What is the most favourable time to receive teachings? I believe it is when we are able to fully connect with the teaching. I don’t know about you, but I have sat through teachings and not really taken very much of them on board. I am physically there, but mentally I am off in my own world. So this undoubtedly isn’t a favourable time.
Some people go to as many teachings as possible, thinking this is what being a Buddhist is all about. They believe that even if they don’t listen or try to understand the teaching, it will leave an imprint on their mind for their next life. I know when I first moved to India, I spent a great part of my first few years at one teaching or another. I wasn’t fully taking them in, and I certainly didn’t give myself time to implement them. Buddhism was just an identity for me. So again, this was not a favourable time for me to receive any teachings.
We are humans, and we all like to belong to some group or club, whether it is a football team, religion, yoga club or gym—we all identify with something. However, Buddhism isn’t really about identity; it is about changing oneself by implementing the teachings. Gautama Buddha gave some advice on this subject in an amusing discourse called Gadrabha Sutra:
‘It is just as if a donkey were following right after a herd of cattle, saying, “I too am a cow! I too am a cow!” Its colour is not that of a cow, its voice is not that of a cow, its hoof is not that of a cow, and yet it still keeps following right after the herd of cattle, saying, “I too am a cow! I too am a cow!”
‘In the same way, there is the case where a certain person follows right after a community of Buddhists, saying, “I too am a Buddhist! I too am a Buddhist!” He doesn’t have the other Buddhists’ desire for undertaking the training in heightened virtue, doesn’t have their desire for undertaking the training in heightened mind [concentration], doesn’t have their desire for undertaking the training in heightened discernment, and yet he still keeps following right after the community of Buddhists, saying, “I too am a Buddhist! I too am a Buddhist!”
‘So you should train yourselves: “Strong will be our desire for undertaking the training in heightened virtue; strong will be our desire for undertaking the training in heightened mind [concentration]; strong will be our desire for undertaking the training in heightened discernment.” That is how you should train yourselves’.
So it isn’t about an identity, accumulating teachings or just understanding them intellectually. It is about being motivated to change your present condition. But before we can do that, we need to know that our present condition isn’t working or that we are suffering. We all know when we have physical suffering, but mental suffering is a bit harder to pin down. Gautama Buddha stated that there are three types of suffering, and I will briefly go through them here.
First, there is the suffering of pain. This is when we have a cold, headache, cancer or ebola, or we are sad, lonely and so on. This is easy for us to understand. This type of suffering is described as painful when it arises, painful when it remains and pleasurable when it changes.
The second one is the suffering of happiness and is a little harder to understand. Our happiness is based on causes and conditions, and so it is compounded, and anything compounded is, by its very nature, impermanent. So this happiness is not going to last, and when it ends, our suffering starts. This type of suffering is pleasurable when it arises and remains, but painful when it changes.
The final suffering is the all-pervasive suffering. This is the most difficult to understand. This type of suffering is within everything in our lives, but because it is suffering on a subtle level, we are prone to miss it. It is a condition that exists because of how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world. Our entire worldly experience is a definition of suffering that we cannot even see. We see ourselves and the world as separate—I’m here and the world is outside of me—in other words, as subject and object. We see ourselves as a solid, independent self. But Gautama Buddha taught that this is not actually the case and we are all interconnected. So the way we look at things—subject and object, me and everything else—is in some way the cause of our suffering that will come back to us in the future. This type of suffering is described as not being apparent when it arises, remains or ceases, but it is still a cause of our suffering.
Many people keep suffering because it doesn’t occur to them that there may be a better way to live their lives. So once we know that we are suffering and there is another way to be, we can make a decision to try and change. That will motivate us to listen to the teachings more intently. The teachings should give you an insight into how you can change for the better. But to do this we must have confidence in the teachings and the teacher, or we are not going to be overly receptive. I am not talking about blind faith, but just a feeling that what is being said may be of help to you. Of course, once you have implemented the teachings and found, from your own experience, that they work, your trust will be based on something more solid. But at first we have to have the courage to embrace the teachings and this will make them favourable.
Don’t think that every time you receive a teaching it is going to be at a favourable time. You may have to have the same teaching several times before the penny drops. I have sat through many teachings again and again, but every now and then the teacher says something that I have heard many times, but this time a light comes on in my head—I finally got the point.
So we need perseverance. If we really want a change within ourselves it is not going to come easily; it takes work. Perseverance is a skill that seems to be in short supply these days. We are so used to having things handed to us on a plate and all our communications reduced to sound bites, that we seem to lack any sense of perseverance.
So to create this favourable time we have to know we are suffering, have trust in the teachings and then be motivated, confident, patient and, above all, have perseverance. We then have to give ourselves space where we can fully engage with the teachings. We need to contemplate what we have heard, how it fits in with our experience of life and how we can implement it as a tool for change.
Sometimes we will go to teachings because we know the teacher will validate what we already believe. This type of teaching is not overly helpful or favourable. It is harder, and so more beneficial, to go to a teaching where you hear things that challenge your beliefs. This is because it makes you investigate what is driving you. It gives you a chance to look deeply into what your beliefs are based on. This is far more favourable than simple validation.
To finish, here are five rewards we can obtain by listening intently to the teachings. These come from the Dhammassavana Sutra:
‘There are these five rewards in listening to the teachings. Which five? One hears what one has not heard before. One clarifies what one has heard before. One gets rid of doubt. One’s views are made straight. One’s mind grows calm and stable. These are the five rewards in listening to the teachings’.