Developing leaders, integrating cultural change, and adapting to innovation requires a “contemplative learning,” that ventures beyond accumulating knowledge, to deepen vertical growth. In brief, vertical learning increases awareness and surfaces assumptions and blind spots, allowing the person to unlearn outmoded beliefs.

“Unlearning” can be disorienting. It involves a blend of openness, compassion, and discipline to relax our identity and question our belief system.

Here, I borrow three Tibetan concepts and practices —the Three Defects of the Pot, the Three Prajnas, and the Four Reliances—to open our minds to the cycle of learning and access our innate wisdom.

The Three Defects of the Pot: Develop Listening

The Three Defects of the Pot explores who we are as listeners. Listening is fundamental to contemplative learning.

Nineteenth-century scholar and monk Patrul Rinpoche democratized the sacred text The Way of the Bodhisattva—previously studied by only monks—by bringing it to his countrymen. A masterful teacher, Rinpoche used the analogy of a pot to describe three defects that can impede our understanding when we are receiving teachings.

An Upside-Down Pot

An upside-down pot identifies listening that is not present or easily distracted. The listener may be a multitasker or have a wandering mind. Water poured onto an upside-down pot runs over.

If this is your pot, learn to ground yourself and focus your attention. Create a goal to extend your focused time from 10 or 15 minutes to longer. Turn off your social media notifications and put your smartphone away altogether while doing this. Log your efforts to grow this muscle over time.

A Hole in the Pot

This listener is like a pot with a leak. No matter how much liquid is poured into it, nothing stays. We become inattentive to meaning with a lack of recollection or memory. Here, our ability to retain knowledge is compromised by a lack of practice to internalize what has been taught.

To repair a leaky pot, create practices and structures (notes, recorders, and reminders) that capture information in a reliable way, and study them. Reflect often on your learning and ways that you can bring new knowledge into your life. Discussing such material with someone can engage different parts of your brain (hearing, speaking, writing, etc.).

Poisons in the Pot

If you listen to teachings with the wrong attitude, biases, an agenda such as becoming famous, or an attachment to knowledge or beliefs, those lessons will be like nectar poured into a pot that contains poison.

Adopt an attitude of humility or possibility that acknowledges a beginner’s mind, and establish an intention that includes being surprised. Meditate with self-compassion on any attitudes, motivations, or preconceptions that may impede your learning.

The Three Defects of the Pot reveal the vital relationship between listening and learning—a relationship that is underexamined and misunderstood. When appreciated, listening cultivates wisdom.

The Three Prajnas: Deepen Knowledge

Cultivating wisdom involves using our intellect and experience to absorb knowledge. Prajna, or wisdom, is the product of awareness—“stabilizing awareness” through hearing, “reflective awareness” through contemplating, and “realizing awareness” through meditation.

This learning cycle is continuous; focusing on any one area supports the entire cycle. And it all begins with listening.

The Prajna of Hearing

The Tibetan word “thöpa” means “to hear”—as in, to hear intellectual studies. Hearing means using all your senses, not just your ears. This first “stage of listening or studying” engages the conceptual mind to develop a slice of understanding as recognition.

Access to this wisdom: hearing activates our intellect to grasp knowledge. 

We recognize the basic logic, form, or terminology of our knowledge by reading, studying, discussing, observing, and listening. “Hearing” is akin to recognizing a specific food’s appearance, sound, smell, touch, and taste; our metabolic system ignites, and we learn to recognize it.

In this stage, our awareness never loses track of itself. We experience a stabilized awareness to recognize knowledge.

The Prajna of Contemplating

The second wisdom principle is contemplating. In Tibetan, “sampa” means “to think about” or “having thought of.” You reflect on what you’ve heard, studied, and what you’ve been taught to churn your recognition into understanding.

Access to this wisdom: contemplating our experience deepens our knowledge. 

