Like a Sound Absorbing Board – Methods of Practice Using the Ears. Chan Magazine, 2004 Spring.
The Surangama Sutra introduces the practice of the “complete penetrative Dharma gate based on the faculty of hearing.” It is through this method that Guan Yin, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, attained the realization of the Buddhas’ wisdom and the essence of wondrous awakening. How do we use this method in our own practice? “Complete penetration based on the faculty of hearing” is a very profound and lofty method of cultivation. Before we can practice at a deep level, we must prepare ourselves with more basic training using the ears. These basic trainings based on sounds and hearing will enable us to bring our minds to a state of tranquility and stability.
Basic Training Using the Ears
First, what kind of sound should we use? Let’s take the sound of birds. When we wake up in the morning we can go to a park or a wooded area, breathing the fresh air and listening to all sorts of birds singing and chirping. It is easy to become joyful and peaceful doing this. If you live in the city and do not have the opportunity to listen to birds in a natural setting, you can use an audio CD or cassette instead.
However, the sounds of birds are choppy; they rise and fall very frequently. While such a sound can bring a feeling of peace, openness, and clarity, it is difficult to enter into samadhi with it.
Well, let’s listen to the sound of rain! Choose not the rain in a great storm, or a sudden torrential downpour from the clouds. Rather, listen to the light rain that falls steadily, together with the mild wind that blows it into fine strands of dancing strings, giving an impression that they are falling on bananas leaves, on the trees in the forest, peaceful and steady. Listening to rain whose rhythm is regular, continuous, and unified makes it easier to calm ourselves compared to listening to the sounds of birds. However, if the rain is driven by strong wind and comes to us irregularly, sometimes strong, sometimes mild, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes heavy, sometimes mild, a beginner can easily follow the fast changing quality and become agitated instead.
Let’s try using the flow of water then. Find a river nearby, not a large river, but a small stream. Sit at the bank or on a bridge spanning the stream. Close your eyes and let your ears take over. Listen to the flow of the stream, water splashing and dancing, stable and steady, with a seemingly eternal rhythm and melody. Listening to it for one day, you may feel that the sound stays the same for that whole day; listening to it overnight, the sound may appear to be unchanging for the whole night. The water flows on, continuous and steady. Immerse yourself in the sound and lose yourself in it, forgetting the environment, to the point that the sound itself is dropped. Then the mind will slowly merge with the sound of the water, enter into a state of unification, calm and quiescent both inwardly and outwardly. It is possible to enter into samadhi this way.
Master Han Shan of the late Ming Dynasty described such an experience in his autobiography. He was listening to the sound of water on a bridge. Immersing himself in the sound, he lost track of time, forgetting all about the environment, dropping his body, mind, the world, and all phenomena. When he came out from samadhi, many hours had gone by. He thought to himself, “That was strange, I thought I had just sat down. Why has such a long time elapsed?”
Let’s learn from Master Han Shan and listen to the flow of water as a practice. But you must take heed. When you are highly concentrated in the practice, you may end up falling into the water. If you enter samadhi outdoor and the weather changes, if rain falls suddenly, driven by wind, it could be dangerous if there is nobody around to look after you – unless you are sitting in a house by the river.
These are the simple methods of sounds that one can use to bring one’s mind into a state of peace and tranquility. Each of us can experiment with them, explore them, and come up with a variation that is most suitable for ourselves, based on our own experiences.
These methods of training using the ears are static, in the sense that one chooses a conducive environment of practice according to one’s liking. However, in our daily lives, when we find ourselves in an environment full of din and clamor, of which we have no choice, how do we use sounds as a method of practice to calm our minds?
Make Our Ears a Sound-Absorbing Board
When you find yourself agitated, vexed, feeling the sorrow or the pain of affliction, here’s a method you can use. Regardless of your posture, whether you are lying down, standing or sitting, simply use your ears to “enjoy” the sounds. Our living environment is a soundscape with an infinitely rich spectrum. Simply listen with no intention whatsoever, without straining to listen to anything in particular. To “enjoy” the sounds, simply let them come of their own accord. Whatever sounds reach your ears you simply accept them completely. Do not actively seek for any sound, rather, listen passively, like a sound absorbing board – whatever comes into contact with it dissolves right away. It doesn’t keep anything or store anything, with no reflection or reaction, for if it reflects the sounds, it will be a reflector, not an absorber.
Let’s train ourselves so that our ears become like a sound absorbing board. Simply listen, listen, and listen… If the sound is loud, do not give rise to any resistance; if the sound is weak, do not strain yourself to listen to it. All you’re doing is just listening, accepting everything without any discrimination. Most importantly, do not give the sounds a name. You may hear a girl screaming, a boy cursing, a dog barking around the corner, or a cat meowing on the roof. It could also be that the sounds of birds, chicken, cows, or even sounds of cars, horns honking, televisions, radios, motorcycles, air-conditioners, all present themselves to you at once. Even then, you listen without naming them, without making any discrimination or distinction of the spectrum. Merely play your role as a sound absorbing board, without seeking or following anything, without echoing anything that rings in your ears.
A sound absorbing board is quiet and soundless itself. When sounds touch it, they will naturally be dissolved and cease to exist. How? Well, they dissolve because the listener does not give rise to a second thought, or a reaction, thinking, “What sound is that? How should I respond to it?” If people curse you, you do not react, because you are merely a sound absorbing board; if people praise you with sweet words, you also do not react to it because again you are merely a sound absorbing board!
Just stay very clear of what you hear; merely “know” that they are sweet words of praise, or profane curse words, or lies of deception. Merely be aware of what the sound is without giving rise to any reaction. That way, you will be a practitioner who practices well by truly putting the method into good use.
In addition, practice so that the din and clamor of the surrounding environment, the sounds that are full of “toxins” and unhealthy elements, can no longer taint you, stimulate you, arouse you, or tempt you. That way, at all times, you will be a person who is very free and at ease. That is why I call it an enjoyment.
People all desire to immerse themselves in pleasing and beautiful sounds – sounds that are enjoyable to them. By listening, they derive a sense of pleasure and joy. But with this method of training, the essence is to simply use your ears to listen attentively, without giving rise to any emotional reaction – pain and afflictions, sorrow and sadness, elation and excitement, not even a sense of joy. But to be sure, the state of no reaction is actually a very tranquil and quiescent kind of contentment and happiness.
So please remember this! If you can be a sound absorbing board, even amidst the din and clamor of the world, you will live very well, with no stress or pressure, free and at ease.
These are basic methods of training through the use of sounds. They will enable you to enter into shallow states of samadhi and to alleviate vexations in your lives. However, they will not open your mind to wisdom, or bring you the attainment of complete penetration.