The Enlightenment of Guan Yin /Avalokiteshvara


Delivered at the University of Hawaii

Honolulu, Hawaii February 26, 1982 Co-sponsored by Kuan-yin Temple

Dear friends:

The Bodhisattva Kuan-yin made a great vow to release all sentient beings in the universe from suffering. Numerous miraculous events have been attributed to Kuan-yin all over the world. Because of the intimate relation that he has with us, it is taught that by undertaking his method of cultivating realization, one will obtain swift success.

There is an important passage in the Shurangama Sutra in which Bodhisattva Kuan-yin relates how he cultivated realization. In that sutra, twenty-five bodhisattvas, in response to the inquiry of Buddha Shakyamuni, explained their methods of cultivation and spiritual attainment. Afterwards, the Buddha asked Bodhisattva Manjushri to evaluate what had been said. Manjushri pointed out that Kuan-yin’s way of cultivating realization through hearing was best suited for the people of this world.

So it is because of these reasons that I have chosen the enlightenment of Bodhisattva Kuan-yin as the topic of today’s talk.

Before we discuss Bodhisattva Kuan-yin’s method, it is important that we should have some fundamental understanding about the teachings of the Buddha.

The aim of Buddha’s teachings is to release all sentient beings from suffering. The essential point is that all human suffering results from our deluded attachment, which in turn is the product of our object-clinging mind.

Here, ‘object’ means all objects of consciousness, whether they are in the outside world as perceived by our sense organs and skin, or in the inside world of our thoughts, ideas, knowledge, etc. ‘Clinging’ means grasping or becoming attached. Therefore the object-clinging mind is the state of mind through which we become attached to objects we encounter, and come to believe that those objects are real. Such attachment is deluded attachment. Because of this deluded attachment, our judgment is confounded. Ignorance, greed, hatred, and suffering result. In short, much of our experience of life is based on assumptions and perceptions which are actually contrary to reality.

To reverse this process, Buddha taught various methods to stop clinging to objects and to contemplate reality with a one-pointed mind. This is the key concept involved in ‘dhyana’ which is incompletely translated as ‘meditation.’ The practice of meditation is not just sitting like a block of wood or stone; rather, it is the act of learning to concentrate one’s mental energies in a state of absorption. This state is achieved in stages, like an ascent to one peak after another. The goal is not reached until one day you suddenly discover that all your deluded attachments have gone like the wind, leaving not a trace, or even a name to hang onto.

To begin my discussion of Kuan-yin’s method of cultivation, I would like to present first my translation of the passage from the Shurangama Sutra where he explained his meditation technique to the Buddha:

First I (concentrated) on the audial consciousness, allowed the sounds that were contacting (the ear) to flow off, and thus audial objects subsided and were lost.

Then, since ear-contact and audial objects produced no effect, the mind remained in a state of clarity, and the phenomena of motion and stillness no longer occurred.

Meditative absorption gradually deepened; ultimately the distinction between audial consciousness and the objects of audial consciousness was no longer in existence.

Although there was no experience of audial consciousness, meditative absorption continued to deepen.

Then, all awareness and objects of awareness became empty.

The awareness of emptiness expanded without boundary; then emptiness and that which is empty became extinct.

Since all arising and subsiding had ceased, equanimity became manifest.

Suddenly, transcending both the mundane and supramundane, there was an undistracted luminosity in all the ten directions.

As is evident, Kuan-yin’s method is based on the process of hearing. Before proceeding with a discussion of the technique, we should first have a clear understanding of the following five terms: ‘I,’ ‘the nature to hear,’ ‘audial consciousness,’ ‘hearing,’ and ’sound.’ I might also state here that these five terms correspond to five degrees of deluded attachment, the coarsest and weakest of which is sound, and the subtlest and strongest of which is our ‘I.’ The latter is the most difficult one to eradicate. Ordinarily we tend to confuse sound, hearing, audial consciousness, and the nature to hear. But actually there are some important and fundamental differences.

