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Meditating on Sounds: Listening Your Way to Enlightenment

Part III
Am I Listening Correctly?

Sounds cannot be eliminated. No matter where you are or how quiet it is, there are sounds that cannot be eliminated. The “sound of silence” can therefore be acknowledged as an impossible-to-eliminate sound, the sensory object of quietude.
Knowing the different types of sounds, the question now posed is: how do you know if you are attached to any sound (or sound of silence)? 
Master Jiaoguang responds:
For those of you who listen inwardly and most earnestly, the nature of hearing for you is clear like the moon in the autumn sky. There is not a moment that it is blurry or darkened. Since there is no outflow directed toward even one sound, no sound is missed. 
Up in the Sky
You can try these two tests to see if you are grasping or attached to any sound in the slightest: One, the nature of hearing would be the first to become blurry and unclear all of a sudden. Second, an outflow [of warm energy and attention] towards only one sound would mean you miss all other sounds. 
Let me further clarify with an analogy. For instance, someone gets dizzy at the sight of water and cannot go over a body of water by himself. He needs another person to take him across by holding his hand. The companion tells the man to look up at the sky and not focus on the water for a minute. Were he to forget the advice and to look at water for a moment, he would immediately feel faint. 
Similarly, directing hearing towards your inherent nature is  like staring at the sky. Quitting your search for sound all around is like avoiding gazing at water. Along these lines, you would have no problems with being misdirected just as you would have no problem with being drowned. In this way, you know you cannot eliminate every possible sound, but you can listen inwardly and focus on that. So just as water cannot be eliminated around you, you can look up at the sky and focus on that.[i]

[i]      Jiaoguang 交光, Dafo Dingshou Lengyan Jing Zhengmai Shu 大佛頂首楞嚴經正脈疏, Xinzhuan Xuzang Jing 卍新纂續藏經 X12n275 (Taipei: CBETA, 2012).


Part II of Meditating on Sounds: Listening Your Way to Enlightenment

With What We Do Not Listen 
First of all, “the nature of hearing” is not in or with the physical ears. This nature of hearing is fundamentally the sea-like consciousness that stores all karmic interactions. It is the single entity with six functions, of which include the seeing of the eyes, the hearing of the ears, and the knowing of the mind. I am now referring to accessing the nature of hearing with the ears, which is to listen.
Secondly, the nature of hearing is not in or with the ear consciousness. The nature of hearing hears sounds and silence clearly, with not the slightest confusion it does not discriminate. Similar to the nature of seeing, it is like a mirror free from judgment or any inkling of a discursive thought. It is equivalent to space, constant and pervasive. Stream of consciousness restricts our inherent nature to one tiny space as each thought comes and goes momentarily, which is neither pervasive nor constant. This is the type of consciousness that conditions sound. To follow it without being aware indicates that you are still under the shadow of phenomena, discriminating based on conditions and surrounding objects[. . . .] In the kind of listening you are aiming for, not a thought comes into being and yet the Dharma Realm is perfectly illumined. It is the ground of still extinction for personal and collective enlightenment, the proper place for practice.
If these insights do not become clear to us immediately through the Sūtra text, we can experience it and get to know it by practicing meditation (quietly). Try to get up and meditate at dawn, when the air is fresh and clear. At the start of the day when everything is just beginning to stir, without letting one thought come into being, you will notice this hearing nature. This hearing nature is vast, encompassing, lucid, unobstructed by mountains or walls, and unclouded by obscurities or darkness. Tapping the nature of hearing, you will hear all sounds, be they loud or soft, near or far.
You will not miss even a breeze wafting through trees or footsteps that make stairs creak. If a giant bell were tolled several miles east of you, it would be absolutely clear to you. Similarly, were a drum ensemble sounded several miles west of you, the drumming would be crystal clear to you. From cries in a valley south of you to laughter on the streets north of you, from sounds of carriage wheels to horse hooves, all these would be apparent in the face of perfect hearing the way reflections appear on a spotless mirror.[i]

[i]               Jiaoguang, Dafo Dingshou Lengyan Jing Zhengmai Shu.


Meditating on Sounds: Listening Your Way to Enlightenment


According expert meditator and teacher Jiaoguang of China's Ming dynasty, meditators must get to know our illusions well before we may experience bursts of insight.

With regard to the types of sounds for those who practice hearing as a form of meditation, Jiaoguang elaborates:

There are sound categories of movement and stillness. Movement means sound and stillness means silence. Here, we first let cease the object of movement, which consists of two types. One, warped sounds that contain intended meaning, such as language, songs and the like. Two, direct sounds that are devoid of intended meaning, such as sounds made by wind, water, birds, beasts, bells, drums, and others.
There are two types of warped sounds: First, warped sounds about the mundane. Second, warped sounds about principles. Furthermore, there are two types of warped sounds about the mundane — the powerless and the powerful. The powerless ones refer to critiques of past or present literature and phenomena that have to do with other people and other times. Having nothing to do with us, [such sounds] may breed scattered thoughts only, but have no real power to increase our afflictions, hence [such sounds] are ‘powerless.’ ‘Powerful’ sounds refer to words about various states for which we desire, words about various kinds of injustices that make us angry, words that build our reputation or slander us behind our back, words of compliment or outright teasing — any words that cause benefit or harm to ourselves so that we suddenly become recklessly joyous or hateful, forgetting and losing our proper mindfulness — these are all warped secular sounds.
Warped sounds about principles have to do with words describing internal, external, deviant or proper principles. Even talks about Buddhist practices, as mystical and wondrous as they may be, lead people to develop certain understanding based on words. Such words trigger internal discussions and thought processes, but people may not realize what is occurring in them. Grasping at such conditions, [even if related to Buddhist practice,] also means that we pursue and float along with those sounds, which is a most severe obstruction to our fundamental hearing. This is why this Buddhist meditative tradition treats even the verbal teachings of Buddhas and patriarchs as enemies.[i]

Jiaoguang’s explanation here reveals to us that sounds cannot be eliminated. No matter where you are or how quiet it is, there are sounds, including “sound of silence”.

And yet sounds, representative of phenomena, are in fact illusory, temporary transformations from our effulgent and everlasting core of being.

[i]               Jiaoguang 交光, Dafo Dingshou Lengyan Jing Zhengmai Shu 大佛頂首楞嚴經正脈疏, Xinzhuan Xuzang Jing 卍新纂續藏經 X12n275 (Taipei: CBETA, 2012).