By Rev. Bruce Ohjok Foley
No small wonder that the opening words to the Rule Of Saint Benedict begins with, “Listen carefully...” What'd he say? “Listen-Carefully.” The “Holy Rule,” as it is often referred to is an ancient text found in western monasticism, still very much alive today as it was over 1700 years ago. Old St. Benedict had to be doing something right. His program still works. It seems that having the ear of good listeners was a problem way back then in Benedict’s time as it is now. The human condition. The more things change, the more things stay the same. Benedict goes the extra mile when he takes the “how to”of listening to a deeper level when advising monks in Latin “Et inclina ausculata.” “Incline the ear of your heart.” A similarity to this approach in the east would be the Japanese, “hara,” the gut. That still point of wisdom just below the navel. Thus the term, “Go with your gut instinct.” Each tradition designates a place where the process begins and unfolds. Master Joshu was never heard saying, “Incline the ear of your belly button,” but any serious martial artist or Zen practitioner will note well that the hara is where it's at. The heart is often referred to in western spirituality as the seat of wisdom and by definition Benedict's phrase implies the handing over of one's entire being. Here, Benedict is speaking to monks, yet thousands of lay practitioners of the Christian path still use his Rule everyday to guide their steps along the spiritual journey. You see, even monks needed to be reminded of the importance of listening despite being considered the elite sect of the interior life, as monks are perceived still in many of the worlds great spiritual traditions. Disciples are disciples and Buddha no doubt had his own share of students who had yet to awaken to that place of practice where one enters a deep and detached disposition of listening. Listening seems to be the best place to start when placing one's intention toward awakening. An empty cup can only be filled. Listening is the essence of beginners mind. Only experts can afford not to. Jesus and Suzuki see eye to eye, “Take the last place,” and “The greatest among you shall be servant to all.” Here, humility is aligned with attentive listening.
When my dear friend of many years and ever present source of wise counsel Rev. Paul Lynch wrote to me recently saying,”More people of the Catholic/Christian tradition are showing an interest in Zen,” I stopped to consider, “What might be a topic of interest that speaks to the unity of spiritual traditions rather than all that which so obviously differs?” We never get far in any relationship holding onto differences that define our distance. I avoid using the more common language of, “religious traditions” because as quick as you can say, “Mu,” there will come the outcry of a zealous Zen student,”Hey! Zen is not a religion!” Relax. Don't get caught up in form. Words are like the shells to peanuts. They need to be cracked open to get to the nut. The good stuff. The inner meaning. The best definition I ever heard of conveying the proper spirit of listening is being attentive in a way that we give ourselves over entirely to those who speak to us or to that which is to be heard in silence, contemplative moments of reflection. In the act of Lectio Divina (spiritual reading) the Christian monk/nun is trained to select a phrase of scripture and sit with it while ruminating on what the text may be saying to him/her. There, in deep silence with a disposition and posture of stillness and attentive listening, one reaps from the text an experience which becomes the stuff of personal transformation. Listening gives way to that which is offered, more of a gift, an intuition of insight, where the self is gently put aside. Whereas thinking grasps and seeks to create, denying the process of the intuitive faculties by imposing the self aggressively into the process.
The western monastic practice of Lectio is not about “thinking” but “listening” so that what is gleaned is a thing received, not fabricated. Sort of like sitting with a koan, or the wise instructions of one's teacher. At some point the word thus pondered breaks the hard shell of “this I” created by the false self and at the same time shines a light within that bestows a greater self knowledge. One step closer to the true self or our original nature. Our true ground. When practitioners are asked to define this moment from experience, a common response is, “It felt like coming home.” One now enters the contemplative dimension of living. An integration of becoming more fully human takes place and having tasted the fruit harvested from the work of attentive listening, we now direct our will to being still, less talkative, with an increased awareness of our speech, behavior and overall attitude. One guided by attentive listening.
