Do we need to listen to the same teachings again and again?

A student writes:

Is there a need to listen to the same teachings over again? Some teachings to me, are simply reiterating the same thing in a slightly different manner.  Am I being disrespectful, missing something perhaps? I often hear people waxing lyrically about certain teachings and what I tend to think is, have you not been listening before? Is it me that’s missing something?

Lama Shenpen responds:

It is interesting isn’t it? I remember being amazed to see Tibetan Lamas looking totally absorbed,  listening to one of their number talking about simple things like the precepts and Refuge, the six realms and so on, and being clearly moved by the teachings even though they had heard the same teachings from childhood. 

I got the sense that for them it was like being born into a pure realm where they were hearing only the Dharma and they were just rejoicing at being there and hearing the truth of it – as if it were also a meditation for them – a reminder of deep truths and always with the possibility this time it might go just that bit deeper and become a genuine realisation coming to them and changing their mind forever.

And yes I think it comes from a deep humility and understanding that there are further hidden depths in what they are hearing that are yet to be discovered – that although they have heard the teaching many times they still have not taken it fully on board – as if they had they would be fully accomplished yogins.

Yet I have noticed that it seems the more fully accomplished the yogin, the more they want to just listen to such teachings again and again – like Patrul Rinpoche listening to his travelling companion teaching him from his very own text – always ‘listening in order to receive wisdom’ – this is what we are talking about all the time in the Awakened Heart Sangha isn’t it?

It seems to be a peculiarly Western way of thinking to be always listening for something new and dismissing as ‘heard it already’ if it is anything that we have heard before – however valuable and important it might be.  Where do we think we are going – always trying to hear something new?

In fact it is spiral learning isn’t it?  Each time we reflect on one aspect of Dharma our understanding of all other aspects deepen so that when we hear them again we understand them at a deeper level – they mean that much more to us than before – so we just want to keep hearing them again and again – with increasing wonder and joy.

Having said this I notice in myself that I get frustrated when Lamas keep saying the same deep things that are way beyond our present understanding, as if it were an obvious truth we should be able to understand straight off – so that we often think we do understand it, until decades later when we have spiralled round for a long time learning, reflecting and meditating again and again – the penny drops and we really get it as if for the first time. I am describing my own experience here!

When I have asked Tibetans about the way Tibetan lamas say really deep things as if we should understand them straight off, they tell me that they don’t worry about it.  They know that it will take a long time to really understand and that just to hear the teaching is a blessing and connection for which they are truly grateful. 

For example you walk into an empowerment ritual and you are told to think that you and everyone present are Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.  How can I do that?  I don’t know really what a Buddha is and I think of myself as aspiring to be a Bodhisattva – I am not one yet – I don’t fully understand Emptiness and my compassion is quite limited. 

Tibetans say to me – ‘Well just try to think like that as best you can – of course it’s not the real thing – it’s not as if you can suddenly really understand that – but by the blessing of the teacher and the lineage just by hearing it you will be moving towards understanding it. It will have an effect and the more open you are for that to happen the more it can happen.

So that is listening to receive wisdom again isn’t it?

Lama Shenpen

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