Deep Listening as Buddhist Practice

A Dharma Glimpse  

I have been thinking a lot about listening lately.  Actually I think about it a lot.  For many years I thought I was a good listener and over time I have realized how untrue that was. But that seems true for most of us;  we have a high opinion of our own listening skill and have  tendency to think we are better listeners than we are.  I know the Buddhadharma has helped me become a better listener.

I first came across the idea of listening as practice  in Taitetsu Unno’s,  River of Water, River of Fire. I had never heard of the idea of “deep hearing”  or Monpo (to listen to the Buddha dharma) before.  What he was talking about was more metaphysical than what I took away from it.  I can appreciate what he was sharing and compare it to the soundless bell that Rev. Gyomay wrote about in the Center Within.  At the same time I also look at it not only in a metaphysical sense, but as a more mundane daily practice of hearing the call of the Buddha in each person I deeply listen to.

 

Our sangha in Salt Lake is looking to become part of a group called Urban Confessionals. This groups whole purpose is to offer free listening to anyone. It is simple, make a sign that says “free listen” and wait for someone to listen to, just listen to.  We haven’t made our first venture out yet but I am looking forward to it. The reason we are doing it in the first place is that we see this as a great opportunity for practice.  To listen to another,  to listen deeply to an “other” can be a great act of compassion. I love this quote from a guy named David Oxberger, “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference “  For me the call of the Buddha to be compassionate would also be a call to listen. Listening is a way for us to open ourselves to other people,  and to ourselves.  We are following the challenge of  Thich Nhat Hahn who has written,

 “We surely have not cultivated the arts of listening and speaking. We do not know how to listen to each other. We have little ability to hold an intelligent or meaningful conversation. The universal door of communication has to be opened again.

This is so much more than hearing someone, it is listening deeply to them and their suffering. and not turning away.  Rev Gyomay in Tan Butsu Ge wrote,   “listening is a very important understanding in Buddhism.  To hear connotes the “I”  hears, it is the ego subjective way of hearing. To listen is to be aware, to attend and has no tinge of ego in it.”   Deep listening is beyond ego, beyond judgement, it is only concerned with the suffering that is there.  That is why, on our altar we have Kwan Yin. The one who hears the cries of the world and does not turn away.  The practice of deep listening is exemplified by this Bodhisattva and we follow her example and have faith that as Thay writes, “While listening, you know that only with deep listening can you relieve the suffering of the other person.”  He goes on to say and we follow the aspiration

 “Aware of the suffering caused by …the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.” This is exactly the universal door practiced by Avalokitesvara.”

Rev Castro of the Seattle Buddhist Church, after hearing a talk given by Reverend Koyo,  taught that “ Our religion should sensitize us to deeply hearing, acknowledge and gassho – whether to life’s pleasures or life’s pains.”  How better to do this than deeply listening to a stranger or to our spouse or our child?  This deep listening of another person is another way of Deep hearing (listening) of the Dharma” it is a way of  embodying the Buddha Dharma in practice.

 

May it be so.

Haiku as Awareness Practice.

Japanese Cherry Blossom Garden Wallpaper

 

I would like to talk about Kobayashi Issa and Haiku, well technically senryu as practice.  Haiku’s focus us usually nature and senryu is like haiku but the focus is primarily on human nature and emotion. For today, when I say haiku I mean both haiku and senryu.  So who is this Issa fellow.  He by far one of my favorite poets of all times.  He was a Pure Land priest and poet and is considered one of the four masters of haiku in all of japan. In his lifetime it is said that he wrote over 20,000 haiku!  Issa lived a difficult life and knew loss and impermanence intimately,  outliving three children and his wife.  He is most known for this haiku written shortly after the death of his young daughter,

 

This dewdrop world —

Is a dewdrop world,

And yet, and yet .

 

And a less well known one.

 

Outliving them,

Outliving them all,

Ah, the cold!

 

His poems strike at the heart of being human and the challenges of being “foolish and passionate beings.” who live in the midst of samsara. And yet even in the midst of his suffering, Issa finds the promise of the Buddha way and Amida’s grace and faces his life directly, not with just sadness but with the wide range of human emotion. In the midst of  Issa’s difficult life he was able to cultivate great compassion that he expressed toward the lowliest of creatures.  His haiku exemplifies a respect for all life and that all life is moving toward awakening, he is a master of the mundane and the mythic.  Here are a few examples.

 

Don’t worry, spiders,

I keep house

casually.

 

On the flower pot

Does the butterfly also hear

The Buddha’s Promise

 

They praise the Buddha too

Frogs on the rocks

In a row.

 

Swatting at a fly

And praising Amida

Buddha

Climb Mount Fuji,

O snail,

but slowly, slowly.

 

I love Issa’s frogs chanting the nembutsu! And the last haiku is one of my favorites.  Here, even Issa realizes the irony of …  “praising the Buddha at the same time condemning, one by one, the insects that rove over my table.”

