The Dharma of Listening and Speaking (Part 1)

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

We see this in relationships, in society, and in the sangha. We also come to understand that what each of us hears is not necessarily what a speaker might have meant in speaking. This is the distinction of intention and impact, both of which are important.

In Buddhist traditions there is a wealth of teachings on Right Speech, which includes listening and speaking. But let’s begin from the space of zazen. The titles of 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. I hear the refrigerator’s sound, a car going by, birds in the yard. Listening takes place against a background of silence. This is also Bodhisattva practice. Avalokitesvara, Kannon, or Kwan Yin 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.

But zazen mind is not a practice confined to the walls of the zendo, or to the frame of a Zoom screen. The full unfolding of zazen is in our life, where we are bound to have activities. We have to do something; we have to say something. We do zazen with our bodies as an activity. The active side of our practice completes the continuous circle of the way. We are always moving between returning to silence, listening, and having to say something.

I recently came across this excerpt from a 1967 lecture by Suzuki Roshi where he speaks about 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.

Suzuki Roshi is suggesting that we ratchet back our habit of judging everything we listen to, of evaluating 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 Zen Buddhism. Yes, the silence is deep and nourishing, but we inhabit that 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 listening and watching.

—Hozan Alan Senauke

(The Practice of Speaking will be Part 2, in the next newsletter.)