Buddha statue, Wat Pah Nanachat, Ubon, Thailand
Above is a picture of a Buddha statue: observe the really long ears. Attractive, aren't they? Such ears are a sign of a Buddha according to Buddhist tradition, and are said to indicate both the heavy earrings that he wore as a prince prior to becoming a buddha, and that as a buddha he is all-hearing. Such symbolism can be used wisely as a subject for reflection, contemplating the wondrous qualities that the Buddha possessed, and being thankful that he taught the Dharma to "those with little dust in their eyes" - or should that be ears?!
Those ears can be a source not just of inspiration, however, but they can encourage us to practice, too. For, apart from looking pretty, what are ears for? Well, listening! Just as the Buddha is considered to be all-hearing, so can we learn to listen more carefully, cultivating precious wisdom in the process. And this can work on at least three important levels. Firstly, if we listen like a buddha, that is with attention, we will become better listeners, improving our relationships with others, as well as enabling us to understand the world just a little bit better. Secondly, we can use the faculty of listening to develop mindfulness, a useful tool in both worldly activities and in meditation practice. Thirdly, if we use our ears to listen in the opposite direction to that which they usually do, we will discover something truly amazing!
Buddha statues, Wat Tai, Ubon, Thailand
Looking at the first benefit of being good listener, we can examine the example of the counsellor. Counsellors need to be good listeners. They need to be able to create a welcoming space around what is being said to them, so that the speaker feels that they can reveal their fears, worries, and mistakes without being jumped on. The speaker should feel that they are not going to be judged by the counsellor, but instead be listened to in an attentive & open manner. This has been evident in this writer's role as counsellor for the students in an international program in which he works, where it became apparent that if really listened to, the students would be more likely to express their true feelings. Then, there is a starting point from which these problems could be discussed and hopefully some positive conclusions reached.
Although we do not all work as counsellors, good listening skills can be of use to us in our everyday lives. We can have more fulfilling relationships with this around us if we are truly listening to them, for they will feel more appreciated. Moreover, if we really listen to others, we are actually able to hear what it is they are getting at; then, if we are inclined to do so, we can respond in ways that are pleasing to them. We will benefit from this by being appreciated more ourselves, and people will be more favorable to our requests. Everyone's a winner!
Buddha statue, Wat Pah Nanachat, Ubon, Thailand
The second point above was that we can become more mindful through developing our listening skills. Here, another aspect of this writer's experience can be used for the purpose: language learning. Both as a teacher of English language & learner of Thai, listening has been central to any success. Reading books about a language that we are learning certainly helps in its acquisition. The learning of reading & writing skills are largely dependent upon the usage of text books and other written materials, as is grammar. Speaking & listening skills are equally important for those wishing to be fluent in the language that they are learning, and being able to listen well is crucial to both. Indeed, much study is dependent upon listening to a tutor - how many difficulties have students caused themselves by not paying attention in class? Such lessons can be applied to many skills that we learn in our lives, whether in education, at work, or elsewhere.
Mindfulness is made much of in Buddhism. Whole sutras (discourses) are devoted to it, such as the Satipatthana Sutta, in which instructions are given by the Buddha on how to cultivate mindfulness to the point of enlightenment itself. Meditation, of course, plays a central role in Buddhist approach to awakening, and being able to 'listen' with the mind is an important ability in this regard. If we can really hear what is going on in the body, we can understand it. Ditto the mind, and it is then that real peace & the wisdom that comes out of it can be experienced.
Now we come to the main point of this article: that of the third remark regarding listening made above, which was that if we reverse the direction in which we normally focus our listening, an incredible discovery awaits us. This is no idle talk, either, merely written to gain your attention - it is the plain, unadulterated truth of the matter. For, on the whole, we direct our listening faculty outwards not inwards. Along with all the other four physical senses, we grow up aiming it at the world around us - after all, that's where all the interesting stuff happens, right? Wrong! This is what we are taught, what we come to believe and assume. But in truth, if we are resourceful enough to about-face with our attention, we can bring to light something absolutely fantastic and probably completely unexpected. And listening is a powerful way to do so.*
Buddha statue, Wat Tai, Ubon, Thailand
What on earth could this 'something' be? Well, if the word 'something' were to be replaced with the somewhat more satisfying 'no-thing,' would that help? Possibly not as yet! The trouble is, that what's being written about here is not easily discussed. This isn't because its highly complicated or involved; quite the reverse. The problem here is that it is so simple, so utterly obvious what we're going to reveal, that it's rather easy to overlook it. In fact, this is what we do on a daily basis. We'd be buddhas otherwise! But, in fact, each of us possesses what might be dubbed 'Buddha Ear,' and conducting a simple exercise can reveal what all this prattle is about. Hopefully, the above waffling has whetted your appetite, rather than spoilt it. So, without further ado, it's time for us to actually do some 'reverse listening,' and hear what we hear. To this end, there are some instructions below, which this writer humbly requests that you carry out. If you do, it will surely be worth your while!
