Dōgen on Hearing Things As They Are…a Response to Okumura Roshi

One of my most beloved contemporary Zen practitioners and scholars is Shōhaku Okumura Roshi. One reason is simply the fact that he is in the lineage of Zen that I attempt to practice, namely Dōgen’s. But I also find his approach very human; that is, his approach to Zen is a Zen that a human could practice. This is not always the case, it seems to me, with other Zen practitioners and commentators. But this, of course, does not mean I don’t resist some of the things he says, though I suspect oftentimes that resistance is more a matter of my misunderstanding, or perhaps better, my seeking to understand and falling short. But I am convinced that there is much value in lingering in confusion and talking about it with others. So what follows is that sort of lingering.

In a recent blog post for the Dōgen Institute, Okumura translates and comments on the following poem from Dōgen:

声づから Koe zukara At the very time
耳の聞ゆる Mimi no kikoyuru when my ears hear
時されば Toki sareba the voice as it is,
吾が友ならん Waga tomo naran everyone I talk with
かたらひぞなき Katarai zo naki is my friend.

What Okumura focuses on in his commentary, and what I want to focus on, is what it means to “hear something as it is.” What I want to suggest by the end is that things are much less clear than Okumura (and othes) make them appear to be. To get there, let’s consider the sound of a barred owl. What could it mean to hear the sound as it is?

According to Okumura, we hear a sound as it is when we hear it, “without our fictitious interpretation and self-centered judgement.” What constitutes a fictitious interpretation? Perhaps one thing would be to take it as something that exists in isolation or independence from other things, since a central tenet of Buddhism is that nothing exists in isolation/independently. So, perhaps, all fictitious interpretations would simply be ones that contravene Buddhist presuppositions about the nature of reality. Self-centered judgments are perhaps easier to grasp from the outset. Perhaps an example would be thinking upon hearing the barred owl that one would like to possess one as a pet. An interesting question would be whether it would be a self-centered judgment when, upon hearing it, you have the thought, “I haven’t heard this before.” For now you have identified the sound in relation to oneself, as something not before heard. So far so good; I don’t have any problems with this way of understanding “hearing it as it is.” But let’s continue.

Okumura next writes about our responding to the sound with the feeling of neutrality, pleasure, or displeasure. Such feelings seem to underwrite our liking or disliking, or perhaps remaining neutral, about the sound. And, of course, this liking/disliking, is a judgment that can be used to further underwrite judgments about whether it is good or bad. This quickly gets us into all kinds of complicated issues. Just one of those complications: From the standpoint of aesthetics, we might be tempted to say that liking it or disliking it is a matter of subjective taste; and, thus, it has nothing to do with how the sound is as it is. On the other hand, if we take seriously the idea that everything exists interdependently, we might ought to say that there is no way that anything is independently of how it is perceived by some subject. And, so, if the barred owl sound is perceived as pleasant, then that is how it is, i.e., pleasantly perceived.

Perhaps we even find support for this latter way of looking at things in Dōgen himself. Consider this passage from his fascicle, “Mountains and Waters Sutra”:

Water is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither being nor nonbeing, neither delusion nor enlightenment. Frozen, it harder than diamond; who could break it? Melted, it is softer than milk; who could break it?

This being the case, we cannot doubt the many virtues realized [by water]. We should study the occasion when the water of the ten directions is seen in the ten directions. …

In general, then, the way of seeing mountains and waters differs according to the type of being [that sees them]. In seeing water, there are beings who see it as a jeweled necklace. This does not mean, however, that they see a jeweled necklace as water. How, then, do we see what they consider water? Their jeweled necklace is what we see as water. Some see water as miraculous flowers, though it does not follow that they use flowers as water. Hungry ghosts see water as raging flames or as pus and blood. Dragons and fish see it as a palace or a tower, or as the seven treasures or the mani gem. [Others] see it as woods and walls, or as the dharma nature of immaculate liberation, or as the true human body, or as the physical form and mental nature. Humans see these as water. And these [different ways of seeing] are the conditions under which [water] is killed or given life.

Given that what different types of beings see is different, we should have some doubts about this. Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object? Or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object? At the peak of our concentrated effort on this, we should concentrate still more. Therefore, our practice and verification, our pursuit of the way, must also be not merely of one or two kinds, and the ultimate realm must also have a thousand types and ten thousand kinds. (Bielefeldt Trans.)

So, how is water as it is? Do we say as it is for humans? As it is for my people? As it is for me? Is the barred owl sound’s being pleasant to me analogous to water’s being pus and blood to hungry ghosts? I take it part of Dōgen’s purpose in the above passage is to try to erode even further the idea of things having a fixed identity that is what it is independent of all other things. This would seem to further complicate the question of how things are. What do we appropriately import into the identity of things as they are? It is not so clear so far.

Let’s turn to Okumura’s next claim. He writes:

 “Hearing the sound as it is” is not some kind of mystical way of hearing things, but we let go of our thinking, feeling, emotion, etc, caused by the contact with the objects, moment by moment. We refrain from making concepts about the objects and taking actions based on them.

Consider first the line, “we let go of our thinking, feeling, emotion, etc, caused by the contact with the objects, moment by moment.” I like this way of talking about it, i.e., the idea of letting go of those various things—for sometimes you will read Zen folks talking not about letting go of but about getting rid of, for example. There is a big difference between letting go of something and getting rid of it. If I let go of something, then it may remain, but I’m no longer attached to it, grasping it, trying to control it. But if I get rid of something, then it is no longer around, and the act of getting rid of is itself a kind of forcing or controlling. And, so, we can acknowledge that while hearing the barred owl we have various emotional responses, for example; perhaps we hear the barred owl and we feel a certain longing. And if we’re not careful we may import that into the barred owl sound itself, saying that the sound as it is is one of longing. And, so, Okumura is saying that that emotional content is not there in the sound as it is. At that point we can either let go of or try to get rid of the emotion. Letting go of is superior in this context because, one, it does not try to control, and, two, Zen does not require our lives to be emotionless. Rather, it is a matter of having a skillful relationship with our emotional responses.

