Part of a series of short talks on the Seven Jewels of the Aryas.
- How to best learn the Dharma
- The wisdom of hearing, reflection, and meditation
- The power of hearing the Dharma live with a group of like-minded people
- The importance of putting what we learn into practice
We’ve talked about faith and about ethical conduct and about generosity. Now we’re at “learning.”
Clearly, learning is important. When they talk about the three wisdoms, usually they say hearing, reflection (or contemplation), and meditation. But the one of “hearing,” it’s said that way because it was so much an oral tradition for many centuries. But “hearing” actually means studying, learning, reading, and so forth. To learn the Dharma.
Having said that, there’s something very powerful about hearing the Dharma live from a person, rather than reading books or watching videos or listening to tapes or recordings. Those other ways are also good, we learn that way, but there’s something that happens when you listen to the Dharma live from a human being that doesn’t happen in the other situations.
I know that from my own personal experience. For me, it’s a very powerful experience when I go to India and I sit in the big crowd with all these people who are HIs Holiness’s disciples, and listen to the teachings. Even though the translation—now the translation is pretty good, but in previous years, it was really difficult because it was so hard to translate simultaneously, the mics didn’t work well, the radios didn’t work well, etc. So you got a little bit, but it was difficult sometimes. And then people would edit the teachings into books, and you look in your notes where the holes are and you follow the teaching into the book, hoping that you’ll get it clarified in the book. And whoever did the book left that part out because they didn’t understand it either. So sometimes it was very frustrating.
But the power of being in a group of people who are all the students of His Holiness, together. Even though it’s totally chaotic. And there are people stepping on you and over you, and you’re sitting on people’s laps, and they’re sitting on your lap, and they’re spilling tea on you. And the bathrooms are like…you can’t even call them bathrooms, they’re so horrible. One part of the mind gripes, the other part of the mind is like, forget it, this is nothing. Something comes across by being with a group of people who are all dedicated for the same spiritual aims that we are. And then listening together. And hearing it live from somebody who practices.
While we’re (at Sravasti Abbey) doing as much as we can to put things on the web so that people who live in all sorts of places where there are no Dharma teachings can have access to the Dharma, I really want to encourage people who do have access to centers and teachers to take advantage of that, because there’s something that happens.
I mean, you listen better when you’re in a group. Don’t you? When you’re in the hall and everybody is sitting up straight and listening. That’s different from when you’re at home in front of your screen, and you put your legs up and drink your coffee. The cat jumps you. Then you’re bored with this part of the teaching so you get up and go get a snack and come back. Then you’re tired, so you turn it off. And you never listen to the rest of it even though you said you were going to.
When you actually make the effort to come to teachings, something different happens. You’re there and you listen better and you take it in.
That thing of learning is so important, because if you don’t learn, then you don’t know what to reflect on and you don’t know how to meditate. While I’m all for people learning to meditate, and that’s such a good thing that’s really happened in the last few decades in this country is now meditation isn’t some kind of weird word. It’s socially acceptable and people want to learn to do it. For them to know that there are many kinds of meditation. There’s meditation-lite and there’s meditation serious. You kind of have to see what you’re interested in.
But really to get deeply into meditation, learning is quite important. What do you meditate on? It’s on what you learned. So you have to have some kind of conceptual framework of how your mind works, a conceptual framework of what the path is, of what the result is, of where you’re going, why you’re doing this. To get all that into your mind so you can meditate properly requires learning.
People have often heard me tell the story about somebody who did Zen meditation and came out of it believing in God. And why did that happen? Because they hadn’t learned the whole Buddhist framework in which you meditate and what that means.
Of course, if you’re doing a more secular meditation for the purpose of just relaxing your mind, maybe you don’t need that so much. You don’t need the entire Buddhist framework. But I think even you’re doing meditation just to relax your mind, learn to be calm, you do need the framework of ethical conduct, and you do need the framework of compassion. Because mindfulness without ethical conduct, without being able to discern what is wholesome, what is not wholesome, what to practice, what to abandon, that’s like the bottom line. If you don’t know how to live when you’re not in meditation, just as a good human being, if you don’t know that, then where is your meditation going to take you? Why are you meditating? If you don’t have some idea of compassion in your mind, then what’s your motivation, and what are you expecting from your meditation?
This is why learning is quite important. It’s very interesting to read people’s applications, when they want to come stay at the Abbey, because we have them fill out a long application. (Not everybody at the Abbey gets to read them, but Venerable Samten and I look them over pretty carefully.) And it’s very interesting to see why people want to come here and what they hope to learn. And many of them say, “I want to learn to meditate” or, “I want to get in touch with my spiritual side.” But then when they describe what they consider their spiritual side, or what they consider meditation, or when we ask them for what they’ve done before, then you can see whether they’ve heard teachings and studied them and thought about them, or whether they’re really new, just coming into it having heard stuff from their friends, or reading Time magazine, or something like that. Because people will say, “I want to work with energy, I want to work with the chakras, I want to work with my kundulini….” We usually write back for those people and say, “Sorry….” Or people think, “I want to learn tarot cards, or calling forth spirits, seeing ghosts, developing clairvoyant powers, talking to the dead….” This is what many people think of as spiritual practice, and they want to learn that. So again we kind of say, “You’re welcome to come, but we can’t teach you that.”
It’s a whole process of learning. We all have a spiritual yearning, that’s for sure. But to really figure out what that means and where we want it to take us, that really takes some time and contemplation, and I think that’s something that needs to get clear before we really engage in a lot of meditation.
