I first learned mindfulness meditation in 1985 by listening to an audio course by Jack Kornfield. At the time, hearing the dharma was a rare opportunity for me. Now, all it takes is a click of my mouse, and in seconds I can freely listen to the full range of teachings—literally at my fingertips.
Insight Meditation Center (IMC) in Redwood City, where I practice, records dharma talks by founding teacher Gil Fronsdal and guest teachers and makes them available for free download on our website, www.audiodharma.org. This project began modestly when one of our sangha members recorded talks for students who had missed them. Within a decade, audiodharma.org has mushroomed into one of the leading and largest audio dharma sites in the world. Every aspect of the process of recording and then putting our talks online is done quietly by many volunteers who are committed to keeping audio dharma freely available. “Cybersangha” members from all over the globe have also donated money, time and talents for audio dharma projects. A member from Connecticut is currently converting hundreds of talks given in the ’90s from tape to digital format so they can be put online.
I am fortunate to be part of the vibrant and flourishing IMC sangha, where I meditate weekly with about 100 people. Our cybersangha, on the other hand, has many thousands of members worldwide, and audiodharma.org is just one of several burgeoning sites (see “A Selection of Audio Dharma Websites“). There are approximately 13,500 visits a month, and thousands of people in over sixty countries—as far away as Laos, Iceland and the Czech Republic—download or play the more than 800 talks currently online. Thanks to the webmaster of www.zencast.org, a volunteer from our cybersangha, IMC talks are now also available freely via podcast. Our webmaster reports that 3,000–5,000 talks are downloaded each week.
Through audiodharma.org, talks have become available in areas with no sitting groups or teachers. Those new to practice have learned to meditate with our online course. Some sitting and study groups listen and discuss audio talks to enhance their practice time together. Here’s a typical e-mail from a member of our cybersangha: “My wife and I sit on our own; we have no local teacher. Through the Internet, we consider ourselves a part of your sangha.”
In the San Francisco Bay Area, where people spend many hours in their cars, many take advantage of their time behind the wheel to enrich their practice through audio dharma. Some cybersangha members download talks to take on vacation, when they finally have more time to listen. Others, homebound due to illness or injury, or in the midst of grief or loss, listen to talks to aid the healing process. Parents, sometimes unable to attend IMC talks because of busy schedules, listen with headphones while babies sleep. One sangha member writes: “Thank you for keeping me warm company on my one-hour daily bicycle commutes—now in the dark and the rain!”
Practitioners, including my husband and me, listen to a dharma talk each evening while on self-retreat, as we would on a residential one. We can select talks on topics that are directly relevant to our unfolding experience, such as skillful effort or developing qualities like lovingkindness and compassion. Some sangha members listen to talks while washing dishes, cleaning house or exercising.
It seemed to me that the dharma is so special that instead of multitasking we should give it our full attention. Then I recalled the Zen story in which two monks discuss with their master the age-old question of activity versus meditation. The first monk asks: “Honorable master, can I smoke when I meditate?” The master is furious and throws him out. The second monk goes to the master and asks: “Venerable master, can I meditate while I smoke?” The master says, “Of course you can meditate while you smoke.”
Initially, the dharma was communicated orally. Now, once again, we can listen to recorded talks as if listening to a live teacher; we can even close our eyes (if we’re not driving). We can also broaden our perspective by hearing teachers from different traditions and styles of practice without having to travel. Our experience is enhanced by the additional nuances and intimacy of the spoken voice.
Yet this instant access to audio dharma raises some core issues. Is listening to the dharma while we’re doing other things something that helps us wake up? Are we habitually filling the mind with thoughts and ideas instead of being present in our lives? Are we sometimes listening because of the need to do something useful all the time? I don’t think there is a correct answer, but in our fast-paced society, it’s important to continue reflecting on how we use these tools of modern technology.
Now that this technology has become so widespread, and increasingly more and more talks are available online, there could be some problems as well. With such a vast selection, it may be confusing to choose what to listen to. There are not only talks on the full range of subjects like fear, love, death and reincarnation, but also on dharma music, chanting, scriptures, Zen koans and much more. As the number of talks online keeps multiplying, they may well accumulate like the unread books on my nightstand, leaving a sense of yet more unfinished business. Without the commitment that comes from sitting with a group, will people listen to part of a talk and then leave it unfinished when something else comes up? Also, with instant access to dharma teachings online—not to mention tapes, magazines and books—seekers may no longer make an effort to find a teacher or a sangha.
Because sangha is so important on this path, it’s my hope that those impacted by audio dharma will seek others with similar interests to create a local sangha. Personally, the interactions with my teachers and the sangha have been as powerful a factor for growth as my meditation practice. Seeing a teacher respond to challenging situations with kindness and equanimity where I would have reacted with anger or resentment has inspired the confidence and a desire to develop those qualities within myself. Practicing with sangha friends who are committed to working skillfully with the inevitable conflicts is an incredible gift, a recurring reminder to focus on kindness, honesty and letting go. It’s also wonderful to sit in silence with friends and to share the gradual opening of our hearts.
In the end, mindfulness remains the key issue in considering the impact of audio dharma in one’s life. With mindfulness, we’re present no matter where, how or when we listen to the dharma. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, “When you eat, just eat. When you read the newspaper, just read the newspaper.” One day a student saw him reading the newspaper while he was eating and asked if this did not contradict his teaching. “When you eat and read the newspaper, just eat and read the newspaper,” was Seung Sahn’s reply. So if you are listening to the dharma while jogging, just jog and listen to the dharma.