But we can note here, too, that perhaps the same issues come up for attributing emotion to the barred owl sound as attributing pleasantness to it, as discussed above. What should we say here?

It is with the next line that I start have real issues with Okumura’s language. He writes, “We refrain from making concepts about the objects and taking actions based on them.” I have written elsewhere quite a bit on the issue of concepts in Zen. I think there is a great deal of confusion in this area and that even the greatest Zen masters have made faulty and confused pronouncements about concepts. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I believe concept possession and concept employment are both centered around action and behavior, including verbal behavior. However, the verbal (whether mental or voiced) component is not central in a way that it is usually assumed. So, for example, what it is to possess and employ the concept of a hat is to be able to, and actually do, the various things one does with a hat, which includes both explicit actions involving the hat and the various things said about hats. There is much more that needs be said, but let this suffice for here.

Now, let us consider two possibilities for the barred owl sound scenario. In the first scenario, one is stopped in the woods during a short hike for pleasure, perhaps sitting on a fallen tree, simply listening. The barred owl sound occurs and one simply hears it, not doing anything else. In the second scenario, one is working for the Forest Service, taking a survey of the wildlife in the area. The barred owl sound occurs and one makes a note of its identity, general location, etc. It is perhaps tempting to think that only in the second scenario is one really employing concepts. But consider, if we assume what I’ve assumed above about concept possession and employment, then even in the first scenario, when you’re concentrating on the sound and “simply hearing it,” you are by that act of concentration conceptualizing the sound as a sound, i.e., as distinct from sights and smells, for example.

But perhaps I’ve misread Okumura. After all, he writes about not “making concepts.” My impression is that in the context of Zen many people conflate concepts and conceptions. So, perhaps, what he means is not forming conceptions about the thing in question. Even if we cannot help but employ certain concepts whenever we perceive anything, that does not mean that we have to form conceptions about the thing. An example of a conception in this context might be conceiving the barred owl sound as something one’s friend would enjoy hearing, as well. Or, perhaps, conceptualizing it as the sound of your favorite animal from childhood. And further, Okumura says, we are not to act on such conceptions, which, for example, might mean interfering with the owl in order to possess it or the like.

Here is the last passage I want to look at from Okumura:

I remember a short phrase of a Japanese traditional song I heard in a radio program many years ago when I was a student. I only remember one phrase, that says, “ware mo mushi naru mushi shigure,” that means “Within the chorus of insects’ sounds, I am also an insect.” The person hearing the sounds of insects’ singing feels like she/he is also an insect. When we simply hear the sounds, we don’t see the separation between subject and the object. There is no trace of “I” “hear” “the sound”. This is intimate “hearing” before separation between the hearer and the sound heard. We are simply sitting and insects are just chirping without having any interaction. We are only being together as intimate friends within the network of interdependent origination.

The problem I have here goes back to the two scenarios I glossed above. It is one thing to simply sit there without any explicit purpose and hear the barred owl. And I can imagine in such a context, particularly if we are skilled practitioners of meditation, that, “…we simply hear the sounds, we don’t see the separation between subject and the object.” Phenomenologically, we can imagine moments of various length in which we forget ourselves and simply hear; in which case, there is nothing but the hearing, so to speak (“hearing hears hearing” to ape Dōgen). The problem is that Zen, I take it, is supposed to be something we do continuously, regardless of what we are doing. And as in the second scenario above where we are walking through the woods taking a survey of the animal life, we are not simply sitting and listening. Perhaps for brief moments interspersed throughout our surveying we might have the sort of oneness that Okumura describes. But consider: In his commentary to Dōgen’s “Instructions for the Zen Cook,” Uchiyama Rōshi writes:

The problem…concerns the meaning of not discriminating. In our day-to-day lives, it is impossible to live without discriminating between good and evil, likes and dislikes. To say that giving is important does not mean we go around giving our house key to a burglar, or a rifle to someone who is crazy. (38) … There is no human life in which there is no difference drawn between miso [soybean paste] and kuso [human excrement]. (46)

In other words, when out and about in the woods taking the survey of animal life, one must distinguish oneself from one’s surroundings, lest one walk face first into a tree, for example. Or, again, one cannot take a survey of the wildlife without distinguishing the various animals from oneself and each other. And so, while I am certainly sympathetic to Okumura’s interpretation of Dōgen, it calls for a much more detailed understanding, as my questions above try to indicate, on the one hand. And on the other hand, we find what I take to be a common but problematic way of talking about Zen living/experiencing, i.e., that is all a matter of being one with every “thing.” From what Okumura writes elsewhere I know that this is not really his position, but, again, in his commentary here it is not so clear. At least not to me.

2 thoughts on “Dōgen on Hearing Things As They Are…a Response to Okumura Roshi

  1. Good to see people engaging such an amazing Roshi and his work.

    Shohaku Okumura Roshi is one of the biggest blessings North American Zen has had and it is sad to see that in the next 5 or so years he will be retiring.

    It is nice though to see people like yourself and one of his main students Shoryu Bradley developing what this teacher has started.

    If you ever are in the Arkansas area you should check out Gyobutsuji Zen Monastery. The abbot is trying to keep that life of Zazen practice alive 🙂

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