It will be worth your while remembering the main points of this exercise so that you don't have to keep reopening your eyes, which will distract from the exercise somewhat. In a comfortable, quiet place, sit or lie down (the former is preferable if you think you might fall asleep!). Close your eyes. Listen to the sounds arising at this time, noting each one in turn. Next, turn your attention around to the listener. What can you hear right where you are, now? Take at least a few moments to really focus on that, before opening your eyes.
At first, you may have thought that there weren't many sounds, or even that it was completely silent. This is rare, however, even if you live in the countryside. But, when acclimatized to your audio environment, you may have become aware of many more sounds than you ever dreamed of. Birds, insects, or other animals, the wind in the trees, running water or falling rain. Apart from natural sounds, there's a multitude of human-made noise that we aren't always aware of: voices, traffic, TVs or radios, music, fans, air con, heaters, cookers, ringtones, washing machines…you get the picture. All this sound is coming from the usual direction, however - 'out there.' Right now, we're more interested what we can hear in the opposite direction. So, when you'd exhausted all the sounds that you could identify, what could you hear where you were? Your breathing, perhaps? Well, technically, that's still part of the external world, and not right where your ears are. Listening to the listener, what did you notice? Here, I notice…silence. An awake, alert, open silence…full of the external noises that it's aware of. Is it the same where you are? If you're not sure, or even if you are, please take your time doing the following exercise, carefully noticing what you can hear.
Again, it will be worth your while remembering the main points of this exercise so that you don't have to keep reopening your eyes. Close your eyes. Listen to the sounds that you can presently hear, one by one. This time, note the particular characteristics of each sound, rather than simply labeling them. Are they loud or quiet, rhythmic or erratic, pleasant or unpleasant, near or far, fast or slow? When you've done this with every noise that you're aware of, turn your attention around to the listener. What qualities can you ascribe to the that which is hearing all of this? Is it loud or quiet, rhythmic or erratic, pleasant or unpleasant, near or far, fast or slow? Or, is it completely without audible characteristics?
Now, do you feel cheated? After all this talk of 'Buddha's Ear' and discovering something amazing, are you disappointed? If so, please don't give up just yet! So, what did we find out? That the heart of the listening experience is silence. But, as mentioned above, it's not mere empty silence, is it? It's full of outer sounds, and, more importantly for our purposes here, it is full of awareness. It is an awake silence, alert to its contents. It is the emptiness at the centre of being, and it is not self; it is impersonal. Sound familiar? For any Buddhist, they should do, for emptiness and not self are the core teachings of Buddhism. Of the two main branches of Buddhism, Theravada tends to emphasize not self (anatta), whereas Mahayana stresses emptiness (shunyata), but they are different ways of describing what is essentially the same experience. 'Buddha' means 'awakened one.' Awakened to the way-things-are & the no-thing that lies at the heart of all things. Silence is not a thing, and yet all (audible) things arise in it. Furthermore, the silence that we can experience within ourselves is alert to what's going on. This is the Buddha's Ear: awakened silence.
Buddha statue, Wat Pah Nanachat, Ubon, Thailand
If we spend time with Buddha's Ear, listening to the alert silence as well as the noise that occurs in it, the benefits are potentially fantastic. There's the worldly pluses mentioned above, from being a good counsellor to being a great student. But, more impressive than these, is the realization of our true nature within; silent awareness. And this is where it gets really tasty. If we live from this silence, which is impersonal and beyond suffering, then there is no suffering. Contentment is realized, not based on external conditions - the likes and dislikes of the individual - nor arising from manipulations of the personality. But instead coming from this inner emptiness. As mentioned earlier, any of the six senses can be used, and then we might label this experience as 'Buddha Mind' or 'Buddha Eye' (both of which which have been used historically by Zen masters), 'Buddha Body,' 'Buddha Mouth,' and 'Buddha Nose.' Admittedly, some of these sound a little daft, but if we actually experiment with these senses, we may well find that they are as valid descriptions of our inner reality as 'Buddha Ear.' Keep listening!
*In fact, any of the five physical senses can be used for the purpose, and so can what Buddhism deems the sixth sense, the mind. But, listening will do the job for us now, as it is a particularly striking sense for many of us, closely following vision (which has featured on these pages previously).