Kuan-yin began his cultivation of realization by recognizing those differences. He practiced meditation by the sea. Every morning, when he woke up and everything was quiet about him, he would hear the sound of the tide coming in from afar, breaking the silence. After a while the sound of the tide receded and he would hear the silence restored. Then, the sound of the tide came again, and again the silence was gone. Kuan-yin studied the coming and going of the sound of the tide and discovered that the two objects the sound of the tide and the silence – were mutually exclusive, that is, he could not hear them both at once. When the sound of the tide arose, silence ceased. When the sound of the tide ceased, silence arose. Nonetheless, he perceived that they both had something in common: both arose and then ceased; both were impermanent. But not so his innate nature to hear itself; it was always present. The nature to hear enabled him to hear the sound of the incoming tide, but it did not go away when the tide went back out, for then he heard the silence. Indeed, if it were otherwise and his nature to hear were to have departed with the tide, then he would not only have not heard the silence, but he would not have heard the next tidal advance either. Thus, although the sound of the tide came and went, the nature to hear itself was not subject to those changes.

It is important to realize that while sound just comes and goes, arises and subsides, we ordinarily “pursue” sound’s transient pattern of arising and cessation; that is to say, we seize upon it as being entirely real, and therefore develop deluded attachment. In order to impress you more deeply with this crucial point, let me give an example.

Suppose that someone rings a bell. If he then asks if the bell is ringing, one would answer affirmatively. If he were to ask the same question after the ringing had faded away, one would answer in the negative. Here, language is well in accord with what has actually taken place, for the sound of the bell has, in fact, arisen and subsided. But now, if the bell is made to ring again and the question posed is “Can you hear something?” the situation becomes quite different. While the affirmative answer made while the bell continues to ring would still be correct, the same cannot be said of the negative response given when the ringing has ceased. It is true that one no longer hears the bell, but one can still hear. Even if one is aware of no sound at all, it is precisely by using the sense of hearing that one is aware of silence. So it is clear that while sound just comes and goes, the same is not true of our innate nature to hear. This aspect of hearing, which hears transient sounds, but does not itself change, is what is called the innate nature to hear in Buddhist terminology.

The examples given above serve to illustrate the difference between sound and the nature to hear. Sound arises and ceases without lingering for even a moment. It is impermanent. The nature to hear, on the other hand, is always present; it neither arises nor ceases. Even a deaf man possesses the nature to hear, but due to other impairments he cannot hear sounds.

What then is meant by audial consciousness and how does it differ from hearing?

As we all know, the organ through which we hear sounds is the ear. To be more precise, sound waves from external sources cause the eardrum to vibrate, and this in turn stimulates the audial nerves, which in one’s brain give rise to the sensation of hearing. Thus, hearing is the process whereby the nature to hear is stimulated to produce a sensation of sound through the activity of the ear and the brain. Nonetheless, sometimes the sensation of sound may even be produced without the activity of the ear. Over two decades ago, a certain Dr. Vincent, in Montreal, Canada, conducted experiments on the human brain in which he made a small opening in the skull of a woman and touched a particular part of her brain with a pair of very fine electrodes. Suddenly, the woman said that she heard someone singing a familiar song, although there was no one actually singing at the time. When the electrodes were removed, the singing stopped. When the same point was touched again, the singing commenced anew. It is obvious that in this case the sensation of the song was produced through the sole agency of the brain without the use of the ear. This part of the hearing process is called ‘audial consciousness.’ It is the consciousness of sound itself and can exist with or without the existence of an external sound and the physical ear. Another example of audial consciousness is what one hears in a dream.

The foregoing discussion clarifies, I think, the four terms used in connection with the process of hearing. To sum them up once more, then, the ‘nature to hear’ is one’s ever-present ability to hear. It neither comes nor goes; neither arises nor subsides. ‘Hearing’ is the audial process that comes about through the activity of the ear and brain. ‘Audial consciousness’ is the aspect of hearing that functions solely through the agency of the brain. ‘Sound’ is the object of hearing, whether it be the actual object perceived through the activity of both the ear and brain, or the audial object perceived by the brain alone. It comes and goes, arises and then subsides. In fact, every sound is actually a series of momentary vibrations, each of which has its arising and cessation. Having comprehended these four concepts in this way, we may proceed to discuss Kuan-yin’s way of cultivating realization.

