Wondrous Lotus Sutra 靜思妙蓮華
Discerning Sounds Without Damaging Our Ear-Root
From Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s notes:
>> "If we wish to listen, we should listen right away. This is like seeking to listen to the Dharma. We must not listen to what we should not listen to. All that we listen to must accord with the Dharma. We must not let anything irritate our ears. When we clearly understand all sounds and keep a sense of ease during both peace and unrest, our ear-root will remain undamaged."
>> "When it comes to all the sounds within and beyond the great trichiliocosm, though they have yet to attain heavenly ears, with their pure ordinary ears they received from their parents at birth, they will hear and understand them all. Thus, they will discern all these various sounds without damaging their ear-root." [Lotus Sutra, Chapter 19 - On Dharma Masters' Merits and Virtues]
>> They will discern these sounds without damaging their ear-root. How do we determine whether [the ear-root] is damaged or not? When ordinary people hear disturbing sounds, the sounds irritate their ears, and they can no longer discern sounds. This means [their ear-root] is damaged. But as for these practitioners here, they will hear every sound in the trichiliocosm, great or small, good or evil as if they were right by their ears, discerning them without error while remaining undisturbed and unconfused. This means their ear-root will be undamaged.
>> "Though these practitioners have yet to attain the power of the heavenly ear, within and beyond the great chiliocosm, they are capable of discerning all the sounds. This is all due to the power that comes from virtuously upholding the sutra."
"If we wish to listen, we should listen right away.
This is like seeking to listen to the Dharma.
We must not listen to what we should not listen to.
All that we listen to must accord with the Dharma.
We must not let anything irritate our ears.
When we clearly understand all sounds
and keep a sense of ease during both peace and unrest,
our ear-root will remain undamaged."
Can we understand this? We must realize that, [as we] listen to sounds, we must "seek to listen to the Dharma." This means that we must listen to the sound of the Tathagata-Dharma. We must mindfully seek to comprehend this.
"We must not listen to what we should not listen to." When it comes to what we should not listen to, we must not listen [to those things]. And as for what we must listen to, that is the sound of the Tathagata-Dharma. So, we do not need to see the things that we should not be looking at, we need not listen to what we should not hear and we must not say the things we should not say. These are our rules [of etiquette]. By the same token, since we should not listen to those matters that we need not listen to, then what we should listen to is the Dharma that we seek, the sound of the Buddha-Dharma, the Right Dharma.
We must [learn] how to listen when there are so many sounds. Although there are many different sounds, no matter where they come from, we must not let their noise bother our ear-root. We often feel that [we are in] such a chaotic environment. In this kind of chaotic environment, how are we supposed to listen to the Dharma? Alas, in this environment, with so many people, it gets very noisy! How can we engage in spiritual practice? Thus, we [may] conclude that amidst the rowdiness, the chaos and the noise, there is no way for us to listen to the Dharma or engage in spiritual practice.
If we always think this way and are choosy about our environment, then we will [always] require a tranquil place to engage in spiritual practice; [we feel that] only a quiet and calm place is good enough for our spiritual practice. If people wait to engage in spiritual practice thinking that [they must] be very leisurely, free and with nothing to do, [then they will wait] until their minds are tranquil and carefree. Can we really call this spiritual cultivation? For our minds to truly be free of afflictions, we must have a clear conscience, for only then are we truly free of afflictions. If there is something on our conscience and we avoid the situation, then even if our external conditions are peaceful, our escape is only temporary, not lifelong. Not only are we unable to avoid it in this life, we will be unable to avoid it in future lifetimes.
We must understand the law of karmic cause and effect. From the past, whatever causes we faced, whatever affinities we created and whatever fruits of retribution we face now, we must figure out how to accept them. Before listening to the Dharma, we are full of afflictions. After hearing the Dharma, our minds are transformed. Not only should we understand the Dharma, we must further repent our past mistakes. There are circumstances and people that we must face, and we should bravely face them and repent. If we do not know whether it is people or our environment that continually causes us to suffer, once we understand the Dharma, [we will realize] that such a miserable life is [the result of] past causes and conditions which have led to our painful retributions. Once we understand this, we must willingly face [these consequences]. Whether our situation is good or bad, we must face it.
