Inner Spontaneous Sound Is Not A Contingent Or Compounded Evanescent Phenomenon — This Is Why All Buddhas Reach Enlightenment By Using It


Within Tibetan Buddhism, there are foundational texts called the “Seventeen Tantras of the Great Perfection” in which you can find references to a practice using the sounds of the four Elements.

The “Great Perfection,” a phrase that points to the primordial state of Reality, is called Dzogchen in Tibetan, and that is also the name for a group of advanced techniques taught within Tibetan Buddhism (and some other traditions, such as the pre-Buddhist shamanic tradition in Tibet known as “Bön”), that are used to attain this state of absolute perfection. These practices are categorized as Atiyoga, the “highest” path in Tibetan Buddhism because it is considered the most direct path to enlightenment.

All of these tantras are categorized as “pith instructions” within the collection of Tibetan Buddhist sacred writings, and were brought to Tibet by Vimalamitra and Guru Padmasambhava. While each tantra is not dependent upon the others, but is complete in itself, the Reverberation of Sound tantra (in Tibetan: dra talgyur, or sgra thal ‘gyur), is considered to be the root tantra of the seventeen.

Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé (1813–1899) in his “The Treasury of Knowledge — Esoteric Instructions,” describes the “sound of four elements” practice found in the Reverberation of Sound tantra this way:

The initial meditation in thögal is training in the meaning of the sounds of the four elements with the three kāyas acting as leader. It says in the Reverberation of Sound Root Tantra:
“This sequence of training in the three kāyas
Makes the sense-pleasures of the elements foremost
Absolutely train in the sounds of earth, water, fire, and air,
And definitely become accomplished”.

These statements are further explained in two footnotes to the above text. The first, summarizing the benefit of the practice, is as follows:

(sGra) thal ‘gyur: A main tantra in the esoteric instruction class of atiyoga. It explains how to attain the level of nirmānakāya⁠¹ and how to accomplish the welfare of others through practices related to sound (Rangdrol, The Circle of the Sun, 82).⁠²

However, the second footnote references the following quote from Jingmé Lingpa (1730–1798) found in his renowned Yeshe Lama Dzogchen practice manual⁠,³ where the following short remark about the four elements sound practice from the Reverberation of Sound tantra is directly addressed:

First, of the six million four hundred thousand verses on the natural Great Perfection, in the extraordinary root tantra Reverberation of Sound it states:

“The stages of training in the three kāyas emphasize the qualities of the elements. Diligently training in the sound of earth, water, fire, and wind will bring certain accomplishment.”

Thus, although this quote expresses the value of practicing with the four sounds [of the elements], since this is seldom practiced anymore, it is acceptable to omit it.⁠⁴

Apparently, again according to the second footnote in Jamgön Kongtrul’s text, Gangteng Tulku Rinpoché agreed (that the practice is no longer done) and added that it mainly resulted in the common spiritual powers (thun mong gi dngos grub).⁠⁵

His point seems to be that the practice of the four elements sound didn’t accomplish much, as the “common spiritual powers” are more of a distraction along the path to Enlightenment than they are needful accomplishments.

But Jingmé Lingpa’s remark is itself confusing because he does not explain why the practice fell out of favor, and yet, seems to imply that he did. The “attain(ment of) the level of nirmānakāya and how to accomplish the welfare of others,” has no obvious association with the attainment of the common spiritual powers, which are a known side-effect of advanced meditation practices in general and not specific to the use of sound as a support for meditation. So the final statement in the quoted passage above is obviously missing a basis for the adverbial “thus” that it begins with.

It may be the case that the wording of that statement was incorrectly translated, as there is no explanation in the passage to which the “thus” can refer — and even a cursory reading of the statement in English clearly shows its awkwardness and lack of cohesion with the preceding lines of text — however, it also may be the case that there is a missing passage that explained why the practice fell out of favor which was purposely excluded from the translation, or perhaps overlooked, or removed in the original Tibetan text.

Or, perhaps it is a faithful translation, rather than incompetence or intentional omission, and Jingmé Lingpa meant it to be that way, or left it that way, either because he wanted to explain why the practice was dropped but couldn’t find an explanation, or he left it that way so that someone paying attention would notice its incongruous wording.