Kuan-yin begins his discourse by saying: “First, I (concentrated) on the audial consciousness” which means “during the first stage of meditation, using my hearing.” Here, special attention should be paid to the fact that the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin began his cultivation of realization at the level of an ordinary human being. He had a strong sense of self, of an ‘I.’ Second, he possessed the innate nature to hear. Third, both his audial consciousness and hearing were unimpaired. Fourth, he heard sounds, such as the sound of the tide mentioned above. We all possess these faculties and the delusions associated with them. This is significant, because in the course of this discussion we will see how Kuan-yin progressed from his ordinary state and proceeded to eradicate his deluded attachments one by one.

As I mentioned above, Kuan-yin practiced meditation by the sea. By listening to the coming and going of the sound of the tide, he realized that sound is neither permanent nor substantial, but arises and ceases momentarily within the field created by one’s innate nature to hear. Nonetheless, one becomes attached to sounds, and as a result, delusion arises. Therefore, by allowing the sounds that contacted the ear to flow off, and thereby being detached from the object sound, Kuan-yin was able to eliminate the delusion that has its origin in sound.

“Allowed the sounds that were contacting the ear to flow off, and thus audial objects subsided and were lost” has two aspects that require study. First, we will examine “allowed the sounds that contacted the ear to flow off.” This refers to ‘entering,’ a Buddhist technical term that denotes contact between a sense organ and its object in the external environment. The contacts of the five physical sense organs (i.e., eye, ear, nose, tongue, and skin) with their respective objects and of the mind with the world of thoughts and ideas are termed the ’six entrances’ in Buddhism. The entrance we are considering here is that of the ear, and entering in this case is the arising of the sensation of sound when the vibrations of an external source reach the eardrum.

The meaning of ‘flow off’ is not grasping, not abiding. In the Diamond Sutra it says:”…not arousing one’s mind by abiding in sound, smell, taste, touch, or mental objects…” Here not abiding means that one does not linger on the sensation but rather allows the stream of consciousness to continue to flow freely even after contact is made with the object. Thus, Kuan-yin’s phrase “allowed the sounds that contacted the ear to flow off’ has exactly the same meaning as does “not arousing one’s mind by abiding in sound” in the language of the Diamond Sutra.

To be precise, ‘allowing to flow’ means that one does not cling to every single sound heard by the ear in contact with the external world. One should allow each sound to pass away, like water flowing in a stream. This is easy enough to say, but it is quite a feat to accomplish. Our difficulty lies in the fact that we have an established habit whereby we catch hold of single sounds, string them together to form words and sentences, and then impart meanings to them. From this process, deluded attachments, turbulent emotions, and sufferings arise. We can confirm this by means of a simple experiment:

Let someone produce a sequence of single syllables, for example: KUAN SHIH YIN. Now if you were asked what you heard, you might very well reply, “Kuan-shih-yin.” Such a response would indicate that at the time you heard those syllables you had not allowed each of the syllables ‘kuan’ and ’shih’ and ‘yin’ to flow on after entering; you retained them all, strung them together, and made up the word ‘Kuan-shih-yin.’ You might also associate everything you have ever heard about Bodhisattva Kuan-shih-yin with these sounds. This exemplifies deluded attachment. It does not matter at all whether ‘Kuan-shih-yin’ is a good or bad term, deluded attachment is deluded attachment all the same. Therefore, in order to get rid of deluded attachments one must allow any and every single sound to flow off.

At this point one might object to all this with the idea that it is just not possible for us to allow sounds to flow without abiding. It would seem that our brains are constructed in such a way as to make us automatically string monosyllables together. This, however, is not entirely true. If we consider this carefully, we will find that allowing sounds to flow is not at all impossible.

