Kuan-yin begins his discourse by saying: “First, I (concentrated) on the audial consciousness” which means “during the first stage of meditation, using my hearing.” Here, special attention should be paid to the fact that the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin began his cultivation of realization at the level of an ordinary human being. He had a strong sense of self, of an ‘I.’ Second, he possessed the innate nature to hear. Third, both his audial consciousness and hearing were unimpaired. Fourth, he heard sounds, such as the sound of the tide mentioned above. We all possess these faculties and the delusions associated with them. This is significant, because in the course of this discussion we will see how Kuan-yin progressed from his ordinary state and proceeded to eradicate his deluded attachments one by one.
As I mentioned above, Kuan-yin practiced meditation by the sea. By listening to the coming and going of the sound of the tide, he realized that sound is neither permanent nor substantial, but arises and ceases momentarily within the field created by one’s innate nature to hear. Nonetheless, one becomes attached to sounds, and as a result, delusion arises. Therefore, by allowing the sounds that contacted the ear to flow off, and thereby being detached from the object sound, Kuan-yin was able to eliminate the delusion that has its origin in sound.
“Allowed the sounds that were contacting the ear to flow off, and thus audial objects subsided and were lost” has two aspects that require study. First, we will examine “allowed the sounds that contacted the ear to flow off.” This refers to ‘entering,’ a Buddhist technical term that denotes contact between a sense organ and its object in the external environment. The contacts of the five physical sense organs (i.e., eye, ear, nose, tongue, and skin) with their respective objects and of the mind with the world of thoughts and ideas are termed the ‘six entrances’ in Buddhism. The entrance we are considering here is that of the ear, and entering in this case is the arising of the sensation of sound when the vibrations of an external source reach the eardrum.
The meaning of ‘flow off’ is not grasping, not abiding. In the Diamond Sutra it says:”…not arousing one’s mind by abiding in sound, smell, taste, touch, or mental objects…” Here not abiding means that one does not linger on the sensation but rather allows the stream of consciousness to continue to flow freely even after contact is made with the object. Thus, Kuan-yin’s phrase “allowed the sounds that contacted the ear to flow off’ has exactly the same meaning as does “not arousing one’s mind by abiding in sound” in the language of the Diamond Sutra.
To be precise, ‘allowing to flow’ means that one does not cling to every single sound heard by the ear in contact with the external world. One should allow each sound to pass away, like water flowing in a stream. This is easy enough to say, but it is quite a feat to accomplish. Our difficulty lies in the fact that we have an established habit whereby we catch hold of single sounds, string them together to form words and sentences, and then impart meanings to them. From this process, deluded attachments, turbulent emotions, and sufferings arise. We can confirm this by means of a simple experiment:
Let someone produce a sequence of single syllables, for example: KUAN SHIH YIN. Now if you were asked what you heard, you might very well reply, “Kuan-shih-yin.” Such a response would indicate that at the time you heard those syllables you had not allowed each of the syllables ‘kuan’ and ‘shih’ and ‘yin’ to flow on after entering; you retained them all, strung them together, and made up the word ‘Kuan-shih-yin.’ You might also associate everything you have ever heard about Bodhisattva Kuan-shih-yin with these sounds. This exemplifies deluded attachment. It does not matter at all whether ‘Kuan-shih-yin’ is a good or bad term, deluded attachment is deluded attachment all the same. Therefore, in order to get rid of deluded attachments one must allow any and every single sound to flow off.
At this point one might object to all this with the idea that it is just not possible for us to allow sounds to flow without abiding. It would seem that our brains are constructed in such a way as to make us automatically string monosyllables together. This, however, is not entirely true. If we consider this carefully, we will find that allowing sounds to flow is not at all impossible.
At any one moment our ears are in contact with many external sounds: sounds of passing vehicles, of children calling to one another and crying, of someone next to us breathing, and so forth. Usually, we naturally allow these sounds to flow without abiding. Right now, you are probably allowing many sounds to flow, but not the sounds of the words I am speaking. This is because you are paying attention to them, for you desire to know what my talk is getting at. Thus in this case, my words are the sound objects that you do not let flow. You cling to my words. This permits you to understand what is being said and to form mental responses. On the other hand, if you were to desist from this and just allow each syllable to flow, you would not be able to put together words and sentences. You would not have grasped the term ‘Kuan-shih-yin’ in the example given before, nor would you have grasped the meaning of that term. The results of practicing the allowing-to-flow method, when extended to all perception, can lead to some very profound realizations.
To proceed with Kuan-yin’s account, we may next consider the word ‘lost’ in the phrase “the audial object subsided and was lost.” This refers to the elimination of any consciousness of the object. ‘Audial object’ means the sound heard, or anything that becomes an object of one’s hearing. In Chinese Buddhist texts one often comes across two terms which mean ‘capability’ and ‘object.’ Specifically, ‘capability’ refers to the ability to perform subjective functions, as in the statement “I who am capable of hearing,” or “I who am capable of seeing.” The ‘object’ is the object of this capability, the sound that is heard, or the color that is seen. Many phenomena result from this dichotomy, which is the primary form of deluded attachment. Therefore, becoming detached from the object is to become detached from the object of hearing and all other objects that arise in connection with the object of hearing. This may be illustrated with an example:
A person once said to me: “The New York subway is so noisy that whenever I board a train my mind is disturbed by the rumbling sound.” An analysis of this sentence reveals the following sequence of events:
1. He boards the subway train, and his ears make contact with sounds.
2. He retains every single sound (i.e., he does not allow the sounds to flow off, but grasps at them) and perceives noise. This is the first object of hearing.
3. Stringing all the sounds together, he determines that the noise is a rumble. This is the second object.
4. He identifies the rumble as the sound being made by the subway train – the third object.
5. Because of past associations and present conceptualization he determines that the rumbling sound of the subway is a disturbance. This is the fourth object.
Now let us reverse the order and remove attachment to the objects one by one:
1. Recognizing the rumble of the subway one refrains from associating it with the past experiences that cause one to regard it as a disturbance. This is detachment from the fourth object.
2. Recognizing a rumble, one refrains from determining whether it is the rumble of a train, plane, or something else. This is detachment from the third object.
3. Perceiving noise, one refrains from judging it to be a rumble, squeak, or other sound. This is detachment from the second object.
4. Immediately after making contact with individual sounds one allows them to flow off – one refrains from retaining the sounds and stringing them together to form the sensation of sound in the audio-consciousness that is grounded in the nature to hear. Thus, one becomes detached from the first object.
When we reach this stage, we have become detached from all the objects. This is what is meant by allowing sounds to flow off and losing the object.
Now you know the entire meaning of the statement “I (concentrated) on the audial consciousness, allowed the sounds that were contacting (the ear) to flow off, and thus audial objects subsided and were lost.” This was the method employed by Kuan-yin during the first stage of his cultivation of realization. By not allowing sounds which enter through the ear to abide in the audial consciousness, one becomes detached from the object of hearing at once. Therefore audial objects subside and are lost.