Dharma Talks: What Are They Good For? (Part I)

Depending on your practice tradition, you probably have encountered a Dharma talk.  Maybe during retreat, maybe during a public meditation session or talk on Buddhism, maybe in the kitchen while cleaning up after lunch.

What are these Dharma talks good for?  How should we approach them, listen to them, feel them?  How should someone giving a Dharma talk approach their impossible task?

When I was reading a number of Pali Canon sutras, there was a refrain that occurred quite often.  Here is an example.

The Buddha is giving a Dhamma talk to Suppabuddha the leper, having seen with his Buddha eye that Suppabuddha was capable of understanding the Dhamma.  Through the Buddha’s teaching, Suppabuddha realizes the Dhamma for himself.

Then Suppabuddha the leper, having been instructed, urged, roused, and encouraged by the Blessed One’s Dhamma talk, delighting and approving of the Blessed One’s words, got up from his seat, bowed down to the Blessed One, circumambulated him — keeping him to his right — and left.

The Buddha’s teaching “instructed, urged, roused, and encouraged” Suppabuddha to awaken on the spot!  The teaching was a call to practice, was encouragement for shattering the great doubt right there, on the spot, without a second to waste!

Dharma talks can be precise.  They can be deep and subtle and conceptually illuminating.  They can be poetic and lofty or crass and gritty.

But if there is no instructing, urging, rousing, and encouragement to practice, then what is it good for?


(The quote comes from the Kutthi Sutta, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu.  Italics were added for emphasis.)

2 thoughts on “Dharma Talks: What Are They Good For? (Part I)”

  1. In the Kwan Um School of Zen tradition, Zen Master Seung Sahn gave a set of temple rules, which include the following “rule” for a dharma talk:
    When you listen to the words of the Zen teacher, keep your mind clear. Do not be attached to the words. Cut off all thought and pierce the true meaning.

    Do not think, “I already have great understanding; I have no use for this speech.” This is delusion.

    If you have a question, put it to the Zen teacher after the dharma talk.

    If a snake drinks water, the water becomes venom. If a cow drinks water, the water becomes milk. If you cling to ignorance, you create life and death. If you keep clear, you become Buddha.

    In the great work of life and death, time will not wait for you.
    If you die tomorrow, what kind of body will you get?
    Is not all of this of great importance?
    Hurry up! Hurry!
    Blue sky and green sea
    Are the Buddha’s original face.
    The sound of the waterfall and the bird’s song
    Are the great sutras.
    Where are you going?
    Watch your step.
    Water flows down to the sea.
    Clouds float up to the heavens.

    1. Thank you for posting this. I deeply appreciate the teaching words of Zen Master Seung Sahn you post here and on your blog.

      What you put here reminds me of something Sister Thanasanti, a Theravadan Bhikkhuni, would say before she started a Dharma talk. She would often encourage us to keep our practice during the talk, to let the talk enter into that space of awareness, and not to follow it with out minds as if at a lecture or casual conversation. Being encouraged like this, I have slowly shifted from wanting to capture every word to working at keeping my practice bright, which is, in a sense, just to listen openly and deeply to whatever talk is before me.

      It seems the practice cuts across traditions.

      Thank you again for posting this.

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