Listening 2

kalighat4New Delhi: [Link to: Listening 1] Sitting here, listening to sounds all around, far away and just on the edge of hearing. The process itself seems to select the sound – or the sound is selected (by some unseen process) and ‘I’ don’t have control over it. Kitchen noises, isolated clatter of plates: clink, rolling-around clunking sounds, as objects gently collide with the environment: bump, scrape; cupboard doors close, metal sink noises, cutlery makes high frequency sounds I can’t easily identify. Jiab is doing something in there. Some time later, she comes into the room with a tray and plates, maple syrup and banana: ‘Pancakes!’ she says, and I go to the table. Taste the pancakes. There’s a cognitive function which investigates the senses, different from the receptivity of the sense base āyatanāni; the gates through which the flow of sensory data enters. It’s like a security system which monitors events taking place and identifies objects from outside the body that enter inside by way of taste, tactile sense, mind sense, ear, eye and nose,.

Other sounds come into auditory range; there is recognition, they are registered, processed; memory updated. It happens in a tiny fraction of a second, so fast it feels like trying to find words for it now is in slow motion, another kind of temporality. Auditory events jump out of the background, enough to be perceived consciously rather than just being part of the general surroundings of mixed ‘noise’. The process selects one and it’s not there until I focus on it – or until the mechanisms of focussing are turned in that direction. I listen rather than just hear – see, rather than just watch. It’s the gate of awareness sati sampajañña, through which there is awareness of all the other senses and the sense of being aware itself. It’s an alertness, a presence, the eye that turns inwards – a consciousness of the sensory experience that’s superimposed on sensory consciousness. Cognitive functioning is a sensory organ – consciousness is a sensory organ.

There’s always a returning to look for the beginning of it, how did it start? I only know that at some point, before I was properly aware of it, the parts came together into some kind of recognizable whole and now a thought appears in a small window, the story of it unfolds and ‘I’ am immediately part of this. ‘I’ am involved in the story and the story is about ‘me’. When I leave the story and the window closes, I get a short glimpse of something that tells me there was a window there – and it’s not there anymore. There is no ‘I,’ it just looks like that because everything has the quality of being seen in hindsight.

The process is seemingly directed towards a ‘self’ but if there’s no input, there’s no ‘self.’ Sensory mechanisms are functioning without ‘my’ involvement anattā; they’re waiting for things to arrive because it’s in their nature to do that. All there is, is this alertness. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and cognitive functioning; all are receiving the universe and, since all are also a part of the universe, it’s an all-inclusive experiencing of the universe that’s receiving itself. Just a state of ‘listening’, like a radio telescope dish situated in the middle of a desert somewhere pointing at the sky.


Buddhist tourists

Angulimala stupa, Śrāvastī: The Buddha is gone from here, it’s like languages that become extinct; if the language is not used, refreshed and evolving continuously, it disappears in history. And there are no signs of Buddhism beyond the gates of these historical places, no characteristics of mindfulness, compassion, there’s not even an understanding of it. It can so easily fragment and we can’t hold on to these historical times, annica, impermanence; what’s left are the teachings and sati sampajañña (mindfulness and clear comprehension); a deep and thorough understanding of impermanence. This teaching helps me to understand impermanence in a way that suggests some other kind of temporality. It’s enough to know such a thing is possible and this helps me accept the fact that things are so completely changed now, in the places where the Buddha used to be.

Begging children gather outside the gates and as we are leaving, the tour guide gives us packets of sweets to give to them – intended as a gesture we can make, reflecting on the generosity of Anathapindika (“feeder of the orphans or helpless”), all those centuries ago. But when we start to distribute these small packets, there’s such a fierce clawing and snatching that most of us have to drop the gifts and make a dash for the bus, chased by beggars. Last thing I see is a scuffle amongst them fighting for the ’gifts’. It was a feeling so completely different from the generosity of the historical figure who covered Jeta’s grove with gold coins in order to buy it from Prince Jeta. The Prince was so impressed with the generosity of Anathapindika, he gave the rest of it to him for free and joined with Anathapindika in offering the whole grove as a gift to the Buddha.