I heard a story. One of my friends went to visit one of the meditators in Dharamsala. And while he was there, somebody who had just finished a three-year retreat came to visit. So they all chatted for a while. And then when that person left, the old Dharamsala Tibetan meditator said, “Three-year retreat and same mind.” Meaning that you can do a retreat for a long time, but how much your mind changes is going to depend a lot on your learning and contemplation that’s come before that. Because you can do a long retreat, and recite 100,000 this and 100,000 that, but what’s going on in your mind while you’re reciting these? And when junk comes up in your mind…because we all know junk comes up in your mind when you’re meditating. Don’t we? Anybody has had only blissful meditation? No junk ever coming up? It’s like the Yellowstone geyser, Old Faithful. When that happens, then you need to learn how to work with your mind. Otherwise you just kind of go, “My body’s in the human realm, my mind is in the hell realm.”
This is again why it’s so important to listen to teachings, discuss the teachings, really have a broad understanding. And I’m not saying that means having only an intellectual understanding, and only studying before you contemplate and meditate. I think the three go together. But don’t skip the first one. Definitely we have to learn, then we contemplate, then we meditate. And in our practice we do a bit of all three.
And our learning isn’t just intellectual. It may be for some people it’s very intellectual. But if you really want to get in touch with your spiritual side, then you have to apply what you’re learning to your own mind, see what’s going on in your mind, and start using what you’re learning to work with your own mind. And that requires a process.
This is one thing that I’m very very grateful to my first Dharma teachers for, is they taught us guided meditations, and they had the senior students lead us in checking meditations and these analytic meditations, where we really applied the Dharma to our minds. And I realized in later years that many people don’t have that. They’ll hear the teachings, and the teacher says, “Now go contemplate,” but they don’t know what to do. So I think this was a special gift from my first teachers, who are still my teachers, is that they really taught us in these guided meditations how to apply the teachings to our mind, and that’s when things get really juicy and you start tasting something. And of course your garbage comes up. If you’re expecting to meditate and just have light and love and bliss, good luck. Because your mind comes with you everywhere you go.
But if you really want to tap into your potential as a human being, and start purifying your mind, then your meditation can be very powerful. And your learning, too.
Audience: I just wanted to share my understanding what the mechanism could be why it’s so different for us to listen to the teachings being in the crowd of people who have the same purpose. I think there would be a few reasons, but one of them I think [is] neurophysiological, and scientists talking about so-called mirror neurons. And I think this [is] what makes us (partially) social beings, as His Holiness always emphasizes. And let’s say for instance … if your co-workers come into the workplace quite grumpy or irritated, it’s really affecting everybody in the workplace. Because people [are] really easy picking up that something [is] going on, something wrong, quite subtle things. And I think when so many people focus on the teacher, on the teachings, on the words, it’s really affecting ourselves, too. And it could be part of [the] explanation [of] how the merit multiplies when we do something as a group practice, too.
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes. Why do they talk about merit multiplying when we’re in a group? Because we affect each other. And I don’t think it’s just mirror neurons. I think it’s just we’re influenced by the people around us. And when you have the opportunity to be in a group of people whose minds are all focused on creating virtue, then that influences you.
We used to call it the vibes. The vibe of the place. You pick up on the vibes.
Audience: I’ve been looking forward to today’s talk, and it has confirmed in my mind that this should put this one in position one for the seven jewels, because you were saying, “Well of course faith comes first,” but I have never been convinced of that because, as a former Cathoilc, faith came easily because that’s how Catholics are taught. But that kind of faith that I had and have still is not informed reason. It’s only through the teachings. So as we talked the other day, of course in every one of the jewels, but I’m voting for this one to be number one.
VTC: Yes, I’m with you. And just talking about the order of the seven jewels, we have integrity and consideration for others, which we’ll get to, but both of those are necessary for ethical conduct, so why is ethical conduct towards the beginning and those two are towards the end? Shouldn’t they all be clumped together? So maybe we’ll make our own order. Or maybe somebody can meditate and pray to have a vision of Atisha, or it’s also in Nagarjuna. No, we’ve got to go to Sukhavati, then we can ask Nagarjuna ourselves. We want Nagarjuna to come to us. We’re spoiled. We’ve got to go there.
Audience: I started reading about Buddhism a little bit in the ’80s, but more seriously in the early ’90s, and until I came here I really didn’t have any idea what to study. I was doing some Zen practice and sitting, but I didn’t even know about the five lay precepts. I didn’t know much of anything except what I read here and there. And I read a lot of books without understanding much of it, too. So coming and having teachings in person and getting more of an idea of what to study and what to meditate on.
VTC: Yes, quite important.
Audience: Otherwise a lot of wasted time, really.
VTC: Yes. We can read a lot, but we don’t know what order to read things in. And also, we aren’t good at picking out what we really need to read.
At the beginning, when I started, there wasn’t much. So what did I read? Lobsang Rampa. I can’t believe I became a Buddhist after reading Lobsang Rampa. For those of you who don’t know, don’t go read him, but he was an Irish plumber who pretended to be a Tibetan meditator and wrote all this extravagant stuff. It gives you totally the wrong idea of what Buddhism is about.
Because there’s so much out on the market now, what’s the first book they read? Dream Yoga. The Six Yogas of Niropa. The Chakrasamvara Tantra. Tibetan Book of the Dead. Just even having some guidance on what to read is quite important.
But here’s where also you can see when people have some kind of karma with the Dharma. Some people, they read that stuff, they never come back. Other people, they read that and they keep going until they find a teacher. So you can see the play of previous lives’ karma.