How to Listen to a Dharma Talk

I once heard filmmaker Stan Brakhage tell a story about a movie theater that opened in some unnamed African country.  The theater opened with King Kong and the moviegoers loved it.  A few weeks later the owners tried a new movie, but this time the audience rebelled.  They wanted King Kong again.  And so it went.  The theater showed King Kong for years.

If you have young children, you know what it’s like for a child to latch onto a story and want to hear it over and over again.  There’s something sweet and reassuring about old favorites, even after the excitement of newness is gone.

Dharma talks are a lot like that.  They’re always the same: suffering, attachment, mindfulness, letting go, loving-kindness, compassion, wisdom, awakening.

The Buddha said I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the release from suffering.  I guess the Buddha couldn’t count very well, because that’s actually two things.  But the Buddha said it over and over, thousands of times in long discourses, medium length discourses, short discourses, numbered discourses, and miscellaneous discourses —  the whole Sutta Pitaka.

I’ve listened to nearly one thousand Dharma talks over the past fifteen years.

The Dalai Lama. Toni Packer. Thich Nhat Hanh. Henapola Gunaratana.  Bhikkhu Bodhi. Tsoknyi Rinpoche.  Joseph Goldstein.  Sharon Salzberg.  Larry Rosenberg.  Sylvia Boorstein.  Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Lama Surya Das.  Stephen Batchelor.  Robert Thurman. Narayan Liebenson Grady.  Michael Liebenson Grady.  Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. Peter Matthiesson.  Grover Genro Gaunt.  Claude Anshin Thomas.  Gavin Harrison.  Jan Willis.  Sulak Sivaraksa.  Myoshin Kelley. Ajahn Amaro. Rebecca Bradshaw. Christina Feldman.  Michelle McDonald. Alan Wallace. Ruth Denison. Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia. Robert Kennedy Roshi.  Paul Seiko Schubert.  Michael Koryu Holleran. Tsultrim Allione. Annie Nugent.

I’ve even been guilty of giving a few myself.

Toni Packer sometimes begins talks by asking ”is it possible to listen freshly?”

Toni Packer

What does it mean to listen freshly to something one’s heard a thousand times?

The mind is like a Greek chorus listening in and ceaselessly commenting.

”That makes sense!”  ”That doesn’t make sense!”  ”I agree!”  ”I disagree!”


The mind can’t help itself.  Usually when teachers say something we agree with they’re brilliant, when they say something we disagree with they’re wrong.

”Listening freshly” means two things. (Let’s see if I can count better than the Buddha.)

First it means not assuming we’ve heard something before.  We actually haven’t heard this particular talk before.  This particular talk may say something in a way that allows something new to click, or that helps new questions to arise.  Thinking you’ve already heard something before is a way of shutting down and preventing the possibility of discovery.  So first and foremost, ”listening freshly” is adopting an attitude of openness.

Secondly, ”listening freshly” means listening to everything that’s going on.  The speaker’s words.  The sounds of birdsong in the background.  The Greek Chorus in your mind.  When thoughts like ”I agree“ or ”I disagree“ arise, can they be bracketed off and seen as conditioned responses to what’s being heard without assigning them a truth value?  The speaker’s words sink in, and reactions arise.  Watch the entire movie.  It’s King Kong.  Again.  You may learn more about the Dharma from observing your reactions with genuine interest and non-attachment than you do from the speaker’s words themselves.

I’ve recently been re-learning this lesson as I’ve been listening to Dharma talks in my zendo.  As my faithful readers may remember, my particular zendo has a Jesuit priest as it’s roshi and another Catholic priest as a visiting sensei.  Getting used to this has not always been easy.  I was raised within the Jewish faith and attended synagogue until I was fifty years old.  I never set foot inside a Church until I attended a friend’s wedding in college.  With a history of nearly two thousand years worth of persecution by Christians, sitting in the Episcopal Church, where my zendo is located, still carries some negative connotations.  My initial entry into Buddhism was made easier by the fact that most of my earliest teachers were either Jewish or half-Jewish in origin.  If my current zendo had been my first Buddhist experience, I might never have become a Buddhist practitioner.  This is not a negative statement about my zendo, but a statement about the power of conditioning.  We all come from somewhere and have attachments that can close us off to what is actually transpiring in the moment here and now.

What’s actually transpiring in my zendo?  It’s a beautiful structure with a vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows.  The building creaks and groans in the wind when the weather is stormy.  Cicadas chirp outside in the summer.  It’s a wonderful place to sit.  It’s a friendly community, and we all sit together with inspiring sincerity and determination.

Occasionally a teacher will mention God during a Dharma talk, or even Jesus.  As a Jewish agnostic, my mind goes into overdrive whenever that happens.  ”Buddhism is non-theistic!“ As a member of an historically persecuted minority, I don’t want to hear Jesus talk.  ”That was a perfectly good Dharma talk until he dragged Jesus into it!” My fellow sitters, who are mostly Christian in background, are probably comforted by the reference, just as I was comforted by my early exposure to Jewish teachers.  ”What I’m doing here really isn’t apostasy.” All of it, the raised hackles or the comfort, conditioned response.

The hard thing is to hear what the teacher is saying behind the words.  What he means by ”Jesus” or ”God” may be what I mean by ”dharmakāya.”  Or maybe not.  Can I ”listen freshly?”  Is there something in his experience that can reverberate in mine?  Something beyond conditioned responses?

It’s not for nothing that the Buddha’s first disciples were called ō›rāvakas, or ”hearers,” those who actually heard the Buddha speak.  That’s our aspiration too, to be ”hearers.”

Larry Rosenberg used to say (maybe he still does) that watching our own conditioned responses over and over is like watching ”Gone With the Wind” one thousand times.  It’s a great movie, but (unlike the King Kong audience!) we eventually tire of it and are able to drop the story.

