Three defects of the vessel are explained in traditional Buddhist teachings as something students should avoid. Teachings on conduct can sound like a pretty heavy topic, but if we examine our lives, then every aspect of daily activity has rules of behavior. For a Dharma student, correct conduct brings a tremendous advantage. Because we know how to properly listen to the teachings, we absorb them much more quickly. Thus, we should think of conduct instructions as a user manual that helps us navigate the learning process. And if we consider the examples of the three defects, we may find areas in our own approach that we can enhance and correct.
In this excerpt from Khenpo Gyaltsen’s A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation: An Explanation of Essential Topics for Dharma Students, Khenpo gives us advice from classic Mahāyāna texts
The Student’s Conduct When Listening to the Dharma
When listening to the dharma, you should abandon the fourteen faults of the vessel (the receptacle for the teaching) and cultivate the fourfold perception.
Part One: The Three Defects of the Vessel
Not to listen is to be like a vessel (or pot) turned upside down. Not to be able to retain what you hear is to be like a pot with a hole in it. To mix negative emotions with what you hear is to be like a pot with poison in it.
The upside-down pot. When you are listening to the teachings, listen to what is being said and do not let yourself be distracted by anything else. Otherwise you will be like an upside-down pot on which liquid is being poured.
The pot with a hole in it. If you just listen without remembering anything that you hear or understand, you will be like a pot with a leak: however much liquid is poured into it, nothing can stay. No matter how many teachings you hear, you can never assimilate them or put them into practice.
The pot containing poison. If you listen to the teachings with a mind full of the five poisons of attachment, aversion, ignorance and so on, the dharma will not only fail to help your mind; it will also be changed into something that is not dharma at all, like nectar poured into a pot containing poison.
This teaching is an excerpt from:
A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation: An Explanation of Essential Topics for Dharma Students by Khenpo Gyaltsen (translated by Lhasey Lotsawa Translations, Nepal: 2014, pp. 13-14). For more information, please visit https://lhaseylotsawa.org/books/a-lamp-illuminating-the-path-to-liberation.
Reflection and Exercises After Reading
Please take some time to consider the defects discussed above. Which, if any, of these defects might apply to you?
Many of us now are so busy that distraction is our biggest issue. But if we take the time to set our motivation and remind ourselves gently, we can improve our listening and learning skills. Try to observe your own patterns and see how changing them improves your study, reflection, and meditation.
In our busy lives, we often frantically try to multi-task, or we jump from one thing to another. But scientists are now telling us that Buddhist explanations of the mind are accurate–we aren’t really able to do this effectively. Over the course of the next month or so, try to check this out yourself. When you sit to read a dharma article, or listen to a teaching, can you resist the temptation to switch to another activity?
Gradually try to extend the length of time you pay close attention. Can you move from a few minutes to 10, or even 20 minutes of focus? Keeping track of this with a timer or a journal log may be helpful.
Just as you set a timer at the gym for your workout, try using a timer for this mental exercise of focusing. What happens? Be curious about your own experience–are you retaining more of what you read or hear? You might want to try putting your smart phone away where you can not see it during this experiment. Recent studies have shown that when we know our phones are nearby, even if we aren’t physically engaging with them, our attention is drawn in that direction! Sounds like a leaky pot, no?