The section of the Yeshe Lama in which these remarks were made is focused specifically on those of “keen faculty who possess the force of the cause,” which literally means those who have succeeded in awakening the “dormant karmic tendencies that exist in the stream of mind due to previously accumulated merit.” The Sound of the Four Elements is presented as a preliminary practice used to “discover the three kāyas,” and thus this practice results in a direct experience of the nature of mind. This makes sense of Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé’s quote given above, wherein the practice is described this way: “(t)he initial meditation in thögal is training in the meaning of the sounds of the four elements.” The initial meditation today, known as “trekchö,” means “breakthrough,” and this is how these practices are described by Manjushri in the Surangama Sutra. Given the characterization of inner spontaneous sound as the self-sound of dharmata in Tibetan Buddhism (Chos Nyid Kyi Rang Sgra), this accommodates well with Mipham Rinpoche’s description of Trekchö as:

Do not alter the mind but allow it to settle as it is.
And, in such a state, look naturally within.
There will unfold an experience that is indescribable,
Which has no fixed character as either this or that,
And the natural radiance of which will not cease.
This is the genuine state, the natural condition,
The actual dharmatā, beyond conception.
It is the insight born of natural luminosity,
The view: like a mountain, left as it is.
As you simply abide by that natural state,
There is neither meditation nor distraction.
Without suppressing, cultivating, evaluating or analyzing,
Allow yourself to settle fully into the genuine state.
This is the natural concentration of dharmatā,
Uncorrupted by the bonds of deliberate action.
Abiding in the yoga that is the King of Space,
This is meditation: like the ocean, left as it is.⁶

In any case, the incongruity of the lack of a reason for dropping the practice highlights and reinforces the general confusion about what this practice itself was — i.e., did it use the “external”⁠⁷ sound of “earth, water, fire, and wind,” the way it is characterized and understood today by so many, or did it use the inner spontaneous sounds of the four elements, which are called Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind?

They are not the same.

For example, does a practitioner sit by a waterfall listening to its thunderous roar? Or does she turn her hearing inward and listen to the inner spontaneous sound of the Water Element which is a fundamental aspect of her physical manifestation?

How simple it would be for us all — wannabe future beach bums — if it was the former case. We could just lie on the beach with our eyes closed to block out the blazing Sun, feeling the heat of its fire upon our body, while listening to the thrumming beat of crashing waves of water upon that sand, as a gentle Trade wind fans the heat from our skin, while the wash of the waves cools our feet…

But how simplistic an understanding that image reflects. How could this possibly be the practice — once a preliminary Dzogchen practice, the most advanced practice in Tibetan Buddhism — that directly results in “accomplishing the welfare of others?” It seems like the antithesis of a practice for that.

It would be helpful, in order to understand this practice and why it might have been abandoned, if we look at another Buddhist text, the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, that is a primary text in Chan (Chinese) Buddhism. Although this text does not speak about the four Elements sound practice, it does speak specifically about the use of inner spontaneous sound as a support for a practice.

This text was brought to China from India — from where the Buddhist Dzogchen practices originated⁸ — and translated into Chinese. It is a wide-ranging document of the Buddha’s teaching, that, at one point, looks into the different meditation supports used by a “representative sample” of the realized beings in attendance — bodhisattvas and buddhas alike — to reach enlightenment, and, after a recap of the different methods and supports, the method using inner spontaneous sound is singled-out as having a special character that set it apart from all others.

In the sutra, the Buddha asks Mañjuśrī to canvass the assembled arhats and bodhisattvas as to the meditation method and support they each used to reach enlightenment. After a representative group of twenty-five each did so, Mañjuśrī summarized their responses, and then explained that the inner spontaneous sound technique used and described in detail by Avalokitasvara⁠⁹ is the only practice that succeeds even in the absence of all Dharma teachings, because this technique works directly with the original source of all such teachings themselves — the intrinsic resonances of Dharmata — so no teacher is needed.

Inner spontaneous sound is not a contingent or compounded evanescent phenomenon like that of a waterfall, or waves on a beach. This is why all Buddhas reach enlightenment by using this one support alone — in the absence of any true and uncorrupted Dharma, how could anyone reach enlightenment using a technique that is dependent upon contingent and compounded phenomena, such as the breath?

Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī asked exactly this rhetorical question in the the Śūraṅgama Sūtra:

No practice is entirely continuous,
So even mindfulness perforce arises and must halt.
An intermittent practice’s results are intermittent.
How could awareness guide all beings to enlightenment?
And his answer to that question was this:
I can now recommend respectfully the practice
Taught by the One Who Hears the Cries of the World.⁠¹⁰
A being whose mind is tranquil hears the sound
Of drumbeats coming from all ten directions,
And yet he’ll hear each of the drums distinctly.
And so our hearing faculty must be the perfect one,
The one that’s genuine and true.

Merely turn your hearing round
To listen to your genuine true nature,
Which is the destination of the Path that is supreme.
This is the genuine way to break through to enlightenment.

It is the way that the innumerable Buddhas followed
Straight to nirvana’s gate. All Thus-Come Ones of eons past
Succeeded by this method.

The sages who attained enlightenment by other means
Were aided by the Buddha’s awe-inspiring spiritual power,
And each was especially taught how to abandon all affliction.
Some of these paths are shallow, some go deep; these teachings vary.

It is the easiest way to reach enlightenment.
It is the teaching most appropriate
For Ānanda and for the beings drowning
In the Dharma’s ending time. They only need
This practice of the faculty of hearing
For them to break through to enlightenment,
For it surpasses all other methods.
It is the genuine path to the true mind.⁠¹¹

Comparing these two sources reveals a true mystery hanging over the disappearance of this practice — in Tibetan Buddhism — over the last few hundred years:

Why? Why was the practice abandoned?

I am not singling out Tibetan Buddhism for any reason other than that the use, and its discontinuance, of inner spontaneous sound is sufficiently well documented there that it provides a ready example of the fate awaiting all meditation and yoga techniques, as well as their associated doctrinal systems, that the Buddha himself forewarned us about in regards to his teachings, and all teachings. It is illustrative of how hard-won knowledge can be lost over time as misunderstandings accumulate until, no longer comprehending the origin of that knowledge, nor why it was of such practical use in the past, it is relinquished to make way for “something better.”

But the mystery really isn’t why it was lost in this way, but why it was lost at all, given the character of the glowing accolades of its simplicity, the testimony to its effectiveness, and most confusing of all, the assertions and evidence that it was the support and technique used by the greatest enlightened beings present at the founding of Buddhism — including the Buddha himself.

The Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, who was second only to the Buddha, and was the embodiment of enlightened wisdom in the Buddhist pantheon, praised the use of inner spontaneous sound as the most effective meditation practice of all, and testified that it was the one that he himself, Gautama Buddha, “and all Buddhas,” used to reach full enlightenment. As well, it was the practice used by Avalokitasvara, the bodhisattva who is the very embodiment of “great responsiveness” in Buddhism.

And yet, it isn’t used anymore.

I suggest that a deep look into the actual practice description in the Reverberation of Sound tantra may help us to see just how dysfunctional the current “reading” of this practice is:

The stages of training with the three kāyas emphasize the qualities of the elements.
By training with the sound of the supreme aspect of earth, fire, water, and wind, supreme attainment will be certain.
The sound of water is roaring and carries the melodious sound of the ḍākinīs. To always engage and become familiar with this, it is certain that the nirmāṇakāya will be attained.
The characteristic of earth is cool and heavy, possessing the sound of great Brahmā. To always engage and maintain balance with this will bring the certain attainment of the nirmāṇakāya.
To accomplish the sambhogakāya⁠,¹² by listening to the sound of fire, this reveals the sound of the great Viṣhṇu.
Whoever listens to this will certainly attain the qualities of the dharmakāya⁠:¹³ the characteristics of wind are cool and fierce and carry the sound of uniting with the king of birds.⁠¹⁴
If one knows how to constantly practice this, then that is training with the common aspect of the three kāyas.⁠¹⁵

This practice, as the first line states, is a practice emphasizing the three kāyas. The word kāya literally means “body,” but here it signifies aspect or dimension. The three kāyas (trikāya) doctrine can be interpreted as describing different aspects of enlightenment or buddhahood itself.

The dharmakāya, sometimes translated as the “truth body” or “reality body,” generally refers to the essential nature of the Buddha. The saṃbhogakāya and the nirmāṇakāya, known collectively as the form bodies, are understood as emanations of the dharmakāya, or the essential nature, of the Buddha.