In the past, we took issue with people, [and] we were filled with afflictions and [acted] ignorantly on many occasions. Now that we understand the Dharma, [when we are] in these circumstances, we must learn to transform our state of mind, [so we can] willingly face our circumstances. Whatever horrible conditions that may come, we are at peace, and we easily accept them. When we accept them, we accept this adversity with patience, and further say, "I am grateful! I finally got through the day, or this situation. I finally got through a difficult challenge. I have eliminated another karmic [obstacle]." This is true repentance in our lives, which diminishes our [negative] causes and effects.
There are causes that we created in the past and retributions that we must face in the future. The past is the past, and the present is the present. Since we have created causes in the past, we must accept their retributions now. Once we have accepted them, then in this lifetime, we will not keep on creating negative causes. In this lifetime, we will no longer form bad affinities. Instead, we create good causes and form good affinities. Once we have heard the Dharma in this lifetime, [this is how] we can transform our minds. Now, we are creating [karma] for our next life; [if] our minds can be peaceful and at ease now, [then we can] be free and at ease, without worrying about our future lives. By liberating ourselves from [negative] causes and conditions, we no longer [need to] worry.
This is just like a story I heard. In the early years of the Republic of China, Venerable Master Tan Xu heard of a very wealthy widow who was very troubled; why was this? She was missing her late husband. She was not able to let go and kept wanting to know exactly where he had gone. She wanted to know where he went. She heard from someone about a Frenchman, a foreigner, whom she could go talk to and who could [help] seek out her husband.
So, she really went to see him. This Frenchman said, "Write down your husband's name for me." She wrote down her late husband's name. The Frenchman then started a ritual, which he said was to help him understand [the situation].
However, after a while, the Frenchman said, "No matter how much I searched, I could not find your husband. Where could your husband have gone? When I could not find him, I went to hell to look for him, and there he was." This old lady said, "How is that possible? He should be in the heaven or human realm. If not, whatever world that he went to should be very nice. My husband did good deeds his whole life. How is it possible that he went to hell?" The Frenchman replied, "How about you go and find someone who has passed away not long ago, and I will locate [this person] for you."
The old lady's daughter-in-law said, "Why don't you look for my husband, then. My husband has passed away only recently. Can you please help me search for my husband?" She wrote down her husband's name for [the Frenchman] to search. When he called forth [the husband's spirit], the Frenchman told her, "Come, this is your husband. You may talk to him." The late husband told the wife, "You are so-and-so." The wife then asked, "Are you truly so-and-so?" He replied, "I am. While I was alive, because I always indulged in vices and did things that made you and my mother very unhappy, I feel really guilty about it. I now need you to create some merit for me. Otherwise I will be stuck here [in purgatory], unable to ascend or descend. This is very tiring for me. I have not done any good deeds. I hope you can create some merits on my behalf."
He said, "But you must use my money to do this. In a particular piece of clothing, I placed a check. Please cash that check for me and [use it to] create some merits on my behalf." [When] she went to look, she actually found the check, which was for a considerable amount! It was a considerable amount of money. She said, "Since this is the case, I will create some merits for you." They started to cry. The daughter-in-law and the husband both cried. The mother spoke up and said, "Do you not see your father where you are? He is your father. [In the time] since you died, have you not encountered your father?"
He then said, "When I arrived, I could not find my father. I heard that he already went to hell." "Hell! How is that possible? He has done so many good deeds!" The man said, "Although my father did many good deeds while he was alive, there was once a huge flood in a province, and many people were starving." [At that time], there was still an emperor, as this was when the new republic [was founded]. Back then, it was still the Qing Dynasty.
"At that time, my father was entrusted by the emperor to give disaster relief. However, he took the money that he withdrew from the national treasury and pocketed all of it. Hundreds of thousands of disaster victims starved, froze and died. Because of this transgression, he went to hell after he died." The mother, the old lady, spoke up [and said], "But he regularly did so many good deeds. How could those not supersede in this matter?" Her son replied from the afterlife, "This is the law of karma. All the good deeds he did accumulated bit by bit. Mother, [you have] deep faith in the Buddha and influenced my father to do [good deeds]. However, [embezzling money] from the national treasury while so many people starved to death is a very heavy transgression. Those karmic retributions cannot be superseded."
This story is from the end of the Qing Dynasty, at the beginning of the new republic.
So, we must believe in the law of karma. When it comes to the sounds that we hear and the environments [where we hear them], we must [adapt to] these causes and conditions. Whatever environment it may be, whether good or bad, we must accept it. We must accept the circumstances and contemplate how to transform our minds and intentions. [Since we created] these karmic consequences in the past, now that we are [experiencing] the retributions, by changing our mindset now, we can turn our afflictions into Bodhi. This is what it means to truly be amidst chaos, among so many people, and [adapt to] the conditions [they create] by transforming our minds. This is what we mean by going among people and transforming sentient beings. Though it is very noisy and chaotic among people, our minds [can become] very tranquil and joyful as we go among people and serve others.
