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Communicating the Dharma

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by Sangharakshita

193 Communicating the Dharma

(International Chairmen's Event, Padmaloka 1999) It did occur to me just a little while ago that it is quite a long time since I was last in Norfolk, in this very beautiful county, and quite a long time since I was at Padmaloka.

In fact I don't really like to think just how long it has been since I saw this auspicious place last. But naturally very shortly after my arrival, in fact this morning or this afternoon I was looking around. Not just looking around Padmaloka itself but looking around, walking around the locality and just refreshing my memory of the place. Of course, looking around Padmaloka I saw all sorts of things, all sorts of improvements that had been made, in fact saw all sorts of improvements in the process of being made, and naturally I was happy, very happy to see those.

Again in the dining hall having lunch, I was just looking around at everybody present and the thought occurred to me that not so many years ago, there were not even so many Order Members in existence as we now have chairmen and chairwomen and that of course is quite a thought. I can remember the very first convention we ever had.

There were twenty-seven of us altogether, assembled in the front room at Aryatara.

Well you certainly couldn't get the Order into the front room at Aryatara or any of our communities any longer. We have grown, we have developed, and of course, we have been communicating the Dharma, all of us.

I must admit that some weeks ago, when the organisers of this Chairmen's conference or assembly, I'm not quite sure what to call it, but whatever it is, wrote to me inviting me to speak to you on, I believe it was 'Communicating the Dharma', or 'How to communicate the Dharma' I was a bit surprised because I thought 'well surely they know by this time?' Haven't they been doing it all these years? And haven't I, in any case, said quite a lot in one way or another on this question of communicating the Dharma? Well, Ratnaghosa has just been reminding me of things I have said to this very Order and I must admit I had not exactly forgotten those words, but they weren't, so as to say, very prominent in my memory. I was rather surprised at being asked to speak to you on this topic, and I couldn't help wondering whether in fact I had anything new to say. I suspect I don't in fact have anything new to say, I am probably going to say things that you have heard before so perhaps my talk will be more of the nature of a reminder rather than of the nature of imparting any fresh or new information.

In fact I quite early on decided that I wasn't going to give a talk, wasn't going to give a lecture at all. I was just going to write down, on a piece of paper, fifteen points, another of my fifteen points. I was going to write down fifteen points in connection with communicating the Dharma and read those to you, one by one and comment on each one in turn. Now not only that, not only was I rather surprised about being invited to speak on this well worn topic, but I also assumed, rightly or wrongly, that what I was being invited to do was speak on the subject of communicating the Dharma verbally, that is say through lectures, through talks. But of course that isn't the only way in which one can communicate the Dharma. One can communicate the Dharma in all sorts of other ways. One can communicate the Dharma through visual images, we communicate it, for instance, not just through the various Buddha and Bodhisattva figures represented in thankas and embodied in images but also in that symbol, that well known symbol, the Wheel of Life, and so on. So the Dharma can be communicated by visual means, it doesn't just have to be the original spoken word.

Then again, as I believe has already been mentioned in the course of the week by one of the speakers, one communicates the Dharma through one's example. One certainly reinforces one's written or spoken word through one's living, personal example. And I remember, in this connection, that years and years ago, someone who had been on one of those famous old Battle retreats, a quite new person, told me that what had impressed them most on that retreat was not the talks, wonderful as they were, not the meditation, inspiring as they'd found it. What had impressed them most of all was the harmonious manner in which all the members of the team, Order Members and mitras 1 alike, had worked together, running that retreat. That had impressed them more than anything else. This person said that they'd never seen, ever before, people working together in that way. So surely the team was communicating the Dharma, just by running the retreat, conducting the retreat, organising the retreat together in such a harmonious manner, living and working, we may say, just like those famous Aniruddhas, about whom we sometimes do study. So the Dharma is not to be communicated just by the spoken word, not just by the written word. But that is what I am going to take this topic of communicating the Dharma to mean this evening. I don't know how long I am going to speak for, maybe fifteen minutes, maybe twenty minutes, maybe a bit longer, but in any case there will be time for questions, and those questions may cover the non-verbal if you wish, the non-verbal communication of the Dharma. They don't have to be confined to the verbal communication of the Dharma about which I shall be speaking.

So, point number one. Know your subject! This may seem to be very elementary, very obvious, and of course in a way it is. But what does one mean by knowing one's subject? It certainly doesn't mean just swotting it up for the purpose of the particular talk or lecture that you are going to be given, swotting up at the last minute.

Sometimes people ask me how long it takes me to prepare a talk, and I sometimes say it takes several years, even a lifetime. So what did I mean by that? I'm reminded of a little anecdote from the biography of Whistler, James Whistler the painter. He was asked, in the course of a famous court case, when I think he sued Ruskin and was awarded a thousand in damages; he was asked how long it had taken him to paint a certain picture, for which he was asking £200, which was a lot of money in those days, still is for some of us. He said £200, it took me half an hour to paint that picture. So opposing counsel said, 'you mean you are asking £200, just for the work of half an hour?' 'No', he said, 'I'm asking it for the experience of a lifetime'. So the experience of a lifetime had gone into painting that picture even though the execution of it took him no more than half an hour. So, in much the same way, some of the talks I've given have grown out of reflections that I've been having, on and off admittedly, for many years in some cases. So it is not that I suddenly think of talking about this or talking about that, it is the culmination of a long process of reflection, and when reflections come to a certain point and when a certain opportunity offers, well then I give a talk, I give a lecture. So when I say that one should know your subject, it should be the product of study and reflection, perhaps of meditation, over quite a number of previous years.

I've spoken of knowing your subject, but afterwards it occurred to me that knowing was the wrong term. Perhaps it is not enough just to know your subject, whether it is the Eightfold Path you are speaking about or Buddhism and Western culture or whatever. It is also necessary to love your subject, I would even say that you should be in love with your subject and it is out of the abundance of that love that you just want to talk. And you all know, at least I suppose you do, that when you are in love you want to talk about it with someone, at least with your best friend. You want to tell them what you feel, how wonderful he is or how wonderful she is because you are just bursting with those emotions, you want to communicate them. Well you should feel the same way about the Dharma, about the Eightfold Path, about Buddhism and Western Culture, you should be so enamoured of the subject, as well as knowing about it. Of course when you are in love you don't necessarily know the other person, but here it is different so the analogy is not quite complete but you do see what I am getting at, it is not enough to know something about the subject you are talking about, but you must have feeling for it, you must have enthusiasm for it and be able to communicate that, not just information, not even just information derived simply from the scriptures, or even from Bhante's writings. So know your subject, love your subject, have been reflecting on the subject, mulling the subject over in your mind for some time so that the talk, or the lecture when you come to give it, is just the last stage, just the culmination of that particular process. So know your subject, love your subject. That's the first point.

2 Second point, which may seem to contradict the first one, in a way but really only superficially, prepare. Even though you know your subject, even though you love your subject, well don't be overconfident. Prepare well, look up references, make notes and don't rely on last minute inspiration. Even when you know the subject and love the subject, if you do rely on that last minute inspiration, you may find yourself at a loss for words and you may simply go rambling on and it will be obvious to everybody that you haven't prepared and that will be very sad and very disappointing. However well you know the subject, however well you love the subject, just sit down beforehand, give yourself sufficient time. Make notes, even write your talk out if you think it necessary, but do prepare. Give, one might say, the audience, and the subject, that degree of respect.

My third point is don't conceal your ignorance. One could also say, well, don't pretend that you know what ...

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