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.

Offerings to the Buddhas

In his commentary of the Tan Butsu Ge or the Song of the Buddha; a section from the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, Gyomay Sensei writes,

“ Ku Yo, of offering is a very important virtue in the Buddha’s Way…Ku Yo is done in relation to someone who is more worthy than oneself…to do Ku Yo is one way of expressing profound gratitude and nourishment for the very source of our gratitude…it is an honor to do Ku Yo.”

The concept of Ku Yo really resonates with me.  To make offerings to all the Buddhas is something that brought me back to Buddhism, after being away for a while.  I have no idea of why this is what brought me back. If I look at my history one would think that this is what would drive me away instead of draw me nearer. Recently I was re-reading the Shorter Pure Land Sutra about how one of the practices in the Pure Land being was to make offerings to countless Buddhas of other Buddha lands. In Sukhavati, it rains Mandarava blossoms  all the time and those flowers are gathered up and then offered to countless Buddhas across the universe. Along with other meditative or bodhisattva practices there is also the practice of Ku Yo.  I love that fact that the offering to the Buddhas is not something that is rare but something that is constantly unfolding. I like to think of the flowers as a representation of the compassion and practice of those living in the Pure Land; the flowers raining from the sky represent the fruit of practice and awakening. As Mark Healsmith has written,  “The flower is a wonderful exemplar of the uniqueness yet interconnectedness of all life “ and makes the offering of them an expression of the interconnectedness of all life and  “profound gratitude, for the very source of our gratitude.”

 

The other reason why Ku Yo resonates with me, is it is something that I have been contemplating. I have been thinking about Ku Yo in the frame of the  “Way of Gratitude” and some of the barriers that impede our cultivation of it.  I have been thinking about the role of humility and gratitude and how humility is one of its prerequisites. I think at times we struggle with gratitude because we struggle with humility. As I have been thinking about this and asking others, I found that for many of us we struggle with humility because we have not really experienced it,  only its unhealthy sibling; Shame.  In humility we are open, we are ready to learn, we show both sides of the leaf.  With shame we close our self off from the outside world and bury our leaf in the darkest hole.   In this state of mind when we see someone with boundless compassion or great practice we do not see it as something we can learn from but they become a source of  further comparison and  a deepening shame of our failures.  That which could give us hope and insight to our Buddha Nature only becomes a testament of our failures. Gratitude gets choked off in the darkness.  Humility on the other hand opens us up to awe and the acceptance of our limitation, it frees us to “keep going” without the burden of judgment and shame.

 

As Goymay writes, Ku Yo practice is  being done in relation to someone or something that is more worthy than oneself.  More worthy than me? A part of us does not like such a statement.  Here is where many of us live in a paradox. In our shame we feel unworthy and yet we bristle at the idea of someone being more worthy than us?  Why is this idea so challenging for some of us? Maybe it is because we  have inherited the karma of “rugged individualism” and a misplaced meaning of “equality”?  In opening services at our Sangha, we recite lines from the opening they use at Plum Village Sangha in France. One of the lines says, “may we be free from the “equality complex””,  to remind ourselves that there are things greater than ourselves, like the three refuges for example; the Dharma, The Sangha and the Buddha. I am grateful that there are things in this world greater than me!  I feel a sympathetic joy and gratitude to those I make  offerings to.  I think that Ku Yo is the fruit of “sincerely seeking the true life” (46) There is no Ku Yo without “true life” and no true life without “Ku Yo”, they “co-arise”.  Offerings to the Buddha inspire us to become Buddhas, they come from the heart, there is no ego in it.” (46) all the time realizing that what bows and is bowed to are the same.

 

I have great appreciation for the more psychological and secular forms of Buddhism and they have been companions with me on my journey. At the same time I appreciate the idea of something greater than my small ego-self, a point of reference that elicits awe, a devotional expression within samsaric dualism, that works dynamically through poetry, metaphor and experience to dissolve all dualisms into the great ocean of compassion.