Tuesday, December 2, 2008

How to Listen to the Dharma

The Buddha said that we should not accept his teachings – or anyone else’s – simply because it comes from a certain source, or carries a certain authority, or was written in a certain book. Rather, we should listen to the teachings with an open mind and then test them in our own experience and see if they really make sense. Only if we find that they make sense in our own experience should we then accept the teachings as true.

The first step in that process is listening to the teachings with an open mind, and really hearing what’s being said, without bias or misinterpretation. To do that, we first need to get out of our own way and put the kibosh on our bad listening habits. When we listen to the Dharma (which also includes reading written teachings), we should try to be free of what are traditionally called the “three faults of the vessel.”

The first fault is being like a pot that’s turned upside-down. You can’t put anything in it. This metaphor describes what we’re like when we’re distracted, caught up in our own internal monologue or paying attention to something other than the teachings. When we do that, we’re not really listening.

The second fault is being like a pot that’s contaminated or poisoned. Anything you put into a vessel that’s poisoned is going to get poisoned too. This describes what we’re like when we listen to the teachings with a mind that is angry or lustful or caught up in some other emotional drama. It also refers to listening with the wrong motivation, such as the desire to build ourselves up with wisdom in order to be superior to others. In that frame of mind, we're likely to distort and misinterpret what we hear.

The third fault is being like a pot that has a hole in it. The pot might be turned right side-up, and it might be clean, but still nothing will stay in it. This describes what we’re like when we don’t remember the teachings or keep them in mind. Acharya Bill McKeever once described a funny moment when he was moving house, and realized he was carrying a box of Dharma books and yelling at his family. Where were the teachings in that moment when he needed them?

When we sit down to listen to teachings or study the Dharma, it’s good to look at our frame of mind and check ourselves. Are we like a solid, clean vessel that’s turned right side-up, ready to receive? Or are we like a leaky vessel that’s dirty and upside-down?

No comments: