Listening to Dhamma

Last night we had a dhamma talk by Sayadaw U Sujana. It might not be what most people expected when coming to listen to dhamma. Dhamma talks in Asian countries, especially Myanmar where the teachings are so well known and studied, tend to focus heavily around the Pali language. In Sri Lanaka it is the same – whenever dhamma is discussed or taught it centers on the teachings direct from the Pali language set of scriptures. Our friend Ven Kusala commented on this – on how strange he finds it when Westerners do dhamma talks in a friendly, and hopefully entertaining manner. He was not critical in any way … but he does appreciate when the original suttas are continually referenced. Naturally this will mean a certain familiarity with the Pali words.

In fact the Pali has a range of words that are not easily translated. The translations that have become common were brought in by the pioneers of Buddhists studies in Europe around 100 ++ years ago. Sometimes they got it right, sometimes they perhaps did not pick the right word.

Take ‘merit’ for instance. Making merit is a big part of the Asian approach. But the Pali word ‘Punya’ is nothing at all like the word ‘merit’. Using the word ‘merit’ suggests that you have to do some ritual that will ¬†earn some kind of supernatural points that earn your way into heaven. Of course ‘punya’ is nothing like that, and is in fact nothing complicated. The real mechanism of punya is just a psychological process.

By returning continually to the scriptures, Asian teachers feel that there is less likelihood of going off track. And they are probably right. Looking around at some of the wacky theories and teachings around today – some of which we have been exposed to in Bangkok also – getting back to the texts would be a good thing.

The other aspect of dhamma talks in many Asian situations is the way in which they are given, rather than the words. Last night was a great example of this. It is not so important to be feeding the understanding with lots of new and interesting ideas, as a western ‘lecture’ should do. But more to lead the audience to an understanding on the feeling level. To do this you need to ‘tune in’ to where the teacher is speaking from.

Ven Sujana, as many great Myanmaese masters, spend years and years in meditation, and it shows in his demeanor. During the afternoon a few of us took the chance to ask some direct questions and then meditate together with him – and it was wonderful. In the evening those who have some experience already were able to ‘tune in’ easily and take the mind into clear and present mindfulness.

In fact for foreign monks and students in Asia, we have had to learn how to do this. Ordaining in Thai temples means endless hours of sitting through dhamma talks where you can’t understand a word. Even after a few years and some progress in the language, it can be difficult to follow Thai teachers. Yet …. some part of you feels, usually in retrospect, that you get more out of these talks than ones in your own language.

It is hard for beginners of course. Hearing streams of Pali words, and difficult concepts mentioned in passing ( like bliss as a deva for millions of years), yet it was nice to see that so many of our group were able to feel inspired by Sayadaw, and gain an experiential benefit that lies on a deeper level than mere intellectual stimulation.


4 replies on “Listening to Dhamma”

  1. Hi Will,

    You say: “I do feel that a public talk before an English-speaking audience should be an opportunity to present the Dhamma in an engaging way.”

    Interesting comments, and thank you for the nod to my blog post, but I’m afraid I have to disagree with your implication that the talk was not engaging, and with your secondary implication that all Dharma talks need to be delivered in a way that their western audiences might find enjoyable!

    Okay, if you couldn’t hear that is a problem and perhaps something that needs addressing. But where were you sitting? Could you have moved closer to the front? Was it the quality of the sound system? Or just the way the Bhikku spoke?

    If the later, then there’s not much you can do about it! I’m lucky in that I’m familiar with the accent, and, apart from the accent, the talk was delivered in pretty much flawless English.

    And I certainly wouldn’t wish to see a great scholar and practitioner Bhikku prevented from speaking because his delivery wasn’t exactly as some of his audience would have like it! LOL!

    Different strokes and all that. I loved it, others didn’t. I’d go and see him speak again without a doubt. Perhaps all you need do is chalk this one up to experience and don’t go see him next time he’s in town?

    All the best,


  2. I was looking forward to the talk, but due to my poor hearing, a sound system unable to overcome that disability, and to Sayadaw U Sujana’s soft monotone style of speaking, I was unable to take away anything of value. Marcus’ blog post was helpful. But I would have learned more from reading something by the ajahn, or maybe just suggested suttas. Perhaps he is more animated one-on-one. I did see him smile once briefly when he looked at Phra Cittamasvaro. I do feel that a public talk before an English-speaking audience should be an opportunity to present the Dhamma in an engaging way. Some speakers cannot due that.

  3. Any hearing problems were likely due much to the many pali words that were used. In fact, he defined each word first, but then used just the Pali each time after, which is VERY tricky for those not familiar with all the terms.
    ‘We aim to entertain’ but in this case the benefit is more on a feeling level. I think most of the experienced meditators could tune in…
    The thing is to let people know what to expect – but we only know that afterwards.
    We’ll be inviting Rinpoche again, but just go to meditate/ask questions during the day.
    It was marvelous meditating with him in the afternoon.

    For my part I sat through years of dhamma talks as a young monk that were all in Thai. Even now I struggle to listen to dhamma talks in Thai. Marcus has had the same with his Korean teachers. Yet in the end …. its hard to quantify, but you get just as much benefit somehow.

    Luang Phor Sumedho said when he was a junior monk Ajahn Chah would talk for several hours at a time in the evening. He had to sit on bare concrete with the heat and mosquitoes. He asked Ajahn Chah, ‘quite reasonably’ (Luang Phor’s own words) if he could go back to his hut and meditate during the talks as he could not understand a word of it. Ajahn Chah said ‘no’. So he taught himself how to ‘let go’ instead.

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