Willing to Learn

January 24, 2019

The Buddha talks a lot about the process of becoming, which is a combination of two things: one, a particular world of experience; and two, your identity in that world, your sense of who you are, what your capabilities are. And the two are very dependent on each other.

You see this particularly when you go into a new place where the language is different, culture is different, and all of a sudden you become very sensitive to the fact that who you are is not as clear as it was back in your old world: which of your talents from the old world are still useful and which ones are going to have to be changed if you’re going to live happily in this new world.

The same process happens when you come to the Dhamma. It’s like a different world, a different culture. The Buddha actually calls it “the culture of the noble ones.” And a lot of its assumptions are very different from the world of secular life out there. Here we have rebirth; we have kamma. The training of the mind is the big value. Money is not the big value. The way people interact is a little bit different.

And so in the beginning, it’s very normal to feel awkward. There are things you’re enthusiastic about but other things you’re very unsure about. And you’re going to be changing as a person as you come into this world: sorting through your old habits and talents, trying to figure out which ones are still useful and which ones are not.

But one part of your self that you want to hold on to—and you will be fashioning a sense of self as you practice—is your willingness to learn. If you’re going to take pride and have a sense of confidence in yourself, that’s where you want to place it. Some people come into a situation and they like to pretend that they know everything already, that they can bluff their way through anything. But that doesn’t help. They don’t learn anything. If, however, you’re afraid to do anything at all for fear of making a mistake, then you don’t learn that way, either. It’s to be expected that there are going to be mistakes.

It’s like learning a new language. You trip over the grammar; you trip over the vocabulary. And oftentimes the most memorable lessons come from making a big mistake that burns itself into your memory for a long time. We’ve had examples here with the monks trying to learn Thai or French. But you can’t let the mistakes get you down. You’ve got to decide: “This is something really valuable here. I want to master these skills.” And you can have some confidence that as you master the skills and are paying careful attention, with that desire to learn you’re going to become a different person, a person who feels at home in this new world.

What does it mean to be willing to learn? The Buddha lists three types of discernment that you’re going to need: the discernment that comes from listening, the discernment that comes from thinking, and the discernment that comes from developing. They’re usually ranked with the discernment coming from developing as the really important one, but all three of them help one another along. It’s not the case that you listen and then you think and then you just work on developing the mind without ever thinking or listening anymore. You still have to listen, and you have to think even as you’re developing qualities in the practice. It’s through the combination of those three things that you learn.

Now, a lot of people have problems mixing those together. Some people are really good at just listening and doing as they’re told. Other people refuse to do as they are told until they’ve thought it through and come up with their own ideas. But it’s important that you learn how both to listen and to think.

Toward the end of his life, Ajaan Maha Boowa was recorded as saying that Ajaan Lee was Ajaan Mun’s favorite student. When you look at Ajaan Lee’s life, you can see why. He was the kind of person who would listen and think in addition to meditating. That’s how he wrote all those books. And he was constantly interested in new things. Ajaan Fuang once told me that he thought it was a shame that Ajaan Lee hadn’t met me. Here I was, someone with a Western education, and Ajaan Lee would have really picked my brain. He was always interested in learning.

When he was abbot of the monastery in Chanthaburi, a new magazine, Dhammacaksu, had come out. The monks in Bangkok were in the process of translating the Pali Canon into Thai, and they published a magazine of articles along with some new sutta translations as they were being produced. Ajaan Lee was a subscriber. Once a month, the magazine would come, and for the next couple of nights Ajaan Lee would simply read the magazine out loud during the group meditation.

So it’s not the case that you learn a few basic concepts and then forget about the books and just meditate, or that you just do as you’re told. You have to think some things through. Then, as you meditate, you’ve got to think through the results of what you’ve done and try to make sense of where you are, what you’ve learned.

This may have been another characteristic that Ajaan Mun liked about Ajaan Lee. On the one hand, Ajaan Mun would give Ajaan Lee a really difficult assignment—like sitting up all night many nights in a row—and Ajaan Lee would simply do it. On the other hand, though, he noticed that Ajaan Lee also had a mind that liked to put things together to make sense out of them. As he told Ajaan Lee, he didn’t see anybody else who could help put the different principles of the practice into order.

That’s what we see in Ajaan Lee’s books, what they call lak wichaa in Thai: the principles of knowledge or the principles of skill. They require that you have that kind of quality: First, you listen. Second, you try to put things together, to make sense out of them. And then third, you actually try to take what you’ve learned, put it into practice, and be very honest with yourself about the results that are actually developing. Then take those results and think about them again: Where are they still good? Where are they lacking?

This is how we put all those three aspects of discernment together: listening, thinking, and developing. Ajaan Lee explains how we do this with analogies of developing skills. He says you learn from the teacher, say, how to weave a basket or how to sew a pair of pants, how to make clay tiles. Then you think about it, and then you do it, and then you think about it again. You look at the example from the teacher and you look at your product: Where is yours still lacking? What does it look like you did wrong? Then you work at it again, and keep observing. Eventually, as you keep this up, you can go beyond what you simply learned from the teacher and you start thinking of new ways of using that skill.

When you meditate, you learn the instructions on how to breathe, how to work with the breath. Then you try them out and look at what you’ve got. If the results aren’t good, go back and look at what you’re doing again. Think about it. What’s still missing? Try to be observant. Look around. Ask questions if you can’t figure things out—and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

One of the things the Buddha prided himself on was that the teaching he gave was a teaching where you could cross-question the teacher, and he encouraged that. He said, “This is a community where people are encouraged to cross-question,” in other words, to ask people about what they’ve said, and be willing to engage in a dialogue.

The purpose of that, of course, is to get you to ask questions of yourself. After all, that’s how the Buddha gained awakening. He looked at what he was doing. He said, “The results are not what I want. So what am I doing wrong?” He went back and looked at his actions. He had to think his way through: “What might be wrong here? What could I change?” Then he tried that out. And it was through trial-and-error that he finally reached trial-and-success. You look at the many setbacks he had: Most people would have given up. But the pride he took in his willingness to learn was what saw him through.

So as you move into the world of the Dhamma, the culture of the noble ones, you’re not expected to know everything. In fact, you’re expected to learn how to listen. And “listen” doesn’t mean simply listening to the words. You notice actions. You actually try to memorize some things that seem important. After all, when you meditate you can’t have a book put out in front of you. When you listen to Dhamma talks while you meditate, there are a lot of things in a particular Dhamma talk that won’t be relevant to your meditation right now, but it’s good to have them someplace in the back of your mind, in case they’ll be relevant later on. So when something seems important, memorize it. That’s how you listen.

Then you think about what you’ve learned and how it fits in with what you’ve learned before, to see where it seems to fit and where it doesn’t seem to fit. That’s when you ask questions, either asking someone else or telling yourself, “Well, I’m going to put it into practice and see if there’s a real conflict here, or if things actually fit together.”

It’s in this way that you grow. As you master more and more skills, you become a different person. The skills allow you to function in this new world, the world of the Dhamma. But simply having the skills doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be successful. There are some people who find it very easy to get the mind to settle down, with no big deal. Other people can read books and immediately explain what they’ve read. That doesn’t make that much of an impact, either. It’s when you really stop to listen and think and develop and then think again with as much honesty as you can bring, with all your powers of observation—that’s when you grow. That’s when the skill makes you a new person. You find that you develop a new identity that really is helpful in the world of the Dhamma. There will come a day when you don’t need that identity anymore. But in the meantime, use it and develop it as best you can.