In other words, the three bodies are the enlightened nature and activity of a Buddha. The saṃbhogakāya, sometimes translated as “enjoyment body,” is the apparitional form the Buddha takes for bodhisattvas and practitioners in meditative states or in dreams. The nirmāṇakāya, sometimes translated as “manifestation body,” is the physical form of the Buddha that can be seen by any sentient being. The Buddha, who is able to emanate in countless forms, does so in order to liberate beings through the illumination and demonstration of the Dharma. All three bodies are ultimately considered inseparable.

Since these “three bodies” are inseparable and are not separate bodies at all, only being different aspects of the essential naturing that we commonly call “mind,” they are aspects of the true naturing of all that is manifested. Thus, everything we perceive around us is nirmāṇakāya; its nature, light or energy is sambhogakāya; and its inherent truth, is the dharmakāya.

So the question is, what is the connection between the essential naturing that we call “mind” and these four elements? The answer to that question is simply this: the Elements are not truly separate from anything, nor are they anything themselves. Instead, they are only aspects of the naturing, or manifesting, of all phenomena.

The essential naturing of these manifestations, which may be distinguished into aspects, some of which are called “Elements,” does not differ in any way from that which we refer to as “mind” — and the supreme aspect of each of these “Elements” is, therefore, the naturing of that essential characteristic represented by each element, rather than the apperceived identification of what is being manifested, as the external analogs of earth, water, fire, and air are.

And it is the reverberations or resonances of that very naturing that is pointed to by the expression “inner spontaneous sound.” Thus, this is the support that uses the “three kāyas.”

The first thing to take note of in the practice description quoted above is the second line asserting that training with the supreme aspect of each of the four Elements will result in supreme attainment. The word “supreme” is used purposely to indicate the specific aspect of sound that is used, and the attainment to be gained through the use of this practice.

“Supreme attainment” is another way of saying Full Enlightenment, which is the supreme attainment of Buddhist practices. It is transparently inconsistent to use the same adjective then — and in the same sentence — to refer to anything having to do with a mundane phenomenon such as the conditioned sounds of moving earth, flowing water, burning wood, and blowing wind.

Instead, the supreme aspect of each of the four Elements must refer to the naturing of the essential characteristic represented by each Element — as distinguished from any manifest phenomenon that is natured — and in regard to this practice, the naturing of that supreme aspect is imperienced (immediate experience) as inner spontaneous sound, and it is that which is used as the support for this practice at each stage.

Thus, rather than a physically manifesting sound of each element’s namesake mundane analog, one must practice with the supreme, i.e., non-manifest, inner spontaneous sound aspect, because this is the self-arising (autogenous) reverberation or resonance of that absolute naturing — called Dharmata in Buddhist doctrine. These reverberations, or resonant sound, is known as chönyid kyi rangdra or chos nyid kyi rang sgra in Tibetan, dharmatā swayambhu nada in Sanskrit.

So this line in the practice description quoted above is specifically cautioning us not to fall into the mistaken belief that we are supposed to use the external physical sounds of the manifested analog phenomena of earth, water, fire, and wind, because these are not the Elements. These are manifested phenomena only.

However, this is exactly what almost everyone does do, including most lamas, teachers, writers, translators and commentators, who comprehend sound only as a conditioned phenomenon, even though they may know better.

In order to reinforce the point being made here about this practice, it is necessary to dig into the detail of this short practice description in a rather pedantic way in the following paragraphs. There are several clear indications — if one is paying attention in a critical way — that the assertions above are correct, but have been overlooked, or misunderstood, by others.

The unfortunate aspect of the misunderstanding of the true meaning of this practice — which appears to have been so widespread — is that there are individuals who are truly willing to believe that sitting by waterfalls, for example, will lead to enlightenment. While it may, because anything is possible, that’s not the practice being described above.

And although listening to waterfalls may lead to enlightenment, in most cases it doesn’t, and I believe that it is this mistaken belief about what is to be used as the support for this practice, and the resulting failure of it to live up to the universally high praise for it, that led directly to its ultimate abandonment within Tibetan Buddhism.

Not comprehending what was being referred to because they believed sound to be only a conditioned phenomenon (which evidently was the result of either never having noticed, or been able to access, inner spontaneous sound — i.e., not having the extant conditions for the insight to arise), writers and translators misled — and mislead — the readers of these important texts by directing them to use the manifest conditioned sounds of the material analogs of the four Elements. In short, they couldn’t comprehend what those texts were clearly saying because of their own ignorance — in this one regard.

