Some Thoughts on How to Prepare and Deliver a Zen Dharma Talk

Some Thoughts on How to Prepare and Deliver a Zen Dharma Talk November 14, 2017





“So the hymn comes to a close with an unsteady amen, and the organist gestures the choir to sit down. Fresh from breakfast with his wife and children and a quick run through of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in hand. He hikes his black robe at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up. His mouth is a little dry. He has cut himself shaving. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else.

“In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six-year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home from vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice- president of a bank who twice this week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her. A high-school math teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part, even from himself, creases his order of service with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee

“The preacher pulls a little chord that turns the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening including even himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence he will tell them?”

Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth.


A few years ago I posted a lovely little article on delivering a dharma talk by Sensei Peter Shireson. I didn’t agree with every point. Which, I think is important all by itself. Get a little experience and have your own view on the matter. But, a word to the wise. Get that experience before holding a view. And then be prepared to change it. Life is filled with lessons for those willing to listen.

Another first rate introduction to sacred speaking is by the Unitarian Universalist minister Dr Victoria Weinstein. I strongly recommend anyone who gives dharma talks read her essay. Maybe twice. Okay, three times. It is that to the point.

And here are some of my own thoughts.

First and foremost: You must know what you are talking about. If you’re speaking of Zen, speak from a life of practice. This is the most important thing. Have a real discipline and live into it and let it touch you and shape you. Have teachers. Learn to bow. And read. Our history and the teachings we’ve received from the ancestors are enormously powerful. Read some more. Also know what’s going on in the world. If what you have to say isn’t relevant to our time and place, well, frankly, it isn’t of any use. In summary: Speak from these things. Your practice. Knowing our tradition. Being aware of the world and the people to whom you are speaking.

Only speak to political issues when you must. And, most of the time when you think you must, you probably don’t. You are here to serve not to vent. Every word should be crafted to help.

And some practical points.

Length. One of the major rookie mistakes is trying to say everything. Be as brief as you can. When I was doing my parish internship at the First Unitarian Church of San Jose, I sometimes would take breaks by going and sitting in the pews of a nearby Episcopal Church. One time the room was empty and as a seminarian I was interested in the pulpit, so I walked up and stood in it. There was a three by five card pasted to the lectern resting on the pulpit. It read “No soul was ever saved after fifteen minutes…” Words to the wise. The day of the three hour sermon is long gone.

Have a touchstone. Christians use a text derived from the scriptures. This is a good device for anyone, to keep your talk focused. Use a koan. Or a poem. Or an anecdote. Anything that speaks the truth and helps point the way. You might even begin the talk by reading it to the congregation.

Keep the talk simple. All you need are an introduction, a middle, and a conclusion. More complicated talks can work. But mostly they don’t.

The introduction: Have a clear point. Can it be reduced to a single sentence? Not everything worth saying can. But most talks that are half an hour or less long should be able to be that focused.

The middle: Develop your point. Cite others who’ve reflected on the subject. But, don’t go on too long with quotes.

Conclusion: Recap the big point. Invite people to their own experience.

Humor is good. Don’t over use it. Illustrate as much as you can. As novelists will tell you, show, don’t tell. Use yourself as an example. But, if you do don’t bleed over the listeners. This isn’t about you.

Feeling nervous is natural. You have a considerable responsibility. In my first year of parish ministry I was at a clergy meeting where I asked a venerable, the recently retired senior minister of a thousand member church, a very large congregation in Unitarian Universalist circles, about the butterflies and the feeling that I was going to throw up. I asked when this nervousness ahead of preaching would pass. She replied, “James, as soon as I know, I’ll tell you.” However, I also learned while it doesn’t go away, the nervousness does become less powerful over time.


As to the question, write it out or extemporize? We live in a time that romances the extemporaneous. People think that first thought is best thought. I find this is rarely true. In fact my counter response is that the holy spirit(1) usually rests on the third draft. Unless it’s the fourth.

Spend some serious time preparing the talk. Read. Reflect. Write. Think. Maybe do some zazen. Sleep on it. Then go back to writing. Me, I like to spend a couple of days preparing, whenever possible. I find re-writing at the very least as important as the writing. Rewriting is where the holy spirit is mostly likely to arise.

If you don’t want to read a manuscript, use notes. Me, in my professional life for the sermon I almost always used a written manuscript, while being extemporaneous for nearly every other part of the service. At the same time don’t feel chained to the manuscript or notes. Be familiar enough with what you have to say to be able to step away from the page.

As you gain experience you will find if you’re speaking on a specific point that you are deeply familiar with you can simply have a clear opening and a clear conclusion prepared, and then speak out of the moment. However, doing this well, doing it in a way that is genuinely helpful is harder than it appears.

Most speakers who have deeply touched you who are preaching without a manuscript are not likely to be winging it. They know what they want to say and have reflected on it, and probably have written it down, or at least the points, even if they’re not reading them.

While I mostly used a manuscript, I read it aloud at least four times before I delivered it. The manuscript I read was printed out in large type (typically Times New Roman 24point, single spaced, and on a single side of each page. This allowed me to avoid the appearance of reading the manuscript. When using notes, the same rules apply. If your memory is especially good, mine never has been, feel free step out on to the high wire. But, know exactly what you plan on saying. Everything.

Like most things in life you get better at doing something by doing it. If you can get yourself videotaped, watch the videos.

Enjoy yourself. If you aren’t having a good experience, why should your listeners? Take the material seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

And be gentle with yourself. Some talks will be good. Others will not. And, interestingly, you’re not the judge of these things. Experience will mean that over time you will give more talks that are helpful than are not.

May all beings be at ease…

(Thank you to the immortal Alan Bennett for the sermon “Take a Pew” and to Alex Pearl for delivering his interpretation…)

(1) Holy spirit is a Christian term. It refers to the third person of the Trinity, their normative understanding of how God manifests. It is also meant and is used here as the great source of inspiration. Don’t get tangled in literalisms. Makes you seem a jerk.


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