In this excerpt from a talk by Zoketsu Norman Fischer, he retells a number of the stories from the Shurangama Sutra. The story of the Guan Yin Bodhisattva offers a beautiful and profound teaching on the nature of listening and its consequences in the world.The last of the twenty five stories in the Shurangama Sutra is the most important one. The best of all. The most ultimate of ultimate stories. Guan Yin Bodhisattva [also known as Kuan Yin or Avalokitesvara – ed.] rises from her seat, bows before Buddha, and says "World Honored One, I remember, when as many kalpas ago as there are sands in the Ganges, there was a Buddha in the world named Hearing the World's Sounds."
"It was under that Buddha that I brought forward my resolve to practice. That Buddha taught me to enter Samadhi through a process of hearing and listening. Initially, I entered the flow through hearing and forgot objective states. In other words, I entered through hearing and I let go of the idea of objects. I didn't experience objects anymore. Since sense objects require motion, my sense organs were quiet. So two characteristics of movement and stillness crystallized and did not arise. The whole world became quiet. After that, gradually advancing, hearing and what was heard both disappeared. Once hearing was ended, there was nothing to rely on and awareness and the objects of awareness became open. When the emptiness of awareness reached ultimate perfection, emptiness and what was being emptied then also ceased. Since production and extinction were gone, still extinction, in other words, complete total extinction that was not the opposite of production, arose.
"Suddenly, I transcended the mundane, and transcended all worlds. And throughout the ten directions, a perfect brightness prevailed. I obtained two supreme states. First, I was united with the fundamental, wonderful enlightened mind of all the Buddhas in the ten directions, and I gained the strength of compassion equal to that of all the Buddhas, the Thus Come Ones.
"Second, I was united below with all living beings on the six paths. There were even beings in terrible suffering in hell realms with whom I united. In all the realms, I was united with them and I gained a kind regard for all living beings, equally. World Honored One, because I served and made offerings to the Thus Come One, Guan Yin, who I am also, I received the transmission of the Vajra Samadhi as one becomes permeated with hearing and cultivates hearing. Because I gained a power of compassion equal with that of all Buddhas, the Thus Come Ones, I became accomplished in thirty two response bodies and entered all realms."
Guan Yin goes on to describe all of the powers and accomplishments and all the ways she has to help sentient beings. Just calling out the name of Guan Yin can avert disasters and bring help in all kinds of ways. Because Guan Yin has these powers through perfection of the meditation of hearing, as described here. You call and she hears. And as soon as she hears, there is help.
You see that this practice of listening, deeply listening, Guan Yin's practice is deep and profound. Who would have imagined that the fountainhead of compassion comes from simply listening deeply to the profundity of the world? That the best way of untying the knots of the senses and seeing that the world of confusion really is the world of liberation is listening? The best way to be enlightened is to hear the sounds of the world, to listen with receptivity to the world's sounds and to the cries of suffering in the world.
In the end, this is what compassion really is; just that deep, deep, open listening. Without outflows, without grasping. When you listen, really deeply listen, in the sense that Guan Yin speaks of in the sutra, then compassion and activity follow from this very naturally. Really, you can't point out something as compassion and something that's not compassion. Based on this practice of listening, you see that the unfolding of life itself is just compassion. The whole drama of the universe in all of its color and tragedy is just a drama of compassion. Life itself is compassion.
I hope that you have already found and will continue to find that the practice of listening to the world, of finely listening to the world without outflows, without grabbiness, without running away, is a true, true practice. To listen to yourself with that same kind of spaciousness and to listen to others, with that same kind of spaciousness. And if you can listen with a sympathetic, loving presence to yourself and to others, knowing that everything is compassion, that everything, however negative it may seem, has the power to heal. If you can listen with that sense, even in impossible situations, and goodness knows, there are impossible situations in this life, there can be some sense of peace and healing.
One example may be where you yourself or someone else is ill, or on their deathbed or in deep despair or confusion. We think right away, "We can fix that, we can run around. Let's do something and make that better. What can we do here?"
If you can, stop fussing. Stop trying to make things better. Just listen with a sympathetic loving presence. Be willing to be there without outflows, accepting conditions as they are, and you may transform the conditions, deepen them, and then something may happen. It's not about doing something. Just listen – really listen. This is Guan Yin slipping in to offer her aid. This practice of listening is wide and broad and has that capacity. You can find that dimension not only on the meditation cushion. Maybe if you can develop that listening heart, it could really help you in your own life in many ways.
Here's my poetic commentary to the sutra passage:
Disguised by sadness and desire –
A transcendence built of light
Within the surrounding darkness.
Water, earth and sky
Hold each other atilt
The world is grey
And islands proliferate
This seems rhetorical
Cut and spliced
Into a breathtaking panorama
That denies pretense
But admits artifice
Almost requires it
So that contemplation allows it for a moment to be self-forgotten and free
Till a moment later
Inspired by clock notions
Schemes its way towards intersecting establishments –
Borders and bridges abound.
This talk transcribed by Susan Elbe, edited by Susan Elbe & Kate McCandless, and proof-read by Tim Burnett.
® 2002, Norman Fischer