When I was young, conversations with monks were almost always a most valuable and inspiring experience. I learned and discussed dharma, and was inspired to practice teachings even from casual conversations, or just spending time in their company. And the monks seemed to feel the happiness of their work and dharma teachings being appreciated and fulfilling the purpose of promoting the Dharma. We felt the happiness of kalyana mitta, friendship with the wise. We both felt energized, happy and peaceful in each other’s company.Today, however, monks find that conversations with laypersons are often only superficial. Also, laypersons find that conversations with some monks are only superficial. It is a disappointment when the conversation is not meaningful or helpful, when it only includes mundane subjects such as where we have traveled, people we know, achievements, what we acquired recently, and what so-and-so is doing lately. Such discussions waste time, especially considering that the Sangha and laypersons have limited time to spend with each other, as we are busy with job and family obligations, and monks are often busy with temple responsibilities and programs, and need time to meditate, study and rest. People then lose interest in visiting temples. Also, engaging in meaningless conversations takes the monk’s time away from discussing dharma and providing advice to others.
The Buddha cautioned us not only to avoid falsehood, slander, or harsh speech, but also to avoid frivolous talk – gossip, and speech which is useless, immoderate, or not beneficial (Majjhima Nikaya 41. 9). Some examples the Buddha gave of talk which is low, ignoble, and unbeneficial are talk of politics, criminals, war, dangers, food, clothing, relatives, vehicles, cities, countries, heroes, the dead, and trivialities (Majjhima Nikaya 122.12). He instructed monks to either hold discussion on Dharma or maintain noble silence (Majjhima Nikaya 26.4). He also emphasized that we should be diligent (appamaada) in our practice. Therefore it is important for both laypersons and monks each to try to make their time with each other constructive and dharmic.
The problem, however, is that there is often misunderstanding between the monk and the layperson. The monk listens with patience and compassion as the layperson rambles on, assuming that the layperson just wants someone to listen compassionately. A layperson may simply speak what is in his mind, assuming the monk will guide him with some dharmic advice. Or the monk may talk about mundane subjects to the layperson, assuming that the layperson just wants light friendly conversation. Some monks and laypeople refer to their scholarly achievements, status or public recognition to persuade the other of their worthiness, which may suggest egoism. The monk may serve food to the layperson, but the layperson may not really want to eat. Many monks have become accustomed to laypersons merely wanting to make offerings to earn merit, to socialize and to make a good appearance in the community by visiting monks. Both the monk and layperson want to be polite and please the other, so neither one guides the conversation to a dharmic subject. Then both walk away having gained nothing.
To avoid this, there are some steps that can be taken by both laypersons and monks. First, the environment should be conducive to a constructive conversation. The layperson can make an appointment to see the monk or visit at a time when the monk has indicated he is free to talk, that is, speaking at the appropriate time. The layperson may tell the monk of the purpose of his visit in advance, so that the monk can be best prepared to discuss a particular topic and he does not have to take time to assess why the person has come to visit after he has arrived.
It is appropriate for the monk and layperson to open the conversation with friendly talk, but it should be limited. When the Buddha received visitors, there was first an exchange of greetings, courteous and amicable talk. If the person had traveled far, the Buddha would inquire whether they were hungry and whether they had any problems on their journey. If they were hungry he made sure that they were fed, and had opportunity to refresh themselves and settle down. He would inquire as to their health and happiness, and ask where they were from. Then he inquired how he could help them, what the purpose of their visit was. Once, an old man came to the Buddha after having lost his cattle. The Buddha was eating lunch, and saw the man coming so he kept some food in his bowl. When the man arrived, he asked the Buddha whether he had seen the cattle. Instead of answering the question, the Buddha first asked him whether he was hungry, and when the man said that he had not eaten, the Buddha gave some of his food to the man. Then he asked him what his concern was. The man said that he had lost his cattle, and asked the Buddha whether he had seen them. The Buddha replied, “instead of searching for your lost cattle, search inside of you.” The man heard this Dharma and became an Arahat. Today many monks who have extra food at the temple keep the tradition of offering food to guests, which also ensures that food which had been offered to the monks is not wasted.
Sometimes the layperson may have difficulty talking about a problem, so he goes on talking about mundane subjects, but really wants spiritual advice. If the monk feels this may be the case, then the monk may listen patiently for the person to reveal his problem, or may make some inquiries, and then he should introduce a dharmic subject.
In some cases the monk may try to guide the conversation to a dharmic topic, but the layperson returns to meaningless talk. Then the monk can casually guide the person in an informal mindfulness meditation or remain silent. If the monk is aware that a layperson does not wish to hear dharma or is not making an effort to be mindful, then the monk may politely say he must attend to something else or get up and slowly move toward to door to indicate that the visit is over. Or, the monk may very politely ask, “Do you have a need to talk to me today? I have something else to do, perhaps you can return at another time.” This sends a message to the layperson as to the appropriate purpose of the Sangha, prevents the monks from falling into habits of frivolous talk, and protects the reputation of the Sangha.
If the layperson wishes to discuss a problem but the monk does not seem to respond to it, the layperson should consider that it may not be a suitable environment or time to ask a dharma question; for example, others may be listening or the monk may feel that the layperson is too agitated and needs to relax first. The monk signals this by not responding to his question.
However, if the layperson finds that after waiting for a suitable time and environment the monk does not discuss a dharmic subject, then the layperson should let the monk know that he does not want to continue a mundane conversation. He can bring up a dharmic subject, or gently state that he is not interested in the subject of conversation. If the monk still does not respond, he can request permission to depart. He is not being disrespectful; he is protecting the Sangha.
When both the laypeople and the Sangha work to encourage dharmic conversations, they help not only themselves, but promote Dharma and protect the Sangha, which in turn helps countless other people.
By Asoka Ganhewa