At any one moment our ears are in contact with many external sounds: sounds of passing vehicles, of children calling to one another and crying, of someone next to us breathing, and so forth. Usually, we naturally allow these sounds to flow without abiding. Right now, you are probably allowing many sounds to flow, but not the sounds of the words I am speaking. This is because you are paying attention to them, for you desire to know what my talk is getting at. Thus in this case, my words are the sound objects that you do not let flow. You cling to my words. This permits you to understand what is being said and to form mental responses. On the other hand, if you were to desist from this and just allow each syllable to flow, you would not be able to put together words and sentences. You would not have grasped the term ‘Kuan-shih-yin’ in the example given before, nor would you have grasped the meaning of that term. The results of practicing the allowing-to-flow method, when extended to all perception, can lead to some very profound realizations.

To proceed with Kuan-yin’s account, we may next consider the word ‘lost’ in the phrase “the audial object subsided and was lost.” This refers to the elimination of any consciousness of the object. ‘Audial object’ means the sound heard, or anything that becomes an object of one’s hearing. In Chinese Buddhist texts one often comes across two terms which mean ‘capability’ and ‘object.’ Specifically, ‘capability’ refers to the ability to perform subjective functions, as in the statement “I who am capable of hearing,” or “I who am capable of seeing.” The ‘object’ is the object of this capability, the sound that is heard, or the color that is seen. Many phenomena result from this dichotomy, which is the primary form of deluded attachment. Therefore, becoming detached from the object is to become detached from the object of hearing and all other objects that arise in connection with the object of hearing. This may be illustrated with an example:

A person once said to me: “The New York subway is so noisy that whenever I board a train my mind is disturbed by the rumbling sound.” An analysis of this sentence reveals the following sequence of events:

1. He boards the subway train, and his ears make contact with sounds.
2. He retains every single sound (i.e., he does not allow the sounds to flow off, but grasps at them) and perceives noise. This is the first object of hearing.
3. Stringing all the sounds together, he determines that the noise is a rumble. This is the second object.
4. He identifies the rumble as the sound being made by the subway train – the third object.
5. Because of past associations and present conceptualization he determines that the rumbling sound of the subway is a disturbance. This is the fourth object.

Now let us reverse the order and remove attachment to the objects one by one:

1. Recognizing the rumble of the subway one refrains from associating it with the past experiences that cause one to regard it as a disturbance. This is detachment from the fourth object.
2. Recognizing a rumble, one refrains from determining whether it is the rumble of a train, plane, or something else. This is detachment from the third object.
3. Perceiving noise, one refrains from judging it to be a rumble, squeak, or other sound. This is detachment from the second object.
4. Immediately after making contact with individual sounds one allows them to flow off – one refrains from retaining the sounds and stringing them together to form the sensation of sound in the audio-consciousness that is grounded in the nature to hear. Thus, one becomes detached from the first object.

When we reach this stage, we have become detached from all the objects. This is what is meant by allowing sounds to flow off and losing the object.

Now you know the entire meaning of the statement “I (concentrated) on the audial consciousness, allowed the sounds that were contacting (the ear) to flow off, and thus audial objects subsided and were lost.” This was the method employed by Kuan-yin during the first stage of his cultivation of realization. By not allowing sounds which enter through the ear to abide in the audial consciousness, one becomes detached from the object of hearing at once. Therefore audial objects subside and are lost.

Kuan-yin continued: “Then, since ear-contact and audial objects produced no effect, the mind remained in a state of clarity, and the phenomena of motion and stillness no longer occurred.”

These words indicate that through ceaseless training in allowing the sounds to flow off and letting the objects disappear, one gradually attains a state in which the innate nature to hear becomes free from the object of hearing and the contact of the ear with the external world. The nature to hear becomes thoroughly quiet and clear, and the mind is not torpid, but remains lucid. When that occurs, one feels neither the sensation of motion, for sound is the result of motion or vibrations, nor does one feel the sensation of stillness, for stillness is perceived in relation to motion. At this stage, ’samadhi’ (a technical Buddhist term for meditative absorption) has been attained, but there are many degrees of samadhi and progress through them is made in stages. The state described here may be called the initial stage of meditative absorption. At this level two of the five deluded attachments have been removed – deluded attachment to sound, and deluded attachment to hearing. Nonetheless, having removed only these two deluded attachments, worldly suffering may be greatly reduced. If we can attain just this stage, we will enjoy ample happiness and freedom in this world.