And since these manifested conditioned sounds have no more effect (nor less) than any other mundane meditation support, this practice was abandoned in favor of those using more familiar, and probably closer to hand, supports, such as the breath.

So, to begin, notice in the text above that each stage of the four Elements practice denotes the supreme sound characterization of the element in focus:

Yet, an analog mundane sound aspect is only referred to for Water, Fire, and Wind.

You see, the physical manifestation of Earth doesn’t have a mundane sound, unless it’s in motion, which happens very infrequently, so only its supreme sound aspect could be given.

This alone should be enough for an astute practitioner to realize that this practice does not entail listening to the characteristic sounds of external physical analogs of the Elements, because no external physical sound is given for Earth.

But fire, the physical analog of the Fire Element, doesn’t have a characteristic sound itself either — the sounds we associate with fire are those arising from the burning fuel and atmospheric gases being heated up — so again, how could this practice be referring to mundane sound in the case of the Fire Element?

The truth that fire doesn’t have a characteristic sound can be verified using a candle in your home. Since the wax of the candle doesn’t normally harbor impurities, such as wood sap and moisture, nor is it under any tension that would be released as the wax is burned, it burns without the pops of burning sap, nor the explosions of superheated moisture, nor the snaps of suddenly released tension. And without wind moving air currents around the room, the flame doesn’t even waver, and therefore doesn’t make gentle luffing sounds either.

The absence of a characteristic sound for fire is a direct result of the actual chemical reaction that we call “combustion” not creating the conditions for there to be any sound at all. It is the fuel that is burnt, impurities that may be present in the fuel, and its environmental setting that condition the sounds we normally associate with fire.

Thus, external physical fire is without an inherent sound, and this means that even on the level of relative truth — that which is based merely upon the appearances of phenomena — the description of this practice cannot be referring to external mundane sound because then it would have to specify which fuel to burn, and under which conditions, in order to properly delineate which sound of “fire” one should listen to. In the absence of such specificity, the practitioner might just as well choose to “listen” to the rusting of metal, a similar, but much slower oxidative process than combustion.

And it is the same with earth, water and wind — the physical analogs of the Earth, Water and Wind Elements — the conditioned sounds of which aren’t inherent to the analog element, but rather to the environmental context in which it manifests, i.e., the movements of earth, water and air in contact with specific environmental conditions.

Clearly, the practice description text can only be describing the use of the supreme inner spontaneous sound associated with each Element — just as it says it is doing in the second sentence of the quote.

Not only does earth, water, fire, and air not have inherent sounds, the most important point to reflect on here is that any conditioned sound, such as these physical manifestations of “elements,” necessarily arises, endures for just a limited time, and then fades away, thus, these sounds are no better than any other conditioned, and thus ephemeral, phenomena.

In the case of Water and Wind, the mundane sound aspect is given in the text above in order to bring to mind the character of the inner spontaneous sound that one uses for each of those Elements because these Elemental inner spontaneous sounds track the external conditioned sound of their analogs.

The inner spontaneous sound of the Water Element, for example, does indeed sound like running water of various types (rain, rivulets, streams, rivers, waterfalls, etc.)

The inner spontaneous sound of the Earth Element, by contrast, has a sound like one would hear when earth is in motion, such as in a landslide, earthquake, etc. — deep vibrations and rumbling.

Fire, on the other hand, has a special sound, identified in the text as “the sound of the great Viṣhṇu.”

Viṣhṇu is identical to the formless metaphysical concept called Brahman, and the Omkara, which literally means the “OM syllable,” is the supreme sound of the Lord Brahman. Omkara is the primordial sound “A-U-M” from which the whole universe was created, according to the Brahmanic tradition of the Indo-Aryans of Northern India, from which these figures come.

This particular sound — the Omkara — which is a type of sound known also as Shabda Brahman, is described variously as transcendental sound, sound vibration, or the transcendental sound of the Vedas, in the Shatapatha Brahmana text. Their description parallels that of the inner spontaneous sounds discussed here.

