We all know how much it can mean to us when someone takes the time to listen. Simply being able to tell your story gives a space and a kind of freedom – it creates trust. If there is one figure in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that embodies this listening, it is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara. This Bodhisattva, this being (sattva) that strives towards Awakening (bodhi) for the sake of other beings, is called also Guan Shi Yin (觀世音), or simply Guan Yin (觀音): he/she who contemplates (觀, guan) the sounds (音, yin) of the world (世, shi).
A few years ago, when I had just finished high school and thus had become “grown up,” I took up my freedom with both hands and went to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a place I had wanted to visit for many years.
Throughout the centuries, the Chinese Buddhist tradition has developed a session form devoted to Guan Yin. A few years ago, when I had just finished high school and thus had become “grown up,” I took up my freedom with both hands and went to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a place I had wanted to visit for many years. This monastic community was founded by Master Hsuan Hua in the seventies in order to provide a home for Buddhism in the West. The community consists of monks and nuns as well as laity. The children of the families there, of the communities nearby, and from other places around the world come to study at its schools. There is also an organic farm and, of course, Dharma Realm Buddhist University. All of this is situated amidst the mountains at the edge of the little town of Ukiah.
During my four-week stay, I participated in one such Guan Yin session. The evening lectures provided a framework and practical instructions for the practice, using the symbolism surrounding Guan Yin to guide us towards Guan Yin’s spirit. What is this spirit? What is this mind? We discussed the Dharani Sutra, which describes ten aspects of Guan Yin’s mind, including friendliness, impartiality towards all living beings, and the realization that they all posses the Buddha nature. These aspects are all essential to the Bodhisattva Path, which is motivated by the wish to help all living beings return to their original nature.
The spaciousness and freedom that is Awakening, the openness that is needed to really listen to someone else, doesn’t just arise spontaneously, without any work or training.
The spaciousness and freedom that is Awakening, the openness that is needed to really listen to someone else, doesn’t just arise spontaneously, without any work or training. The Guan Yin session provides just this training. The schedule is intense: starting at 4 am, there are ceremonies with recitation of mantras and names, bowing, walking, sitting and meditation, continuing until 9:30 pm, with breaks for meals and evening lectures. Within this schedule there is little chance to run away and spend time by yourself. One of the first pieces of advice given in the evening was to make the vow to completely follow the daily schedule, to surrender yourself to it, to trust it. After all, it is based on many centuries of experimentation.
I wondered, how would following one or another traditional schedule make you free? The Dharani sutra points to the fourth aspect of Guan Yin’s mind: non-attachment. Non-attachment means not letting your originally boundless heart become bound by limited objects. In such an intensive schedule, a lot of things arise in the mind: desires, fears, emotions, doubts, opinions, criticisms, and thoughts of all different sorts. If you can make it through all of this without tension, relaxed and able to let go, seeing it all as impermanent, then just that is freedom: that split second of inner space that frees you from having to follow through on impulsive fears or desires.
Furthermore, Guan Yin’s compassion provides a relatively safe space in which to let all this “stuff” arise. Unlike in a meditation session, where the silence can be cold and impersonal, in the Guan Yin session you are supported, and as egocentric problems reduce in importance, you feel more and more at home in the world and are able to open up to compassion.
In practice, you cannot always escape all this “stuff” that arises, and in daily life, this is evident in interpersonal relations. The evening lectures emphasized the importance of being direct and straight, sincere and honest, and prepared to take responsibility. Without honesty, there can be no true spontaneity, and you become stuck in endlessly repeating cycles of habitual avoidance. This is also where listening comes into the story: learning to listen to yourself and others. To have the openness for this, you cannot let yourself be controlled by your own emotions and thoughts. By letting go of these, you gain the space to make contact with something new: something newly discovered, or perhaps with Guan Yin Bodhisattva. It is just that space – that split second of freedom – that we need to plant wholesome seeds for our future, and to really be there for others.
… get up in the morning and think “ah, breakfast in two hours.” After breakfast you’re reciting and think “only a few hours until lunch!” After lunch you know right away that “dinner will for sure taste good!”
For me, the retreat was definitely special. I did not have any great visions of Guan Yin Bodhisattva, but I did have a lot of visions of the next coming meal. This can be somewhat embarrassing: you get up in the morning and think “ah, breakfast in two hours.” After breakfast you’re reciting and think “only a few hours until lunch!” After lunch you know right away that “dinner will for sure taste good!” And soon after this, you’re thinking about breakfast again. Of course, it was not my stomach or my body that needed food so badly. My mind was looking around like crazy for things to hold on to.
Even harder to break were the attempts to find yet another interpretation of freedom: looking at other’s faults. Years later, I can still tell you precisely who recited out of tune, who recited too loudly and who took too much space while bowing. It is not without reason that another aspect of Guan Yin’s mind is humbleness. The thought that others are wrong – implying that I’m doing it right – can be comfortable for a few moments. That comfort is totally unreal however, and in fact it is that constant inner commentator himself who became the most annoying as the session continued. Every now and then, he would stop his chatter for a moment, and I would stop wasting my energy mentally complaining about “that guy in the second row who recites out of tune.” It was in those moments I was a little less attached, and gained a little more freedom.
The most important lesson I learned from Guan Yin however, was not that I like good food or that I have a rather critical mind. At the end of the week I was asked to give my reflection on the session in the Buddha hall in front of the community. This is a somewhat formal setting, with monks and nuns present, and the necessary Chinese translator; yet there was still an ‘’ooh’’ arising in the hall when I recalled the core of my reflection: that I had really missed my mom. I had never been that long without my caring mother, and had realized how important she is to me, how much she had cared and cares both for and about me, and how little I have given in return. Parent-child relations and our freedom: definitely something to ponder on.