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Imperfect Vessels

Imperfect Vessels

I’m always reading.  Whenever I come across common themes in my reading, I try to make note of it and then think about what that theme means to me in my life, my practice and my work.  Two-weeks ago, in everything I was reading, the word or theme of “imagination” kept popping up.  This week, in two completely different books, the Buddhist teaching of the imperfect vessels revealed itself to me.  This teaching provides a way for us to study ourselves and then develop practices that support our current state of mind.

The first type of imperfect vessel is an upside down vessel.  It’s impossible to fill a vase with beautiful flowers if the vase is upside down.  In this type of vessel, the opening is completely closed off.  In this “closed mind” there is no role for meditation or yoga practice.  It is likely that all of us experience times when our minds are the upside down vessel.  It is just as likely that we can think of someone that we know or have been forced to work with or relate to that seems to have a mind like an upside down vessel at all times.  Nothing you say, no workshop, no training, no professional advice, no class—nothing penetrates or makes a difference.  In my yoga classes I never have to worry about having students with this mind-type because just deciding to take a yoga class is an opening—however small that crack or pore might be.  In general, anyone who reads this and thinks to themselves, “Wow!  Sometimes my mind is completely closed off like an upside down vessel.” isn’t the type of person who has a mind like this all the time.  It’s likely you have one of the other types of imperfect vessels that you are working with.  If you read this and think, “I’m never upside down or closed off.”—well, hate to be the one to tell you, but then it is likely your mind is more like an upside down vessel for most of the time than not.  There is a Buddhist sutra that says, “Things are not what they seem to be, nor are they otherwise.” (1)

The second type of imperfect vessel is the dirty vessel.  This is a mind that is impacted by physical body toxins, being psychologically toxic and needing to take steps or adapt a practice with an emphasis on purification.  The dirty vessel pollutes whatever is poured into it.  So, this mind can study all the teachings and practice yoga and meditation, but all the information received is polluted.  Personally, I’ve been thinking about this a great deal because one of my vices is Diet Coke.  Whenever I get stressed out or tired or lonely or sad or just want to choose a beverage to go with what I am eating for lunch, my first choice is a nice bubbly Diet Coke.  Well, this pollutes the vessel.  I can do all the yoga I want, but my body has to work really hard to get rid of the carcinogens, food coloring, blah blah blah……it’s hard to find any enlightenment when you have to work that hard just to get clear.  Part of my personal practice right now is to make other choices that are nourishing and support the qualities of mind that I wish to enhance through my meditation and yoga practices.

The third type of vessel is the leaky vessel.  This type of vessel has some kind of crack or hole in it and it can’t hold what you put in it.  A mind like a leaky vessel is unstable, there are too many distractions and it feels impossible to make decisions.  The type of practice for this quality of mind requires discipline.  Bringing the quality of discipline into one’s life through regular practice of yoga and meditation, no matter what, is a way to work with this type of imperfect vessel.

The fourth type of imperfect vessel is the tilted vessel.  In this type of mind, you receive teachings, but you are unable to maximize your full potential.  If this is the type of mind you are working with, then practices that are designed to help “right” your vessel are what you would work with.  In this case it is more about fine-tuning the subtle body and making choices about including practices that enhance the flow of energy through the chakras, work with sound and subtle body anatomy with pranayama and visualization.

Self-study and considering our quality of mind at any given time isn’t about judgment.  These imperfect vessels give us the tools to consider our quality of mind at any given moment and step-back from our habitual responses to criticism, stress, fear or confusion.  We can observe ourselves and others with curiosity and drop our attachment to specific outcomes or trying to control ourselves or others.  It’s a way to be more open and creative and find solutions to the challenges that we face with equanimity.

This post written by Sharon Fennimore who is offering a series of workshops exploring five Buddhist sutras in translation starting in fall 2015 in Pittsburgh, PA.


“Things are not what they seem to be, nor are they otherwise.” is from the Shurangama Sutra. 



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