The aural landscape in the Mahayana Buddhist monastery is alive with percussive sound. The thunderous morning drum and the brooding evening bell have given the mountain villages and valley towns a human counterpoint to the cycles of sun and moon. The universe of the monastery moves to sounds: three cracks on the “wooden fish” drum begins meditation; a mellow rounded chime wakes the mind to motion. A dull mallet thunks a hardwood board to summon the assembly to the Buddha hall and the start of devotions; the flat metal “firebeam” sends us to the dining hall for meals. Cast-iron bells wake us; silver hand bells guide us to bow, to walk, to stop walking—each sound a distinct imprint on the ear. Skin-top drums, cold-bronze gongs, the solo human voice, the chorus of voices—each in turn returns to silence.
Mahayana Buddhists meditate with sounds in three ways: the first is soundless. Ch’an/Zen meditators mindfully sweep out the “dust of sounds” that defile the purity of the ear organ in order to realize their Buddha nature, which is beyond purity and defilement. Second, the meditations of the Pure Land tradition generate praises with sound. Praising the name and reciting the scriptures of Amita Buddha are the vehicles of salvation, the high road to his Western Pure Land of Utmost Happiness. Third, the Chinese esoteric school uses mantras as pure sounds. When recited with a concentrated mind, some mantras are meant to open the world of spiritual vibrations, to restore one’s inner world to balance, to calm the mind, and to transform consciousness to wisdom.
My first awakening to the power of the Buddhist cultivation of sounds began with mantras. In 1969 I had been hiking up Lion’s Head Mountain in central Taiwan with classmates from Donghai University. We walked all morning and finally came over the lip of a long valley. The trail carried us up to a narrow mountainside plateau where we were to stay for the night. The rubbed-smooth rocks of the Buddhist monastery’s dormitory led into the bunkroom; being a monastery there were plank benches for beds. We collapsed, sweaty, gasping for oxygen. I slept through dinner and woke in the pitch dark at 4:30 a.m. A rhythmic pounding of a wooden drum drew me out into the dewy, still courtyard like the moon pulls the tide. Half awake, I walked gingerly across the warm flagstones to stand outside a door of a brightly lit hall. Peering over the head of a classmate who stood transfixed before me, I spied twelve monks and nuns standing in orderly rows, making sounds in unison that were not Chinese, nor were they specifically musical. Monotonous, rising and falling, yet carefully articulated and distinct—was it chanting or humming? Nor could I tell the place in my body that heard the sounds. I took in their tones as much with my skin and my feet as I did with my ears. My ribs vibrated with the impossibly deep bass. The wooden drum, carved to look like a dragonfish, kept a rhythm that rose through my feet and carried out the crown of my head.
Riding the vibrations of the sounds, I felt my body to be one piece with the granite I stood upon and the stones of the mountaintops miles away. Suzy, the red-haired linguist from New Jersey, said, “That’s the Shurangama Mantra, the longest one the Chinese monks do. Isn’t it eerie?”
It was eerie. The chant seemed to get in between the molecules and fill space, and almost turn the air solid. I’d never heard sound do that. From far away, images swirled, the chanting of the monks cracked open a memory; my body inhaled a breath today in 1969, my mind recalled a moment in a Chinese monastery centuries before when I stood wearing the robes of a Tang-dynasty Chinese monk and felt the identical sounds vibrate. I remembered the pattern that sound awoke in me. I exhaled and returned to the predawn Taiwanese mountaintop, but the image of sound waves uniting past and present was indelible; sound was the medium that first awoke the question, Who am I?
When I came to Gold Mountain Monastery in 1972 I was a graduate student living in a Berkeley Hills commune. My on-again, off-again Zen meditation practice failed to keep pace with my worldly habits. On Buddha’s birthday at Gold Mountain that year, a tall hook-nosed monk from Las Vegas gave me advice: “College student, right? Probably too many words in your head. Why don’t you learn the Great Compassion Mantra of Guan Yin Bodhisattva? You’ve seen her? Guan Yin is the one who looks like the Virgin Mary? That’s her image over there in the back of the Buddha hall. Her name means ‘she listens to the sounds of the world.’ Give all your extra words away to Guan Yin. She’ll listen and your mind will be lighter. That’s what I’d do if I were you.”
