When we read a book, or listen to a teaching about personal transformation, we are doing something out of the ordinary. We are not simply wishing to acquire information or be entertained – although both of those things may happen. Instead, we are seeking insights to help us experience life differently. To bring an end to whatever unhappiness afflicts us. To find a way to fulfillment, and ultimate well-being.
In Buddhism, such insights are called realisations, a term that is used so often that I once asked my teacher exactly what it meant. With elegant simplicity he explained that “a realization is when your understanding of a subject deepens to the point that it changes your behavior.”
In matters of inner growth, in other words, no amount of learning, knowledge or ability to quote chapter and verse is of any value unless we take it to heart and allow it to change us.
In practical terms, how do we go about creating such change?
Buddha didn’t offer a single solution to this question so much as a massive toolbox of techniques to appeal to different people at different points of their inner journey. But one element he repeatedly emphasized was the way in which we should listen to his wisdom. To optimize the chances of the Dharma transforming our experience of reality, we need to be receptive to it. And, with typical detail, Buddha explained the specific qualities that being receptive entails.
Buddha’s explanation has given rise to the metaphor of the three vessels – bowls, as we might call them today – which illuminate the qualities to be cultivated and avoided. It’s easy to scan over these three qualities and assume that because we know what they refer to, they don’t apply to us! But just because the metaphor uses the image of simple vessels, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking the points being made are elementary. They relate not only to beginners, but to seasoned practitioners too. In fact you could argue that experienced Buddhist practitioners should take heed of the lessons of the three bowls more than most!
The upside-down bowl
You can’t pour anything into a bowl that’s upside down. A variant of this metaphor is the bowl that’s already full to the brim. In either case, there’s no possibility of transmission taking place, because there’s nowhere for the wisdom to go.
When I first heard this analogy, an image sprang to mind of a big, arrogant, Know-It-All in the back row of the temple with his arms crossed. Such a person is not going to benefit from being there, of course. But in my experience, he is unlikely to have made it to the temple in the first place. You do get the occasional reluctant partner dragged up the hill by his fervent wife or girlfriend. But people are mostly there by choice.
So the point being made is a more subtle one. We are an upside down bowl when our minds are so agitated by the day’s events, or the text message we just received, that we aren’t fully concentrating on what the teacher is saying. We are full to the brim when we sit down, for the umpteenth time, to hear our teacher talk about guru yoga, believing that, because we’ve heard it so many times before, we have the whole subject down pat. We are an upside down bowl when we are nodding off because we’re tired, and it’s warm, and there’s only ten minutes to get through before coffee and cake with our friends – and has Chodak made any chocolate brownies this week?
In the words of my precious teacher Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden: “It is important to concentrate very carefully and deeply whilst listening to the Dharma, as this becomes a meditation in itself.”
Although we tend to think of meditation as something we do while sitting with a straight back and attempting single-pointed concentration, according to the great lineage master Maitreya, the real definition of meditation in Buddhism is: the thorough familiarization of the mind with an object of virtue.
Whether we are reading a Buddhist blog, or attending a teaching, when we are being fully attentive, we are, by definition, meditating. We are not upside down or already full. We are open and ready to be inspired.
The cracked bowl
You pour it in, and it runs right out a crack on the side. Zero retention. Once again, it seems like an obvious point is being made. But the cracked bowl isn’t only a metaphor about remembering what we have been taught. It is also about enabling the Dharma to affect what we think, say and do.
Buddha identified this need over two and a half thousand years ago, and it is one which endures to this day. I regularly introduce people to mindfulness at an executive development school in the city where I live, and I know from conversations with other trainers that cracked bowls are still a chronic challenge! People come to the management school and are motivated and equipped with tools to help make them more effective leaders. They emerge from their experience eager for transformation. Then they return to the office, and the usual conflicting demands, time pressures and political machinations. Within a short time they’ve abandoned their fresh insights and new practices. What could have been the basis for authentic change disappears in the rear view mirror behind a cloud of more imperative concerns.
Management development experts, seeking ways to embed change have found some practices that help. Interestingly, techniques such as modelling new behaviors, support groups, returning for regular motivation and being equipped with mind-training techniques, which do exactly this, could have been borrowed wholesale from the Buddhist playbook.