Your attention is invited to the fact that at this point Buddha’s basic teaching to “stop clinging to objects” is achieved. Now the next step is to “contemplate reality with a one-pointed mind.”

Therefore Kuan-yin did not stop at this point. He made greater efforts and pushed on in his practice, deepening his samadhi day by day. Thus he said, “Meditative absorption gradually deepened…”

The level of cultivation of realization described above could have already been attained by many of you, but what follows is entirely concerned with advancing the state of meditative absorption and is thus not easy for ordinary people to comprehend. Therefore, I wish to clarify my own position at this point. It may be that some of those who hear this have already experienced deep realizations, but I myself am just like the tadpole whose mother has just returned from the bank of a pond. She tries to make us young waterbound frogs understand the loveliness of the gentle breeze and the warm sunshine, but we can merely repeat what she has already said. We will only truly understand what she means when we get our own legs and go onto the bank ourselves. Only then will we realize the truth of the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin’s words.

Bodhisattva Kuan-yin continued:”…ultimately the distinction between audial consciousness and the objects of audial consciousness was no longer in existence.”

Bodhisattva Kuan-yin, in meditative absorption, continued to investigate the difference between the concept of the ‘I’ who is hearing and the object of hearing, because at the stage he had attained thus far, both audial consciousness and the nature to hear were still present. In this case, the word ‘audial consciousness’ is used to mean the ‘I’ who is hearing, or the nature to hear. The object is the object of the audial consciousness. In the final analysis, he realized, there is no difference between the two. Therefore, both (the individual engaged in) hearing and its object ceased completely; that is to say, they merged. At this time, because the concepts of hearing and the nature to hear were no longer present, his mind was filled with freedom and pure happiness. All sufferings except those of birth and death had been eradicated.

Nonetheless, Kuan-yin did not stop meditating, but continued his one-pointed mind contemplation, and he found that “awareness and the object of awareness became empty. Then the awareness of emptiness expanded without boundary.”

This is a higher level of meditative absorption wherein there is nothing but awareness left. But who is it that is aware? It is the ‘I.’ Thus, as long as there is awareness, there remains this ‘I.’

Kuan-yin proceeded to investigate further to find the difference between the ‘I’ who is aware and the object of awareness. In the end he found that there was no difference between the two, because they were both empty, intangibly empty. Hence he said, “awareness and the object of awareness became empty…”

In this state of meditative absorption he no longer felt the existence of his physical body, and he was liberated from the pains of birth and death. The sensation of emptiness was so pervasive that it was felt to reach the uttermost boundaries of the three realms and into the infinite past and future. It was everywhere, and it had no temporal or spatial limits. Therefore, Kuan-yin described the stage he had reached as being without boundary. Still, this was not the stage of perfection he sought, so the bodhisattva cultivated his realization further:

“Then emptiness and that which is empty became extinct.”

This level of meditative absorption was, of course, higher than the previous one, but even at this stage there remained a sensation of emptiness. Who was it that felt the sensation of emptiness when emptiness was attained? Although he had lost the sensation of a physical ‘I’ at this point, there was still a vague sensation of an ‘I’ present in his consciousness. In other words, there was still a slight degree of deluded attachment left. This stage could easily be mistaken for the highest degree to which realization could be cultivated, but there was still one most important step left to be taken. Therefore, instead of stopping here, he took a further step and doubled his efforts in order to investigate the difference between the ‘I’ who was empty and the emptiness that was its object. At last he came to realize not only that there was no difference between the two, but that even the sensation of emptiness was nonexistent. Therefore, Kuan-yin said that emptiness and its object were eliminated.

At this stage everything that was subject to arising and subsiding, everything that might appear and then cease, such as thought, sensation, mental reflection, hearing, awareness, emptiness, and ego, had completely ceased. Not a bit of deluded attachment remained. All the sufferings of existence had ended. Darkness was totally dispelled and nothing was left.

Therefore, Kuan-yin said:

“Since all arising and subsiding had ceased, equanimity became manifest.”

