Through Sound", the first of the "Twenty-five Methods of Complete Penetration",
a Sunday talk given at the Ch'an Center on May 16, 1993, edited by Linda Peer
and Harry Miller
Kaundinya, one of the first five bhiksus, rose from his
seat, prostrated himself with his head at the feet of the Buddha and declared:
"When, soon after His enlightenment, we met the Tathagata in the Mrgadava
and Kukkuta Parks, I heard His voice and awakened to His teaching of the Four
Noble Truths. When questioned by the Buddha, I interpreted them correctly and
the Tathagata sealed my awakening by naming me Ajnata (The Wondrous Sound Is Secret
and Complete). I attained Arhatship by means of sound. As the Buddha now asks
about the best means of perfection, to me sound is the best according to my personal
This is the beginning of one of the best known sections of
the Surangama Sutra, "Twenty-five Methods of Complete Penetration."
In the paragraph above Buddha asked, "When you developed your minds to awaken
to the eighteen fields of sense, which one did you regard as the best means of
perfection and by what methods did you enter the state of samadhi?" Here
"samadhi" and "wisdom" are the same. Furthermore, these are
Mahayana samadhi and wisdom. Buddha asked his disciples, "How did you enter
samadhi?" and twenty-five great practitioners each described how they cultivated
enlightenment. They describe so many different methods of cultivation that we
should all be able to find a method to help us attain enlightenment.
of the Buddha's followers to answer was Kaundinya. He was one of the Buddha's
five cousins who became his first bhiksus (monks) after his enlightenment. Kaundinya
was often their spokesman and he was the first disciple of the Buddha to attain
After the Buddha's enlightenment, he went to Mrgadava and Kukkuta
Parks (the Deer Park), in a section of India now known as Sarnath, where he found
Kaundinya and his other cousins. There he began teaching by explaining the Four
Noble Truths to his cousins. However, Kaundinya did not attain enlightenment because
he listened to the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. It was because he heard
Buddha's voice. The voice of the Buddha, not the understanding of his words, caused
Kaundinya to realize the Four Noble Truths. There is a difference. Later Buddha
asked him to demonstrate his understanding, affirmed it, and gave him the name
Ajnata. The Buddha said that Kaundinya had fully and completely received the meaning
and the significance of sound. Kaundinya had attained Complete Penetration through
sound. What does "Complete Penetration" mean? It means that when you
have entered through one Dharma door, you can enter through any Dharma door. In
other words, when you thoroughly realize one aspect of the Dharma, then you understand
all Dharma completely.
Now that I have explained the general meaning of this
paragraph, I will explore it in more detail, beginning with the story of the five
bhiksus. Shakyamuni, who became the Buddha, was a prince from a small kingdom
in India. After he left home to become an ascetic in search of enlightenment,
his father, the king, was alarmed and upset. He sent five of his cousins to talk
him into returning home. However, when they reached Shakyamuni and saw him and
understood what he was seeking, they were so moved that, instead of bringing him
home, they decided to follow his example.
After six years of ascetic practice,
Shakyamuni realized that his austere practices were no help in answering the questions
of suffering and death which set him upon his original journey. He accepted an
offering of porridge cooked with goat's milk, something that would normally be
eschewed by ascetics. When he acted in this manner, his five cousins thought he
had abandoned his ideals and they left him. Two went to the Deer Park and the
others went elsewhere. Shakyamuni attained Buddhahood in BodhGaya, near BodhGaya
in modern Bihar, India. BodhGaya and the Deer Park are quite far from one another.
When we were in India a few years ago, it took us a day and a half to go from
BodhGaya to the Deer Park by bus. Buddha walked from BodhGaya to the Deer Park
in order to teach his five cousins who had became his first five bhiksus.
name Kaundinya means "fire worshipper" or "fire vehicle."
Either Kaundinya had belonged to a fire-worshipping religion at one time, or his
name was traditional in his family. Only Kaundinya attained Arahatship the first
time the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths. In fact, when he heard the sound
of the Buddha's voice, he attained Arahatship. When the Buddha questioned him,
he was able to explain the meaning of the Four Noble Truths on three levels, which
correspond to the Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel of the Four Noble Truths.
