Preaching to the Dead

Preaching to the Dead March 13, 2018

These are passages from a teaching by Master Han Shan (Silly Mountain) called “The Maxims.”

When we preach the Dharma to those who see only the ego’s illusory world, we preach in vain. We might as well preach to the dead.


As I walk the Bodhisattva path, I feel a sort of responsibility to share the teachings with anyone that wants them. I know I’ve had the experience where people express an interest but I think they’re not really interested, so I’m reluctant to share the teachings with them. That’s not the right attitude. As Buddhists we don’t go out and try to win people over, BUT if people express interest, it’s a good idea to share the teachings with them whenever possible.
That being said, that isn’t what Han Shan is talking about here. This is a statement against evangelizing. Don’t go out and chase after people who aren’t interested in the Buddhist path. If people aren’t interested, then we’re preaching in vain.

How foolish are they who turn away from what is real and true and lasting and instead pursue the fleeting shapes of the physical world, shapes that are mere reflections in the ego’s mirror. Not caring to peer beneath the surfaces, deluded beings are content to snatch at images. They think that the material world’s ever-flowing energy can be modified into permanent forms, that they can name and value these forms, and then, like great lords, exert dominion over them.

Material things are like dead things and the ego cannot vivify them. As the great lord is by his very identity attached to his kingdom, the ego, when it attaches itself to material objects, presides over a realm of the dead. The Dharma is for the living. The permanent cannot abide in the ephemeral. True and lasting joy can’t be found in the ego’s world of changing illusion. No one can drink the water of a mirage.

A key Buddhist teaching is impermanence. Everything is fleeting. A lot has been made of the word ‘Emptiness’ in Buddhism. I don’t think Emptiness means that there’s nothing, I think it means there’s nothing to hold onto. We put so much value on the things we want and also on the things we have already. The fact of the matter is that you can’t take it with you. Not only that, but also this: whatever your clinging to is probably not going to be around all that long. Things break, relationships end, money runs out, our physical bodies wear out, faster and faster as we get older.

All the things we are clinging to are illusory, in that they won’t bring us lasting happiness. And often the things we try to own end up owning us, afflicting us with further obsession and clinging.

True refuge can’t be found in material things.

So stop clinging so much. Hold on loosely.


 Daniel Scharpenburg is a meditation instructor and dharma teacher in Kansas City. He regularly gives teachings through the Open Heart Project, the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world.
Find out more about Daniel on his website and connect with him on Facebook.

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