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Becoming An “Empty” Vase
Given the present situation in the Tibetan Buddhist community concerning the many scandals and controversies, particularly those regarding the teacher-student relationship, I cannot hold myself from reflecting upon the flaws of what I see going on. The student-teacher relationship is not meant to be an easy endeavor. Nevertheless, I still fully trust the possibility of a healthy, well-grounded and well-directed student-teacher relationship; and I believe that in order for that to happen, much self-reflection is needed both from the teacher and the student alike. With this in mind, I wish to share a reflection about a commonly recited request that many Buddhist teachers make: Please become a perfect recipient for the teachings.
Becoming a perfect recipient is expressed through the metaphor of becoming like an upward-facing, non-leaking, clean pot. Patrul Rinpoche clearly defines what it means to be such a pot. Being “upward-facing” is described as listening to what is being said by the Buddhist teacher without any distraction, to the point where “every pore on your body [is] tingling and your eyes wet with tears.” “Non-leaking” signifies holding good memory of the teachings and thus “retaining the meaning of what has been said without ever forgetting it.” Lastly, he propounds the meaning of “clean” as sustaining a proper attitude all throughout the teaching – meaning, getting rid of every wrong thought – so that the nectar is poured into a pot that is not poisoned.
From this perspective, the student becomes a perfect recipient when she becomes totally passive or “empty” and allows the source of wisdom (teacher) to pour the exquisite nectar-like teachings into her (student) without any interference or resistance. There is something very beautiful about this possibility: the student gets to explore pure humility or selflessness and, with full trust, completely opens up to let go of her deluded habit of interpretation. Yet this possibility, unless rare exceptions occur (exceptions being that one is a very advanced practitioner), also carries some problematic implications that shall not be bypassed, especially when addressing the beginners on the path.
Becoming a perfect vessel – an upward-facing, non-leaking, clean pot – signifies that one should undermine one’s personal history and socio-political conditions, silence one’s wounds, and efface one’s sense of individuality, since from all these above-mentioned backgrounds come deluded, therefore suffering-inducing, ideas about the nature of phenomena. In other words, personal backgrounds can be defined in Buddhism as kleshas(afflictions), and are actually what prevent the vessel from being a perfect recipient. If one is simply asked to put one’s personal background aside, the one who attends the teachings becomes an ahistorical being who lacks any trait of individuality. Hence, in order to be an upward-facing, non-leaking, clean pot and put aside all personal history, one must constantly reject oneself and become a mere passive subject of indoctrination. The passive “empty” vessel is, therefore, silenced; whatever the vessel brings to the Buddhist teaching is quickly discarded as unnecessary. However, the teachings must equally address both the potential to be an empty pot and the present “dirt” that one carries (history, wounds, individuality, afflictions…). In fact, I believe this “dirt” is what needs to be addressed; it has to be listened to (not to be silenced) and given a voice, for there to be an authentic, stable transformation in the students’ own perception.
The problem with silencing or rejecting one’s present condition and pretending to be an empty pot is that, at some point, all the dirt that was supposedly put aside will manifest with incredible force and voice. And that voice will be the scream of the neglected being that resists itself to be emptied. Maybe that will happen when the teacher pushes our boundaries or comfort zone far beyond our imagination, and her teachings feel like a severe threat. At that time it will be hard to surrender ourselves and become a passive receptor (an “empty” bowl) because further defacing our being and our “dirt” amounts to the feeling of death — we are not ready to kill the “dirt,” or what we identify ourselves with. As long as the teachings are presented in a hierarchical way that prevents the subaltern to have a voice – to feel herself accepted just as she is, with all that she brings and carries to the teachings – I doubt that it will be possible to create a safe foundation for the student to fully rely on and feel supported by the teacher, especially in the mist of such overwhelming distress. The undesired consequence of such a scenario is that the teacher-student relationship that had the potential to pacify and liberate one’s own greatest fears, could end up generating more suffering both for oneself and for other beings.
Worsening the above-mentioned problem, the pressure of not becoming a perfect recipient is heavy and frightful. It is said that if one fails to practice the Dharma according to the Dharma – in other words, if one does not turn into a proper vessel – “the Dharma itself will create the cause of your falling once more into the lower realms.” Said differently, if one is not capable of putting aside one’s own present background and personality, then one’s future life will be condemned to further unbearable suffering in the worst among all the six realms of existence – the hells. Letting aside the fact that the general public does not commonly accept the existence of rebirth and future lives, I doubt that a fearful-threatening-hierarchic-top-down message that is not open to dialogue but only hits and despises one’s own wounds and way of being can be of any benefit. Wounds and resistances are asking to be recognized and embraced; they are asking to be hand-shaked, not shut down.
In addressing the beginners on the path, revisiting the negative implications of requesting the student to become a perfect recipient may yield a more open-accepting attitude towards the students’ personal background. A beginner can be obedient, fantasize with the idea of being a good practitioner, and make-believe that he is a perfect recipient for the teachings. Nevertheless, if the “dirt” in his pot is silenced and therefore not acknowledged and embraced, it is possible that the student will remain entangled with neurotic fears and hopes that will eventually rise to the surface. In the best of all situations, the student may gain the tools to take adversities into the path and digest the challenges; but it is also possible that, not having established a strong foundational ground, the student and the teacher may become further apart and, consequently, their relationship will unfold further suffering and “dirt.”
~ Ceci from Argentina
Tsoknyi Rinpoche emphasizes the significance of developing kindness towards our habitual tendencies. He interprets this possibility of kindness as taking the time to listen to our patterns, to cultivate a state of openness and acceptance in order to learn from them and, in this way, to shake hands with our experiences and the stories that surround our experiences. For further reading see, Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening The Power of Essence Love. (New York: Harmony Books, 2012).