The Expositor: what makes a ‘good’ dhamma talk?

A couple of days ago I talked with Ajahn Tiradhammo as we saw him off to the airport, on the topic of giving Dhamma talks. We shared a few points of interest that are worth mentioning.

I first met Ajahn Tiradhammo when he was abbot of a temple in Switzerland. I was a layman, and took a 3 week retreat there in the mountains. He was a very good speaker then. Always warm, always engaging.

But what makes for a ‘good’ dhamma speaker? Usually people mean how much they enjoyed the talk. If there are some jokes, some engaging lines of thought, then the audience gives a good report. Not unlike going to see a speaker on any other topic. If you look at the mechanics of it, talks are just like movies – ‘good’ if it engages your attention and makes you forget about yourself for a while. If you are not engaged, if you remember yourself, you feel uncomfortable. Or sleepy.

But the object of dhamma talks is not to entertain or even to inspire with fine sounding philosophy – which you only enjoy insofar as it agrees with your preconceptions. The real aim is to get the audience to remember themselves, to become mindful, both during the talk, and afterward in daily life.

    There is one sutta where we find something like this. There was a big gathering of monks in rapt silence listening to the Buddha. One man inadvertently coughed and the others there chastised him – how could he interrupt the inspiring silence that had settled over the crowd like that?. According to the suttas, many people became enlightened while listening to the talks the Buddha gave.

Note then, that half the responsibility lies with the listener.

For my part, I have been to thousands of Dhamma talks. Which were the ‘best’? Many of them were given by my Upajjaya (the Preceptor who gave me ordination) who was talking in Thai. I understood very little of the actual words, which were in Thai. Even when I could understand some of the talk, it was not in a format that my Western mind could really associate with. Yet there was a real movement of the heart in those early days of my life as a monk, listening to a real master, who I respected. I made the talk beneficial; it came as much from my end as his.

    One assumes that monks will have a burning desire to ‘convert’ – a kind of Christian zeal in witnessing. But it is hardly so. For the most part, those who decide to ordain are not of the outgoing, extrovert type. Usually they are the kind who like to be quiet, to meditate, to give up the excitement and stimulation of social activity. They are not the type to willingly get up on a stage and be the focus of public attention.

Something similar happens in science – a book called Merchants of Doubt outlines a number of cases where science was clear, but unable to make itself heard against various special interest groups. The cases in the book are acid rain, tobacco, second hand smoke, global warming, DDT, and others. In each case small groups with vested interests, corporate or political, were able to make vocal, unfounded claims discrediting the science in question, due mostly to their superior PR skills. The scientists are not the kind of media-savvy personalities who could stand up and give the kind of powerful presentations needed. Mostly their responses were confined to refutations in scientific journals, while their detractors were getting space on the national stage.

Most people have a fear of public speaking. Teachers in academic schools to some extent will have trained themselves through this, as will actors. But it is only to some extent as it is very different being in an academic situation, or a situation with a script and a role, to being up there being watched intently. Evolution has bred us like this – if 100 pairs of eyes are looking at you, in all probability you are about to be eaten!

    The Buddha himself, after he attained Enlightenment, did not feel inspired to teach – as that ‘would be tiring and wearysome’. According to the legend, after enjoying the bliss of enlightenment for some time it was a Brahma God called Sahampati that appeared before him entreating him to teach for ‘those who had but little dust in their eyes‘. Even so, the new Buddha thought that it would be hard to teach dhamma.

This that through many toils I have won
Enough! Why should I make it known?
By folk with lust and hate consumed
this dhamma is not understood
Leading on against the stream
subtle, deep, difficult to see, delicate,
unseen it will be by passion’s slaves
cloaked in the murk of ignorance.(Mahavagga p.7)

It is difficult trying to put into words the experience of many years sitting, watching the breath, giving up thoughts, and trying to develop universal loving kindness – these are not things that lend themselves easily to expression. And it is even harder to try and move people to pick up the above as ways of practise themselves. Especially when the modern seeker likes to have other people do the practise, renunciation and trials of endurance for them, while getting the benefit of the lessons learned in an engaging dhamma talk. At the end of the day, insights are won through effort, practise, and dedication. They are won through endurance of the many dry or tormenting periods the mind and body will throw up. Not by finding entertaining speakers. There’s no other way.

Hanging out in monasteries for many years, it is clear that few people have the gift of being a public speaker. Rarely is it the really good meditator! We get to know in the temple who is the really ardent meditator, who has attained to something special, who is the foot solider (the monk’s monk)  that is willing to go through the motions with simple dedication and consistency. Rarely are they the good speakers.

Indeed, the Buddha called the ability to communicate in public a ‘miracle’.

    One time a layman named Kevaddha went to the Buddha and entreated him to perform some miracles in the wealthy town of Nalanda in order to get support for the Sangha. Three times he was refused with the answer,

This is not the way I teach Dhamma to the monks, by saying “Go monks, and perform superhuman feats and miracles for the lay people

When pressed a fourth time, he told Kevaddha there are three kinds of miracle, the first being:

Miracles of psychic power; multiplying ones body; passing through walls, mountains etc.; walking on water; flying through the air cross-legged; touching the sun and moon; and traveling as far as the Brahma Realms.

But if one were to see this kind of miracle and report it to someone skeptical and unbelieving they would think it was due to some kind of magic charm. Thus the Buddha says,

That is why, seeing the danger of such miracles, I dislike, reject and despise them.

