Silence in the Midst of Sound

Please note: This entry is about sound, but similar examinations can be made using sight, smell, taste, touch, and thought.

Sitting zazen in the morning when the windows are open, I hear the sound of the city waking up. There is a gentle crescendo. Within it are pockets of sound that might garner attention: the groan of garbage trucks down the block, the click of high heels on pavement, car doors opening and closing, and the starting of engines. There is the distant rumbling of a train and the prolonged echo of its faint horn. The padding of joggers is noted, along with their out-of-breath conversations drifting in, echoing, and fading away. We may enjoy or relish some of these identified sounds, and we may find some disturbing. When this occurs, there is yet another sound: the noise of the busy, opinionated, grasping mind.

Sounds are easily noted, identified and labeled. What we may not realize, is that sound (not plural) is constantly, directly experienced. We are never apart from sound, which occurs regardless of label or comment. Without commenting on identified sounds, however, silence can be found in the midst of sound.

When we hear a foreign language for the first time, we don’t recognize the peppering of syllables that combine to make words. If we don’t try to decipher or understand, it is possible to realize, or directly experience sound.

Hearing our own native language, we understand what is being said by interpreting the symbols we call words. It’s very difficult to hear our own language and simply experience sound. This shows us how automatically the conceptualized experience arises.

There is no problem with conceptualizing. Conceptualizing is integral to humanness; to the relative world in which we live. Conceptualizing brings the utilities of navigation, planning, measurement, comparison, etc. Conceptualizing brings the possibility to appreciate conversation, music, art, entertainment, family, and friends; any concept that shows up. The pain and confusion that arises in our lives, is due to the grasping of concepts.

In the practice of Zen, we are invited to become familiar with the pain and difficulty that arise immediately with the grasping of concepts. Specifically we can discover that the hinge to all pain and difficulty is the belief in the concept of a persistent, independent self. This doesn’t mean there is no self. Life is occurring here-now—no where else and at no other time. By mistake, we simply and consistently sum up the direct experience of here-now, into a “me” experiencing a life of “things” outside.  We incorrectly conclude that “we” are separate from our life and experience “it” through the gates of our senses. We let the world in and we project ourselves out, futilely arranging and rearranging in order to satisfy that self. What we enjoy doesn’t last. What we don’t enjoy shows up anyway. This greedy way of living is synonymous with unsettled mind, dukkha, and it’s noisy.

The two ways of experiencing sound can point to undifferentiated Reality which supports relative reality. Sound is simply sound; undefined. Sound is a form of Reality, a manifestation of the functioning of Reality. It appears immediately with the appearance of one who hears it. It is relative aspect, arising out of all aspects, and is not separate from Reality.

Undifferentiated Reality is continuously expressing itself as the relative world: sound, color, scent, flavor, form, thought. Sound is continually arising out of conditions, differentiated or not. The undifferentiated appears as differentiated. They are not two separate realities. An engraving on a coin cannot be separated from the coin.

They are not two, but the difference in these two ways of experiencing, is subtle and profound. Living this life with thorough realization of this not two-ness, is profoundly different than living a life limited by belief in the realness of relative, fixed objects, including “me.” Speech and action forever cause ripples whether one is awake or not. Misunderstanding life by believing in separate, persisting beings, we speak and act with the aim to please and protect ourselves. It is noisy living. With thorough realization, the concept of “me” immediately vanishes, along with the noise of busy-mind.

We can sit in the meditation hall, hearing many different sounds and realize that they are conceptualized experiences forming out of undifferentiated Reality. As “barking dog” arises, we can return to this moment. We return from our ideas of dog, and barking, and silence, and my preferences. We return to the current activity, this life now, which includes sound. In this return, the sound of no particular-ness is immediate. It is rich, dynamic, and complete.

Life doesn’t occur somewhere else. Life is experienced directly, right here, right now as this life. This is what is often called Thusness—always fresh, immediate, complete, and impermanent. The life that is Thusness is completely filled with sound (and color, smell, taste, touch, thought). When grasping has ceased, Thusness comes forward, noise-free; silent in the midst of sound.

© 2011 Bev Forsman and Letters from Emptiness. If you share this material, please include direction to the original content. Thank you.