The Sound of the Bell

Sound of the Bell

The Surangama Practice Instructions (1)

In the Sherlock Holmes story about the stolen racehorse Silver Blaze, Inspector Gregory asks Holmes:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night- time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Wildfires are raging throughout California today; there is no place smoke-free in the entire state. I took an early morning walk before changes in the wind worsened the air quality, but the rising sun was already obscured, and the atmosphere was turbid. It was difficult to breathe: invisible ash particles suspended in the air were small enough to be unseen by my eyes, but their effects were observed by my lungs. The ash was invisible while in motion, but every settled thing - parked cars, stolid buildings, each blade of grass - lay cloaked in a thin gray coat, helping me become more aware of what I was not seeing.

As I walked my vision was limited to looking ahead while my peripheral perception glimpsed some asides but I was blind to everything behind, above, and below. So I stretched my seeing: overhead, satellites and stars: underneath the buildings lay foundations; underneath the pavement sat sewer pipes and gas lines, conveying effluents and energy; underneath the grass and trees, roots and mycorhizzal fungi; further down, granite-quartz-shale and the Great Earth. Somewhere below me, friends in Australia were getting ready to go to bed. I didn’t know whether any of them was night-dreaming of what I was day-dreaming, but their not-thinking touched, matched, and supported mine.

The objects of our awareness and the fine ash of sense perceptions distract us. Buddha asks Ānanda: “How can these consciousnesses, which will ultimately perish, be the basis for practice as one strives for the Thus Come One’s everlasting realization?”

It’s important for us to find the unconditioned basis of our practice. When wisdom depends on knowledge and ignorance, intuition cannot not guide us through the mysterious unknown. When seeing depends on light and dark, insight cannot illuminate us. When hearing depends on sound and silence, your heart and my heart cannot communicate with true intimacy.

Buddha tells Ānanda the six sense-faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind) are twists to our pure awareness: perceiver and perceived are twining vines. When we add conditioned “understanding” to true enlightened understanding, we don’t notice how the six faculties entangle us in illusion: they bind us, they tighten us in knots. If we cannot see the knot, we won’t discover how to untie it.

So Buddha encourages Ānanda: choose just one of your faculties, and let go of all its conditioned attributes. Practicing this way will liberate all six faculties. He gives Ānanda a key to this practice:

Extricate one faculty by detaching it from its objects, and redirect that faculty inward so that it can return to what is original and true. Then it will radiate the light of the original understanding. This brilliant light will shine forth and extricate the other five faculties until they are completely free.

Ānanda objects: if the six faculties are such unreliable guides, how can they lead us to enlightenment? Seeing and hearing, tasting and touching and smelling, arise and fall: they come into being and cease to exist. Doesn’t this also hold true for the sixth faculty, the mind-consciousness?

The mind-consciousness must cease to exist when it is apart from its own objects [of awareness]. How then can these consciousnesses, which will ultimately perish, be the basis for practice? ….No matter how much I look here and look there, going about in circles in an exhaustive search, I can find nothing that fundamentally is my mind or my mind’s objects. On what then can I base my quest for supreme enlightenment? …. It seems to be mere speculation!

I’ll paraphrase Buddha’s reply. He seems to almost sigh before saying: “You just don’t get it. I know you’re sincere, but you can’t trust my teaching. So I guess I’m going to have to make use of an everyday situation to get it across to you.” Then Shakyamuni offers the assembly a pivot point for practice.

Buddha instructs Rāhula to strike the bell once. Rāhula does so, the bell resounds, and Buddha asks everyone in the assembly: “Do you hear?” Ānanda and everyone else responds: “We hear.”

Buddha waits until the sound of the bell had died away, and asks: “Now do you hear?” Ānanda and everyone responds: “We do not.”

Buddha does this three times, asking the same same questions each time. Each time he receives the same responses.

After the third time Buddha asks: “Why have you given such muddled answers?”