The second kind of miraculous power is that of telepathy,

Here a monk reads the minds of others, knowing their mental states, thoughts and ponderings, saying to them, “that is how your mind inclines, this is in your heart..”

And the third miraculous power, the Miracle of Instruction:

Here Kevaddha, a monk gives instruction as follows, “consider in this way, don’t consider in that. Direct your mind this way, do not direct it in that. Give that up, gain and persevere in this…” That is the miracle of instruction.

The sutta, number 11 of the Digha Nikaya, goes on. Kevaddha is told that he is fortunate to live at a time when a Tathagatha (A Buddha) has arisen in the world, and made the teaching of enlightenment available. The Buddha tells a story of a monk who by means of psychic power traveled to all the heavenly realms looking for someone to teach him about enlightenment. He finally reached Brahma Himself, but the God of the Gods told him to go see the Buddha if he wants to know about enlightenment. Then Kevaddha is told not to go looking for the miraculous, but to learn how to direct his mind, so that he will find out the answers for himself. This is the miracle of instruction.

Perhaps this is why most enlightened beings do not teach. There are the many Arahants in the lineage of the Buddha, and the many Paccaekka Buddhas – those who come to enlightenment under their own efforts but few who are able to inspire and teach others. Only a Sammasambuddha, a Fully Enlightened One, is said to give a long lasting teaching.

    Talking with Ajahn Tiradhammo, he noted that when he was a younger monk, when they would go giving talks, there would be 5 or 10 dedicated practitioners only; who were grateful for the chance to meet with a practising monk. In those days such was hard to find. I myself had to drive 4 hours to get to Harnham temple.

A point to note here is that before the temples got internet savvy, the abbots would give so many talks that after a while they became good at it. Maybe in the temple itself where the same topics are endlessly repeated, it is not so inspirational, but when those teachers get out in public, having long since earned their 10 000 hours practise at talking, they can give a pretty smooth delivery. Like Dustin Hoffman said about acting – you you can’t make it look effortless, you are not trying hard enough. Even so it does not look like something difficult, to be on the stage in front of so many eyes, but there are many nuances that make one engaging or not. The pressure of this knocked many a good monk out of the monkhood. Quite a number of experienced, sincere and well practising monks disrobed after being placed in positions of leadership or being the abbot. It is also notable that currently, younger monks and teachers leave so much to their seniors, that they don’t have the experience their abbots or teachers do as a new generation of teachers.So he got experience using words to express the inexpressible, in a safe and supporting environment. If you have stayed in a temple for a long time you will understand this – there are so many talks, and most of them are not the ‘good’ kind. Often the speaker is not a good communicator, or has done too many talks before and you got bored of hearing the same thing. But since meditation pracitse is really something simple, and the communities engaging in it quite small and tight, this just becomes part and parcel of the training. You have to make it something real from your end, and not expect the abbot or teacher to always provide inspiration. In the temples where the main teacher will often give 3, 4 or more talks a week, one gets used to using the experience for your own practise, and not for some kind of inspiration.

Ajahn Tiradhammo pointed out to me that these days it is much harder. There are more monks around and better PR networks, so it is not such a privilege to meet one. With internet you can also quite easily find some of the really good speakers, and they set your bar of expectation quite high. Quite a few people these days only come out to talks when there is someone famous or well respected. Anything ‘less’ is not worth going out for. If you have been listening to Ajahn Brahm, then why go to see Ajahn Nobody?

He also pointed out that in his early days, it was fine to give lots of bad talks -when you can’t get your mind together or your tongue won’t work – because it was still appreciated. But now everything is recorded, and quite possibly going on Youtube, you have to be more conscious about not making mistakes or giving a poor performance.

Added to that is the problem that any time you stand up in public, aside from the honour of doing so, you will be criticized. People will accuse you of being egotistical, of being wrong on philosophical points, of being not as ‘good’ as their teacher, or having the wrong/poor presentation skills. Too many people think they are too advanced to join regular meetings, and only get off their couch when someone well known is in town. Unless they have a vigorous self-disciplined practise, they are actually still weak in dhamma.

The lesson to take home here should be quite clear. If you rely on a speaker to inspire you, to entertain, or to agree with your preconceptions, you will gain little lasting benefit. Try to get to that point of dhamma maturity where you benefit from any engagement with dhamma, even if it is in a foreign language, even if it is not coming from one of those rare people who are a genuine practitioner and an able public speaker, even if it does not agree with your preconceptions. The very act of going out, putting your feet on the road and making a physical statement to yourself by travelling somewhere and dedicating some time for ‘going against the stream‘ as the Buddha put it. To remind yourself that there is something more important than your passtimes and thinking. To make a dedication to the silence in the mind where wakefulness can be experienced directly. That is maturity in Dhamma.



3 replies on “The Expositor: what makes a ‘good’ dhamma talk?”

  1. I completely agree that one should listen to Dhamma talk for the “contents” which can then be applied into one daily practice. In this regard, the competency of the speaker in entertaining the audience is much less importance. One should know the ultimate aim to listen to Dhamma talk, ie to learn a new knowledge, or to remind oneself of the knowledge that one has heard before and then to put it into daily practice, thus facilitating oneself to attain spiritual growth.

  2. So it’s not the talk so much as the coming and listening that are important. Good points. Merchants of Doubt sounds interesting. Have you changed you views on global warming?

  3. I quite enjoyed Merchants of Doubt though it is written by scientists with incredible detail – not your usual sweeping statements and broad ideas.. I have the PDF. It has not changed by view on AGWarming, but it has shown me my Attention Bias of picking out what fits my preconceptions.

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