Who is hearing that sound?

 “Who is hearing that sound?”


A teisho given at the Rossmoyne Sesshin, Western Australia, November 2011. (The printed version which follows reworks the spoken version on this site. (sound file here)

We are in an ocean of sound, to such an extent that the sounds of the night shape our dreaming. It is that intimate, and that taken for granted. I remember, walking back to San Francisco Zen Centre after being with a musician friend and rather unwisely walking through the settlements near San Francisco Zen Centre. What is most striking walking through that dangerous neighbourhood is that those sounds come out of nowhere! Occasionally I would fearfully glance up and see three or four mean-looking guys sitting in a car, and, occasionally, someone shouting abuse at them from far up. The sound world of Sesshin may be a measure safer than that of the settlements – though even the softest sound is a threat to life.

When we do zazen, our eyes are open only a little, so that the sense of sight is somewhat diminished. The undifferentiated black of clothing also reduces visual input. What comes to the fore by reducing the visual is the subtle realm of sound – the sound of the bell, the sound of the clapper, the soft sound of your feet on the carpet. These sounds are unbounded, and each tolls the death knell of the separated, limited self.

How do you work with “Who is hearing that sound?” When you become aware of a sound, you just ask, “Who is hearing that sound?” Or more briefly, “Who hears?” or more briefly still, “Who?” Include “inside” sounds as well – rumbling tummy, even tinnitus in your investigation. Let the sounds come to you. There is no need to go hunting for them. And there is no need to scout for sounds when it's quiet, either. Just ask the question, and there is your sound.

Each sound brings you home. At the same time, each sound is home. It's good not to name the sounds, or to get too carried away with their associations, as when you hear a dog bark and think, gotta make a vet appointment shortly, and next week is booked solid, and on and on and on. Just WROOOOOOFF.

When you work with “Who is hearing that sound?” the dark region is who? Who is the one who hears? Who is that one? Like this your investigation invokes the fundamental question “Who am I?” but “Who is hearing that sound?” is less psychologically entangled.

You ask who is hearing that sound, and if the response comes, “I am hearing that sound” – which is true in its way – you just ask, “Who is that one? Who is that “I” that hears?” Thus you begin your journey into depth.

Bassui Zenji, who devised this koan, was born in 1327 in Sagami (today's Kanagawa Prefecture,)and like a lot of people who come to Zen he got a rough start in life. His mother had a dream that he was a demon child and abandoned him in the paddock. One of her servants found him and cared for him. His father died when he was seven. At his father’s memorial service the priest put out food offerings on the altar, and Bassui asked as to who those offerings were for. Who is going to eat them? The priest told him that they were for the nourishment of his father’s soul. Bassui was puzzled by this, and especially puzzled as to what a soul was, especially a soul that could eat offerings. Over the years his questions crystallized into “Who is it who sees hears and understands?” and later still to “Who is the master of hearing that sound?” In other words, who is the one in charge of hearing this sound? Who is that one?

Your journey takes you beneath your name and roles. It is very interesting in Sesshin that things that are very important in our life, after two days of sitting can begin to feel quite light and distant. For me, music, which is my profession, thins out rapidly, so that after a couple of days the internal music feels quite ghostly.

Working with the koan, we also let go of socially constructed notions of self. In some measure the conventional notion of who we are depends on who people take us to be. If you go home to parents for instance, they may still see you as a child. I suspect that many a successful adult goes home to find that he or she is eating breakfast out of their childhood plates.

Our roles and socially constructed notions of who we are, are powerfully established. However, as you deepen in your enterprise with the koan, they release their grip, and we encounter greater spaciousness and ease.

The foregoing doesn’t deny personality, and individual differences.  We place a lot of importance on being different, on being individual, which reminds me of that humorous remark, “Lord, let me be different, like everybody else.” Some of us have grey hair, some black hair, some have blue eyes, some, brown eyes. And we vary in our styles of relating; some of us are outgoing, some are reserved. None of this is being denied. You just let go of considerations of difference and continue to ask “Who is the one who hears?”

You may reach a point that Bassui himself reached in his journey with this koan, where there is no-one at all who hears. Well and good, but it is very important not to stop there. Bassui said that if you do that, you settle for copper rather than gold. And the no-one who hears is powerless to act for the benefit of others.

Back in 18th century Japan there was a woman called Asan who was a devoted student of the Way. Year after year she used to get up early in the morning to meditate. One morning she heard the crow of the rooster, and had an awakening. With this, she spontaneously uttered the line, “The fields, the mountain, and my body too, are the voice of the bird. What can be left that can be said to hear?”

Asan took her insight to Hakuin, the greatest teacher of the day, for checking. She set her sights, and the bar, high for herself. Hakuin asked her, “What is the sound on one hand?” – a koan that he had crafted from a line by Xuedou in the Blue Cliff Record: “The palm of a single hand does not make a sound in vain.”

Asan replied (loud clap) “Better to clap two hands and do business.” With this she presents the matter entire, just as the rooster crow did for her – with nothing left over. This is, in the same breath, the vibrancy of the Way: work, love, our ordinary interchange with the world. With this she’s saying, “Don't bother me with those smelly questions that you ask your monks. Let’s get down to tin tacks.” Hakuin who was a brilliant calligrapher immediately drew her a broom. The broom has interesting history for Hakuin, because when he was meditating with the koan Mu on his begging rounds and standing outside this old woman's house – muuuu muuuu muuuu – she got so fed up she came downstairs, got the broom, and hit him over the head with it, which was the occasion for an opening for him. Anyway, Hakuin drew the broom for Asan, and Asan shot back, “Sweeping away all the bad teachers in Japan, first of all Hakuin.” Hakuin roared with laughter. That laugh is just what it is, to the very bottom. To be interpretative, that laugh is expressive of their kinship in the Way – the untrammelled release of spontaneity, love and a disregard for risk that comes with living the awakened life.  

Milan Adamciak is regarded as the father of experimental music in Slovakia. I met him some years ago, in Bratislava and we sat under this umbrella, advertising West cigarettes. Milan had a drinking problem, but he was asserting great control on that day because we drank nothing but coffee, for hour after hour, just talking, mainly about music. And he told me this story. When I was 20, I took my cello out one morning, I put it on my back and climbed up one of the smaller mountains in the High Tatras. I sat on a rock and played my lowest C. (I’m not going to hazard that - then he does – aaaah, aaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaah.) And the birds stopped their song – utterly. You could have heard a leaf move. When I found the courage to play on at last, the birds shyly joined in, so that after a time, I couldn’t say how long, I was a bird.”

Tonight the song of the earth – the night hum of cities, industrial sounds, shouts, cries, traffic, doof-doof, Bach, Schubert, digital noise, the thump of surf, a jet opening up the sky, and closer in, the thump of the plumbing in the old house, trees being moved about in the night wind, night birds song, and closer in still, your beating heart – offers itself unstintingly.

It is said that Robert Aitken’s teacher Yamada Koun, after his realization, continued to work on the koan “Who is hearing that sound?” – what some might regard as a beginner's koan – every day for the rest of his life. Yamada worked as a hospital administrator, and he no doubt sat in the morning with this koan, then took it on the train with him, and carried it throughout his working day in the hospital.

You should follow his example and make the most of precious time here.  Each moment is the middle moment of your life.

Who is hearing that sound?