Sound of the Bark
Riding on sounds and allowing definitions to hop rails.
Yünmen said, “See how vast and wide the world is! Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?”
~ The Gateless Barrier, Case 16
In a dark, early morning Los Angeles zendo some years ago, a couple of monks came in late for the first sitting. The teacher spoke into the room: “When you hear the morning bell, just get up! Nothing more. Just get up! It is so simple.” Words I tell myself as my alarm goes off for our morning Open Temple …
We always seem to stumble toward complexity, with evermore reasons and excuses to explain our world. That’s not really a problem; it is just makes for a complicated life. Yunmen is guiding us toward a different look at the world, one that is vast and wide, and utterly simple.
With nothing to add, that world’s simplicity is beyond explaining. “It is a dark enigma deep within dark enigma; the gateway of all mystery,” writes Lao Tzu. Yet from this vast mystery, simple life arises. Alarm clocks go off, we put on shirts, crows call, and puppy dogs bark to get out. In his commentary on the above case, Wumen writes:
All you Zen students, training in the Way…You may have realization on hearing a sound or enlightenment on seeing a form—that’s natural. Don’t you know that true Zen students, when they are riding on sounds and becoming one with colors, everything is clear, moment by moment, everything is full of wonder, action after action. Tell me, when you hear a sound, does it come to the ear, or does the ear go to the sound? If you hear with the ear, you can’t realize it. When you hear with the eye, you will become intimate at last.
I was chatting with a friend about this commentary recently, and he said, “I really love the lines ‘riding on sounds.’ I heard a bird outside and it went “Waa!’” I said, “Oh, how great! What does ‘riding on sounds’ mean to you? He said, “Waa!” So I asked, “Well, when you hear it, does the sound come to your ear, or does your ear go to the sound?” He responded, “Waa!” I simply laughed.
“When you hear with the eye, you will become intimate at last,” writes Wumen. It is playful, and surprisingly joyful, when our definitions hop the rails; when we feel the freedom to smell the color purple, or to see the sound of stars in the night sky, or to hear with our whole body the noise of a leaf blower. It is the simple nature of the world which allows that freedom.
Yesterday afternoon, our new puppy stood at the door barking, as if to say: “When I whine, just open the door. It is so simple!”
by Jane Kenyon
The dog and I push through the ring
of dripping junipers
to enter the open space high on the hill
where I let him off the leash.
He vaults, snuffling, between tufts of moss;
twigs snap beneath his weight; he rolls
and rubs his jowls on the aromatic earth;
his pink tongue lolls.
I look for sticks of proper heft
to throw for him, while he sits, prim
and earnest in his love, if it is love.
All night a soaking rain, and now the hill
exhales relief, and the fragrance
of warm earth. . . . The sedges
have grown an inch since yesterday,
and ferns unfurled, and even if they try
the lilacs by the barn can’t
keep from opening today.
I longed for spring’s thousand tender greens,
and the white-throated sparrow’s call
that borders on rudeness. Do you know—
since you went away
all I can do
is wait for you to come back to me.