The listeners protest: “what do you mean, muddled? When the bell was ringing, we heard it. When the bell wasn’t ringing, we didn’t hear it.” To which Buddha replies:

you did not clearly distinguish between hearing and sound. You thought you heard the bell when it was ringing and didn’t hear it when it wasn’t. In that case, how could you know the sound had ceased? You had to be able to hear the sound’s absence.

Your true, unconditioned hearing-awareness includes both sound and silence; it is more fundamental than sound and silence.

At this moment, as you read this - do you hear these words? As you read this, are you listening to your voice, or mine? When you say to someone “I hear you…” - are you referring to the squawks and buzzes made by their vocal cords, lips, and tongue shaping air into insubstantial words? Or is your heart responding to theirs?

Throughout our day we rely on hearing what is unsounded. We habitually glance both ways before crossing the street, but other people, tall trucks and flashing billboards block our vision; we continue only so long as we hear the absence of brakes and no crescendo of a revving engine’s approach. When we interact with other people, our emotions are often reactions to what they don’t say: if someone bumps into us without an apologetic “excuse me” we may bristle at perceived rudeness. If we tell someone we love them and they don’t reply, our hearts sink.

On the other hand, when we listen closely to someone we care about, what they leave unsaid often speaks eloquently of their fears and hopes. In music, the spaces between the notes lets the music breathe; in breathing, the silent pivot point between inhalation and exhalation offers a fermata to the importunities of thought.

Our most fundamental sounds often go unheard. When the composer John Cage sought silence in an anechoic chamber, shielded from any outside sonic vibrations, he was surprised to hear an ongoing faint high pitch along with a continuous low throb. Supposed silence revealed the keening of his nervous system accompanied by the drum of his heartbeat. (In response, he composed one of the most influential music pieces of the 20th century, 4’33.” In it a pianist comes onto the stage, opens the piano lid, takes out a stopwatch, times four and a half minutes, closes the lid, bows, and exits).

Every thing is always sounding itself. Every bridge has its resonant frequency; in 1940 the wind blowing across the Tacoma Narrows bridge whistled its tune. The bridge, attempting to oscillate to its own wave form, shook itself to pieces. Every place is always sounding itself. I was in the music library of my college when I put on headphones and listened to a piece by the 20th century composer, Alvin Lucier. It began with his voice saying: “I am sitting in a room, different from the room you are in now.” Lucier described how he would replay the recording of his voice over the speakers in his room and re-record it over and over. Doing this reinforced the ambient frequencies of the room in which he was recording. By the third or fourth repetition, buzzes squeaks and rumblings began to emerge. After more iterations, all semblance to his original voice was destroyed. Lucier brought the sound of his place, the sound of the room itself, to the sound of me in my place,

What you replay yourself to yourself, what kind of sounds do you make? Too often we don’t really listen to ourselves. Too often we don’t listen to what we’re not-hearing.

The unheard sounds of our surroundings enfold us. The cascades of our unheard thoughts propel us. Mindfulness practice can help us be more attentive to our thoughts, but until we become aware of their tonal colors, their tempos and rhythms, we remain deaf to their music. Does the rush of your inner dialog sound like white water or like white noise? Does your internal dialog speak kindly to you, or does it command you with an edge to it? Do you listen to the still small voice within which whispers wisdom, or override it with willfulness? If you want to be intimate with the compassion which is your inquiring mind’s fundamental constitution, you need to hear how your grievances chant threnodies, your desires croon love songs and you fall into step with the military marches of anger.

When we hear these more clearly, we’re less likely to get stuck by what we’ve set our sights on. When we learn how to turn toward rather than away from what we usually avoid, we can catch glimpses of the selves we’d rather leave unseen. We begin to allow our thoughts and feelings to express themselves without becoming engulfed by them: like a waterfall, their roar warns us of their power but also reminds us they are flows, not facts. Without any hindrance, no fears exist, and we navigate to shelter on another shore.

The starting point of this sutra - also its ending point and its heart - is liberation. Shakyamuni urges us: turn the six consciousnesses back onto themselves. Return to the root: turning the mind-body-sense consciousnesses back on themselves settles the self on itSelf, freeing us from the outflows of desire and ignorance.

