Bhante S (and the Buddha too!) often talks about the importance of attention and recall, and perhaps this is what he is referring to here, where people are using talks as background music, tuning out rather than tuning in, or only half listening as they sit still in meditation but are actually drifting off or busy in the mind with their meditation subject, not actually listening to the talk.
If we want to make progress and actually learn, we can’t just expect that having the Dhamma on in the background, or allowing the words to wash over us will be useful - we need to attend to the words, do some internal processing and make meaning of it. I can’t think of any other “educational” environment where we would just listen to instructions in the background, but do no personal reading or practical exercises to actually make it our own knowledge. It’s like half listening to a talk about learning to drive a car but never getting behind the wheel, or expecting that when we do need to drive we will magically be able!
I have been surprised working with some groups of long term meditators who have heard hundreds of talks on Dhamma, but can’t recall the five hindrances, even when it was the topic of the talk the week before and countless times previously the same is often true when I ask people to recall the factors of the N8P or even the 4NT and even the 5 precepts. This is fairly basic stuff, very practical instructions for the path and topics constantly being taught in Dhamma talks, yet these topics can somehow remain “unknown” even after being heard so often! Maybe this is the type of thing that bhante is referring to?
Certainly, the way we learn today is very very different from all those years ago. We aren’t listener learners so much anymore unlike at the time of the Buddha, and this means we have difficulties recalling stuff, so perhaps the pedagogical model of delivering talks needs to be reconsidered? These days we are much more visual learners, so I frequently use images in my talks where possible (the suttas are full of potent visually smilies, and after showing slides of the Buddha’s simile of a bowl of water for the hindrances, I found people had much greater recall).
Another problem with talks and even books these days is we don’t need to remember stuff because the internet is our externalised brain and the information we seek is just a click away, so… no need to store it ourselves! But this is a false economy.
One other important thing is to question the outdated top down pedagogy of a teacher at the front of the room spouting knowledge whilst the audience sits there passively absorbing. This is bad pedagogy! We learn much better when we are actively engaged. Learning needs interaction, so rather than just talking all the time, both bhante S and I use discussion groups to help people talk stuff through amongst themselves in a less formal/public way, which helps clear up errors or gaps of knowledge and allows people to ask questions from each other and help others along with different levels of knowledge, because there are a range of experiences in every group.
We also ask people to lead aspects of the discussion and meditation (including young kids) so they can take ownership of their learning and be more involved, less dependant on the “teacher”. We also create interactive group activities for applying the new knowledge as quickly as possible to help with recall and just generally mix things up rather than only doing straight Dhamma talks. This is good for both teachers and students but requires a lot more thinking and effort, plus practical changes like altering the learning environment by setting up the room differently to allow for more varied types of activity, rather than just setting it up lecture theatre style as always.
Different learning styles also requires that the teacher resist the long habit of just talking, and also resist the audience’s expectation of just delivering another soon-to-be-forgotten talk as usual. It’s easier to do just that but less effective in the long run. The audience also needs to be prepared to take a few risks! Unfortunately a lot of people prefer to just sit there and don’t really want to engage or don’t want to feel like they are in an educational environment per se. Maybe they are really attached to just being the “audience”. This concept itself is interesting, they are not wanting to be part of the “show” but merely consumers of it; they aren’t involved, the Dhamma is something that happens to them… And some people don’t like group participation (it can be confronting, I get it). Or maybe it’s just been a long day and they just want to unwind and relax and tune out, drift off a bit… You see?
The suttas describe a world of active community engagement, lots of questions and lively discussions and challenging conversations. The Buddha used very practical similes that drew upon the experience of the participants, helping the meaning be understood and applied directly. Sure there are also more formal talks in the suttas, but people had to pay much more attention, memorise and absorb the Dhamma to be able to practice. Perhaps more recent Buddhist culture has over-emphasised talks, I guess that’s Bhante’s thinking with this post. It’s not about shaming people for not knowing stuff but being a bit galvanic and encouraging us to think about how we learn and practice the Dhamma. The responses show that some people are quite attached to listening to talks and uncomfortable having that questioned or challenged, but maybe that is a useful learning in itself! However, it’s also worth noting that all of the dynamism, interactive learning, chances for questions, discussion or an individual’s personal input are notably absent from listening to recordings of talks.