Hearing the Sounds of the World

There was a Bodhisattva who attained englightenment by concentrating intently on every sound he heard, so Shakyamuni Buddha called him Kannon.   If you know the substance of the mind Buddha, the very instant you hear a sound, search for this one who hears.  — Bassui, in Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen

There was a time when I aspired to be a scholar.  I suppose that aspiration began when I first found Sufism and read the ancient Sufi mystics and studied the words of my own teacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan.  I read other scriptures, too, and mystical texts, and then I became a college student–rather late in life–and then a grad student and then–worst of all!–a Ph.D. student.  Buddhism always attracted me, and I read and read, but somewhere along the way, I lost my scholarly aspirations and just read and, often, wrote.  I have lost my taste for appearing to know what I’m talking about, and I admit I often don’t, but I know what moves me, and sometimes I want to share that.  So here (after my neurotic apology for poor scholarship) is what the footnote accompanying the above text says:

Kannon is a simplication of Kanzeon, which means “hearer (or receiver) of the voices (cries) of the world.”  Sometimes Bassui uses the term Kanzeon and sometimes Kannon.  (168)

You see, I can’t even be bothered to do a proper reference!   Anyway, there is, in the Buddhist cosmology, a rather loose and–to me–confusing system of Buddhas and Boddhisattvas, and a line of descent (and ascent) that I only vaguely understand and I have run across any number of versions of Kannon, including the female Boddhisattva, Quan Yin, “she who hears the sounds of the world.”  The story about her–sometimes him–is that having attained enlightenment, she was invited into the absolute God, but at that moment, she heard a baby crying somewhere in the universe, and so she decided she should stick around until all sentient beings had attained liberation.  Pretty codependent, eh?  The perfect example of women’s tendency to believe we are responsible for the happiness of all those within our various spheres (and I suppose if you’re a Boddhisattva, your sphere is rather large).  In theory, and in my experience in reality, that principle continues to operate, and it might be said that ultimately, it is the female principle in all of us, realizing our interconnectedness; that we can’t truly go anywhere unless we take everyone else along with us.  Clearly, this is not a popular concept amongst those yet to awaken, but it lies dormant and less-than dormant in all of us.  It appears in virtually all of those religious traditions we know much about:

“The Cross is not a shadow of death, but a sign of progress.” (Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity in the World, 1933, IX, 108)

And of course, to vow to save all sentient beings really is what the cross is about, yes?  To willingly take on the burdens of an unawakened humanity, that the universe might continue to grow and flourish.  Just now, I am having difficulty seeing all that growth and unfoldment, and perhaps it is when we reach those places that such willingness to lay our lives on the line for our ideals is the most important of all.  The writings of St. John of the Cross refer to “the dark night of the soul,” and alchemically speaking, this is the necessary cycle we all go through when we separate the transient from the eternal.  It is a dark night indeed for our mistaken constructs about who we are, and it feels like dying. I’ve been following this contemplative path of mine for nearly 40 years, and recently, a dear friend pointed out to me that there comes a point when we have to accept that the practices and teachings themselves become a limitation and must be dropped for an authentic meeting with the divine Being.  A dark night, indeed, when one realizes that ultimately, the dearly loved icons and ideals are meaningless in the face of the truth.

There is a story which explains this subject very well. It is of a king who had a parrot which he loved so much that he kept it in a golden cage, and always attended to it himself. The king and queen both paid such great attention to the parrot that everyone in the palace was jealous of it.

One day the king was about to go into the forest where the parrot came from, and he said to it, ‘My pet, I have loved you, and kept you with all the care and attention and fondness that I could; and I should like very much to take any message you wish to your brothers in the forest.’ The parrot said, ‘How kind of you to have offered to do this for me. Convey to my brothers in the jungle that the king and queen have done their very best to make me happy, a golden cage, all kinds of fruits, and nice things of all sorts; and they love me so much. But in spite of all the attention they give me I long for the forest, and the desire to dwell among you, free as I used to be before, always possesses my mind. But I see no way out of it, so pray send me your goodwill and your love. One only lives in hope. Perhaps some day my wish will be granted.’ The king went into the forest, and approached the tree from which the parrot was taken and said to the brothers of the parrot, ‘O parrots, there is one whom I have taken from among you to my palace; and I am very fond of him, and he receives all the attention I can give. This is your brother’s message.’ They listened to the message very attentively, and one after the other dropped to the ground and seemed dead. The king was depressed beyond measure. Spellbound, he could not understand what it was that he had said that should have affected the feelings of those parrots so much. The loving parrots could not bear his message. And he thought, ‘What a sin I have committed, to have destroyed so many lives.’ He returned to his palace, and went to his parrot, and said, ‘How foolish, O parrot, to give me such a message that as soon as your brothers heard it, one after another they dropped down, and all lay dead before me.’

The parrot listened to this, and looked up gently to the sky, and then fell down too. The king was even more sad. ‘How foolish I was! First I gave his message to them and killed them, and now I give their message to him and kill him also.’ It was all most bewildering to the king. What was the meaning of it all?

He commanded his servants to put his dead parrot on a gold tray, and bury him with all ceremony. The servants took him out of the cage with great respect, and loosed the chains from his feet; and then, as they were laying him out, the parrot suddenly flew away and sat upon the roof.  The king said, ‘O parrot, you betrayed me.’ The parrot said, ‘O king, this was the aim of my soul, and it is the aim of all souls. My brothers in the jungle were not dead. I had asked them to show me the way to freedom, and they showed me. I did as they told me, and now I am free.’

There is a Sura in the Qur’an which says: ‘Mutu kubla anta mutu,’ which means, ‘Die before death.’ A poet says, ‘Only he attains to the peace of the Lord who loses himself.’ God said to Moses, ‘No man shall see Me, and live.’ To see God we must be non-existent.  –Inayat Khan, The Alchemy of Happiness

Recently, our family watched the recent, acclaimed film Slumdog Millionaire.  I couldn’t really see what all the hoopla was about, but I thought it was important for us Westerners to see just how prosperous most of us are in the face of true poverty and alienation from security of any kind.  And yet:  Indians are said to be among the happiest people in the world!  I tend to think that the more Eastern civilizations are immeasurably richer than we are in the truly important things this world–and the next–offer, and this is why they are such an example to us of real wisdom and happiness.  Unfortunately, the entirety of this film shows that they would increasingly rather try it our way for at least a time, for which I am sorry; but I was moved by the example of a people who live lives that few of us in this culture can even imagine, and continue to prosper spiritually and intellectually.  Perhaps the lesson here is that we are so much stronger than we can imagine, and each annihilation is an opportunity to move from strength to strength building, as Pir Vilayat often said, “a beautiful world of beautiful people.”

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