Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Dharma Talks

Today, many books, Buddhist magazine articles, and websites are filled with dharma talks. These are speeches by Buddhist teachers, lay or ordained, that illuminate particular aspects of the dharma. They can be introductory such as a treatise on the Four Noble Truths of The Eightfold Path, or they can explore aspects of Buddhist ethics such as generosity or compassion. They may even go deeply into advanced mind states one encounters during meditation, or expound on an ancient Buddhist text. Dharma talks began with the Buddha— he communicated his teachings through many speeches that are recorded in the Pali Cannon. In America we have found many ways to hear or read the dharma— there are dharma talks scheduled into retreats and meditation center programs- but in case you need some dharma while not on retreat or in your center, there are at least hundreds of book length dharma talks available for purchase, as well as dharma talk articles filling up the growing number of Buddhist magazines.

These talks are meant to be accessible and inspirational to many. I enjoy dharma talks, especially ones that are well written and address an area of Buddhist practice of interest to me. It is a useful genre for Buddhism— how else would the dharma get disseminated so directly?

But the dharma talk can sometimes be hard to understand. Many times I have caught myself coming to the end of an article and not remembering what it was that I just read. The Buddha has been said to communicate the dharma in just the way the individual he was talking to needed to hear it. With books and magazines intended for a wide and general audience, this is no longer possible. Dharma talk authors use different strategies to reach as many people as possible.

As an avid dharma talk reader, I would like to dissect this genre in order to help others gain more understanding. It’s easier to comprehend and possibly learn a new life lesson from a dharma talk if one takes note of the strategies used for disseminating the dharma. Of course, these are general approaches that I have noticed in some dharma talks, but all teachers and traditions have different ways of communicating and understanding the dharma.

One pervasive word choice I have noticed is the use of the pronoun ‘we’ (‘you’ is sometimes substituted). From my reading, it seems there are two ways of using the term ‘we.’ One way comments on the modern world and how most people live their lives. I often read statements such as ‘we blame ourselves,’ ‘we don’t let go of the past,’ ‘we have no time to do what is healthy for us.’ These commentaries focus on Western lifestyle rather than on individuals. By these statements, the author tells why Buddhist practice is needed in the often hectic lives people lead.

The other kind of ‘we’ is the ‘we’ of human nature. In dharma talks many authors write how if ‘we’ practice the teaching, then first ‘we’ will notice a particular response in our actions or thoughts, or ‘we’ will see some kind of positive result in our lives. This ‘we’ is about our minds. Buddhism focuses much of its energy on the mind. The authors of these talks base these generalizations on personal experience, or the traditional wisdom of the Buddha found in the Pali Cannon.

These two ‘we’s’ are interesting because they show the merging of Western and traditional Buddhism. The Buddha’s words about the mind are still true, but the mind’s reaction to the modern world is something new on which to comment. ‘We’ all do live in the modern world, and are part of humanity so the general use of ‘we’ is accurate, but sometimes it’s hard to read the word ‘we’ over and over. It’s general; it’s abstract; it’s not telling a story that is easy to follow. In this genre, it is very hard not to generalize. The dharma talk is a genre that relies on generalizations because it’s written for all to relate.

A more readable trope in dharma talks is the personal story. This puts the dharma of the talk into practical terms, which can make the point easier to read and recall. These can be stories of failure and a lesson learned for the author, or a triumph experienced in meditation or personal relationship. It can be advice received from a teacher or friend— anything in the author’s personal life that relates to the concept being discussed. Many articles begin with the personal story, but some are tucked throughout the dharma talk.

Authors also tell short stories in order to ground their more abstract statements in a real or imagined situation. This is a good way to help the audience understand the issue the author is addressing. For these stories, the reader doesn’t get as engaged because they are short examples or anecdotes to prove a point, but they still bring the dharma more into the practical realm. Usually these include something a friend told the author, a discussion with a dharma student— anything that the author wasn’t personally involved in which adds to the main point. These short examples usually are interwoven within the general ‘we’ statements to ground the reader in his or her own world. These examples and anecdotes can help to fully engage with the concept the author is describing.

Another type of story commonly used in dharma talks is that of teachers, either personally known teachers or long-ago teachers who the author has read or heard about. Sometimes the author does not have a personal story to relate to the aspect of dharma being preached, but a very relatable story lies in an ancient tale, or an experience of one of his or her own teachers. These stories are usually very lively, especially ones where the reader gets to imagine life in ancient Japan or India or wherever the author’s tradition lies.

In order to make the generalizations more concrete, authors also sometimes ask the reader to imagine a fictitious situation which illustrates a difficult concept. These can be situations such as imagining something incredible like found treasure or walking in space or common things such as being sick or purchasing something long desired. These pretend situations are then related to the lesson of the talk.

After years of reading dharma talks, I think of them as a mix of the general and practical. The best talks for me are a delicate balance of both. Of course, all teachers are different— some are not versed heavily in the canonical tradition so they may have more personal stories to relate than explications of the Buddha’s words. Others are classically trained and prefer to write about meditation and mind states but do not comment on daily life dharma. The tradition the teacher belongs to also affects how much generalization or how many stories make up their writing. Many readers have a preference for what kind of dharma talk they want to read, but I have found that quite a lot of authors utilize both the general and practical as strategies for spreading the dharma.

The dharma talk is a rich genre that should be enjoyed, but there is some work involved. One needs to engage with the material in order to reap the benefits the author is trying to impart. I hope these ideas on the genre of dharma talks encourage the reader to connect more fully with the message and purpose of the talk.