The Buddha orders his son, Rahula, to ring the bell, and it becomes a teaching on the nature of sound

The Buddha then ordered Rahula to ring the bell and asked Ananda: “Do you hear it?” Ananda and the others in the assembly replied that they did. When the bell was no more heard, the Buddha asked again: “Do you still her it?” They all replied that they did not. Rahula again rang the bell and the Buddha asked: “Do you hear it?” They replied that they did. The Buddha then asked Ananda: “What do you mean by hearing and not hearing?” Ananda and the others replied: “If the bell is rung, we call it hearing and when the sound and its echo stop, we call it not hearing.”

The Buddha again ordered Rahula to ring the bell and asked Ananda: “Is there any sound?” Ananda and the others replied that there was a sound of the bell. A little later when it could no longer be heard, the Buddha asked again: “Is there any sound?” They all replied that there was none. Then Rahula rang the bell again and the Buddha asked: “Is there any sound?” They all replied in the affirmative. The Buddha then asked Ananda: “What do you mean by sound and no sound?” Ananda and the others replied that if the bell was rung, there was sound and when both the sound and its echo stopped, this was called no sound.

The Buddha said: “Why did you talk so wildly? When I asked you about hearing, you spoke of hearing, and when I asked you about sound, you spoke of it. So merely about hearing and sound, your answers were ambiguous; how could they not be called wild? Ananda, when both the sound and its echo ceased, you said there was no hearing: if there really was no hearing, its nature would have died and would be like a withered log, but when the bell was rung again, how did you hear it? Existence and non-existence concern only the sound which may be present or not, but how can the nature of your hearing follow your discrimination to exist or not? If it really ceased, who then knew there was no sound?

“Therefore, Ananda, in your hearing, the sound may exist or not, but this does not mean that the sound, whether heard or not, [can] cause your hearing to exist or not. In your delusion you mistake the sound for your hearing and so regard the permanent as transient. You should not say that hearing has no nature when it exists apart from [the conditions of] disturbance, stillness, obstruction, and clearance.

“For instance, when a man sleeps soundly, if people pound rice, he may hear the beating of a drum or the ringing of a bell. Ananda, does that man remember in his sleep [the conditions of] stillness, disturbance, clearance, and obstruction? Although his body rests, the nature of his hearing is present.

“Even when your body perishes and your life comes to an end, how can this nature vanish? For since time without beginning all living beings have followed forms and sounds and pursued the flow of their thoughts without awakening to their pure, profound, and permanent nature. By straying from the permanent and by following birth and death, they have been contaminated with defilements in successive lives. If you [only] keep away from samsara and dwell in real permanence, your eternal Light will appear, thereby causing your organs, sense data, consciousness and [mad] mind to vanish simultaneously. The objects of your thinking process are [polluting] dust and the feelings that arise from your consciousness are impurities; if both are kept away, your Dharma eye will appear pure and bright instantly. Why then cannot you realize Supreme Bodhi?”

Excerpted from the Shurangama Sutra, translated by Lu K’uan Yu, B. I. Publications, Bombay.

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