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.