The reason I bring up Issa,  is some years ago, I was inspired by him and Basho to take up writing haiku.  Initially I was fascinated  by the powerful imagery and emotional impact of such a short poem, with three lines and a certain number of sound units. I wrote a few hundred, I posted them up on walls around salt lake city anonymously, some very large others small transparencies glued to random bricks on sides of buildings. It was fascinating to see people stop and read them and watch their reactions.  As a form, my haiku were sometimes  more fragments than really haiku. My mother-in-law calls them “littlies”.   Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg called them American sentences since they broke a lot of the rules of traditional haiku but the “practice” was still there.  At first I didn’t realize the practical cultivation of awareness that writing these poems offered. In time, I began to notice the practice of writing and thinking “in haiku” was  shifting my attention, I began to see the profound in the simplest things.   My mind slowed down, became more focused, more open.  I began to see timelessness and meaning in everyday events, in a tiny green insect walking across the pages of the book I was reading, of a mother and child interacting, the intimacy of being in the present moment with my breath or quietly drinking a cup of tea.  Here are a few examples of my practice.  ( Warning for you syllable counters, these do not follow the traditional sound unit form.)

 

A kite leans
against a window
falling snow

 

dark winter sea
a lone boat
bobbing

 

a mother sings
her child’s eyes
heavy – heavier

 

thrown into the air
young child laughing
– now a mother

 

the old man flying

a kite his mother

calling him home

 

sleeves rolled up
he gives his son a bath-
new widower

 

a small child cries
called home by his mother-
litter of puppies

 

Reading and writing haiku can become a form of practice.   The haiku becomes a manifestation of simple  awareness,  of the profound present, it helps us to recognize the flow of energy and the interdependence of all things, of being present with someone or something, that the world is created over and over again in every moment.  This can happen because ideally the haiku is egoless – no self, it can open a world where one forgets the separate self.  In my experience because of the practice of haiku, I could more easily let go of the “storied self” with all its subplots and dead ends and become aware of the openness that is found in simple awareness.   I like how Elizabeth Searle Lamb has explained haiku,

 

“haiku epitomizes a moment that occurs naturally in our lives, but that we often hurry or gloss over. Haiku awareness is a simple way to slow down and tune in to this fleeting moment, to appreciate what is right in front of us.  For a fleeting moment we pause and note the sunlight on the sheets as we make the bed, note the warm sun on our cup as we sip tea, or note the fading light on the curtain as we enter the room. And we let out a breath or sigh. Pausing.”

 

Thank you and

Namu Amida Butsu

Not knowing is the most intimate.

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From a young age many of us are afraid to be someone who doesn’t know. Maybe we are afraid to be seen as dumb and therefore unacceptable, so we wing it and hope the other person doesn’t see that we actually don’t have a clue. This is not just anecdotal, studies have shown that when children are giving unanswerable questions, they makeup answers, to seem like they know rather than to be found not knowing. This habit sticks with as we grow up, for some of us they become the three hardest words to say. We all know that feeling; usually half way through, when we realize we really have no clue what we are saying and how much easier it would have to simply say, “ I don’t know”. Instead we find ourselves five years old again, dancing around with our made up answers, again hoping no one will notice.

To act as a “knower” is fraught with challenges and pitfalls. Deciding that we know this is the way it is.”….. has a tendency to close us off to a myriad of other possibilities. We become fixed in our ideas and perceptions, our world gets smaller and smaller. Another problem with knowing and being afraid of not knowing, is we can never really be confident that what we know is reality. To paraphrase Mark Twain. “…they think they know something that just ain’t so.”

To be clear, the knowing I am referring to is not confusion or paralyzing doubt and it is not knowing in opposition to not knowing as in not knowing the capital of Nebraska, or even a set of propositions such as the four noble truths. When I say “I don’t know” I am talking the spirit of openness and curiosity a “I don’t know! Let’s find out!” or “Let’s keep going and see what happens,” it is the not knowing of faith. Suzuki Roshi wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “With beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert mind there are few.” Beginner’s mind is the essence of not knowing”. For those trapped in “knowing” the vista is limited, the questions are answered, all is settled, the world is fixed, but in the end, the light at the end of the tunnel is not more knowledge but the Dukkha Express and it is coming fast.

So how can we cultivate the non-dual spirit of “I don’t know”? The first thing is to simply being willing to not know, to let go of the knowing. I have found the world is lighter when I am free of having to know, I am more patient, less stressed, open. Here are two concrete things we can do to cultivate the not knowing.

First there is a good practice suggested by Buddhist teacher, Gil Fronsdal, is to attach “I don’t know” to as many thoughts as possible. For example, when thoughts arise like, this is good or this is bad or I can’t handle this; these become, I don’t know if this is good or I don’t know if this is bad or I don’t know if I can’t handle this. As he says, “the phrase “I don’t know” questions the authority of everything we think.” It allows us to be free of fixed ideas, it can create curiosity and allows an openness to creativity.” He goes on to say that this simple phrase can help us challenge tightly held beliefs and can “pull the rug out from under our most cherished beliefs.” Not knowing opens the world to us, it makes a way for us to be compassionate, patient, kind, honest and help cultivate equanimity.

The last thing that we can do to cultivate the essence of “I don’t know” is bowing. James Ishmael Ford has written about not knowing and how it relates to the act of bowing.

“Don’t know. Not knowing. That is the ancient spiritual practice of bowing in a nutshell…The bow, I suggest, can open our hearts, can take us places we never dreamed of, to a palpable, transformative, endless world of possibility called not knowing. This is what I really want to underscore: this not knowing has endless creative possibilities, to throw in another metaphor, one or two simply aren’t enough for this place, this moment when we surrender to not knowing, when we bow to life: we discover a well that apparently is bottomless, bubbling with life-giving waters.”

I raise my hands in gassho and bow to each of you.

I would like to close with the words of Zen teacher of the 9th century, Dizang, “not knowing is most intimate.”

Namu Amida Butsu.