Silence and listening. They go together well. Spiritual disciplines, vehicles that bring us toward self realization and insight. Listening it would seem is aligned with breathing inasmuch as this in breath follows the next out breath, so too does this now moment of listening follow the next now moment of responding to life as we move outward to benefit others. The better the listening, the better our response to life. Listening takes on a keen awareness that reflects our correct situation and response to it.
I had a friend over one evening to view the movie, “Into The Great Silence.” This is a very powerful film about the life of Carthusian monks. Hermits of western monasticism, known to Roman Catholicism. This order was formed in 1098 by St. Bruno and has not since changed much with exception to the installation of light bulbs. In this film there is no speech offered the viewer as the monks go about their daily life in one of the worlds most austere expressions of monastic life, high up into the French Alps of Grenoble. Silence and solitude are the underlying current that carries the monk along in a steady flow that leads to awakening. If you have not seen this film, I suggest you may consider doing so. Of and by itself it offers a profound teaching on listening and being present to this now moment.
About half way through the movie, my friend turned to me fascinated and said, “This is Zen.” Knowing full well what was implied, I just nodded with a smile and replied,”Yes, it is very much like Zen, isn't it?” No speech. Just, “this quiet mind.” No hurry. Just, “being with what is.” I have enjoyed watching the expression on friends faces when they watch this film. A deep peace settles over them. They relax and become still. Just from watching monks live their life. Would that we embody such a style of our own to effect the same on those around and near us. How is it then that this effect takes it's hold on the monk and becomes his every life's breath? Attentive listening, a listening with the ear of the heart. This is what Benedict means, listening with one's entire being. The monk shuts the door to the thinking mind to welcome the sound of silence. The monk cherishes silence not because of a vow, that's myth. He seeks an inner quiet so as to listen. He enters a place of no thought so as to hear the whisper of truth in all things that surround him. In listening attentively, all things reveal their true nature to us just as they are, “just like this,” and not as the thinking mind would have it. In listening with undivided attention we attend to hear that which is not fabricated by the notion of “I, me and my.” We take what is offered from a place of silence, filtered in silence. The value of which is that much more pure in the receiving.
Inside all of us there is this false persona that follows us around, attempting to speak incessantly, projecting itself onto everything and everyone we encounter, until we recognize the voice, of ego. You know, the voice that sounds like a broken record that repeats itself over and over, again and again, in a stream of mindless chatter and delusion. The self of likes, dislikes, criticism, opinions and imagination. When the voice of the false self takes over it is an indication that we've slipped out of attentive listening and being fully present to just this moment. True solitude is interior. We do not need to climb the Alps or enter a monastery. Just sit. It's about learning to be still where we are. Right now. Being faithful to the practice which effects the transformation, we become the stillness. And that's a good place to be. Becoming that stillness is a gift we give ourselves.
If we can only remember that each day we are beginners.
The “mind before thought” and “attentive listening.” Are they the same or different?
Christian monasticism's “ear of the heart” and Zen's “hara.” Are they the same or different?
Joshu's “oak tree in the garden” and Jesus' “lilies of the field.” Are they the same or different?
There is much to learn from one another, no matter what path we are on. A documentary filmed in total silence about Catholic hermits has brought this home to many. Structures found within western monasticism are much like those found in Zen. Wisdom is not exclusive to one path only. Awakening can not be placed in a box. Exclusivity is another way of saying duality. In dropping the notion of “my path to enlightenment” or wearing it around like a badge, which is a subtle pride at work, pride being ignorance, and learning to appreciate methods found in other traditions, we leave behind forms that point to the moon. In putting down distinctions while listening attentively we can hear an ancient and familiar call that speaks to the heart of all cultures and all traditions.
It was there before thinking mind. It is that which speaks of an experiential oneness. Here, we can all sit together as one and with Ryokan, enjoy this beautiful moon.
Are you listening?
Bruce Ohjok Foley is a member of the Kwan Um School of Zen, an affiliate of the Five Mountain Zen Order and a former Catholic monk. He resides in Las Vegas, Nevada where he works with special needs children. A Nidan Black Belt in Shotokan Karate, Ohjok also teaches and practices various martial arts.