How to Listen to the Teachings

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kathmandu, Nepal (Archive #029)

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave this teaching at Kopan Course No. 7, held at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in Nov-Dec, 1974.

This is an excerpt from Day 5, The Lineage of the Mahayana Teachings. Lightly edited by Sandra Smith.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche after the first US course in California, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.

I will talk a little bit about the way of listening to and explaining the teachings; I will give this a little emphasis. Even when explaining the Dharma, there are certain disciplines from the teacher's side. There are certain disciplines and equipment needed in his mind. There are many things that are necessary to make the teaching beneficial. Also, from the disciple's side there are disciplines. There are ways of listening and things that are necessary to make the teaching beneficial or effective for the mind, for example, not being like the pot.

If a pot or cup is upside down, however much tea we put into it, the tea doesn't go inside. Just like this upside down cup, if we are not listening to the teaching, it doesn't go into our mind. Then, even if the cup is right side up, but has a hole in it, although much delicious tea is put inside, the tea doesn't stay in, it runs out. We listen to the teachings, but at the same time, we forget. When we are there, we remember the teachings, but afterwards we don’t think about that subject anymore and we forget the teachings. That way, the teachings don't become useful.

Even if we are listening—even if the cup is not upside down or it doesn't have a hole, it could be dirty, just like a filthy cup with a bad smell. Even if we put tea inside, it isn't worthwhile to drink, because the cup is dirty. Westerners don't have so many problems with the first two, but the third one, the filthy cup, is the biggest problem. This is the most difficult thing for Westerners. This means listening to the teachings with a negative mind and an impure motivation. So, if we listen to the teachings with an impure motivation and a negative mind, in that way the teaching doesn't benefit us very much. If we listen to the teachings with pride, it cannot benefit or change our mind that much. For example, we think, “Whatever else he has to say, I know this subject. What new things does he have to say besides this subject, which I know already?”

If we have strong pride and we listen with pride, even though we are listening and we understand the words, the teaching doesn't become beneficial to our mind because of pride. It does not become beneficial, because we are not listening to stop our life problems. We are not listening to subdue our negative mind. We are sort of checking the person who explains, but we are not checking ourselves, our own mind. We are not concerned with trying to subdue our mind, therefore the teaching doesn't become beneficial.

In the following subjects there will be many teachings that some people may have heard, which you already know. There will be all kinds of different subjects. However, even though you understand the words and the subject, this is not sufficient, because you need the experience within your mind. Check up whether you have the experience and if not, then there is a need for understanding and for practice. The reason there is no practice is because of not having a deep understanding of that subject. This is one thing. Listening to the teaching is not just understanding the words, but realizing the subject through understanding. The whole purpose of the teachings is to realize, to experience and to clean the mind. Also, repetition of similar words and subjects are for our mental practice. Otherwise, just understanding the words, we don't need repetition.

It doesn’t help if we listen to the teachings with the idea of checking the person explaining, instead of checking our own mind. Instead of changing our mind by listening to that subject, we sort of watch how many mistakes the teacher makes and how many incorrect words he uses. If we listen to the teachings just to check other people, but not to check our own mind; if we are not concerned with cleaning our own mind, listening to teachings with such a mind doesn't help that much.

It is necessary to think that the listener is the patient, the teacher explaining is the doctor and the Dharma is the medicine to cure the disease—the delusions, the ignorance. There are other things, but these three are very important to think about. By thinking like this, you know you are really a patient needing a doctor and needing medicine to cure disease. In this way, you know the purpose of listening. Thinking like this makes you conscious of the reason for listening to the Dharma, which is the medicine to correct the disease, the delusions. Think, “I am listening to the Dharma to correct my mental disease.”

So, in this way we are conscious of the purpose of listening to the teaching. In this way we know that we are listening to the teaching with such a mind—not for other people but for ourselves, to clean our own mind. When we listen to the teachings, think, “What the teacher is explaining is for me, to clean my mind.” In this way the teaching can be much more beneficial and also , as the teacher is trying to explain, we can understand much better, with less wrong conceptions.