Listening Meditation

One of my primary practices (Buddhist and musical) is GuanYin Chan. This is the practice of establishing concentration through constant returning to the faculty of hearing.

My teacher Shi YaoXin (DWZS/ZBOHY) gave me an instruction that in its simplicity allowed me to practice anywhere and anytime- ‘In daily life, only listen to sounds’. Here’s his more detailed explanation:

Fashi YaoXin

“That is the true GuanYin technique taught in the Shurangama Sutra as the practice leading to Vajra Samadhi, the practice at the very basis of our Huatou Chan technique. GuanYin literally meaning Sound observing, when the practitioner guanyin (observe sound), he naturally lets go and lets Great GuanYin / Kannon activity be, in him and around him, by him and through him.”

Another wonderful teacher, one of the first ones to ever inspire me, Ven. Luang Por Sumedho, talks about The Sound of Silence (Nada Yoga). He puts it this way:

Luang Por Sumedho

“Somebody referred to the sound of silence as a cosmic hum, a scintillating almost electric background sound. Even though it’s going on all the time we don’t generally notice it but when your mind is open and relaxed you begin to hear it. I found this a very useful reference because in order to hear it, to notice it, you have to be in a relaxed state of awareness. When I describe this people try to find it. They go on a ten-day retreat trying to find the sound of silence and then they say, ‘I can’t hear it, what’s wrong with me?’ They are trying to find this thing. But it’s not a thing you have to find—rather you just open to it: it’s the ability to listen with your mind in a receptive state, which makes it possible to hear the sound of silence. You’re not trying to solve any problems but just listening. You’re putting your mind into a state of receptive awareness. Awareness that is willing to receive whatever is and one of the things you begin to recognize in that is the sound of silence.”
—Ajahn Sumedho, The Anthology, The Sound of Silence, Volume 4

In playing music, I use the Sound of Silence (SoS) and/or GuanYin Chan concentration method in order to put myself in a receptive state. The hardest thing when playing a difficult piece of music, is to be able to listen deeply to the musicians around you, so that you may create something truly organic, harmonious and pleasing.

To encourage deep listening, I will post music that I find good for the soul. Also, soon I’ll be starting a sitting group that will focus on sound and the hearing faculty. Stay in touch for details.

The great master XuYun, (Empty Cloud) has this following chapter on Sound Meditation:

Master HsuYun

“Before beginning this instruction, it is important, I think, to understand the
difference between Host and Guest.
In the Surangama Sutra, Arya Ajnatakaundinya asks, “What is the
difference between settled and transient?” He answers by giving the example of a
traveler who stops at an inn. The traveler dines and sleeps and then continues on
his way. He doesn’t stop and settle there at the inn, he just pays his bill and
departs, resuming his journey. But what about the innkeeper? He doesn’t go
anywhere. He continues to reside at the inn because that is where he lives.
“I say, therefore, that the transient is the guest and the innkeeper is the
host,” says Arya Ajnatakaundinya.
And so we identify the ego’s myriad thoughts which rise and fall in the
stream of consciousness as transients, travelers who come and go and who
should not be detained with discursive examinations. Our Buddha Self is the
host who lets the travelers pass without hindrance. A good host does not detain
his guests with idle chatter when they are ready to depart.
Therefore, just as the host does not pack up and leave with his guests, we
should not follow our transient thoughts. We should simply let them pass,
Many people strive to empty their mind of all thoughts. This is their
meditation practice. They try not to think. They think and think, “I will not
think.” This is a very difficult technique and one that is not recommended for
beginners. Actually, the state of “no-mind” that they seek is an advanced
spiritual state. There are many spiritual states that must precede it.
Progress in Chan is rather like trying to climb a high mountain. We start at
the bottom. What is our destination? Not the summit but merely our base camp,
Camp 1. After we have rested there, we resume our ascent. But again, our
destination is not the summit, but merely Camp 2. We attempt the summit only
from our final Camp.
Nobody would dream of trying to scale Mount Everest in one quick ascent.
And the summit of Chan is higher than Everest’s! Yet in Chan, everybody wants
to start at the end. Nobody wants to start at the beginning. If beginners could
take an airplane to the top they would, but then this would not be mountain
climbing, would it? Enthusiasm for the achievement is what makes people try to
take shortcuts. But the journey is the real achievement.
A better way than deliberately trying to blank the mind by preventing
thoughts from arising is to meditate on sound. In this method we calmly sit and
let whatever sounds we hear pass in one ear and out the other, so to speak. We
are like good innkeepers who do not hinder guest-thoughts with discursive
chatter. If we hear a car honk its horn, we merely record that noise without
saying to ourselves, “That horn sounds like Mr. Wang’s Bentley! I wonder
where he’s going!” Or, if we hear a child shouting outside, we just let the shout
pass through our mind without saying, “Oh, that noisy boy! I wish his mother
would teach him better manners.”

You know, in some styles of Chan, it is the custom to strike someone with
a stick if he begins to show signs of sleepiness. Up and down the aisles patrols a
fellow with a stick. No one is allowed to move or make any breathing noises or,
heaven forbid!, to nod sleepily. The fellow with the stick will strike him! This is
foolish and, in truth, violates the First Precept of nonviolence.
What shall we do when an elderly nun or priest begins to slumber in the
Meditation Hall? Should we strike him with a stick? Are we confusing laziness
with sleepiness? Perhaps the sleepy person has been up most of the night
tending to the sick. Should we punish him if, in his exhaustion, he begins to drift
into sleep? No. We should offer him some strong tea. If he wants to perk up, he
drinks the tea. But if he takes a little catnap we should let him rest. Perhaps a
person’s noisy breathing or restlessness is actually a symptom of illness. Should
we punish the sick person and add to his discomfort? No. This is not the Chan
What should we do once, of course, we are sure that his noisiness has not
arisen from fatigue or illness? We should use the sound of his breathing or his
movements as we would use the sound of an auto’s horn or a child’s shout. We
should just register the noise without thinking about it at all. We should not let
our ego get involved in the noise. Just let it pass through our minds unhindered,
like a guest at an inn. A guest enters and departs. We don’t rummage through
the guest’s belongings. We don’t detain it with gossip or idle chatter.
You know, the Buddha once asked Manjushri to choose between the
different methods of attaining enlightenment. “Which was the best?” he asked.
Manjushri easily chose Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva’s method of using the
faculty of hearing as the best.
Always remember that when meditating on sound it is essential to remove
the ego from the listening process and to let the non-judgmental Buddha Self
record the sounds that enter our ears. In whatever place we do this, we make that
place a Bodhimandala, a sacred place in which enlightenment may be obtained.
We do not need to be in a mediation hall to practice this technique. Every
day, in all of our ordinary activities, wherever we happen to be, we can practice
it. We shouldn’t try to limit our practice of Chan to those times in which we are
in a Chan Meditation Hall. In fact, the function of a meditation hall is really only
to provide a place of minimal distraction for those people who have difficulty in
keeping their attention focused on what they are doing.
Sometimes people like to go to meditation halls because they need to be
forced to meditate. They won’t practice at home alone. Why should a person
have to be forced to have a beautiful experience? How foolish this is!

Sometimes people go to meditation halls because they want to meet friends
there. This is a misuse of Chan. It is converting Chan from a Path to
Enlightenment into just another dead-end, Samsaric trail; and isn’t that a pity?”

From: Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Xu (Hsu) Yun

If you’d like to learn more about sound meditation, or if you have anything at all to ask me, teach me or simply chat about, get in touch. May you reverse the faculty of hearing and get totally and utterly blown out!


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