Listening to the Dharma

When Ananda saw the Buddha, he prostrated himself before him and wept; and he felt a beginningless remorse and an endless craving to hear the Dharma for he knew his understanding still was not complete.

— Surangama Sutra

We cannot learn the Dharma deeply unless we listen to it, read about it and study it very often. Even Ananda, who heard the Buddha speak more than anyone else, craved the Dharma. His desire to learn was so great it caused him to weep at the sight of his master.

If Ananda himself could feel like that, then how should those of us who call ourselves Buddhists today feel about the Dharma? Should we not daily recognize the treasure that has been bequeathed to us? And should we not daily turn to it to learn? For a moment imagine the world without the Dharma.

All practicing Buddhists should try to spend at least some time every day reading Dharma literature or listening to someone speak about the Dharma. The levels of meaning contained in the Dharma are truly wonderful and no one will ever be able to fully appreciate them without frequently studying Buddhist literature. We cannot expect to progress unless we frequently expose ourselves to the immense wisdom contained in the Buddha’s teachings.

Thus Have I Heard

All Buddhist sutras begin with the phrase, “Thus have I heard.” The general practice called “listening to the Dharma” takes its name from the very early days of Buddhism when Buddha’s teachings were transmitted orally. In those days, the only way to learn the Dharma was through listening to someone speak about it from memory. When we use the phrase “listening to the Dharma” today, we should expand its meaning to include reading, watching movies about Buddhism or engaging in other activities that promote increased understanding of the Dharma.

Just as a plant needs water and sunlight to grow, so a Buddhist practitioner needs regular and constant exposure to the Dharma to progress. There can be no growth in Buddhism if we stop listening to the Dharma and stop trying to find deeper and deeper meanings in it. Even the greatest bodhisattvas listen to the Dharma constantly.

And even ghosts can benefit from listening to the Dharma. In the Samyukta Agama there is a story about an occasion when the Buddha preached the Dharma to a family of ghosts. Two young ghosts were so moved by the experience that they wept. Their mother, who was also present, said to them, “Since I listened to the Dharma, I became aware of its truth. If you will only do the same, then you will see its truth too.”

In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Buddha says:

What constitutes insufficient listening [to the Dharma]?

The Tathagata preached twelve kinds of sutras; if you only listen to six of them while ignoring the other six, that would be insufficient listening. And even if you practiced six of these kinds of sutras but were unable to chant them or explain them to others, that too would constitute insufficient listening because your understanding would not bring you or anyone else any good.

Furthermore if you merely treated these six kinds of sutras as essays, or if you only used them to appear better than others, or if you only used them for mundane gain, or if you were possessive about them, even if you were able to chant them and explain them, still your listening would be insufficient.

Good monks, the sutras contain complete teachings that can be learned only through complete listening.

True, deep human understanding is based on what we do and the kinds of feedback that we provide ourselves. Our growth will be assured if we frequently study the Dharma. If we allow ourselves to stop learning, then our understanding will begin to ossify while our ability to practice will decline.

The Dharma is like water. It can wash us clean, but it must be used often.


True listening requires that we be receptive and true receptivity requires that we be humble. If we begin with the idea that we already know what the Buddha is saying, we will be unlikely to learn anything from him. If we are humble when we read the Dharma, we will discover that a passage that meant one thing yesterday has revealed a whole new level of meaning today. The teachings of the Buddha are carried on the backs of words, but their true significance is far deeper than anything any word can express. For this reason, the Dharma is capable of constantly revealing deeper and deeper levels of meaning.

The Chan canon contains the following story about the importance of having humility whenever we listen to the Dharma:

A learned man once went to Chan Master Nanyin and asked him to explain Chan Buddhism to him. Master Nanyin placed a cup on a table and began pouring tea into it. Then he continued to pour until the cup began to overflow.

The learned man said, “Master, the cup already is full.”

Master Nanyin looked at the man and said, “You are just like this cup except you are full of concepts and ideas. If you want to learn Chan, you must first empty your mind of all preconceptions.”

The Benefits of Listening to the Dharma

The Saddharma Smrty Upasthana Sutra mentions thirty-two benefits that can be gained from listening to the Dharma. It says:

What are these thirty-two? When a master preaches the Dharma, he is like a parent to his audience, and he is like a bridge across the river of birth and death. When one hears what one has never heard before, one attains new realizations. Once one has knowledge, one can begin to think about what one has learned. Once one has begun to think about what one has learned, one has truly begun to practice self-cultivation. Once one has begun to practice self-cultivation, one will abide in peace. Once one has begun to abide in peace, one can begin to benefit others; and then a mutually beneficial interaction can begin. If one is able to abide in peace, then even hardship will not seem disturbing.

If one listens to the Dharma, then roots of goodness will begin to grow where formerly they did not grow. If one contemplates what one has learned, then one will become prepared for liberation.

Listening to the Dharma can lead people with perverse views to change their views to right ones and listening to the Dharma can help people destroy unwholesome thoughts whenever they arise. Listening to the Dharma increases goodness of mind and rids one of evil mental causes and conditions. Listening to the Dharma keeps one from being confused and disorganized in one’s activities. Listening to the Dharma leads one toward the company of good people and leads one away from selfishness and falseness. Listening to the Dharma encourages one to care for one’s parents and believe in karma; it also shows one how to live a long life. Listening to the Dharma leads one to be praised by others and protected by heavenly beings, and it causes one’s deepest wishes to be fulfilled. Listening to the Dharma brings one all the joys of the Dharma and keeps one from sloth and laziness. Listening to the Dharma causes one to progress quickly, to understand gratitude and to think often on the meaning of death. If one has listened often to the Dharma, at the time of one’s death, one will not cling to life or feel remorse for what one has done. Ultimately, listening to the Dharma will lead one to Nirvana.

The Right Attitude for Listening to the Dharma

It is important to have the right attitude when listening to the Dharma. Whenever we are privileged to hear the Dharma we should reflect on our good fortune as we strive to be respectful, receptive, serious and thoughtful.

Master Yinhsun suggests that we think of ourselves as patients with a disease that only the Dharma can cure. In this respect, we should consider the Buddha to be like a doctor and the Dharma to be like a medicine. The Buddha gives us the right medicine, which will cure us, but we ourselves must be sure to take the medicine. If we do not, obviously it cannot possibly cure us.

When we listen to the Dharma, we must concentrate and we must be careful not to allow fixed ideas to prevent the Buddha’s message from fully penetrating our minds. Our purpose in listening to the Dharma must be to learn; if we think we already know what the Buddha is going to say or if we think that we know more than the Buddha, we will not be in the right frame of mind to benefit from his teachings. Even after we believe we have really come to understand some aspect of the Dharma, we must always keep our minds open so that even higher levels of understanding can become available to us. Short of full attainment of Buddhahood, there can be no end to the learning process.

A human body is hard to attain, but today we have one. It is hard to get the chance to hear the Dharma, but today we have heard it. If we do not practice in this life, then in which life will we finally begin?

— Agamas