OFTEN, WHEN WE LISTEN TO SOMEONE, we do so with minds already made up about what’s being said, and thus filter things through our preferences and prejudices. We listen with a purpose, with a center: the ‘I.’ To hear, on the other hand, is less self-centered, less of a purposeful act, is more passive and receptive.

Some years ago, I stayed in a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in California, where the chief monk asked if I could lecture on Buddhism in university. Conscious of his academic achievements, and liking people to address him as ‘Dr.’ he seemed a little surprised when I replied: "No, I cannot lecture, but I can preach." I meant that I do not regard Buddhism—or rather, Dharma—as something academic, something merely of and for the head, but more a thing of the heart or gut, something that must be understood deep down inside. Lectures are usually for the head, but sermons are for the heart, and my purpose, in speaking and writing as I do, is to try to inspire and awaken people spiritually. I have little to do with the world of Academia.

Reality is Here-and-Now, but we seldom see it, because we are usually elsewhere, inattentive and unaware, thinking of the past, planning, dreaming or worrying about the future. Moreover, our beliefs and fantasies about life are not in line with life-as-it-is, and prevent us seeing what is right in front of us. It is as if we are blind, and also as if we are deaf, for although many people have tried to awaken us to the realities of life, their words go in one ear and out of the other. Do we have super-highways through our heads, from one ear to the other, with no stopping allowed?

Disregarding all the controversy surrounding him, and to give credit where it is due, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh said some pretty good things. Among his ideas that I remember is this one: The reason why one teacher sometimes seems to contradict things said by other teachers is not necessarily because what the other teachers said was wrong, but because of the tendency in many of us to become bored. We ‘turn off’ if we hear something repeated a few times, thinking that we already know it just because we’ve heard it before and can maybe even repeat it, or—worse—begin to think of it as ‘the same old hash, recooked over and over again’. This is the way of proud and shallow minds that do not perceive things clearly but always crave something new and entertaining.

Because of this tendency, teachers who wish to share with others their ‘good news’ must constantly devise new ways to present it, to keep it fresh, for unless people are very hungry, they will not willingly accept stale bread. This is the reason why telling people that if they live well in this world, when they die they will go to heaven, but if they are sinful, they will go to hell, is almost non-effective today; it has been used for too long and is worn out. To tell a small boy that if he is good you will give him a candy, but if he is naughty you will spank him, might produce the desired effect in him, as small boys usually like candies and fear spankings; but to use the same technique on a grown man would hardly work, and might even elicit the response: "Oh yes? You want to try?!"

Now, when a teacher teaches an academic subject, he presents facts and figures to his students, aiming at their heads, but when a preacher preaches, he aims at his listeners’ hearts, trying to inspire them. He knows he might have nothing new to say, really, and that his hearers might know already, but what he nevertheless tries to do, is to ‘strike a light.’ We may use the analogy of matches and a matchbox: the preacher is the box, his listeners the matches. Neither the matches, as such, nor the box contain fire, but when a match is struck against the box, fire may be produced. Or his listeners are like knives, and he like a stone on which the knives may be sharpened.

The listeners depend upon the speaker, the speaker depends upon the listeners; each needs the other to be what they are: if there is no speaker, there will be no listeners; if there are no listeners, there will be no speaker. If the listeners are careful not to confuse the personality of the speaker with the words he speaks— for the two are not the same— it becomes possible to learn something useful from people we may not like, whereas if we pay too much attention to the speaker’s personality, our capacity to learn from him becomes limited thereby.

Before delivering a sermon, the speaker would do well to reflect thus for a few moments: "Of what I am going to say, the well-spoken words are the Buddha’s; the rest are mine." Pride is always quick to spring up, like weeds in an untended garden; we must constantly be on guard against it. Truth is greater than us; we live by truth, or the laws of life, just as we live by air; but we cannot possess it and call it ours. We depend upon it, not it upon us. To prevent pride from springing up, and to keep a proper perspective, we must give truth center place, instead of our self (Christians would say ‘Give God center place,’ the difference being that to them, ‘God’ is a person, while to Buddhists, Truth, or Dharma, is not; it is useless to pray to Truth, as there will be no answer. Instead of praying, Buddhists try to align themselves with Truth, to live in accordance with it, and become one with it).

