself responsible for other people’s development or enjoyment of learning the dharma I’ve found new enjoyment in giving talks or in having discussions on meditation or on dharma practice. I feel calmer, I’m more relaxed, and I feel I’m living closer to what Gotama would have wanted while serving my community. I’ve learnt to take myself less seriously, and it’s wonderful.

Quick tips to avoid the ego trap:

  1. Applause, praise, and donations are nice, but try not to make them a measure of your success. Success in giving a dharma talk is just sharing your knowledge and experiences with others in a way which is careful and authentic. Just doing this is enough.
  2. Adopt a mindset of growth – if you feel that people aren’t engaging with your talks or you’re finding speaking to be difficult then it helps to keep trying new things, rather than sticking to the same techniques. Seek feedback from people you trust in your audience.
  3. Remember that you get as much out of it as your audience. There is simply no better way to learn the dharma than by having to talk about it in public. You’ll learn something in preparation, and the feedback and discussion from your audience can challenge your own thinking.



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One Reply to “Teaching the dharma, avoiding ‘the ego trap’”


It really is difficult to put oneself “out there” by teaching and talking and offering oneself up for criticism (even if the critics are in your own head). Thank you for the tips 🙂

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