The Nature of Dharma Talks
(copyright 1998 by Tom R. Childers)

Dear Friends, I am very happy today to share with you a little about the wonderful Buddha Dharma. One important way we share the Dharma is through Dharma talks. So it is good to ask how we can make our Dharma talks most beneficial and useful. It is interesting to look at the life of the Buddha and to explore how he gave Dharma talks. It is often said that the Buddha spoke in many different ways depending on who the audience was. He would give his Dharma talks so that they were appropriate for the people who were listening. All of us listen to the Dharma in our own unique way. My feeling is that there is no “higher” or “lower” way, only different ways. Just in the same way a beautiful gem is still beautiful whether one observes it from this angle or another angle. Each angle is unique and valuable, and fully manifests the beauty of the whole gem. The whole gem is needed to create the special beauty of each angle. So the Buddha expressed the pure Dharma in many enjoyable ways, and each Sutra that Ananda memorized is a like a facet of a single, precious jewel.

I have heard Thich Nhat Hanh give many Dharma talks. He often says “If you get sleepy during my talk, feel free to take a little rest.” When I first heard this, I was very happy. It meant that Thich Nhat Hanh was encouraging us to listen with the same non-attached mind that he used to give the talk. Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t like for people to take notes while he talks. He knows that if we worry about writing down every concept, our minds are not in the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh wants us to be there because the Dharma can only be transmitted in the present moment. I know many of you work very hard. So I say: if you feel a little sleepy, lean back and have a little rest. But please, don’t snore.

One way to receive the Dharma is to just be in the presence of an enlightened teacher like Thay Thanh Tu, Thay Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama. Those of us who have had the good fortune to be in the presence of such masters have directly felt their power and compassion. Often their presence is enough to make our minds quiet and joyful so there are no barriers to the flow of Dharma. Their words are then just manifestations of their awakened nature. Even if they do not say anything, their enlightenment shines through clearly. So when a master is living the Dharma with every breath and every step, they do not have to say anything. One story goes that the lineage of Zen began when the Buddha simply picked up a flower and silently showed it to his students. Mahakasyappa smiled and became the first Zen patriarch. In order to receive this living Dharma, the student must be very deep in the practice of mindfulness and joy. In this way, even the glance of the Master is enough to transmit awakening.

Another way is to hear the words of Dharma. There is the story of a Chinese peasant who was walking by the temple as they were reciting one of the sutras (I think it was the Diamond Sutra). The peasant heard and few words and he became awakened to his true nature. He went on to become one of the Chinese Patriarchs of Ch’an. This story shows how the words of Dharma works in mysterious ways. We cannot say when awakening will occur, and a simple person with no education can awaken very suddenly. So hearing or reading the words of Dharma can trigger a sudden memory of who we really are. The words merely point the way to what is already inside of us. If our minds are silent and empty, the words will penetrate deeply to the truth of our true nature. If I listen to the Dharma with a busy mind, full of concepts and judgment, I may miss the path back to my true nature.

So an important quality of a Dharma talk is that the words be offered with no attachments. That means that as we speak, we are not concerned with “right” and “wrong”. I think letting go of notions of “right” and “wrong” requires a certain amount of trust and faith. We trust our empty nature and have faith that the emptiness knows how to express itself. Having faith means that we also trust the Buddha nature inside everyone. I endeavor to trust that the present moment always takes care of itself and of each person. That means that I cannot have any judgments or discrimination about other people, because being judgmental takes me out of emptiness back into my small mind. When I’m in my small mind, I cannot speak with the deepest compassion because I have momentarily forgotten that everything takes care of itself. In my small mind, I loose my trust in the Buddha nature of other people and my words will express attachments and clinging to concepts. Such words lack compassion and are not helpful to others.

I think the best Dharma talks are really Dharma dialogs. That means that when I speak, I’m interested in more than just telling you about my ideas and concepts. Rather, I want to deeply understand the people who are listening to my words. I think giving a Dharma talk in the spirit of true dialog requires a certain kind of gentleness. I must be willing to look inside myself and let go limited concepts and beliefs. The Second Noble Truth of the Buddha is that the cause of suffering is greed, hatred and ignorance. One kind of greed is greed for my own ideas, concepts and beliefs. If I hold onto my beliefs too tightly, it will be reflected in my words, and the people who are listening will feel that I don’t respect them. I was raised in America and most of you were raised in Vietnam, so we may have many different ideas about things. But if I make an effort to fly above all our small differences and see the truth that connects everyone, then the words will be more meaningful and useful.

So a Dharma talk for me is actually an opportunity to express how little I know about anything! That may sound kind of strange at first, but I think the Buddha was clear when he spoke about making the mind empty so our true nature can become clear. So in my Dharma talks, I actually try not to say anything. That means I try to express myself with no attachment to my words and ideas. I think it is fine to use concepts and ideas to express the Dharma, as long as I remember that they are just concepts. All the concepts in my mind about Dharma only point the way to the true Dharma, which is silence and emptiness.

In my meditation practice, I see directly that everything is always changing, especially the concepts that float through my mind. I may express many ideas, but I try to have no particular connection to them because my mind changes from moment to moment. That tells me that most of my ideas and concepts are meaningless, because after a few days or a few years, they will all change or disappear anyway. Practicing meditation allows my mind to relax and let go of ideas that are no longer needed or useful. So when I give a Dharma talk I try remember that everything is impermanent.

During his life, the Buddha gave many thousands of Dharma talks, but I think he was clear that he didn’t want anyone to cling to his words. Some people, by their nature, will cling to ideas very tightly. This can often lead to suffering, so the Buddha always spoke about setting the mind free through meditation and mindfulness. This was very wise, because in my meditations I see directly that when I cling to ideas or concepts, I suffer. I see this over and over again. If someone just tells me “Let go!”, it won’t help unless I learn how to let go. The Buddha was very wise in saying “Don’t believe my words, rather experience for yourself if they are true.” The Buddha always offered the gift of freedom. That freedom means that everyone has their own unique and perfect path to awakening. Buddhism is just one of the many beautiful flowers in the garden of truth.

So I think in his Dharma talks, the Buddha just expressed himself very naturally, just like the wind through the trees or the waves on the beach. Each make a unique and beautiful sound. We don’t complain that the wind sounds different from the waves. We think that is wonderful because each sound of nature is completely in the flow of reality. I think the Buddha’s words are like that. I think that is one reason why the Buddha was called the “Medicine King”. His words help make our mind quiet and calm, and that is the first step toward healing. With an empty mind free from desires, every sound becomes the voice of Dharma.

So when I read the Buddha’s sutras, I do not worry too much about understanding them with my conceptual mind. Some Buddhist sutras are very complex! But I always remember that all the Buddha’s wisdom spring from a very simple and basic source expressed in the 4 Noble Truths and in the Heart Sutra. The 4 Noble Truths tell us how to live as Buddhas in the everyday world, and the Heart Sutra tells us how to let go of all concepts and ideas; which is to become a Tathagata. I think they both go together and create a complete path to awakening. For Mahakasyappa, just seeing a flower was enough.