No matter how noisy the sounds around us are, they can irritate our ears and make our ears very uncomfortable. It is very distressing when we hear these sounds. This is how I have felt lately. Whether it is people's voices or sounds outside, whatever sounds enter my ear-root have felt like an unbearable vibration. Though they are unbearable, life continues, and I must face the matters that I must face. It feels as if a knife is grating on my ears. It feels as if something is churning inside, which is very uncomfortable. So, when it comes to such clamorous sounds, if one of our physical functions is imbalanced or one of our nerves is out of sorts, we must work very earnestly to overcome it.
Sometimes, we truly cannot overcome it. I may be talking [with someone] somewhere, [and I will say], "Oh my! Let's move over there." If [we hear] the sound of a car over there, not only is there the sound of the car, but the sound of its wheels is [also] very loud, like beating drums. The sound is shocking, and I am unable to overcome [its effects]. Truly! Even the sound of my own voice is very bothersome to me. How can I deal with this in the long run? I still must overcome it. No matter what I say, I must still overcome this. This is the kind of karma [we are discussing], which we must overcome with our minds. As I am speaking about these things, though we are so close in proximity, when I describe my health conditions and feelings, you cannot really gain an understanding of them. Behind me, there are vehicles roaring, and [my ears] are so sensitive that this noise sounds very loud!
So, for all of us alike, our minds must be very clear, despite the sounds that bother our ear roots and cause us many inconveniences. When it comes to this roaring noise, though it is deafening, I must still "clearly understand all sounds." We cannot allow sounds to confuse us. Even though the environment is noisy, I must still clearly [discern] people's voices; I must still listen very clearly, for what else can I do? I must still meet with people and listen to matters all day long. I must remain [informed on] matters near and far. If my mind is not calm, how can I face [all of this]? For the things I must handle at each moment, what else can I do? As ever, I must still "clearly understand all sounds." When we listen, we must listen carefully. As for the sounds outside and the voices of people nearby talking face to face, how can we discern them clearly? We still need to be very clear on this.
Thus, by "keeping a sense of ease during both peace and unrest, our ear-root will remain undamaged." Do we really have some sort of condition? We must get control of ourselves and have faith in the sounds that we hear. No matter how noisy the sounds are outside, we must still [discern] very clearly the sounds that are in front of us. When it comes to the noise outside, "Alas, I know I have this kind of condition. Whatever [sounds] are outside are all noise. What I want to listen to is what is being said in front of me." Other than this, what else can we do? This is the reality we must face when listening to sounds. So, we say that "we must not listen to what we should not listen to." For example, every moment, I think. "Alas, I will not listen [to that]. There is no need to listen to the roaring sounds. I just will not listen. I will only concentrate on listening to the things that I need to take care of."
So, "All that we listen to must accord with the Dharma." Worldly matters must converge with world-transcending principles. What I am saying is to let everyone know that this is what the sutra [teaches] us. [It teaches us] how to accept the Dharma in our daily living. In life, there is much suffering, so we cannot let it disturb our minds. Of course, it is not possible for our minds to not be bothered. But how can we overcome this? It is very difficult; even if we tell others, they cannot understand, nor endure the suffering on our behalf. So, we must admit that it is suffering. It is as simple as that. I often talk to everyone about suffering. All the circumstances we face in life [cause us to] suffer. It is because of this suffering that we must seize our time and make use of our organs and life while we still can. [This means] we must be responsible and finish [what we start]. We must serve until we truly cannot go on. This is life. As we engage in spiritual practice, we must not fear chaotic environments. We must not fear them, but face them instead.
The previous sutra passage says,
"When it comes to all the sounds within and beyond the great trichiliocosm, though they have yet to attain heavenly ears, with their pure ordinary ears they received from their parents at birth, they will hear and understand them all. Thus, they will discern all these various sounds without damaging their ear-root."
The ear-root has 1200 merits. Our physical ears are what we receive from our parents at birth. Sometimes they may become sick, but they bring great merits and virtues. These are their functions.
