Oakville Zen Meditation

#418 Purpose of the Dharma talk and role of the student by Nancy Nov. 07 22

Purpose of the Dharma talk and the student’s role

“A Dharma talk is a lecture on a Buddhist topic to provide inspiration for integrating the Buddha’s teachings in daily life.”  ( i.e. inspirational vs intellectual).

The Buddha said I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the release from suffering; and yet he repeated his message over and over, thousands of times. 

Meditation teacher Toni Packer sometimes began talks by asking “is it possible to listen freshly?”

How do we listen freshly to something heard a thousand times when 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, and when teachers say something it agrees with it shouts ‘they’re brilliant, …something it disagrees with – ‘they’re wrong.

“Listening freshly” means two things.

First, not assuming we’ve heard something before.  We actually haven’t heard this particular talk before, and it may say something in a way that allows something new to resonate.  Thinking we’ve already heard something before leads to shutting down and preventing discovery.  So 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 we bracket them off and see them as conditioned responses to what’s being heard without assigning them a truth value?  The speaker’s words sink in, and reactions arise.  We may learn more about the Dharma from observing our reactions with genuine interest and non-attachment than we do from the speaker’s words themselves.

The hard thing is to hear what the teacher is saying behind the words.  What she means by this specific word or that may not resonate with one the way a different word would. Still, can I “listen freshly?”  Is there something in her experience that can reverberate in mine?  Something beyond conditioned responses?

The Buddha’s first disciples were called śrāvakas, or “hearers,” meaning those who heard the Buddha speak.  We can aspire to be “hearers.”


The purpose of a Dharma talk is inspirational, … more experiential vs intellectual. Can we just listen fresh?   Just as Meditation is a practice, a Dharma talk is a chance to be inspired and practice deep listening.

Most Dharma talks by design allow only a short question period, aimed at clarification.  If longer discussions ensue, can we extend our practice by watching out for ego activity, the Greek Chorus that wants us hung up on wording, agreeing/not agreeing, or the need to talk just for the sake of talking?

The Buddha had to repeat his teaching thousands of times.  Why? – to give different word usage a chance to resonate and allow for different levels of student readiness.  Can we just be with whatever happens? Not judge either our meditations or Dharma talks? If the words speak to you this time, great, if not, still great - use it as an opportunity to practice listening freshly!

Quote from Seng-tsan:

“The more you talk about it, the more you think about it, the further astray you get.

Stop talking, stop thinking, and there is nothing you will not understand.”