Freeing yourself from outflows doesn’t mean to isolate yourself from the world by retreating into yourself. It simply means: don’t get caught by the objects of perception. In reality, there are no ins and outs to practice. Practice is round. It may look like we need to go from a world inside to a world outside, there and back again. This is the illusion of a journey from delusion to enlightenment. It may look like water travels down mountain streams until it returns to source in the sea. In reality the sun draws water vapor up to the sky from oceans, rivers, lakes and puddles; it does so without favoring one or the other. Raindrops return the dust motes around which they coalesce back to the land wherever the wind takes them - no picking or choosing.

Delusion and realization, practice and enlightenment, are just this. All we need do, in our encounters with every seeming object, is to treat it as our very self, and our very self as it. When we remind ourselves, with everything we encounter, to aim in the direction of the dharma, the churning of outflows becomes the turning of the wheel.

When hearing, go to the enlightened basis of hearing. It’s easy to leap clear of the many and the one: listen to a violin piano sonata. Free from turbid mental and emotional processes, each instrument sounds itself merging with the other. Your Dharma-eye is clear and bright. As Buddha says, “How then could you fail to go on to realize a supreme understanding and awakening?”

We are not separate from the musics of the mind. In the sound of the bell, each and all of us resonate with Buddha’s voice, expressing our wondrous enlightened nature simply and sufficiently:

When objects are not perceived as separate from awareness, that itself is nirvana…why would you allow anything else to be added to it?”



Meditation: Go to the Enlightened Basis of Hearing

As in any meditation practice, focus less on what you do, more on how you approach it. Do not try to accomplish anything. Explore..

Settle yourself in meditation. Ease your grip on all involvements. Let the myriad things rest.

Meditation I

  • Be aware of the sounds and silences in the space around you.
  • Hear them without commenting on them or identifying them. The conditioned mind grasps at “what” is making the sound. Let go of what the sound might be. Hear it as just a sound.
  • Whenever a thought, feeling, impulse or sensation (other than sound) arises, notice it, gently let go, and return to sound-and-silence. Let your whole being open to sound.
  • We tend to hear in “stereo,” left-front-right. Extend the sound-space to a full sphere: include above, below, behind and all around you.
  • Within this expansive space, some sounds will come and go in the foreground: notice how they arise and fall, go louder and softer, appear suddenly and gradually.
  • Within this expansive space, some sounds will seem continuous in the background: perhaps the hum of an appliance, the white noise of traffic, the subtle susurrations of your breath. Notice how these sounds persist while your awareness of them comes and goes.
  • Explore when the mind goes “out” to one sound, then to another. Explore when the mind holds several sounds at once.
  • Don’t listen just with your ears. Sounds do not reside just in your head: every space in body-mind is a container, an echo chamber. Allow sound-and-silence to be in belly and breast, muscle and tendon, skin and flesh.
  • Notice how any tension of the body changes the sound of a thought, feeling or sensation as it moves through skin flesh bones. Notice how any constriction of the mind crimps the tone color.
  • Let the mind rest between the sounds. Let the sounds rest within the mind.

Meditation II

When the mind has quieted sufficiently, “turn” your hearing inward.

  • Stop the outflows: listen to yourself.
  • Let your whole being act as a sounding board. Vibrations come and go. Vibrations in our hearing range are called “sound;” subsonic and supersonic vibrations are energy waves
  • Let every experience - physical sensations such as pain or comfort, thoughts and judgments, urges and wishes - come via the mind’s gate of hearing. Let yourself “hear” sights, smells, tastes, touches, thoughts. Perceive every experience as a kind of vibration, a subtle wave.
  • Listen without adding or subtracting anything.

Meditation III

When ready, let yourself go deeper into hearing itself - go to the enlightened basis of hearing.

  • Let go of observing. Let go of exploring.
  • Don’t try to “listen” to hearing; merge with non-discriminating hearing.
  • Dwell as hearing.
  • Reflect, resound, and resonate without being moved or disturbed by the rising and falling of the waves.
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