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The Dharma of Listening and Speaking, Part One

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Photo by Patrick Hendry

In these contentious times, our words—public and private—can wound or heal. 

I see this in relationships, in society, and in the sangha. Learning the hard way, I have come to understand that what each of us hears is not necessarily what the speaker might have meant. If speech is a karmic activity, so too is listening.

From the earliest scriptures, the Buddha emphasized the importance of intention—not just in terms of speech, but in every aspect of our practice. This is the second step on the Noble Eightfold Path—sammā-saṅkappa. But, as we will unpack further in my next article for this column, when speaking, I also need to pay attention to the impact my words have on the one who is listening. So intention and impact fit together “like front and back foot in walking.”*

Buddhist traditions have a wealth of teachings on Right Speech, which include listening and speaking. But I’d like to begin from the space of zazen. In contemporary Soto Zen Buddhism, the titles of the late Dainin Katagiri Roshi’s first two books bring us back to essentials. His first book is titled Returning to Silence. The second book is You Have to Say Something. 

Returning to silence is hearing, listening; stepping into the receptive mind of zazen. Listening is the active component of hearing. Listen for a moment. Right now, I hear the sound of the refrigerator, a car going by, birds in the yard. Listening takes place against a background of silence. This is also bodhisattva practice. Avalokiteshvara, Kannon, or Guanyin is referred to as “one who sees the cries of the world.” In zazen, with all senses functioning, there is a kind of synesthesia—experiencing one sense through the workings of another. That is returning to silence, the all-inclusive experience of zazen

Hozan Alan Senauke. From berkeleyzencenter.org

But zazen mind is not a practice confined to the walls of the zendo, nor to the frame of a Zoom screen. The full unfolding of zazen is in our life—our social life, community life, political life—where we act. We have to do something; we have to say something. We do zazen with our bodies as an activity. Of course, outside the doors of a meditation hall, we speak, work, play, and so on. The active side of our practice completes a continuous circle of the way. We are always moving naturally between returning to silence, listening, and having to say something. 

I recently came across this excerpt from a 1967 lecture by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in which he highlights the practice of listening:

When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen to him, just observe what his way is. We put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. We just see things as they are with him or her, and accept them. This is how we communicate with each other. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it.

Photo by Petri Haanpää

The sad state of public discourse in the West is in large part because many of us are often listening to our own opinions, searching for views and words that we agree with, dismissing other perspectives. I catch myself doing this all the time.

Suzuki Roshi is suggesting that we ratchet back our habit of judging everything we listen to, of evaluating in terms of right and wrong, good and bad. He is not suggesting that we ignore morality. But he is encouraging us to set aside self-centered views, which subtly show up in many of our verbal exchanges. In the moment of listening to someone, try to see the cries of the world. Just see that person as he or she is right there. Whether you agree with them or not, make an effort to accept them. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and to relieve others of their suffering.

How we listen and how we speak is the heartbeat of a practical approach to Buddhism. Yes, the silence is deep and nourishing. We may yearn for it, but we inhabit that silent space just a small part of the time. Much more of our day is spent interacting with others. Even as we speak, we must always be watching and listening.

Hozan Alan Senauke
Berkeley, California
November 2021

“The Dharma of Listening and Speaking, Part Two” will be published in January.

* Excerpt from “Sandōkai,” (Ch: Cāntóngqì ) a poem by the Chinese Zen ancestor Shitou Xiqian (Jp: Sekito Kisen, c.700–790).

See more

Berkeley Zen Center
Clear View Project
International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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