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"Deep" Dharma for Awakening

Once upon a time, quite many years ago, I attended a Dharma talk given by a "famous" Thai monk. His fame was gained through his ability to give "deep Dharma" discourses. Sitting through his session, a sizeable crowd of about 200 people listened closely.

In his more than one and half hour talk, he used a number of Pali terms, which he then explained in rudimentary English. Some of the Pali words were explained with more Pali words. I notice some in the crowd, who I knew later were his close devotees, seemed to take in whatever he said with deep devotion. Many folding their palms in veneration.

Many others however, were fidgety, and more than a few looking downright bored. I for one, who happened to be sitting right in front of the monk, was feeling really sleepy (due to a long night exertion at another temple event the day before). As far as I know, I could not remember anything from that talk, except that I attended a session conducted by a "famous" monk. That monk was Phra Yantra Amaro, who was later disrobed after being found committing sexual misconduct.

And then there is the legendary forest monk Ajahn Chah. He speaks only Thai, but has a retinue of English speaking Western disciples. In his talks, he makes little reference to Pali terms and basically speaks from the heart. He seldom quotes from the Suttas. Topics of the day could come from any source that arises at the moment, such as a chicken pecking for food in the courtyard, the smell of cow dung in the vicinity and the patter of the rain. No English, all Thai and some reference to "Chicken Little". And yet, for many, Ajahn Chah's talks carry deep, profound messages.

And so what really is "deep Dharma"? Does a speaker with a gift of vocalising "technical" Dharma - those littered with Pali or Sanskrit - considered deep? Or is "deep" deep in a sense that the skilful speaker could effortlessly use simple words to convey something that touches us?

For most parts there are two kinds of Dharma speakers. One, those who has learnt enough to share their knowledge. This include those who have made effort to learn the Dharma "officially" through study classes and through meditation engagements. Two, there are those who are gifted with public speaking skills, and any rudimentary Dharma knowledge will be sufficient enough to carry their performance.

Speakers should be mindful that their duty is not just to share Dharma, but to have some self-awareness of their own personal effectiveness. How effective have been their effort to deliver the message? When listeners come up and congratulate them, do they just take in the adulation, or do they take more interest of what the audience or listeners have learnt?

Dharma sessions should not just focus on the quality of the message; it should also incorporate elements of deep feedback from the audience. One way is for the speaker to be alert to body language. Scan for fidgety behaviours, crowd energy and be aware of the strength of attentiveness during periods of more technical explanations. Watch what happens during periods when the crowd perks up. Watch also when they start to wane and doze off.

Speakers should never take Dharma talks as avenues to showcase their personality, or oratory skills. It is not just any other talks. Dharma talks are priceless opportunities to produce awakening in another human being. It is an opportunity to practice skilful means.

Inspiring Dharma serves as a source of spiritual nourishment, evoking a sense of awe and reverence for the profound depths of the Buddha teachings. It stirs our aspiration to awaken, offering solace during challenging times and encouraging us to embody compassion and wisdom in our daily lives. It encompasses teachings that touch the depths of our hearts and inspire profound transformation.

From what I see, effective Dharma learning links up three important dots, that of Trust, Direction and Support.

"Trust" means to place our faith in what the speaker says, his wisdom and his ability to guide us along the Buddhist path. Ultimately, faith in the message will help us to strengthen our refuge in the Buddha, who serves as a beacon of inspiration, reminding us that the path to enlightenment lies within our own hearts and minds.

"Direction" means to be able to use the advice given by the speaker and turn it into some form of action plan. We take the advice given and then apply them in our daily lives to transform our thoughts, words and actions. Digest the message by all means, then ask questions, and think. Read more and meditate, then ask more questions and think. Once you see its value and benefits, put it to use, and see if it does make a difference. This is what it really means by taking refuge in the Dharma.

"Support" lends itself to the role of the community, whom the speaker is a part of. It is never wise to be a lone traveller. Supportive friends that offer encouragement, insight and a sense of belonging are often necessary in one's spiritual journey. Through the refuge in the Sangha, we find strength in our practice and overcome obstacles along the way.

There are many fine examples one can learn from the Buddha Himself in terms of the skilful communication He used to effectively awaken another. In the Kasi Bharadvaja Sutta (Sutta Nipata of the Theravada Pali Tipitaka), the Buddha used farming language when he engaged in a discussion with the farmer Bharadvaja. Through the use of terms such as ploughshare, yoke, seeds, ploughing and sowing, the Buddha managed to impart teachings on the nature of karma, virtue and the path to liberation to the farmer.

In the Lotus Sutra (of the Mahayana tradition), it skilfully highlights the universal potential for awakening and emphasizes the importance of compassion and skilful means to guide all beings towards enlightenment. The Lotus Sutra instils a sense of purpose, reminding us that every individual possesses Buddha-nature and can realize their inherent awakened nature.

Dharma talks should never have to be dull, mundane activities. It should never be regarded as just a temple activity, a religious obligation for devotees to attend. When skilfully organized, it can be a form of motivational session, an opportunity for one to re-energize, learn new things and see new perspectives.

Every opportunity must be taken to enable some form of awakening - no matter how small or insignificant - to take place. Awakening means a fissure or a small tear of enlightenment has opened. What happens next is up to the individual. The Dharma speaker is just - at the end of the day - a Dharma message carrier, an enabler that allows for such opportunities to arise.


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