What types of sounds do you tend to notice? Pleasant sounds or unpleasant sounds? Music or noise? Loud sounds or white noise?
A preeminent Chinese Buddhist teacher, Master Jiaoguang, developed some illuminating and useful categories of sounds for people who practice listening as a meditation. Check and see if you ever think about sounds the way he did.
I drew a schematic to illustrate and summarize Master Jaioguang’s teaching. I also elaborate on the background and contemporary examples to these different types of sounds for you.
Starting with the big picture, Buddhist teachings frequently ground themselves on the understanding that the world tends to use dualistic paradigms such as black vs. white, night vs. day, good vs. evil. One of the binary principles that Buddhist theorists use is phenomena vs. noumenon. Very briefly, phenomena refer to the multitudinous mundane events and materiality that transpire. Noumenon refers to the universal singularity that is core and common to all throughout the cosmos.
Human beings and our senses belong to this world of space and time, the category of phenomena. Our six senses are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The phenomena that our sense faculties are inclined to seek out are sights, sounds, scents, flavors, tactile sensations, and thoughts. For instance, you ever catch yourself glancing repeatedly at someone or something that keeps bobbing up and down or on and off such as a teenager twirling a billboard ad at a neighborhood corner or flashing neon lights at a storefront? Or, once you tried some sweet-flavored ice cream, any ordinary fruit immediately thereafter just doesn’t seem to satisfy your taste buds?
Among the six senses and stimulants to the six senses, hearing is possible 24 hours a day. Hence, the Shurangama listening practice focuses on the auditory process specifically.
Let me explain sounds according to Master Jiaoguang’s categories. Look at the companion schematic. Start from the top. All sounds are auditory phenomena and can be further distinguished and divided into these types of sounds:
1. Sound of stillness. One sound that most of us don’t consider to be sound is silence. See my past blog posts about the sound of silence here.
2. Other types of sounds are all moving sounds, sounds in action. They include:
2A. Sounds emitted directly without interference or preponderance. Straightforward sounds devoid of intended meaning such as the sound of wind, water, nature. Sounds from various creatures, birds etc. may mean to attract or repel, but with no created meaning, so would still belong to this category. Sounds emitted from an instrument intends nothing in particular except what the musician infuses and threads together.
2B. Music that is melody or song is “distorted” sound in that it has been reworked, massaged, interfered with, imbued with intention. Language also consists of sounds in this category because they are mundane sounds that can be manipulated, modified, or twisted.
2Bi. Sounds relating principles are “distorted” too. First, principles can be universal ideals of a lofty or base nature, theories about the good or the evil in humans, and others including religious, philosophical, or even occult teachings. The point here is that regardless of the content of the sound, sound of this sort is contorted, even if it is sound communicating a most exalted inspiration. At advanced levels of Buddhist practice, voices sounding the highest teachings can become distractions in that such words trigger a flood of internal discussion and thought process. Pursuing sounds of a mystical and wondrous nature prevents the listening meditator from the real work of listening to that which listens.
2Bii. Sounds expressing the secular are distorted similarly. Here, secular sounds can mean sounds not about principled ideals. They are further distinguished between powerless and powerful sounds. Whether these sounds are powerless or powerful depends on the substance of the sound, but also depends on the listener.
2Bii(1). Powerless sounds. Powerless sounds may breed scattered thoughts in you, but have no real power to add to your stress. An example may be words about the history of a distant land that you know very little about and does not appear to relate to you. You may come across these words and comment to yourself about how interesting or boring the material is, but remain composed and unaffected emotionally.
Hear these sounds. All the sounds described are around you. Listen and see how you are affected. As you pay attention to what you hear and how you’re listening, you may learn more about the listener.