Dear Sangha,

We all know the sound of a foreign language even though we may not understand any of what it said. Often, we are able to distinguish the difference between the sound of French or Russian or Chinese; such that you can crudely imitate the sound of a language, though a very gross approximation.

When I was younger, I wondered “What must English sound like to someone who doesn’t speak English?” Does it sound like German? Dutch? Scandinavian? If someone was imitating English, much like we would imitate the sounds of French, what sounds would that person make that s/he considers unique to English and different than their own tongue?

So, I created a mental-cognitive game that I’d play in busy places like an airport, shopping district, or any where there was an abundance of verbal communication going on. I would listen to the sounds about me, and of conversation going on in the proximity, but tried to be aware in such a way that I heard the sound, but didn’t understand those sounds as words and meaning.

Yes, one can hear phonetics in language without interpreting it into words and meaning. We do it all the time with languages we don’t understand. But, it can be done with language we do know; though a very thin edge exists that can easily drag one back into the realm of language and thought.

What reminded me recently of this was Taigu’s recent talk on “Water birds”. (And if you didn’t watch the video, I would recommend you do.) And in that talk, he speaks of “making the sound of the traffic your sutra...the sound of the coffee machine, the sound of the hoover, the sound of the train engine your living sutra.”

I was very appreciative of putting everyday, moment/arising phenomenon into that mindful context of “meeting and leaving, every time.” Not only sound of course, but actions...walking, washing up, digging up the radishes, writing the check for rent.

When we choose space to practice zazen we tend to look for or create quiet places. I think most would agree that practice in the presence of some sounds are more conducive than others: the song of a bird, a dog barking, wind gusts through trees, the occasional passing of a vehicle, a jogger tracking by the house; with each moment of that awareness being unique; one moment it’s faint, building in intensity, then growing faint again. The arising and non-arising of audible phenomenon.

Human voice as language has a different character for me. And perhaps if I was sitting zazen someplace where language was unintelligible, like a foreign land, it might arise similarly to a chipmunk chattering in a nearby grove of evergreens.

So, here’s a problem: what is the practice of zazen within the experience of hearing language, perhaps something as intense as an inflammatory American radio talk show host?

And what about relationships with others? As Taigu rightfully says in his talk on “Clouds in the Sky, Water in the Bottle” he says “ can’t drop relationships...It’s wonderful to be with others. But you may drop a certain way of being with others, a certain intoxicated way. You may drop a mode of relating to the world.”

But what of dropping that mode of relating? Dealing with the talkers, the verbose, the opinionated. Some people think that human existence is all (or only) about thought/conceptualization/analysis/opinion. For example, some people can’t simply watch a soccer game, seeing the players, hearing the chants and drumming in the crowd, the smell of stadium food.....they need the opinionated chatter, the commentary, the never ending flow of information....and so they stay at home and watch the game on TV, where they can be continually fed analysis and data. Later on, what has remained important is the judgement, the opinion, the analysis. Not so much about the “dance” of
the game.

What do you feel, fellow buddhists, is the practice in these circumstances? What is the certain mode that we can drop, without seeming to alienate ourselves from our relationships?