During the pandemic, we have all been looking to balance out the possible benefits of changing our way of being. One benefit seems to be that in lockdowns, public transport and out walking, we are once again turning to the pleasures of listening. Historically, this isn’t unusual. In the arc of human existence, we have spent far more time listening to texts than reading them, and certainly far less time with visual material as well. Join us for this evening talk that looks at listening, and suggests we can appreciate the relevance of early Buddhist texts far better if we understand that they were intended to be ‘heard’. After looking briefly at heard literatures, like ballads, epics and poems authored before writing, we will look at three of the earliest Buddhist texts, from the Pali canon. The styles of heard literatures inform these texts: repetition, redundancy, and, most importantly, a sense of heroism and lineage. These make them work, so that content is embedded in style. As with sūtras from other Buddhist traditions, the texts are clearly constructed to be guided meditations: the techniques of oral literature are used to help us to go on a journey with each one. Long Pali suttas involve at different times visualisation, ‘placing’ yourself where you are, in the directions, becoming aware of the body, and going on journeys. They were intended to be communal. We will try and see how these work, and how they can help us see Buddhist texts from many traditions in a new light.
Dr. Sarah Shaw is a faculty member and lecturer at the University of Oxford. She has taught and published numerous works on the history and practices of Buddhism, including Mindfulness, An Introduction to Buddhist Meditation, and The Spirit of Meditation. Her latest book, The Art of Listening is being published by Shambhala Publications on June 15, 2021. The Art of Listening provides an introduction to the Long Discourses of the Buddha and demonstrates the historical, cultural, and spiritual insights that emerge when we view the Buddhist suttas as oral literature.