That’s our job in Dharma practice.  Dropping the story.

Dharma talks — stories to end stories.







12 Replies to “How to Listen to a Dharma Talk”

  1. Seth,

    This is a really wonderful post and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone write on this topic! Thank you for a well-written and much needed article.


  2. Seth, thanks very much for this.

    Re dropping the story, I seem to be dreaming more than ever these days and it occurred to me that maybe I was doing that because after two years of meditation and practice my mind was doing less “story telling” in daily life. On the other hand, maybe it is just that I am dreaming more 🙂


  3. Hey Dr. Segall,
    I really loved this post. I have been practicing Right Speech and was recently reading about and conversing with my mentor about the importance of listening without reservations or judgement. I really like the idea of “listening freshly.” I was wondering if there was a way to get in contact with the editors of this blog?!?! Keep it up! I’m an avid follower of this blog and I look forward to future posts!

  4. To me it is interesting turf:
    (a) Judgement mind–> agree, disagree, neutral !
    (b) Just listening (almost impossible)
    (c) Being non-judgmental to the extent of head-nodding, agreeing, excited and happy and grateful for the teaching. Becoming a believer — or at least acting like one to avoid Judgement mind.

    I guess if I were writing 10 oz scripts for folks it could go like this:

    Person 1: practice 6 oz of (c), 2 oz of (b) and 2 oz of (a)
    Person 2: practice 1 oz of (c), 4 oz of (b) and 5 oz of (a)
    Person 3: practice 3 oz of (c), 4 oz of (b) and 3 oz of (a)
    Person 4: practice 10 oz of (b)

    Perhaps because we all have certain habit and relationships, the prescription would even vary week by week. Or do you think all people should have the same script?

    1. Listening freshly involves hearing the speaker’s words with the intent of “just listening,” (Option B) observing the failures of “just listening” as the speaker’s words ignite your own reactive thought processes (Option A), observing your primary and second order emotional reactions to whatever thoughts are ignited, noticing the sound of the wind in the background, and doing this all from within a spacious field of non-clinging awareness. I’m not sure becoming a believer/pretending to be a believer (Option C) has a place in this schema, except as one more set of intentions, thoughts and behaviors be be aware of without approving or disapproving of it. I guess I am recommending the same script for everyone? There’s plenty of time later on for discursive thought and judgment — but only after hearing/aware-ing.

  5. So, I am sure you know the obvious problems with non-discriminate listening.
    I practiced KungFu (Kempo) at a Japanese Zen temple where we fought, meditated, massaged, listened to dharma talks and cleaned for four hours a day.

    My Japanese was very bad when I started at the temple, but later, listening to the talks I saw they were full of highly nationalistic, conservative moralism.

    When is it OK to turn of the discriminate mind when religious professionals are giving their talks — I wish lots more religious folks would turn theirs on. Religious professionals are going to be elated with the advise “There’s plenty of time later on for discursive thought …”

    I am sure you understand my point. Thus my prescriptions would vary.

  6. I do understand your point, Sabio. But I’m also suggesting that the first hearing be one in which one tries to understand where the speaker is coming within the speaker’s own context without condemnation (and without belief). Discussion, dialogue, debate, and reframing can all ensue in due time, but the first effort should be hearing and awareness. Think back to our own dialogues and the times I didn’t acknowledge the main thrust of your argument because I was lost in my own reactions to some unimportant (to you) detail of what you’d written. It might have taken several go rounds before I finally understood what you were actually saying. If I’d spent more time “listening” and less time responding, the dialogue might have gone smoother!

    1. one tries to understand where the speaker is coming within the speaker’s own context without condemnation (and without belief).

      Ah yes. I understand that. I try to do that often, and, as you say, then put off debate and such to just let it be. But to do all that takes an anthropological mind — an observer. But to understand “the speaker’s own context” still requires me to use my discursive/analytical mind.

      Thank you for your personal example of our dialogues — that was useful.

      I see some folks tempted to think very dualistically (ironically so) that there is the “discursive mind” and the “Zen here-and-now” mind. And with discursive gets lumped analytic.

      Thus my prescriptions above. If one is listening with real deep understanding, one must be analytic to some degree. I do that with my patients all the time — enter their world, understand their values, don’t try to change their values but help them in their own terms. I may still walk away realizing I don’t value their values at all because it serves no purpose in our therapeutic relationship. But my discursive mind was far from asleep, I just would not allow it to judge in a way that changed my action or words.

      Gee, I hope that states my hesitancy.

      But I think the anthropological mind which is patient, can let the other affect them much more than the immediate debating mind. Perhaps , in my words, that is close to what you were saying.

  7. But I think the anthropological mind which is patient, can let the other affect them much more than the immediate debating mind. Perhaps , in my words, that is close to what you were saying.

    Yes, Sabio. That’s very close to what I was saying. While I’m listening, of course thoughts like “I really can’t believe that!” or “That’s exactly right!” occur. Mind is always doing its thing. And I respond with a small “not now,” and resume the intention to just listen and let things settle. Is that what Husserl meant by “bracketing off?” I’m not sure — but that’s what I call it in my own private lexicon. As Humpty Dumpty said:

    “When I use a word it means just what I chose it to mean, no more, no less.”

  8. “Not now” is something I too use in these situations — I just recently went to a Dharma talk at my local Zen temple — had to do the same. And interestingly enough, I didn’t care to dissect later, I could let it go. Mind you, I also didn’t absorb the dogma or perspective but being together had its own value.

    I liked the Husserl phrase and even loved Humpty Dumpty’s –> I am even adding it to my favorite quotes on my side bar. Thanx mate !!

    That was a useful dialogue — thanks.

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