Kaundinya was extraordinary. The Buddha's other cousins attained Arahatship later,
and even that was extraordinary. To truly attain Arahatship, one must realize
the Four Noble Truths on the three levels, as Kaundinya did. I have been listening
to the teachings of the Four Noble Truths from the time I was a child and have
tried to convey those teachings to others, yet I have still not attained Arhatship.
Four Noble Truths describe suffering, the causes of suffering, the possibility
of the extinction of suffering, and the path leading to the extinction of suffering.
Although Buddha explained them in this order, the sequence in which we come to
know them is suffering, cause of suffering, path, and extinction of suffering.
The Buddha explained the Four Nobles Truths three times, at three levels, for
his disciples. These explanations are called the Three Turnings of the Dharma
Wheel of the Four Nobel Truths. In the first Turning, the Buddha explained each
of the Four Noble Truths: first, suffering is the reality of life; second, the
cause of suffering is karma, which results from our self-centered actions in this
and previous lives; third, it is possible to end suffering; and fourth, if we
wish to end suffering we must cultivate the Eight fold Path. The Eight fold Path
is right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood,
right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. All of the Buddha's teachings
are included in the Four Noble Truths, so of course we should all realize enlightenment
after hearing them.
The Second Turning of the Dharma Wheel of the Four Noble
Truths was a repetition and affirmation of what the Buddha had already said. In
the Second Turning Buddha said that, first, we should know that life is suffering;
second, we should know the cause of suffering; third, we should know that suffering
should be terminated; and fourth, we should know what the Path which terminates
suffering is, and we should cultivate that Path. Thus Buddha repeated what he
had said in the First Turning for those of us who are not so quick to learn, saying
in effect, "Make sure you know this, make sure you know that."
the Third Turning of the Dharma Wheel of the Four Noble Truths the Buddha made
a final affirmation. He said, "I know what suffering is. I have terminated
the cause of suffering. I have cultivated the Path terminating the cause of suffering.
I have attained Nirvana." Buddha described his own realization, but what
he said is true of anyone who attains Arhatship. An Arhat has ended all vexations
and is free from birth and death. By virtue of hearing the Buddha's voice, no
sooner was Kaundinya on the first level then he was ready to go to the third.
It is for this reason that Arhats are often called "sound-hearers"--they
attain realization just in hearing the Buddha's words.
We use "suffering"
to translate the Sanskrit term dukkha. "Suffering" is not as all encompassing
as dukkha but it is the English word which is closest. But what is dukkha, or
Answer from the audience: Pain caused by not having our desires
That is true, but it is not far-reaching enough. The very existence of
life causes suffering. Whenever there is life there is seeking, or desire, so
if you say that suffering is caused by desire that is not incorrect. But most
directly put, the existence of life is suffering. For anyone who is not liberated
in the Buddhist sense, birth and death are suffering. But for anyone who is liberated,
birth and death are not suffering. Those who have attained the liberation of Hinayana
Arhatship will no longer experience suffering. But since they understand that
life, itself, is suffering they do not want to accept the cycle of birth and death
again. The Hinayana practitioner, and the Hinayana Arhat, would like both body
and mind to escape the cycle of birth and death.
Mahayana practitioners and
Bodhisattvas have a different perspective. They believe that as long as your mind
is free of attachments and desires, your mind is liberated. If your mind is liberated,
it does not matter whether your body is in the midst of birth and death. Liberation
is a matter of the mind for the Mahayana practitioner. Liberation does not mean
that the body will no longer be susceptible to karma, but if your mind has no
attachments, you will not be limited by birth and death. You do not have to go
beyond birth and death in order to attain liberation.
Many people recognize
the greatness of the idea of the compassionate Mahayana Bodhisattva, who does
not leave behind birth and death but stays in samsara to help sentient beings.
Conceptually, it is easy to adhere to the Mahayana teaching that if you have no
attachments it is not necessary to leave this world behind. However when people
encounter real vexations and suffering, they usually try to run away from them.
