“In an instant of awareness,
“A vast humming
. . . . the ocean of buddhas;
. . . the mind of enlightenment. . . .
heard beyond hearing
“Waves of delirium
Absorbing all distinctions.”
–Avatamsaka [“Flower Ornament”] Sutra
Night Rain at Kuang-k’ou
The river is clear and calm;
a fast rain falls in the gorge.
At midnight the cold, splashing sound begins,
like thousands of pearls spilling onto a glass plate,
each drop penetrating the bone.
In my dream I scratch my head and get up to listen.
I listen and listen, until the dawn.
All my life I have heard rain,
and I am an old man;
but now for the first time I understand
the sound of spring rain
on the river at night.
–Yang Wan-Li, trans. Jonathan Chaves
Nine hundred years ago, Yang dreamed he woke as a storm broke around him on the river where his boat was anchored. But whether he was dreaming or awake, he listened, and a new understanding of rain came to him. Now, miraculously, beyond such concepts as awake or dream, now or then, Yang gives us the presence of that moment again, and, with it, a shared sense of being not constrained by space and time.
The vector of finding or grasping
or attaining or knowing;
This is a core of movement we
cannot imagine absent:
This gives us the sense of what is
next or falling away or lost or
A desire, a fear divides a world
A focus divides a mind,
A purpose creates our refuse,
In the surrounding moment,
A world, a range of things sensed
or to be sensed:
We expand and contract.
A student took the renowned Tibetan teacher Rabjam Rinpoche to hear a concert of Western classical symphonic music. At the end, Rinpoche asked: “Do you listen to this music horizontally or vertically?”
“Gerald de Barri, a Welsh churchman and historian who wrote under the name Giraldus Cambrensis, made a famous description of his peasant countrymen’s communal singing in a volume completed in 1194:
‘They sing their tunes not in unison, but in parts with many simultaneous modes and phrases. Therefore, in a group of singers you will hear as many melodies as there you will see heads, yet they all accord in one consonant and properly constituted composition.’”
In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century: The Oxford History of Western Music, from which this passage is taken, the eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin later remarked: “The chief distinguishing characteristics of any contrapuntal or harmonic style, including those used today, come down to two: the ways in which voices move with respect to one another . . . , and the ways in which dissonance functions vis-à-vis consonance.”
The 20th-century Russian philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin, in a celebrated study of Dostoevsky, described literary polyphony as a genre in which “the voices remain independent and as such are combined in a unity of a higher order. [Thus] a combination of several individual wills takes place, [so] that the boundaries of the individual will can be in principle transcended.”
Western music is uniquely reliant on written scores, but this situation has made possible the extensive development of highly complex polyphonic music. And so, though Bach, Beethoven, and many others were renowned for their skill at improvisation, we have also a tradition that continually finds new life in complex written sound structures. Even simply as members of the audience, we do not listen just for a melody or a rhythm; we strive to hear all the notes, all the rhythms, all the balances and dynamics within an evolving aural architecture that arises and vanishes in time.
(Why must spiritual practice so often focus on purifying or enriching a single strand, cultivate a single reference point, a single point of focus, a single vector? Why acceptance or rejection, pure or impure, yes or no?)
Sitting in one place, let us attend to the full extent of all that is given in this moment.
Trungpa Rinpoche said: The teacher is the exemplar of the phenomenal world; then, the phenomenal world is the teacher.
Outside one voice.
Inside one journey:
Soundwaves moving shimmering.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World is an extraordinary, complex, and beautifully written book that focuses on matsutake mushrooms. This fungus, cherished and prized by Japanese and Koreans because its scent evokes the sadness of the end of autumn, grows only in devastated landscapes, particularly in the loggedover forests of Oregon. There they are harvested commercially by US Army vets, former Thai soldiers, and Cambodian refugees, as well as old Japanese people for whom the mushroom hunting brings back the folkways that were demolished when their families were put into concentration camps here. The book’s subtitle is On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.
Dr. Tsing writes of the complex biologies, histories, economies, and ecologies that intertwine in the matsutake mushrooms’ life, environment, value, harvesting.
As she says:
Many histories come together here: they draw us beyond bubble worlds into shifting cascades of collaboration and complexity. . . . Rather than limiting our analyses to one creature at a time (including humans), or even one relationship, if we want to know what makes places livable we should be studying the polyphonic assemblages, gatherings of ways of being. Assemblages are performances of livability.
The Avatamsaka Sutra says:
Upon true awakening,
Buddhas see within their body
All sentient beings attaining true
awakening . . .
The bodhisattva Samantabhadra
“Very good—it is as you say.”
The Canadian anthropologist Eduardo Kohn has written about how forests can be said to “think,” since within the jungle, the interplay of phenomena from the atmospheric, geological, biological, animal, and human realms are continually influencing each other and in this way produce a multiplicity of continuously unfolding meanings of these phenomena. Thus the forest is recognizably a mind, if not an exclusively human one. That is to say, its shifting forms of organization and awareness are not exclusively devoted to human purposes.
“Selves,” Kohn says, referring to human and nonhuman beings in his study of the Runa of the upper Amazon, “exist simultaneously as embodied and beyond the body. They are localized, and yet they exceed the individual and even the human.”
And elsewhere he writes:
“This spirit realm that emerges from the life of the forest as a product of a whole host of relations that cross species lines and temporal epochs is a zone of continuity and possibility. Survival depends on many kinds of deaths that this spirit realm holds in its configuration and that make a living future possible.”
So there is infinite unfolding of music in innumerable simultaneous dimensions. You are a sound in it and the space of it.
Each tone moves through time with its qualities: pitch, shifting dynamics, evolving colors, altering relationship with pitches before, after, above, below, near or far, and/or simultaneously. By the shift of relationship, each pitch is heard differently, and the spatial environment changes.
No pitch has its own unique history or fate. There is only the simultaneous and evolving multiplicity.
Polyphony is not the project of an individual sound.
The natural expanse,
Free from seeking, cultivation,
Receives the awakened state
As a mountain receives the light of
the sun, moon, and stars,
Receives blankets of snows,
Receives torrents of rain from
Receives the lifecycles of insects,
worms, germs, birds, foxes,
Receives cold winds, spring breezes
in oak, cedar, pine, maple, brushwood,
Receives cascades of melting water, Receives avalanches of rocks
Receives hunters, pilgrims,
merchants, lovers on the run.
It has begun, almost without being
It seems sudden:
Time, so laboriously expended,
A day is gone.
And somehow, effort was expended
to no end.
The sought-for transformation
And so, at the end—evening:
What is being called “I” changes
The world surrounding moves
beyond its own
thunderstorm; stop; sunburst, stop;
light rain and the dense smell of
green and trees,
Sounds of waking women, men,
Scents of soap, of burning wood,
The unsought passage.
Bells, pigeons clattering in flight,
Dream and awake
Wave on wave:
Unending and unbegun
At the back of the skull Tonight I
knew of the House
That lodged the living muscle that
clung to the starlight
–Alfred Starr Hamilton
In memory of Peter Serkin
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.