Or: “Misadventures Teaching the Dharma”
I haven’t been able to write for a while. I am happy to report that my wife and kids are back in the US, and the jet lag is wearing off, so we no longer live like vampires.1 ;)
Another big development is that I delivered my first sermon at the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple. Things did not go as planned but I also learned a lot in the process.
First, I was originally scheduled to give a sermon on the 30th of August and I was going to talk about Shan-Tao’s Parable of the Two Rivers. However, the schedule changed and I did my sermon on the 9th instead. I decided to change topic at the last minute because I would not be able to get a projector in time to show Shan-Tao’s parable in art.
So, instead, I decided to talk about the idea of taking refuge in Buddhism. I talked about the Vandana Ti-Sarana, the “Three Refuges”, which is recited almost universally in Buddhism in some way or another, but I also linked it to sutras like the Cunda Sutra (SN 47.13) in the Pali Canon, the 21st verse of the Dhammapada and the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra (chapter 3).
It was thrown together, but I thought it was pretty good. I was nervous that day, but when I stood upon the pulpit, my nervousness faded and I threw myself into the sermon.
But as I finished, I felt something wasn’t quite right. I had secretly used my phone to time myself and I had finished a few minutes earlier than I expected. I was so worried about taking too long, that I had gone too fast!
Worse, I found out later that I had talked so fast, so animated, that many of the elderly members couldn’t follow what I said. :-o
Looking back, I had made a classic blunder: I was talking as fast as I was thinking, and I hadn’t considered my audience. I was over-eager.
I did get lots of compliments about the content of the sermon, but the delivery needed improvement. And that’s when I really came to realize that teaching the Dharma in person is a lot different than writing a blog or even making Youtube videos.
In the blog, people can read at their own natural pace. My speech habits do not appear in writing, so the language reads more neutral. Plus, if something I write is confusing, they can go back and re-read it. Even on Youtube, you can rewind the video and increase the volume.
But when you’re talking in person, you only get one shot. Even if you compose the greatest sermon ever, if no one understands it, then it’s all in vain.
Speaking of YouTube, I have received comments before about talking too fast, and even at work sometimes people have told me that I talk fast, so I know I do it and I do it often. I have other weird habits too like saying “right” at the end of sentences, and a weird inflection that makes people think I am from Canada.2
So I did some research on how to avoid talking too fast, and I found a couple good links:
The gist of both websites is that “talking too fast” really just means you are not giving enough audio cues, so your audience gets confused. Simple things like learning to breathe more, ending sentences with a downward inflection (for English speakers), and just pacing yourself are the key.
Although the first sermon did not go as planned, and I learned some painful lessons, I actually feel pretty positive about my next opportunity to give a sermon, hopefully in another month or two. I will definitely practice more, and hope to give a more impactful sermon next time around, probably on the Maha-Mangala Sutta (and how it relates to Jodo Shinshu), or perhaps on the Shan-Tao’s Parable. :)
1 Toddlers with jet lag are no joke. Little Guy was awake and active until 4:30am the first few nights! :-o
2 I’m born and raised in the Seattle area, by the way. Strangely none of family has that inflection, just me. I’m not sure if it’s a “Northwest Accent” or just personal habit.