The success of a Dharma-talk depends not just upon the presentation and eloquence of the speaker, but also upon the attentiveness and interest of the listeners; in fact, it depends more on the listeners than the speaker, for even if the speaker is dull and uninspiring and has nothing much to say, but the listeners are attentive, they may still get something good and useful from his words. If the listeners are dull and bored, however, even if what is being said is of great clarity and marvelous quality, it will not penetrate their inattentive minds and bring about a transformation.

What is said during a sermon might be new to the listeners, but if the speaker has said the same things in other places, to other people, thus repeating himself, it might become boring to him, and if he becomes bored with ‘the same old thing,’ this will show and be communicated to his listeners. So, the speaker must attempt to avoid becoming bored with his own words and presentation.

It is easy to know if the audience is with one or not. According to my experience, if the audience is with one, really paying attention, it is possible to go on for hours, without being aware of time or things like hunger, fatigue or even pain; one draws energy from the rapport with the audience. Conversely, if the listeners are bored and not interested, shifting restlessly, talking to each other, or yawning, the speaker picks this up and to rouse them from their lethargy becomes a task so difficult that it sometimes seems impossible, and to continue the talk becomes an ordeal.

Repetition cannot be avoided. The Buddha must often have repeated Himself during His long ministry of 45 years. He said Himself: "Just this do I teach: Suffering, the Cause of Suffering, the End of Suffering, and the Way to the End of Suffering." Of course, the ways in which He presented this were many and varied. It is said that He had 84,000 different ways to teach, but this should not be taken to mean literally 84,000, no more and no less; it means infinite ways to teach, according to the situation and the levels of His listeners. So, it is a mistake to think: "Oh, I’ve heard all this before," because even if the words are exactly the same, as in a book—which they aren’t, of course—it would still not be the same, as the situation is different with every talk (and with each and every event, big and small, in fact), and both the speaker and the listeners have changed. If we understood this, we would not listen with minds grown stale, but with eagerness and attention.

Dharma is Truth, and this applies not just to things outside, but also to things inside. So, when we pay attention to a Dharma-talk, the Dharma that we hear resonates with the Dharma inside, and we feel at-one with it; joy arises, tears might come to our eyes and even run down our cheeks. And, because joy is one of the prerequisites of Enlightenment, it is even possible for Enlightenment to arise in this way, as it often did as people listened to the Buddha speak.

I often give Dharma-talks, but seldom have the chance to listen to one. Sometimes, I feel hungry to listen, and if the chance to listen coincides with my hunger, I feel happy, even if the subject-matter is basic and not new to me, and even though I might have said the same thing myself many times before. I feel joy because the basic things are important; they are important because they are basic, and important things maintain their importance and do not change much. If/when we appreciate things on this level, we are in tune with the Infinite, the All; and when we are in tune with the Infinite, we can see and feel It all around, in everything; if It were not in everything, It would not be the Infinite.

So, interest and joy in the Dharma are vital if we are not to waste our time listening to a Dharma-talk. This does not mean that we should listen with minds full of concepts and foregone conclusions, nor with credulous and naïve minds, nor with excessive respect, thinking that each and every word must be absolutely, 100% true merely because it is said by such-and-such a person, or that by so listening, great merit will accrue. Some people appear to think that the Dharma is magical in itself, and can somehow save them without any effort on their parts except blind, unquestioning belief. We should listen with open, sensitive and receptive minds, minds humble and free from the thought that ‘I know all this already.’ And humility is not a thing we can practice or develop, but comes about as the natural result of seeing things clearly.

