When listening to the sounds of nature I can hear a variety of noises in my neighborhood, produced by both creatures and natural forces. There are numerous species of birds, all singing their own particular songs. Insects make surprisingly loud noises, especially the cicadas in the tropical evening. Then there’s the sound of the wind rustling the foliage in the garden next door, which is a kind of unkempt mini-wood. Our neighbors’ dogs often bark either at passers-by or at each other. Sometimes I wonder if they’re howling at the ghosts that so many Thais believe in without question. (And such ghosts might exist – I’ve seen a few scary-looking individuals lurking the streets around here!)
All of these sounds are impermanent, however. Birdsong, for instance, occurs at specific times of day; it doesn’t go on all the time. Some species sing at the crack of dawn, while others sing at dusk – some are squawking now early in the afternoon. The fact that birdsong doesn’t last twenty-four hours a day is a sign that it is impermanent (anicca). Sounds such as the evening shrieking of the cicadas show impermanence in another aspect of their structure. They are not constant drones, but have gaps in between different segments of sound; they start-stop, start-stop, etc. They are impermanent in this way too, along with not lasting all day.
In the gaps that separate the creatures’ noises there is space. This space also can be seen (well, heard) prior to an animal’s call, as well as after the period of noise-making has stopped. Space contains the sounds of nature, including the rustling of leaves and the falling of rain. This space is non-judgmental in its nature. The mind, or personality, reacts to different sounds, liking the particular song of one species of bird, whilst on the other hand disliking the neighbor’s dog that barks late at night. Even in our negative responses to sound we can develop some wisdom, however – the howling dog shows just how unsatisfactory (dukkha) life can be! Space, on the other hand, simply contains all sounds, whether from nature or the human world (and what is the human world but an extension of nature, if we think about it?).
Through associating with the space by being the awareness that is conscious of sound, rather than identifying with being a particular person with specific likes and dislikes, one can become more open-minded. In this open-mindedness is an acceptance of the way things are (the Dharma). Moreover, by being the spacious awareness that is host to all phenomena (not only sound), one becomes more open-hearted, more compassionate and loving. Personal preference is less likely to dominate one’s relationship to the world, allowing for a deeper connection with the sounds, sights, tastes, smells, tactile and mental sensations that enter awareness.
This connection of spacious awareness to the world is not one of identifying with these various sense objects as being mine or not mine, likeable or dislikeable, because it is essentially an impersonal relationship. Even thoughts and feelings associated with being 'me' are objects in consciousness, they do not comprise a self (anatta). Being awake to this aware space is a liberating experience, freeing awareness from the prison of personality and ego. It also makes one appear as a nicer guy or gal to those that one meets, making their lives a little happier and less stressful.
So, in listening to the Dharma in nature, we can begin to recognize the way things are; they are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self (anicca, dukkha, and anatta.). We can learn to associate not with the personality that forever judges the world and its contents, but with the spacious awareness that is host to the myriad phenomena that make up this life. Extending this insight to all sense objects and not just sounds, we can radically alter our relationship to humanity as well as the natural world. One no longer sees oneself as just another person struggling against the natural and human obstacles to happiness, but the space in which such thoughts arise, along with all else. And this is the way to true happiness.