In Buddhism, sound is a powerful key to enlightenment. Everyday, twice a day, we chant extracts from the sutras. We strive to keep our mouths pure at all times so that we can pronounce these ancient syllables brought along the Silk Roads from India to China, then Korea and Japan, by the Buddha’s disciples after his physical death. They risked life and limb to convey the rites and rituals, and the sutras, to the ends of the earth for us. We would not have encountered the Dharma if it were not for their incredible feats of survival and determination.
When we chant, we strike the singing bell tenderly to mark the end of one mantra and the beginning of the next. The bell sounds out in the midst of the everyday bustle and stress of daily life. The resonance of the simple bell opens the flower in our heart into full bloom instantly. It signals that the break from meditation is over, and so we can continue on with our peaceful cleansing meditations.
Sound is concrete and cannot be argued with or misinterpreted. The Buddha knew that, saying that sound nourished the roots of faith. In the sala grove in the last few minutes of the Buddha’s physical life, the king of demons Mara Papiyas who had unmercifully plagued the Buddha during his quest for enlightenment, was finally convinced of the Buddha’s goodness and wisdom. So he entreated everyone in the congregation to cast away all evil.
He threw himself at the Buddha’s feet and vowed to protect all sentient beings seeking the Buddha’s pathway. As was customary, he offered the Buddha food and drink, but the most important thing among his gifts was a special mantra to subdue evil. The Buddha accepted his precious offering of sound above nourishment.
If we are truly awake spiritually, then we can hear the messages and commands emanating from the Dharma clearly, and take their meaning into action into the way we live our lives. Of course, we have the gift of seeing also, but the busy eye can be easily overcome by stimulation and become attached to everything entering its field of vision. We can easily become envious or greedy if we allow the eye to roam without discipline, and this creates fertile ground for delusions to sprout. Whereas the ear receives vibrations deep in the head, and vibrations are what the universe is constructed of.
Often what we hear touches us more deeply than what we see: the words of our loved ones, symphonies and songs, bird-song, a mountain stream or waterfall, thunder, a scream of distress. Human speech, the words we say to each other, are precious, but because of our delusions, often we squander them. We speak carelessly, not considering people’s feelings, or selfishly, not giving others time to speak. We tell lies or deceive, we praise ourselves instead of others, we blaspheme, gossip and defame others without thinking.
Buddhists, and before them Hindus and Sikhs of Vedic India, have always chanted or recited mantras. A mantra is a command from the Buddha or Divine one. It is a protection of mind, which enables us to eliminate negative karma. On simply hearing mantras or Dharma teachings of any kind, we can reach Nirvana. We then develop the aspiration to find goodness and truth in our everyday lives.
Mantras if repeated can protect our minds from delusions such as anger, ignorance, and greed. We may be provoked to anger by what someone says, but if we accept what they say without reacting as a victim of their words, then we break the cycle of stimulus and reaction. When provoked in this way I find it useful to recite a mantra silently, deep in my heart. It’s not that we are blocking out the provocation, but that the mantra helps us to accept what is said without judging it.
It is nothing to do with your human will that you are reading these words now. The gurus and Dharma Protectors are working through me so that you can hear good Dharma in my voice across the airwaves. And by simply reading and taking in these words, you are creating merit for yourself. Every time we hear or read the soundless voices of Dharma, more negative karma is cut and we accumulate merit, which will take us one step nearer to enlightenment, to Nirvana, to emptiness. This is not a cheap trick; it is the truth.
If we offer ourselves up to the resonant sound of the bell, any bell, the Dharma Protectors will wake our sleeping hearts, and we will be able to notice something we could not notice before. It is because all sentient beings have a Buddha nature that we are each part of the same truth, and if we become aware of the workings of the Invisible world in our lives, we will find ourselves listening to the Dharma more and more.
People around you speak to you, or to others. The words they say are coming from their Buddha Nature, which may either be soiled, corrupted by negative karma or delusion, or in pristine condition. Their words are messages from the Buddhas and protectors, signals to help us find our way. Imagine, we are surrounded by living Buddhas, without whose kindness and support we could not exist. Their kindness may not always be apparent to us in the words they say, but if we listen more deeply, the voice of the Buddha is there resonating from the Dharmakaya.
All sentient beings are cut from one cloth – the fabric of the Universe, so we are each a reflection of each other. Therefore we are all capable of the huge range of behavior we witness every day around us. Surely that puts us in no position to judge anyone else. Loving acceptance is the way to live comfortably within our sentient network.
Finally, my hearing the Dharma for the first time goes back to when I was a child. At lunchtime on school days my brother and I would go home where my father was waiting for us with a meal. When we had eaten we would all play cricket together in our back yard while listening to the radio (there was no day-time TV in those days). This is when I first heard the following words, which I confirmed much later.
Encountering the Buddha Dharma in human life is as unlikely as a sea turtle spotting a floating log in the great ocean and swimming up to poke its head through a hole in it to view the sky.
This was the beginning of my journey, by simply hearing these words. I had no idea what they meant intellectually, but I recognized that this ‘Buddha Dharma’ was something indeed rare! Perhaps the game of cricket woke me up so I was ready to notice these strange words and drink them into my young mind. At that point I had no clue what the Buddha was let alone the Dharma. I hardly knew what a turtle was living among the dark satanic mills of Lancashire in northern Britain.
The allusion to turtles continues with Mara Papayas. At the Buddha’s Parinirvana, when he offered the Buddha a mantra to protect all sentient beings following in the Buddha’s footsteps, he said that his protection would keep people,
as secure as the six appendages (head, tail and four legs) of a turtle that have folded into its shell.
The power of sound is something wondrous! Sound is the very fabric of the Dharma so please listen out for it in the voices of the people around you, and feel safe in your turtle shell of protection when you recite mantras.