Reading the Suttas with Dharma Contemplation

On five Tuesdays in April and May, 2013, I led a Dharma Contemplation group in my home for seven meditators. Four had meditated primarily in Buddhist contexts, two were Quakers with other meditation experience, plus myself. Although this group had zero attrition, we were never all present at the same time; session attendance was six, five, six, four, and six again. Here is a picture of the group (me behind the camera) after our final session:

five participants in dharma contemplation group, spring 2013

After our final session, spring 2013.

Introducing Early Buddhist Texts

The readings for this group were all from the Pali suttas. Dharma Contemplation was developed as a structure for meditative group dialogue around any (preferably wise) text, but with the hope of making the early Buddhist suttas accessible to people who might otherwise not read them. Everyone in this group had some experience and instruction in meditation, but no one had looked at the suttas before.

All initially found these readings foreign and somewhat off-putting. At the end of the first session, one participant asked if we were going to use this process with texts like this every time. (Well, yes—though I did try to comfort and reassure them in several ways.)

After the third session, however, people were remarking with some wonder that they would never have gotten to the understanding they found in the sutta on their own. It was true: most of the group had to work for the understanding that this particular passage was a single extended analogy. We spent unusually long in the Meaning phase of the practice that evening, as one after another caught on and stated how the analogy worked. Perhaps such an extended analogy was unexpected. One participant needed awhile to accept the idea of engaging the mind to analyze a spiritual text. Perhaps there were other, unspoken, assumptions that got in the way.

That third session was the turning point for the group—from finding the practice just hard, to finding rewards worth their investment of effort. (The third session was a turning point the evening before, for the Monday interfaith group, and for the group last fall as well.) Participants discussed what had happened at the end of the session, describing that reward partly in terms of access to a text they felt might be otherwise inaccessible. (One participant later referred to the group’s reflection on the process as “a resounding affirmation of the practice.”)

Is Dharma Contemplation able to introduce twenty-first century meditators to the suttas in such a way that they can begin to access them on their own—to read them with understanding? Dharma Contemplation happened to be my own introduction to sutta readings, which I too found foreign and off-putting at first. But I had already encountered other ancient religious texts, and I knew that at first they all present unexpected characteristics that can seem off-putting, but that with familiarity they begin to make sense more quickly. So I am not sure that Dharma Contemplation is what brought about that change for me—though it certainly didn’t hurt! Can Dharma Contemplation bring about that change for people who are not trained in other ancient texts? So far, this much seems clear: the barriers to examining suttas—at least, with the support of a group like this—went down dramatically for these meditators.

A Strong Structure for Dialogic Meditation

But Dharma Contemplation was also developed as a pathway into group Insight Dialogue—and that is what attracted these participants. As Greg says, Dharma Contemplation is a “strong” practice: meaning that, compared with Insight Dialogue, it has quite a lot of structure. That strong structure makes it easier to lead: it is less subtle to describe what the practice is and is not; it is easier and more straightforward to keep people on practice, or to move them back if they have drifted away. But this same strong structure also makes Dharma Contemplation come across as a fussy practice: all about rules.

I framed it in this way to both groups this spring:

This is a very structured practice. Like a game—like soccer, or like Scrabble—it has some rules, rules that have to be learned and followed. But those same rules make possible a much more interesting engagement than just standing around in a field with a ball, or sitting at the kitchen table randomly shuffling Scrabble tiles. It may sometimes feel artificial, but I invite you to work with the structure of Dharma Contemplation for the sake of the engagement it makes possible: with the text, with each other, and with the processes of your own mind.

Participants seemed to struggle with both the rules and the fact of the rules through the first few sessions—and then to shift, at about the third session, around some taste of the experience made possible by the rules.

What to think about a practice that takes nearly six hours (most of three two-hour sessions) of hard work to learn to like? This makes the practice challenging to lead—what if participants quit before they fall in love? But maybe it is just the “fast food” mentality of the world around me that makes this seem slow going, that has me wondering if it is OK. Most people who have tried this practice under my guidance have persisted—a fact that is both humbling and touching. And such a slow start offers different benefits, as well as different challenges, than practices that provide an initial, yet perhaps partly spurious, payoff. Insight Dialogue, for example, can have gratifying psychological and social payoffs that can get in the way of the practice maturing into deeply meditative practice.

Next Steps?

On the final evening of this series, one participant asked me if I were going to offer more of this. I said I didn’t know: that my plan, last summer, had been to do three series over the fall, winter, and spring, then to let the dust settle and see what I thought about it all. So now I’m letting the dust settle and seeing what I think.

The same participant also asked me who I would be processing it with during that time—a question that, for me, evokes some of the meditative and dialogic practices of Quaker tradition, such as the opportunity and the clearness committee. I didn’t—and still don’t—have a good answer.

This effort was part of a larger project. See also:
Experiment Using Dharma Contemplation: Initial Planning
First Dharma Contemplation Series: Fall 2012
Dharma Contemplation for Interfaith Dialogue

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