What we are looking for is already within us; in a way, it might not be wrong to say we know it already, but we don’t know that we know it. This is why, when someone explains it to us, we might say: "Is that what it’s all about? But I’ve known that for years already! It’s so simple!", though this would be said with joy at discovering something rather than with pride. Yes, it’s so simple, and it is usually not what we expect or are looking for, because we imagine it to be extraordinary or miraculous, and so we fail to see what is here. It is as if we have been sitting on a treasure-chest all along, and didn’t realize it. Therefore, it is necessary for someone to come along and turn us around, to introduce us to ourselves, as it were. And, as I write this, a passage from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, comes to mind:

"No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half-asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom, but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise, he does not bid you enter the house of his knowledge, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind."

Because it is customary to give sermons at regular times, many sermons are given mechanically, to fill a space or discharge an obligation. People get ‘turned off’ by this. It is not necessary for sermons to be long and windy affairs; in fact, the shorter and pithier they are, the better. Many sermons of the great Masters, like the Buddha or Jesus, lasted only a few minutes, as they were able to get to the heart of things directly and quickly, without beating around the bush, and to explain it simply and clearly.

Krishnamurti, an eloquent speaker, never prepared a talk beforehand, and seldom knew what he was going to talk about until he got to the place where he was to speak and saw the audience. Indeed, on the way to deliver a talk, he was known to say, as if with some nervousness: "What am I going to talk about?" But, face-to-face with his audience, striking words, simple and direct to the point, devoid of sophistry and pretense, full of beauty and wisdom, delivered with passion and authority, poured forth, so that he seemed to be addressing each listener individually.

There are advantages to preparing a talk in advance, as then the speaker has always something to depend upon, whereas if he does not prepare, he has nothing to fall back on, if necessary. Speaking spontaneously, one can sometimes give inspired and inspiring talks, but there are times when one is dry, like a well without water, and has nothing to say; the words won’t flow. But the trouble with prepared speeches is just that: they are pre-pared: cut-and-dried beforehand, like summer hay, not new and fresh to suit that particular situation alone, and so the spontaneity is lacking.

If we really understand the essence of religion, we will be able to present it in ways suitable for various conditions without losing the substance. If, however, we insist on retaining, unchanged, the traditions and forms of the past, we should not be surprised to lose the support of the people, especially the young.

The world is full of books, and more are churned out now than ever before, at the expense of the Earth’s forests. We read books, listen to talks, lectures, and sermons on religion and philosophy, but in some cases, only become mentally constipated thereby. Maybe we read too much about such things and listen to too many lectures and talks. To know a little, and use it, is much better than to know a lot but be unable or unwilling to use it. To know heaps of theory and philosophy, without applying it in one’s life, is just old bones! A sick man repeating the word ‘medicine’ like a mantra, without actually taking the medicine, can hardly expect to be cured thereby. Likewise, to use the word ‘Enlightenment’ and discuss and speculate about Nirvana, the state of spiritual liberation, and so on, is just a waste of time and life; we must follow the Way, and each step, as we take it, is important. If we are on the beach, for example, and would like to be on the mountaintop, we must begin to walk towards, and climb the mountain; it is not by wishing to be on the top that the mountain can be climbed.

Listening is an art few people master. An outstanding example of it can be found in Herman Hesse’s famous novel, Siddhartha, in the person of Vasudeva, the ferryman, who learned from the river how to listen; he seldom spoke, but when people opened their hearts and told him their stories, they left feeling lighter. Often, there is no need to say anything, but just to listen, sympathetically, without judging. To cultivate this art, we must realize that we have two ears and one mouth, not the other way around.

There is a time to listen and a time to speak. When people are speaking to us, we should respect them and allow them to finish what they are saying without interrupting. We can cultivate the art of listening in ourselves, but we cannot make others listen to us. If I am speaking to someone and they interrupt me, I take it as a sign that they are not interested in what I am saying and stop speaking, and if they do not ask me to resume what I was saying, I will not do so.

The marvelous human voice is not just a means of communication but also a musical instrument, and using it as such is another art. We must know how to control it, both in sound and volume. Voice can and should be a great asset, but often is not. Many of us chatter and speak loudly when it is not necessary; some people sound like crows or seagulls, and it is quite unpleasant to be around them.

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