Firstly, we are able to listen to the Dharma. We can make use of the Dharma we hear and practice among people. These are the merits and virtues of our ears. We can also listen to the sounds of the suffering in the world. Wherever there is suffering, we can hear and learn about it. Every day, if I am watching TV, I see or hear, "Oh, a disaster struck somewhere!" I will immediately ask someone, "Go ask around right away. There was an earthquake somewhere. There was a windstorm somewhere. There was a fire somewhere. Please find out about this and figure out what is happening." I will immediately notify our Department of Religious Affairs or one of those shadowing me. I immediately [say to] them, "Go ask about it quickly! Do we understand or know [what has happened]?" In this way, at least this information [can be shared] in our communities with advancements in technology, [by way of] audio or footage from TV.
So, I often say we must use our eyes to listen. We saw [in the news] that there is a huge fire! In the subtitles, it said "California." The fires in Northern and Southern California are so terrible. "Hurry and listen for me to find out exactly how bad it is." The attending Dharma masters often hear me say, "Go ask and find out." This is because I cannot have the [TV] volume turned on too loud, or I cannot go investigate [myself]. So, I will listen for a little bit and quickly ask someone to find out [for me]. Without this footage [to watch] with my eyes on behalf of my ears, [I could not perceive that] there may be this matter for us to care about. So, whether it is our ears or eyes, they both have their merits and virtues. If we pay attention to what we see with our eyes and what we hear with our ears, then we [can find] a way to take action. This is how our ear-root and eye-root have their merits and virtues.
However, the ears that our parents gave us often may develop [some] condition. How can we overcome so many problems? Although [such problems] are troubling, we still need to face reality just the same and turn our afflictions into Bodhi. We must truly experience this physically and be grateful in these times [as we learn to] transform our afflictions into Bodhi. As we listen to sounds with our physical ears, our spiritual practice [must be to] strive to be understanding of them. When we are understanding of them, we can purify [our ear-root] and apply it. When others revile us, [we say], "Thank you for reminding me! If I have any faults, I will change them." [When others] chastise us with harsh voices, we can diminish [the harshness] and be grateful for what they are reminding us of. This is called purity. This is called being understanding. As long as our minds are pure, whatever sounds we hear, we can apply the Dharma we [have learned] and try to think positively. Thus, we learn to apply the Dharma in the world. It is the same principle. So, I often tell everyone that we must have gratitude. Whatever circumstances we encounter, we must be grateful.
So, "With their pure ordinary ears, they will hear and understand them all." With ordinary ears, we must still listen to the sounds of the world. [We must learn to] eliminate what bothers us in order for our ear-roots to be pure. Otherwise, once we age, the many various sounds that we can hear or cannot hear will all [become problematic]. Noisy or roaring sounds are so common; what can we do about this? We must [try to] purify them. They are challenges, and we must still face and purify our afflictions and difficulties [in order to attain] "pure ordinary ears." This also requires us to listen to the everyday matters of this world. We must listen to them all. "Hear them all" means we must listen to them all.
They will discern these sounds without damaging their ear-root. How do we determine whether [the ear-root] is damaged or not? When ordinary people hear disturbing sounds, the sounds irritate their ears, and they can no longer discern sounds. This means [their ear-root] is damaged. But as for these practitioners here, they will hear every sound in the trichiliocosm, great or small, good or evil as if they were right by their ears, discerning them without error while remaining undisturbed and unconfused. This means their ear-root will be undamaged.
"Thus, they will discern all these various sounds without damaging their ear-root." No matter what the sound is, we must still listen with our ears. They still have the functions of hearing and discerning various sounds. We can still discern what is right and wrong, and [we do so] very clearly. Thus, "They will discern these sounds without damaging their ear-root." How can we discern sounds? Whether [our ear-root] is damaged or not, we know this best for ourselves. So, "When ordinary people hear disturbing sounds, it irritates their ears, and they can no longer discern sounds.
This means they are damaged, so our ears are already not working well. This is how we ordinary people are. However, if we understand the Dharma, although our ear-roots are flawed and deficient, it is up to us to still earnestly make good use of them. This means that even with broken things, we still recycle them and make good use of them. They have served our purposes for so long, so we should be grateful. Even when something is broken, we ought to use parts that are still usable.
"But as for these practitioners here, they will hear every sound in the trichiliocosm, great or small, good or evil." Whether the sounds [we hear] are loud or soft, or voices [speaking] kind or harsh words, words of praise or harsh words are all [heard] by our ears. Whether the sounds are bad or good, praising us or criticizing us, we hear all these sounds with our ears. So, we must understand [even more] clearly [how to] "discern them without error." If [people are] criticizing us, we must know clearly if we have actually done it. If we did, then we must quickly correct ourselves. If we did not, then maybe we have not done enough for others to see, or our affinities [with them] are not strong enough, [leading them] to criticize us. Thus, we should continue to advance ourselves. Instead of complaining, we must be grateful.
