How we should listen to the Dharma

by Rev. Marvin Harada.

In the book, The Buddha’s Wish for the World, by our Gomonshu, Koshin Ohtani, he cites a temple in Japan that has hanging in the hondo, a sign that has the following creed, about how we should listen to the Dharma. It goes as follows:

1. We should listen as if we are listening for the first time.

2. We should listen as if it is for me alone.

3. We should listen as if it might be the last time in our life.

 

1. We should listen as if we are listening for the first time.

Those of us who have been brought up Buddhists since childhood may not be able to recall the first time we listened to the Dharma. We could have been infants held in the arms of our mothers. However, what this first point is trying to say, is that we should listen to the Dharma with a sense of newness, a sense of freshness, as if each time is the first time. We might hear a story or a message and think, “Oh, I heard that story already,” and we might not even pay attention to the story or the point of the story, assuming that we know it all. But if we listen as if it is the first time, then we hear that same story fresh and new. We might even connect with the story, or gain something from it because we are hearing it as if it is the first time. If we listen to it as if we have heard it many times already, then we have already closed off our mind to what we might hear and learn.

We have many new members of our Sangha, and each Sunday there are visitors. For those people, they are truly listening to the Dharma for the first time. For the first time visitor, our service must seem exotic and new, maybe even strange to them. There is chanting, incense, foreign words being recited, bowing and beads and all kinds of unfamiliar things. For the first timer, it must be so exciting and new to them. If only we could attend with that kind of attitude in mind, then every Sunday will not be the “same old thing,” but it will be a fresh and new experience.

2. We should listen as if it is for me alone.

If we are not careful, we can easily miss the whole point of Buddhism and what it means to listen to the Dharma. I have shared this experience before, but many years ago I spoke at another temple and after the service a lady came up to me and spoke to me about my message. She complimented me on the sermon and said, “Your message about being self centered was so important.” I thought to myself, “Wow, this lady was really listening.” But then she said to me, “But you know what? The one person in this world that really needed to hear that message is my husband! He is the most self-centered guy. He should have been here to listen to your message!” I suddenly realized that this lady missed the whole point of the sermon. We don’t listen with the thought, “Oh yeah, that’s my husband, or that’s my wife.” We have to listen with ourselves as the center, as if the message is being directed to me alone. This is always the attitude that Shinran Shonin takes in how he reflects on the teachings.

3. We should listen as if it might be the last time in our life.

It is easy to take life for granted, and think that we will be here forever, but haven’t we all had the experience where we saw a friend or loved one and the very next day they were gone? We can’t believe it. We think, “But I just saw them yesterday!” In life, truly we don’t know what might happen even tomorrow, so we should listen as if today is the last time. We don’t have years or decades to listen. We only have today, this present moment. If we don’t listen now, then when will we ever listen?

Rev. Tetsuo Unno once said in one of our BEC classes that we should listen to the Dharma as if we are listening to our doctor give us the results of our biopsy. Maybe some of you have had that experience. You had a lump or something suspicious, and the doctor takes a biopsy. He calls you back to his office to give you the results. You are sitting in his office on pins and needles. Will it be benign, or malignant? It is like waiting for a judge to give you a life or death sentence. You don’t have to ask the doctor to repeat himself, nor are you daydreaming, thinking about lunch, or last night’s UCLA-USC game. Your undivided attention is focusing on your doctor’s words of the results of your biopsy. That is the kind of focus we should have in listening to the Dharma. What a wonderful teaching that is.

We have some wonderful Sangha members who exemplify these three kinds of attitudes we should have in listening to the Dharma. If you ask any of them, what is the most fulfilling thing in your life, they would respond, “Listening to the Dharma.” If we listen as if it is the first time, if we listen as if it is for me alone, if we listen as if this might be the last time, then the Dharma will truly penetrate our hearts and minds.

Namuamidabutsu,

Rev. Marvin Harada