When I was a young monk, I practiced Chan Buddhism by myself in a graveyard for ten years and later in a mountain cave for an additional two years. I did not have a teacher to guide me, but—propelled by devotion—I followed a method of practice that Bodhisattva Guanyin, also known as Avalokiteshvara, teaches in the Shurangama Sutra. This method, called Perfect Penetration through Hearing, relies not on any words or concepts but on listening to silence.
In the sutra, Guanyin, who was dwelling on an island, listened to the sound of the waves washing up against the rocks on the shore. As Guanyin became fully absorbed in listening to the waves as they rose and splashed against the rocks, then receded into silence, rose and receded again, rose and receded, every sound eventually became silent as it reached Guanyin’s ears. The bodhisattva describes it as follows:
I entered into the stream of the self-nature of hearing, and thereby eliminated the sound of what was heard. When I proceeded from this inner stillness both sounds and silence ceased to arise. Advancing in this way, both hearing and what was heard melted away and disappeared. When hearing and what is heard are both forgotten, the sense of hearing leaves no impression in the mind.
In this practice, you simply listen without attachment to sound, to silence, or to the contrast between the two; there’s no attachment at all. If you are able to listen in this way, you will eventually reach a point when listening still occurs, but it no longer has an object. In other words, there is still awareness, but that which you are aware of is empty.
Related: Hearing: A Door to Liberation
The Shurangama Sutra says, “when both awareness and the objects of awareness become empty, then emptiness and awareness merge and reach a state of absolute perfection.” But even then, you cannot hold on to that experience of unison; you need to let go of it completely by listening even more. This is where the text directs us by saying, “When emptiness and what is being emptied are both extinguished, then birth and death, arising and extinction are naturally extinguished.” In other words, when there is no mental distinction remaining between emptiness or form, when you have experienced complete stillness at the core of everything, then you have returned to “your original face before your parents were born.” It is at this point of return that you fully comprehend samsara—birth and death—and are liberated from it.
This method of listening described by Guanyin is a process of deeply entering into samadhi, a state in which the heart and mind “stop” producing any kind of intentional action and are fully immersed in non-action (wu-wei). There is no longer any difference between “being” and “nothingness.” “Being” is that which is visible, that which we see with our eyes; “nonbeing” is the thought that we hold in our heart, namely the thought of nothingness or emptiness. When you look at anything, it is important not to see it either from the perspective of being or from that of nothingness, but instead to rest in your enlightened nature.
The Chan practice of listening to silence provides a way to refine our hearts and minds, thought after thought, to the point that they become ever more subtle and increasingly attuned to stillness and emptiness. As we progress, we realize how constricted we are by our discriminating mind: our minds, not our hearing organs, make the distinction between sound and silence. But if you practice listening until you no longer make distinctions, you develop a power that is liberating. You’re no longer pushed around by concepts, emotions, or other mental objects. Instead, you decide what to move or transform.
Four Steps for Listening to Silence
While I was practicing listening to silence in the graveyard I developed a four-step method that helped me regulate my breath and settle my body and mind before I started to listen. The first three steps are geared toward the “stopping” (Skt., shamata) of our distracted and dispersed mind by concentrating on one point; the fourth step involves the “seeing” (Skt., vipashyana) of emptiness in the stillness of our heart and mind. One should remember that the guidance of an experienced teacher is important in Chan practice in order to keep you on the right track.
Take seven deep breaths.
Sit up straight with your chin slightly tucked in, eyes partly open (to prevent daydreaming), and your mouth closed. Breathe in deeply from the dantian, the energy center located right under the navel. With each in-breath, be aware of the air passing through your throat and how it passes through the nose with each out-breath. This process helps us to breathe in fresh energy, known as chi, and expel stale energy.
Move the attention from the eyes to the nose, mouth, and heart.
This step is especially geared toward stopping, or reining in, the monkey mind that we find so difficult to control. Start by gently moving your attention from the eyes to the area under the nose where you are breathing in and out. Let it rest there for a while. From there, move the attention to the mouth. Finally, shift your attention from your mouth to your heart. Try not to hold any thoughts, images, or attachments to experience. Our spiritual heart is empty; it has no shape, form, or size. Once this is done, start all over again from the eyes. Repeat this seven times.
Observe the breath.
Breathe in and out naturally while fastening the monkey mind’s attention to the breath. When you reach the state where the monkey no longer feels bound by the breath but instead enjoys staying there, then you have reached the stage of stopping. Your awareness is gentle and clear—it becomes one with the breath.
Listen to silence.
While the previous three steps are intended to stop the wandering mind by letting it rest on the breath, the fourth step of listening has more to do with “seeing.”
In preparation, start by relaxing your ears, head, neck, shoulders, and every cell in your body. Let the entire body quiet down completely. When you hear sounds from outside, like a human voice or the sound of a car passing by, listen to them as the sound of silence. When you tell yourself that distracting sounds are silent, they become that way. However, if you tell yourself that they are noisy and disturbing, that is what they will be. Keep listening to the sound of silence in everything, staying completely relaxed.
Hear the silence in the mountains and rivers, the great wide earth, the sky. Eventually, the whole universe will fall into deep silence. Perceive that same deep silence in yourself.
In this state, there is no sound whatsoever, and when you listen, you listen to the sound of no sound. Every thought returns into silence and becomes still. When practicing this technique, it is important not to force anything when listening but to remain relaxed and listen in a natural way.
Ultimately, it is our awareness unified with emptiness that is really listening to the silence. “Being aware of silence” and “seeing silence” are the same thing. Who is aware of silence? Who sees silence? It is our enlightened nature that is aware and sees. The next step in the practice is to dwell in the clarity of silence, and once you know how to do this, the last step is to enlighten your own mind by seeing your true nature. It might take quite some time to reach these stages, but if you sustain your awareness of silence, then you will eventually reach it. Practicing slowly and steadily is very important. When you feel that your mind starts wandering again while listening to silence, return to step two and focus on the movement from eyes to nose to mouth to heart, with no thoughts or images in your heart.
Our true nature is the emptiness of all things, the “true formless form.” Chan practice is about seeing, hearing, being aware of, and clearly knowing this. It is about realizing that what we habitually see, hear, and are aware of and know is an illusion. We begin this practice of listening to tune into a deeper awareness that leads to the realization of emptiness, which in turn empties out our mistaken views and notions. Most importantly, this Chan practice lets us enter into the true form of enlightened nature.
Such form is eternal; it is unborn and never dies, is neither stained nor pure, neither increases nor diminishes. There is absolutely nothing here to hold on to: no rebirth in samsara; no world of bodily form, sensation, thought, impulse, or consciousness; no pain and no happiness, no gain and no loss. This is what Bodhisattva Guanyin realized through listening to the silence in the sounds of the waves. With our own practice, we, too, can enter the stream of our true nature and see our original face.
Adapted from The Way of the Heart: Teachings of Dharma Master Hsin Tao, edited and translated by Maria Reis Habito © 2016. Reprinted in arrangement with Maria Reis Habito.
This article is a part of the special section “Meditations Off the Beaten Path” in Tricycle’s Winter 2018 issue. The other articles in this section are:
“The Elemental Self,”
by Ayya Khema
“Pure and Simple Practice,”
by Dharmavidya David Brazier
by Ken Kushner