Whether as executives or as Dharma practitioners, we are in the business of personal transformation, where it’s not your thoughts or beliefs that makes you a better person, but your behavior. As Geshe Loden has also written: ‘Putting even one verse of your Guru’s teachings into practice is a far greater offering than understanding the entire Dharma but practicing none of it.’
The dirty bowl
You would no sooner place fresh food into a dirty serving bowl than you would pour wine into a used coffee mug. Just as it would be a waste of good food or wine to do so, it’s also pointless studying the Dharma with a contaminated attitude.
What kind of contamination are we talking about? A sub-optimal motivation is one, and it can be surprising to discover the reasons why some people show up at class. One man attended a weekend retreat and, within a matter of weeks had set himself up as a meditation guru, selling guided downloads from his website. His interest in coming to classes, it seemed, was mainly commercial.
Other forms of thought pollution are more subtle. I am sometimes told by people attending an ‘Introduction to Buddhism’ class that while they enjoy certain practices, such as meditation, and the cultivation of loving kindness, they find ideas like being propelled by karma into unknown rebirths to be very unpleasant. For this reason, they say, they will disregard the teachings they dislike and focus on the ones that they do.
A “Pick ‘n Mix” approach to spirituality has become quite common. Cherry pick whatever practices appeal – a base, say, of reassuring Mother Mary and definite salvation, combine with Buddhist meditation, a few dashes of shamanism, crystal healing and angel channeling for flavour, mix well, and bake on High for a few years and the result is … well, who knows. Probably the same incoherent hodge-podge you started out with.
I am not, by the way, suggesting that there aren’t fascinating elements of traditions outside of Buddhism, or that practitioners on different paths can’t mutually benefit from sharing their insights with others. What I am pointing to is contamination. Buddha offered a path to end suffering and to attain enlightenment. Over the millennia, millions of people have followed the path and enjoyed the results. If we want the same results, we should walk the same path. It’s really not that complicated. But it does mean that when we encounter ideas we find horrifying, instead of dismissing them because they don’t fit in with our preconceived world view, we should retain an open mind.
It’s probably the case that most Westerners have difficulty with rebirth and karma, because it’s not part of our culture. I certainly did. Paradoxically, it wasn’t the teachings on these subjects which helped me get to grips with them, but teachings on the nature of consciousness which opened the door to my understanding and acceptance of them.
When we are willing to hear the full story, the complete picture without prejudice, then there’s a chance that the different component pieces will fall into place. We end up with a more coherent, big picture and an understanding of the path we are on.
What Buddha actually said
The actual words Buddha used about how to listen to his teachings were both positive and succinct.
“Listen well, listen fully
And retain in the mind.”
“Listen well,” refers to not being like the dirty bowl, with its preconceived ideas. “Listen fully,” means paying attention, rather than nodding off or being distracted. And “retain in the mind,” is about enabling the teachings to have an energetic, dynamic impact on our thoughts and actions, rather than treating them simply as intellectual ornaments or forgetting them altogether.
Does all this mean that Buddha demanded that we should listen to his teachings uncritically and accept them without reservation, hook, line and sinker?
Not at all.
His instructions have much more to do with how to achieve a clear and full understanding of what is being said in order to derive greatest benefit from it.
Buddha once arrived at a place called Kesaputta, where the jaded locals told him how they no sooner had one guru visit them, giving them teachings, than another would show up, denouncing the previous guru’s doctrine and telling them something different. ‘Not another guru!’ they were no doubt thinking when Buddha and his entourage showed up in town. They pretty much said so directly to his face, telling him about the revolving door of visiting gurus and demanding to know who they were supposed to believe.
This is a feeling which many people may identify with today, trawling through the online websites, videos social media pages of self-proclaimed healers, teachers and angel channelers. Who indeed?
Buddha’s response was not to say, “Me, of course!” but rather to suggest the criteria by which the townspeople might judge touring evangelists. These criteria have been summarized as follows:
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
(Excerpt from E.H Johnson’s Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita or Acts of the Buddha. You can find the full Kalama Sutra, The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry, here: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wheel008.html)
Not blind, unquestioning belief, then, but acceptance only after full consideration. And that on the basis of having received and retained the teachings fully and well.
Acknowledgements for the wonderful bowl images to (From top): Tom Crew; Whitney Wright; Monika Grabcow; Anna Ogiienko; Mgg Vitchakorn – all on unsplash.com)
PS My apologies if you are now feeling a bit hungry!
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