In the monastery’s twilight, I stared at the elegant statue of Guan Yin Bodhisattva. As I headed home, I found an offering on top of my backpack from the hook-nosed monk. He’d left a copy of the Great Compassion Mantra transcribed out of Chinese characters into alphabet syllables.
Thirty days later, I could recite its eighty-six lines from memory. My mind was lighter. Somehow the mantra had vacuumed the lint of random thoughts from my mind. I didn’t understand even one syllable—the sounds are Mandarin Chinese approximations of an ancient, quasi-Sanskrit syllabary called Siddham. Namo heladanou duolayeye. They meant no more to me than “abracadabra” or “mumbo jumbo,” but precisely because they trigger no image from the mind’s symbol library, the sounds shape their own response in the mind’s ear. They seemed to chisel away chunks of the words and pictures layered thickly on the walls of my mind. I learned the mantra by heart, I recited it when jogging, when riding my bicycle down Spruce Street to school, especially when meditating before sunrise. Once a week, I drove my old Volvo across the Bay Bridge to the rhythm of the mantra syllables. After I began reciting the mantra, it seemed to me that my real life had begun, or inexplicably, resumed. Had I discovered the mantra or, the way a magnet attracts iron filings, had its sacred sounds drawn me back to the Path?
Wondrous sound, Contemplator of the
A Brahma sound, like the ocean’s tides;
Surpassing every other worldly sound,
Guan Yin, stay forever in my mind.
Meditating in the predawn stillness on a deck of a retreat hut in the Santa Cruz redwoods, gradually through the fog I begin to hear bird songs: a few, a chorus, a symphony of thirty-odd bird sounds, including a neighbor’s dissonant peacock. The rhythms, pitches and inflections of the birds’ songs are each different. In my mind I’m hearing feeding sounds, bullying sounds, territorial warning sounds, courtship and mating sounds. The texture of the bird music grows so thick and oppressive it’s difficult to settle into my sitting. I grow irritated; I have to either stand up and quit meditation or pull out another dharma tool. I decide to sit through the sounds. I bring to mind a contemplation on the emptiness of sights and sounds from Guan Yin Bodhisattva.
The eyes contemplate shapes and forms,
But they don’t stay in the mind;
The ears hear the world of sounds,
But the mind does not know.
In the teachings of the Ch’an School, all sounds that the ear of the meditator grasps are called the “dust of sounds.” As soon as the ear organ moves to grasp a sound or to reject a sound, the mind has already stirred from samadhi and ties one to the world of duality, of birth and death and suffering. This way of listening teaches that ultimate response to sounds is to let go of attachments to pleasing sounds and disturbing sounds alike.
As the sun sets I make an effort to stop grasping after the sounds and let them be. I try to let the birdcalls become the ancient, ageless, primal Dao speaking through bird voices. I drop the effortful rejection of sounds, and my ears function as meters registering the passing of waves through air that hit the membrane of the ear the way a stick hits a drum. The air becomes a medium, the directions round out, take on dimensions, and become a sphere with the ear and the listening mind in the center. The air stills, the sounds stop at midday, begin once more in late afternoon, and suddenly fall silent at sunset. Three dimensions become two dimensions; near sounds, far sounds collapse as the sonic landscape loses the dimension of space. Sound settles in around my ears. With so much work sorting out the presence or absence of sounds, in the end who is listening?
Buddhadharma teaches us to use what we have—in this case, our ears—to enter the ocean of sounds that surround us. Sounds become a gateway to understand how things of the world come together and come apart and how to skillfully live our lives between the coming and the going.