Contemplating involves questioning teachings and knowledge via discussions, journaling, and application to bridge the worlds of intellectual experience and lived experience. As philosopher and scholar, John Dewey noted, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Through shopping and cooking, we experience the world of food. We appreciate the impact of nutritional value, calories, seasonality, variety, texture, spiciness, and energy on our bodies.

Internalizing knowledge expands our intellectual understanding to become part of our being, rather than reduced to our brain or books. We experience reflective awareness to apply knowledge.

The Prajna of Meditation

The third wisdom principle, “gompa,” means “meditating” or taking something into your heart completely as a thorough involvement that goes beyond conceptual understanding or knowledge.

Access to this wisdom: meditating on our experience of knowledge opens us to realization. 

Here, we learn to rest in a state of awareness, thus embodying our experiences beyond our maps or preconceived notions. We metabolize our food, digesting it to connect and embody both taste and energy as we navigate the world.

Dissolving concepts requires working through the first two stages of this process. There is no easy method of becoming one with the application of our knowledge.

The third stage of awareness develops a spaciousness that we bring to life. We experience a resting awareness to embody knowledge.

With the first Prajna, hearing, we study and learn. With the second Prajna, contemplating, we sharpen our knowledge. With the third Prajna, meditation, our knowledge becomes workable. Now we are prepared to cultivate a view beyond knowledge to access wisdom.

The Four Reliances: Cultivate Wisdom

An important Mahayana sutra, the Catuhpratisarana sutra, or Four Reliances, sets forth Buddhist principles to develop wisdom. While very little has been written on this text, I’ve found these principles to focus interest and cultivate inquiry when receiving and delivering teachings.

Reliance 1 

Rely not on the personality of the teacher, but on the wisdom of the teachings.

One translation might be to rely on the principle, not the person teaching. Here, especially in leadership development, the “principles above personality,” as presented by Steven Covey, are a good guide.

We often get preoccupied with our teachers. Were they entertaining enough? Why did I get bored? Why wasn’t this more interesting? Wisdom arrives in unpredictable packages. A dour and exacting teacher can be the very irritant required to interrupt our thinking and awaken us to something new.

Reliance 2 

Rely not on literal words or terms, but on their meaning.

Attempting to define words and understand terms is like grasping at the wind. The juice of learning lies in the meanings, connections, and relationships words activate. A single word has no meaning outside of a sentence that communicates and connects.

Words open worlds. If we understand their meaning, then it does not matter what words are used. When someone points to the moon, a child looks at the finger and misses the moon.

Reliance 3 

Rely not on timely information, but on information’s timeless meaning.

When it comes to meaning, distinguish relevant/timely information of the moment from what is universal/timeless. The difference often demands that you look beyond the practical to find the wisdom. Once you do this, remember that the timeless informs the timely.

Our education systems often forget this and react to the latest “need,” often defined by fleeting markets, trends, or fads. Great teachers understand how to use timely concepts to entice learners to dwell in timeless truths. 

Reliance 4 

Rely not on thinking, but on wisdom.

This principle questions the view we bring to life. The ordinary, “thinking” mind—grasping words and chasing concepts—is full of knowledge and expertise. It gets caught up in the obsessive need to know, and determining what’s right and wrong, useful and not useful. Items deemed not useful right now are dismissed out of hand.

The wise mind remains open and empty, able to question knowledge. It receives meaning that is both understood conceptually using ideas, and experienced directly as an object of awareness.

Innate Wisdom

Together, these practices – the Three Defects, Three Prajnas, and Four Reliances – develop the “contemplative learning” necessary for “unlearning.” Such a pedagogy supports listening, opens awareness, and accepts deep, often disorienting, change to develop leaders, integrate cultural differences, and adopt innovation.

The true gift of contemplative learning, though, develops a spaciousness that bridges the worlds of intellect and understanding to access our innate wisdom.

Reading Time: 6.5 min. Digest Time: 11 min.


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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.