Is it possible that the presence of Buddhist tourists has created a generation of beggars at the gates? Anyway, this kind of thing seems to be unavoidable in India; there are beggars in other tourist places also. But the giving of money and gifts is a bit of a shambles and it would be better for everybody if this could be properly organized. What I did see that seemed more positive was a couple of people giving money to the beggars with an honest generosity, joyfully sharing; they were very good at doing it. I learned from this, it seemed to me to have a quality of dignity and mindful generosity and I tried to do it that way afterwards.

So, I wasn’t expecting the presence of beggars to have such an impact during this visit to the Buddhist holy places. Maybe it seems so dominant because what else is there here to see? Only ancient mounds and reconstructed low walls that show the location. I doubt if the bricks are original. There are very old Bodhi trees decorated with prayer flags but not of an age that could be anywhere near to the Buddha’s time. Otherwise there’s the earth and the sky; the air, nothing more than that. What is present is a special kind of sensitivity; visitors are all Buddhists or persons that way inclined, respectful and sincere and what we’re all considering is something that is unseen. If you can focus on being in these places where the Buddha used to be, and allow space for mindful contemplation, just being here becomes part of conscious experience; there’s a reality of that ancient time that comes through, such a fragile thing, barely noticed. It triggers something about these events that happened here all these centuries ago – just knowing it’s possible is enough.

The light and warmth; coolness in shadows in the afternoon, sense impressions, the laughter of a child in the trees and I’m thinking, yes, there would have been this also. I can allow it to be present for a moment and I’m in the 5th Century BC. It’s a simple feeling of just being here. I know how it must be for all other beings to experience this feeling; just like this. Subjectivity; we’re linked like this. The feeling stays for as long as I’m aware of it then it falls away.


Photos – Upper: Bodhi tree with prayer flags.  Middle: Beggars at the gate [Witit Rachatatanun Collection]


Chiang Mai: I’m in this 3rd floor apartment, lying on the sofa and the balcony door is open. The sound of a plane coming in to land (this building is near the airport and in the flight path), I’ll resist the impulse this time to try to take a photo of it – lean backwards over the balcony… scary. So I lay down flat on the sofa, ready for the immense noise, and the aircraft flies over. The sound is absolutely devastating. The glass of windows, masonry walls, ceiling and floor vibrate… and just at that moment I see the upside-down reflection of the plane in the highly polished floor tiles. It’s there for an instant, flying away across the floor, out to the balcony, and leaves my vision at the same time as the huge sound ends.

An upside down passenger jet flying across my room; such an extraordinary event, I think I need to write that down – where’s my pen? Something to write on? Look in my wallet, and a piece of paper falls out. It’s an old, creased, folded, coffee-shop receipt and on the back of it is written the word ‘extrinsic’. Hmm… so what is this? I made a note of that word for a reason, but what was it? Can’t remember, and now here it is again: extrinsic: adjective: not essential or inherent; not a basic part or quality; extraneous’ (extrinsic at

What is it connected with? There’s no context and it doesn’t seem to belong anywhere, yet there’s a familiarity… I feel I should know what it is – the essence of the object seen from outside of it? Something that would answer the question: What is its ‘whatness’? How is its ‘howness’? Somewhere in the realm of seemingly incidental meanings that arise of their own accord as if they’d been consciously created, contained in words, and language itself is the metaphor.

This word ‘extrinsic’ appears to be outside of the moment I’m in, and as soon as I think that, everything shifts to include it. Interesting, maybe, simply because I’m now outside the aircraft and usually I’m inside the aircraft, going between India and Thailand. It’s as if ‘extrinsic’ is a location in the construct, the object seen from the outside, looking in. And ‘intrinsic’ is another location, the subjective sense of the object. The ‘all-aroundness’ and the ‘all-it-isness’ is the totality of the ‘world’.

Everything is interrupted by the sound of another passenger jet approaching. I drop everything and lie back on the sofa to get the full impact of the sound… upside down plane flies across the floor.

“All life is a single event: one moment flowing into the next, naturally. Nothing causing everything. Everything causing everything.” [Wu Hsin]