When the Chinese Communists took over the whole of China in 1949, many Buddhists,
including left home people (monks and nuns), tried to flee. They went from northern
China to the south, and then to Hong Kong. Some decided that Hong Kong wasn't
safe enough, and they went to the United States or other foreign countries. Master
Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud) was among the people who left China. In Hong Kong he decided
that he had to go back to China. When people asked him why he said, "The
situation in mainland China is so bad that Buddhism may soon disappear. If I do
not go back, it will only get worse, so I have to go back." Of the Buddhists
who ran away from Communist rule, who among them were true Mahayana practitioners?
the Sung Dynasty, China was overrun by fierce Mongolians, who killed and burned
as they went. About 500 monks from a large monastery decided to leave to escape
from them, but one Master decided to stay. When the others asked him why he would
not run away, he said, "If the Mongolians do not have anyone to kill they
will be angry." When the Mongolians arrived, they found the monastery completely
empty except for the Master. The Mongolian general said, "Why are you still
here? There must be something wrong with you." The Master said, "It
is the monks who left who have something wrong with them. They were afraid, and
I am not afraid." The general asked, "Why didn't you leave?" and
the Master replied, "If we all ran away and you did not have anyone to kill,
you might burn down the monastery. Now maybe you will leave the monastery alone."
your house were on fire, would you try to escape or stay inside? Of course, you
would try to escape. To die in the fire would not be particularly intelligent.
If the door were blocked, you would try the window. However, if you thought you
could put the fire out, you would stay and try to save your home. Also, people
can be killed if they stampede during a fire and think only of themselves. Someone
who is liberated would think about how best to help others no matter what the
danger to himself, because he has no concept of a separate self He might send
someone to call the fire department, and calmly help everybody else to escape.
morning I read an article concerning why Buddhism disappeared from India, some
700 or 800 years ago. At that time only Hinayana Buddhism existed, exhibiting
an attitude towards life decidedly more negative than that of Mahayana. Hinayana
Buddhists wanted to escape human existence, so they did not contribute to Indian
society as a whole. When practitioners want only to free themselves from this
world of suffering, and are not interested in helping other sentient beings, anyone
who joins the Buddhist community does not contribute to society. When the Muslims
overran India, the Hindus resisted and maintained their religion and some of their
social structure. The Buddhists, on the other hand, ran away. The Muslim invaders
followed them and eventually all the Indian Buddhists were killed or died out.
China the Mahayana tradition helped Buddhism survive periods of persecution. Sometimes
Buddhism was wiped out in the cities, but it survived in the mountains. When it
was destroyed in the mountains, it still survived among the common people. Whenever
the persecution abated, Buddhism always reappeared and grew strong again. According
to the article I read, because Mahayana Buddhists have always been willing to
be involved in the world for the benefit of others, Buddhism has not disappeared
Now let us return to the text. We were talking about Kaundinya's
realization. Buddha gave him the name "Ajnata," which means "the
Wondrous Sound Is Secret (or Esoteric) and Complete." The "Secret"
is secret only to those who have not attained realization. "Complete"
refers, first, to Kaundinya as Arhat, who no longer has anything to accomplish
and for whom birth and death hold no suffering, and second, to those who are not
enlightened but who will witness the enlightened manifestation of wisdom and compassion
in him, and will thus see him as "complete." The Surangama Sutra is
a Mahayana Sutra, and in Mahayana Buddhism wisdom is always associated with compassion,
so after attaining Mahayana Arhatship Kaundinya manifested complete wisdom and
compassion for all sentient beings.
In the Ch'an tradition there are many examples
of practitioners who became enlightened through sound, even in modern times. One
evening when Master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud, 1840 - 1959) was practicing in the meditation
hall, the person serving tea burned him as he poured hot water into his cup. Master
Hsu Yun dropped the cup, and when he heard the sound it made as it broke, he had
an enlightenment experience.
To become enlightened through sound may seem easy,
but Kaundinya practiced diligently as a follower of Shakyamuni for six years before
he realized enlightenment. Master Hsu Yun left home to devote himself to practice
when he was nineteen and did not have the experience I described until he was
fifty-six, thirty-seven years later. If we practice as hard as Kaundinya did,
and have the good fortune to meet a Buddha, no doubt we, too, can realize enlightenment
through sound. Otherwise we may have to be at least as patient as Master Hsu Yun.
I am in my sixties now, and if I practice patiently for the next thirty-seven
years I will be 100 years old. Most of you are younger than I. Do not waste your
chance. It is important to practice diligently. Put down your attachments and
use your method. When we do that, enlightenment can be simple.