Kinds of Dhamma Talk

If you have been around meditation and Buddhism for a while you know that sometimes the best meditators are not the best speakers. Sometimes the best speakers are not the best leaders, and often the best temple/centre leaders are not the best speakers etc… It is only natural that different people have different styles and abilities.

Just being a great meditator does not make you a good speaker. They are different skills to some extent. A good practitioner is often able to pick up inspiration from talks of meditation masters who are not the best public speakers.

And you will likely know a lot about Buddhism or meditation yourself, but try getting up there and putting it together in a coherent and systematic form – it is not that easy.

There are some different kinds and styles of Dhamma talk, that it might be useful to point out.

First we can look at traditional Theravada. It was originally transmitted by recitation, which is a hugely accurate form of record keeping (better than writing!). Monks would be expert chanters of various sections, and then meet to share their sections with other’s sections.

Their dhamma talks then would consist of taking some stanzas of scripture, reciting for a few minutes, and then stop to explain the lines. Even though we have now switched from recitation to books and computers as the main form of record, this style of dhamma talk still dominates Asia. In Sri Lanka especially, all dhamma talks should be derived from particular lines of Pali. So listening to these teachers might seem a little strange at first, as they are reciting Pali language lines every few minutes.

While delivering scriptural lines, one should not joke around or smile. Thus very formal talks in temples, with the monk high up in a tower or special seat holding leaf scriptures in hand, are not jovial affairs.

You might see Sayadaw U Jotika next week – he also bases talks on lines of stanza, though last time he used lines of a Samurai poem rather than scripture. He is not so comfortable with the idea of going somewhere to deliver a ‘Talk’, but is very happy to expand on some lines of verse.

When the talk is less formal, and the monk is not up in the ceremonial tower, then it can be more colloquial. Still, Mahasi Sayadaw insisted that monks should never joke or smile during talks. In fact he frowned on laughing altogether. That was his style. Some of his present day disciples are more relaxed about this, such as talks by Canadian monk Ven. U Vamsa who we have hosted in Bangkok.

Ajahn Chah by contrast was known for his big smile. He really enjoyed dhamma, and his life as a monk. He taught his followers to never prepare a dhamma talk. It must be delivered straight from the heart, without preparation. Possibly the speaker is given a title to talk about, but that is all the preparation allowed.

So Ajahn’s  Sumedho, Pasanno, Brahm etc… all come from this lineage. You might wonder how it is they give such great talks. One reason is they are well practised at it. In the temples a monk might give 2, 3 or more talks a week. Many are, ahem… not so great. But like with most things if you keep doing it you get better. It is also true that if the speaker puts his mind in the silent spot, the source of mind, then this will communicate itself whatever the words are.

The popular Gil Fronsdal follows this method. He said he always worried about his talks and their content when he was younger, but found that more dhamma would be communicated if he grounded himself in mindfulness rather than using a planned speech.

Ajahn Amaro, who will be speaking for us on the 21st Jan, was always admired by the monastic community for his talks. He is always interesting, and there is a clear message, not to mention a beginning/middle/end to each talk. And somehow he would always wrap up the topic right on the button of 45 minutes.

In modern day Thailand there is something of a shift in style. These days ‘TV’ monks are supposed to be funny and entertaining. The people like jokes and expect to be entertained – then they will invite the speaker back again. There is something of a debate in the Thai Sangha right now about what style is appropriate. Many think that being funny is not really beneficial in terms of communicating dhamma or inspiring people to take up a practise.

Lastly there are lecture style talks. These dhamma talks will be about a particular topic, and will seek to educate about a particular teaching. One can expect information, and plenty to put in one’s notebook. The lecture style is more concise, and methodical, and will usually bring in contrasts with other lines of academic research or interest. It does not have to be a formal ‘lecture’ so to speak, but there will usually be an abstract given in advance, and often notes/quotes afterwards for people to follow up on any topics mentioned.

Naturally all kinds of Dhamma Talk are good. There is no need to judge what is the ‘right’ way. If you are a good practitioner you will know how to appreciate all kinds of speaker. You will know how to pick up on the dhamma behind the words. Then you are following the Buddha’s own dhamma and not any particular teacher.

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2 Responses to Kinds of Dhamma Talk

  1. David Greason says:

    Venerable,

    Thank you for posting this interesting perspective; I found myself considering the topic on several different levels. As such, may I offer comments on your final summary thoughts on Dhamma Talks?

    By “types of Dhamma Talk,” I assume you mean the different styles of presenting Dhamma. But what about content of Dhamma Talk? How does one measure the “goodness” of a talk? Is “goodness” based on the Right Intention of the speaker to illuminate the Dhamma for those listening? Or, might it be the result of Right Intention, Right Understanding and Wisdom of the speaker in his/her own grasp of Dhamma, irrespective of the level of Right Intention, Right Understanding and Wisdom of a listener to discern the “Dhamma behind the words”?

    You made a very good point about the ability of a practitioner to appreciate all kinds of speakers. However, I would use the term “skillful” rather than “good” in relationship to both practitioner and Dhamma Talk. I can see where “unskillful” Dhamma Talk might can occur and can lead to continued or increased Ignorance for listeners/practiioners that lack sufficient Wisdom to discern the “Dhamma behind the words.”

    Finally, like the style of Dhamma Talk, it does not seem beneficial to judge Dhamma Talk content as “unskillful”; rather, awareness of one’s reaction to the apparent “unskillful” Talk provides a useful tool for discerning Dhamma in it’s apparent absence and for increasing one’s Right Understanding and Wisdom.

    Respectfully,
    David

  2. Cittasamvaro says:

    Your comments are on the mark. What is a ‘good’ talk?
    Generally people mistake ‘good’ with ‘enjoyable’ or ‘interesting’, which is a natural enough outlook for the general public.
    ‘Skillful’ is a better word than ‘good’ in many ways, and is a concept Buddhists are generally aware of (it is a translation of ‘kusala’) – but it might seem slightly odd if one is not conversant with the terminology.
    The idea behind writing this post is that people have different expectations of Dhamma Teaching. For example, you can’t really expect concise information and content from a Forest Dhamma Talk, nor a focus on practise from an academic lecture.

    One thing – when I was a new monk we were all made to go and attend the talks of the Abbot. I could not understand a word of it, but was still expected to go. Somehow, I got just as much benefit from those talks as I did later when I could follow some of the Thai.

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