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.