The Meditation Path Of Avalokitasvara In Detail


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The Fourteen Kinds of Fearlessness that Avalokitasvara mentions in the Surangama Sutra, where he describes his meditation practice, are a list of fourteen benefits that individuals enjoy because of the powers that are gained directly from his practice. 

These powers are refinements in one’s cognitive functioning that directly result from the progressive stages of his meditation practice, much as modern ‘mindfulness’ meditation results in stress reduction, and is touted for that benefit.

These Fourteen Kinds of Fearlessness are also featured in the Lotus Sutra, chapter 25, “The Universal Gateway of the Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World’s Sounds,” i.e., Avalokitasvara, although they are not designated there as Fearlessnesses. As well, the cognitive attainments that bring about each power are not given in that sutra.

Depending upon the translation of the Surangama Sutra that one studies, these powers are described either from the perspective of Avalokitasvara, or from the perspective of those who, inspired by his example, implement his exemplary practice and attain these same powers of fearlessness themselves. 

The passages quoted below are taken from the new translation of the Surangama Sutra published by the Buddhist Text Translation Society, ISBN 978-0-88139-962-2, and are presented from the perspective of Avalokitasvara.

ཨེ་མ་ཧོ། ཕན་ནོ་ཕན་ནོ་སྭཱཧཱ།

The Fourteen Kinds of Fearlessness which are detailed in the Surangama Sutra is first and most importantly, a list of the steps, or ‘moves’, that the meditation practice of Avalokitasvara encompasses, and the results obtained at each step. This is a repetition and further elucidation of the description that Avalokitasvara gave earlier in this section of the Surangama Sutra.

Avalokitasvara asserts that as a result of his own enlightenment, learning and practicing this meditation technique will lead to the accumulation of merit leading to the attainment of the same powers of fearlessness, which will aid all those in need.  

These are stylized powers, rather than exact conceptual definitions. They are, of course, ultimately beyond conceptual description, so it is the context of the transitional movement of the stages of his meditation technique, in conjunction with the stylized power attained, that is the most important aspect to consider. It is not just the attainment of a power of fearlessness which is related to, but ultimately independent of, the specific meditative transitions once they are attained. 

The list contains fourteen movements, some repetitive because they cascade through multiple insights and attainments, that Avalokitasvara’s practice entails; but it skips the very first step, that of ‘turning the hearing around’. This step means to turn one’s attention onto uncaused, spontaneous sound that arises as a resonance, or reverberation, of the manifesting of one’s physical information—i.e., one’s manifested body and ‘mind’. These sounds are always present during one’s life, and afterwards during what Tibetan Buddhism calls the Bardo of Dharmata. They are always present because Emptiness, the naturing of all that appears, is continuous. This is in contrast to the various cultural and religious traditions that specify a creation event as the direct cause of what is. This continuity is evidenced on a mundane level by the coherent continuity of all manifested forms as their ontogenetic development unfolds over time.  

Thus, these sounds are present within us as an aspect of the activity that is the intrinsic naturing of our manifest form, i.e., our body, including that of our thoughts and emotions, which we call mind. 

These sounds are continuously present throughout our lives because they are an intrinsic aspect of Emptiness. But our common misunderstanding of sound makes it difficult, or impossible, to understand how this can be, for surely all sound is caused by external or internal physical activity, and therefore is impermanent, as all manifested things are. 

However, these sounds are uncaused and are unrelated to either external or internal physical conditions. They are not manifest sounds, in the way that day-to-day sounds that fill our lives are. And Emptiness, which is the intrinsic naturing of all beings and things is uncaused, never born, and never ending. 

Thus, these inner spontaneous sounds are the autogenous resonances of the naturing of all appearing beings and things. In Buddhism, they are called the ‘self-sound of the Dharmata’, which is saying the same thing. 

Once you have accomplished this turn inward, no longer listening to what is normally taken to be other and outside of oneself, resting absorbed in the manifestations of inner spontaneous sound within one’s mind, it can be said that you have turned your hearing around. 

The importance of this step is that once you empty the hearing of sounds of their presumed existence in the dualistic ‘external’ world, seeing them as solely mental phenomena—arising in response to physical conditions, as is the case of normal sound—you are then able to proceed with the next steps, or movements, and these bring certain important insights and powers. The list of these are as follows (my commentary is placed within brackets):

First, because I did not listen to sounds and instead contemplated the listener within, I can now hear the cries of suffering beings throughout the ten directions, and I can bring about their liberation.

[Once one has succeeded in turning their hearing around and has gained access to the inner spontaneous sounds, focus is placed on the meditator of these sounds. Thus, while still being aware of the sounds, one must, at this point, contemplate the meditator; which is to say, move the meditation onto the hearing, and specifically the hearing of these inner spontaneous sounds. 

This is done in order to directly see the nature of hearing. Given the presence of these uncaused, unborn, and unending inner spontaneous sounds, the nature of hearing is seen to be different than what it was once understood to be. 

By this insight, Avalokitasvara was able to disengage himself from both sense organs and their perceptions, enabling the direct realization of this all-embracing (Mahākaruṇā) Buddha naturing of all that manifests as, and in, the world. This naturing is the intrinsic nature of that which we call ‘mind’, and this is the direct insight needed for further progress along the path.

But the most important point of this first statement is this: using the practice that is being described by Avalokitasvara, which relies on the inner spontaneous sounds for support, very quickly results in what I describe as an alchemical change in the practitioner. This change is normally only accomplished much, much later along the path to complete enlightenment. 

Here at this very early stage in his practice, Avalokitasvara attests to being able to hear the cries of suffering beings and respond to them so that they can be liberated from their suffering. This is the result of having used inner spontaneous sounds, which are nothing other than the intrinsic Emptiness. They are not a manifested phenomenon of Emptiness; but rather, the resonances or reverberations of the activity of Emptiness manifesting (called dharmata in Tibetan Buddhism) the world and all that it encompasses.

You see, by initially meditating on these sounds and using them to break free of sense perceptions and senses (see below) in order to have a direct experience of this intrinsic naturing, your hearing faculty is very quickly liberated from, and no longer constrained to, sensed sound. Hearing the cries of suffering beings is not the same as our mundane hearing sounds of crying. I cannot stress this point enough, but only those that have accomplished this hearing will truly understand this. -SJJ

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