For the next week, I’ll be posting an excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, together with a few comments on each.
Of all the ideas I’ve encountered in my life the most exciting is the material in Landmark Education’s curriculum concerning the “world to word fit”, the world-creating word and listening. It’s been noted that the man who originally brought together the material, Werner Erhard, read, and was influenced by many sources including Martin Heidegger’s ontology, John Searle’s work on speech acts and also Zen Buddhism. What Zen Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh, discusses in the following excerpt is close to what Landmark participants and graduates explore when it comes to listening.
In the everyday view of the world, listening is just something like the absence of talking or the act of physical sound waves hitting the ear drum. In the non-everyday view of the world, listening is a much greater act, in fact, the greatest act of all: the act of creation. The idea is everywhere in Christian theology, and also, as Thich Nhat Hanh, observes, in Indian spiritual thought; no doubt, it features in religions I know nothing about. And yet it’s wholly absent from our everyday understanding …
“Bodhisattva is the Buddhist term for someone with great compassion whose life’s work is to ease people’s suffering. Buddhism talks about a bodhisattva named Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of deep listening. The name Avalokiteshvara means
the one who listens deeply to the sounds of the world.
According to Buddhist tradition, Avalokiteshvara has the capacity to listen to all kinds of sounds. He can also utter five different kinds of sounds that can heal the world. If you can find silence within yourself, you can hear these five sounds.
The first is the wonderful sound, the sound of the wonders of life that are calling you. This is the sound of the birds, of the rain, and so on. God is a sound, the creator of the cosmos is a sound. Everything begins with the sound.
The second sound is the sound of the one who observes the world. This is the sound of listening, the sound of silence.
The third sound is the Brahma sound. This is the transcendental sound ‘om’ which has a long history in Indian spiritual thought. The tradition is that the sound ‘om’ has the innate power to create the world. The story goes that the cosmos, the world, the universe, was created by that sound. The Christian gospel of John has the same idea, ‘In the beginning there was the Word …’ (John 1:1) According to the Vedas, the oldest Hindu texts, that world-creating word is om. In Indian Vedic tradition, this sound is the ultimate reality or God. Many modern astronomers have come to believe something similar; they have been looking for the beginning of time, the beginning of the cosmos, and they hypothesise that the very beginning of the universe was the ‘big bang’.
The fourth sound is the sound of the rising tide. This sound symbolises the voice of the Buddha. The teaching of the Buddha can clear away misunderstanding, remove affliction and transform everything. It’s penetrating and effective.
The fifth sound is the sound that transcends all sounds of the world. This is the sound of impermanence, a reminder not to get caught up in or too attached to particular words or sounds. Many scholars have made the Buddha’s teaching complicated and difficult to understand but the Buddha said things very simply and did not get caught up in words. So if a teaching is too complicated, it’s not the sound of the Buddha. If what you’re hearing is too loud, too noisy or convoluted, it’s not the voice of the Buddha. Wherever you go, you can hear that fifth sound, even if you’re in prison. You can hear the sound that transcends all sounds of the world.”
From Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise by Thich Nhat Hanh
Image: Thich Nhat Hanh in 1974