So, as for these good and bad sounds, we take them in with our ears. We must then be able to discern [the sounds] so that we can clearly differentiate what is right and wrong. Regardless of whether we are right or wrong, we must be grateful all the same. Thus, we "remain undisturbed and unconfused." [The sounds] will not disturb our minds. When our ears never disturb our minds, no matter what, then this is being unconfused.
As for us spiritual practitioners, [it says],
"Though these practitioners have yet to attain the power of the heavenly ear, within and beyond the great chiliocosm, they are capable of discerning all the sounds. This is all due to the power that comes from virtuously upholding the sutra."
This is how we truly delve into the sutra and put the Dharma to use. This is how we can become very clear. Although we do not yet have the power of heavenly ears, using our ordinary ears, as long as we listen to the Dharma, we can clearly uphold it. We are listening to the sutra and putting the Dharma to use in our daily lives.
Being able to inwardly cultivate oneself is having merits. Being able to outwardly practice and uphold [the teachings] is having virtues. By cultivating inwardly and practicing outwardly, they are replete with both merits and virtues, and they are also perfectly replete with the 6000 blessed virtues. Thus, they are known as our model Dharma teachers who are replete with virtues.
"Being able to inwardly cultivate oneself is called having merits. Being able to outwardly practice and uphold [the teachings] is called having virtues." To inwardly cultivate and outwardly practice is called having "merits and virtues." So, in our actions, if we are cultivating inwardly and practicing outwardly, then we are truly engaging in spiritual practice. We are replete with both. When we cultivate inwardly and practice outwardly, when we are very complete and replete, then we "are also perfectly replete with the 6000 blessed virtues." There are differences in [merits and virtues] among our Six Roots. Our eye, nose and body-roots have 800 [virtues]. The other three roots of ear, tongue and mind have 1200 [merits].
When these merits are combined, they [total] 6000. As for these merits that we speak of, our eye-root has more hindrances, more than the ear-root. The ear-root can accept more, and its ability to discern can applied in more ways its ability to discern can applied in even more ways than the eyes. So, we must utilize [it] both internally and externally. When we refrain from evil, we are transforming our afflictions. When our eyes see forms, we must quickly turn away from our greed for [these] forms, so that the resources can be used to help others.
This is just like the late husband of the old lady. He regularly did good deeds, but, when the court gave him money for relief, all of that money from the national treasury, he should have quickly used it to help people. If he took those resources to save people, then he would have [created] merits and virtues. To see that money, the abundance of relief [funds], as his own [led him to create much negative] karma.
So, as our eyes look at things, our minds are [always] turning. [In which direction] are we turning them? If we turn toward good, then [we create] merits and virtues. If we turn toward wrong and evil, then [we create] negative karma. So, when it comes to our merits and virtues, they depend on the actions of our Six Roots. Therefore, we must be very mindful. Alas, our lives [are made possible] by what we borrow through leveraging our Six Roots and discerning with our consciousness. Everything that we have done, which all [comprises] our past and present, we will further carry into our future. The law of cause and effect is unfailing.
So, because of this, we must be very mindful. We must listen to the Dharma and study the sutras. When it is time to enter the prayer hall, we must hurry. There are a lot of people. Although there are many people and it is hectic, it is normal [practice] to go to the prayer hall and pay respects to the Buddha. We must finish these two assignments, reciting the sutras [morning and evening]. [Some] may feel that the morning and evening recitations are [just assignments], and that they are not here to recite [sutras]. Perhaps after one month, they will finally recite the Earth Treasury Sutra or the Water Repentance, or go only when everyone gathers in an assembly. We must not be [like this]. Our assignment every morning is the sutra, regardless of whether we are [reciting] Surangama or another [sutra].
In the morning, in our spiritual training ground at the Abode, we can regularly recite the Sutra of Infinite Meanings. This makes our training ground very special. In truth, it is the same for our morning and evening recitations. Even when we do not recite sutras, we still hold morning and evening recitations all the same. The simple Heart Sutra is still a sutra. As for its verses, they are also a part of the Surangama Sutra. Every phrase and verse is [part] of a sutra. So, we must not take our recitations lightly. As [members of] the Sangha, morning and evening recitations are our normal duties, so we must mindfully [uphold them].