This is the picture of the land as the mother frog had expressed it. One must not take “equanimity became manifest” to mean “equanimity then appeared before me.” So that we might not form such a mistaken impression, the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng, pointed out that “when total nirvana manifests, it does not manifest in the relative sense of the word. ” (Platform Sutra, Chapter on Opportunity.) At this stage there is no longer any concept of an ‘I.’ Therefore, the word ‘manifest’ actually denotes a complete all-pervasiveness and is not a relative term involving a comparative concept. Hence, Kuan-yin continued:

“Suddenly, transcending both the mundane and supramundane…”

At this stage every obstacle was removed. All the deluded attachments, the stages of samadhi realized in meditation, and the sensations of subject and object were transcended none of them were obstacles any longer. The true nature of reality was revealed and all Bodhisattva Kuan-yin could say was:”…there was an undistracted luminosity in all the ten directions.”

‘Ten directions’ refers to the absence of any fixed center, the absence of a central ego. ‘Undistracted’ means that nothing is wanting; it is perfect, unbounded. ‘Luminosity’ means a brightness that is totally without obstacles. These words are used to convey in language the condition of one’s basic nature, attained through the cultivation of realization, though language is not at all adequate here. “Undistracted luminosity in all the ten directions” makes it clear that there is now nothing but original nature: There is no buddha, no sentient being; there is not even emptiness. This is the ‘basic nature,’ ‘original nature,’ ‘primordial element,’ or ‘buddha-nature’ described in the Buddhist scriptures. All these terms have the same meaning.

In the Shurangama Sutra, the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin made two further statements explaining the function that arises from our basic nature. This function is the universal delivery of all sentient beings from suffering through the great compassion and loving kindness that arise spontaneously from the empty nature of the primordial element. In this state, defilements are identical with enlightenment and enlightenment with defilements. Such a state cannot be the object of mundane speculation, for the attempts of ordinary individuals to grasp this conceptually can easily cause further delusion. If we become attached to the notion of the function, obstacles to the cultivation of realization may arise. Therefore I have left Kuan-yin’s two further statements unexplained. In any case, if one gains an insight into the nature of the primordial element, the function will follow naturally, for they are two aspects of one and the same thing. Tadpoles like me would do much better to just concentrate our efforts on the practice of allowing objects that contact the sense organs to flow off, and thus become detached from objects. This will at least remove some of the mundane defilements and attachments. I sincerely hope that all of you become free from suffering by practicing Kuan-yin’s method.

It is said that to be born as a human being is as rare as the early morning star; to have the opportunity to hear Buddha’s teaching is even more rare. I might add that to find the opportunity and time to practice those teachings is the rarest among the rare. I sincerely hope that you are among the rarest of the rare.

Thank you very much.

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6 thoughts on “The Enlightenment of Guan Yin /Avalokiteshvara”

  1. I was searching about Avalokiteshvara and I arrived on your site… Can we believe in signs? Lecture given at the University of Honolulu while I am “dreaming” of immigrating in Hawaii! I live in Corsica, and I am a Zen Buddist without a Temple, without a Sangha. Difficult sometimes to live “alone”… I wish I could make connection with some one in Hawaii to exchange thoughs and the Dharma, it would be a kind of Sangha…

    Beautiful site and much needed for people like me!

    Thank you
    Elisabeth

    1. Amituofo, Elisabeth,
      You are welcome. There must be a Monastery in Corcica ( Corcica, PA or Italy area?) please find one or as you say an online Sangha. But do keep in mind that the Temple is not in Hawaii, it is in you ^_^ be well, be happy!
      I wish you much success _/\_

    1. I have heard so many stories of how Gunashiyin Pusa saves us,and I have my own experiences that I believe are from Guanshiyin Pusa. The stories are beautiful and only if one has been ‘touched by her compassionate spirit’ can one know what that feels like…what ‘that’ is…
      How do we “repay” ? I don’t know, but I would practice compassion in kind, I would hold Guanshiyin Pusa and her/his compassionate vows in high reverence and regard and continue to vow my self to walk the Bodhisattva path and vow to come back to Samsara life after life until all sentient beings cross over first.
      May you continue to be guided and protected by Guanshiyin Pusa _/\_

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