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Buddhist Spring: We have to start thinking and talk about thinking

In Buddhist practice, silence is a virtue. It is part of "mindfulness" and "meditation". However, in a social setting within a Buddhist centre, it is not uncommon to be "silently" greeted upon entering a temple (as far as I can see in a Theravada centre), or just being ignored altogether.

In mindfulness, we are told to watch our speech, action and thinking. And so for one who comes to the temple, it is "just" to follow the general behaviour and fit in.

This includes coming and participating in rituals, sitting down listening to Dharma talks and then taking part in short, guided meditations. For those with more curious minds, they can perhaps summon a question to the speaker. But it's likely that no more than 2 questions will be asked due to limited time. More often than not, no questions will be asked.

One big reason for this is the topic of the talk delivered. As many in the gathering will be regulars, newcomers will just have to sit and take in whatever the speaker delivers. Which means if the speaker uses technical Dharma words which these newbies are not familiar with, they will have to take those in also. Unless the speaker is a skillful presenter, the talk may be too much for some listeners to understand.

So many of these Dharma talks are actually "one way" communication. Speaker talks, audience listens. There is very little engagement. Which is why some speakers use humour to spice up the "dead" atmosphere. Hilarity has become the benchmark for engagement and interactivity.

There is seldom any request made for feedback with regards to how well the materials have been understood. I once gave a talk at one of a centre in Bandar Utama, and I presented a chart on the five spiritual powers (bala). I notice a marked perk up in interest from the audience. When the slide moved away, there was a request to get back to it, as some wanted to take notes.

And so I asked, how many have seen this information on the 5 balas for the first time? Almost half the hall put up their hands. Again, many of these are regulars.

Which brings this to mind: What have they been learning all these while? Buddha Dharma is not only about learning and practicing precepts, dana, karma, merits and rebirth. More than that, its about learning stuff that one can use to think about, those that question one's purpose and direction in life.

I sometimes think we under estimate the intelligence of our Buddhists. We think many are not ready for the deeper stuff. Of course, if a speakers rattle off a series of Pali terms and attempt to explain and clarify them with more Pali, who would want to stay and listen to that?

By deeper discussions I mean the philosophical aspects of the Buddha's teachings. Can we simplify for instance, how consciousness works that even a 10 year old can understand? If someone can make a hard topic like consciousness engaging enough, I can safely say that the "Dharma ending" age has been postponed!

This can be accomplished, if a knowledgeable speaker genuinely care about expressing Dharma in a language that can make a difference in someone's life. If the intent is there, I'm sure the language used would be different.

I personally believe it's about time that we get our "Dharma audience" to think. Give them something to think. Don't just let them say "Sadhu!", leave the hall and get on with their mornings like nothing has changed personally. The Dharma delivered that morning should linger and tickle their brains. Tickled enough to get them launch their phones and check with ChatGPT.

To do this, the "Dharma teacher" will have to be confident enough to engage with the audience and get them to respond. The aim is to enter an interaction that leads the listener to explore and satisfy his/her curiosity.

The Dharma audience should be encouraged to challenge the teacher. An atmosphere of debate should be fostered. It is within this "volatility of the senses" that germination of ideas and thoughts is made possible. The Buddha won many converts this way. It is such a waste that we no longer foster such an atmosphere like this anymore.

Many are not aware that fostering an engaged approach is actually more critical today than one thinks. Creeping totalitarianism, with regards to the use of technology such as mobile gadgets, socmed and AI is already engulfing many of us. A large percentage of our time rings around these virtual worlds. We disengage ourselves with real human, social connections.

If we continue to "cold touch" people, and especially push young people to observe "silent mindfulness" and be by themselves in the temple during Sunday service, we are unconsciously enabling these tech creep to grip even tighter. The Sunday service should be a platform to engage, to exchange, to explore, to think.

Mindfulness and personal sitting practices must be encouraged, but be set aside for another quiet day of the week (Note: many of the local Buddhist centres' physical layout leaves a lot to be desired, with regards to the use of space for social engagement and cultivation that happens at the same time).

It has become imperative to rethink our approach to the Sunday Service. If we don't want the Dharma to turn into a cold rock left alone in an unappreciated winter, it's time to bring about a Buddhist spring!


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