The “A-U-M” sound is deep and vibrant. It is the energetic resonance of the presencing of the world. And it is used in a particular type of yoga, known as “Pranava yoga.” Yoga theory asserts that by following the thread of Omkara during meditation back to more and more subtle levels of awareness, the yogi regains union with Brahman.

What world does he who meditates on Aum until the end of his life, win by That? If he meditates on the Supreme Being with the syllable Aum, he becomes one with the Light, he is led to the world of Brahman [the Absolute Being] Who is higher than the highest life, That Which is tranquil, unaging, immortal, fearless, and supreme.⁠¹⁶

Finally, the inner spontaneous sound of the Wind Element has the characteristics of wind in a cave, or other structure that creates the kind of effect we all know from childhood when we placed a seashell against our ears — except that the inner spontaneous sound of the Wind Element arises spontaneously and autogenously.

Each of these inner spontaneous sounds associated with the Four Elements go far beyond the mundane sounds we think of when we use their names — Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind — and this is their most obvious essential benefit as a support for meditation:

Consider contemplating earth: it’s solid and opaque; one can’t move through it. What‘s conditional must lack the nature of a sage. How could this contemplation, then, guide beings toward a breakthrough to enlightenment?
Consider contemplating water: contemplating thus involves cognition, which is neither true nor real. Contemplation by itself won’t reach the state that’s thus; then how could water guide all beings toward enlightenment?
Consider contemplating fire: disdaining one’s desire is not the same as ending it. This contemplation, then, is not a method suited to beginners. How could fire guide beings toward a breakthrough to enlightenment?
Consider contemplating wind: movement and stillness must be opposites, and opposition cannot be a basis for awakening. Thus how could wind guide beings toward a breakthrough to enlightenment?¹⁷

Hopefully, we will never again confuse the sound of the four Elements — in this context — with physical manifestations like waterfalls, campsite fires, rocks struck together, and wind blowing, nor confuse the inner spontaneous sounds of the four Elements with the manifested sounds of their namesake physical analogs — these physical manifestations are not the Elements, even though they share similar names, nor are the manifested mundane sounds the supreme sounds of the Elements.

Thus, the supreme sound characterization is provided in the practice description above to make sure you don’t make this error — although most do.

So while the inner spontaneous sound for Water has the quality of a water-like sound, it is not a sound that one can listen to in the external world. These external phenomena are useful in order to invoke the correct recognition of the supreme sound of the Element that arises as inner spontaneous sound, however.

So where do these sounds arise, if not in the external world?

They are sounds that arise spontaneously, as resonances of the essential naturing of our bodies, which are most directly accessible by placing one’s attention in the energetic centers of the “subtle body,” known as chakras: Muladhara, Svadhisthana, Nabhi-Manipura, Anahata, Vishuddhi, Ajna, Sahasrara, with the first four — the lower chakras — corresponding to the Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind.

Note also the last sentence in the practice description that asserts that knowing how to constantly practice this way is training with the common aspect of the three kāyas — the supreme aspect of these Elemental sounds are the resonances of the enlightened activity of the three kāyas, which are three aspects of the true naturing of mind — the naturing of all that manifests.

The four elements practice, while denigrated by some teachers and authors today, who refer to it as “merely a preliminary practice,” was universally reputed to lead directly to the attainment (perfection) of the three kāyas: nirmāṇakāya, sambhogakāya, and dharmakāya, as well as the attainment of both the common siddhis (spiritual powers) as well as the supreme siddhi of full enlightenment.

And in addition, it is also a natural pathway leading directly into the Dzogchen visualization practice of Thögal because, along with inner spontaneous sound, the specific support for the Thögel practice — that of visionary displays — naturally begin to manifest as one follows ever deeper into the inner spontaneous sounds. This is a known effect of the Elemental sounds:⁠¹⁸

As indicated in the root-verses, each of these four elements is connected to a special function. First of all, it should be remembered that the elements are connected to sensory objects in a mode of equivalence which can be described as follows:

 — earth is connected to visual forms;
 — water is connected to sounds;
 — fire is connected to scents; and
 — air is connected to flavors.

Furthermore, in terms of their actual functions, one should also keep in mind that each element is connected to a particular action:

 — earth is associated to the action of apprehending (‘dzin pa),
 — water is associated to engaging (‘jug pa),
 — fire is associated to increasing (mched pa), and
 — air is associated to differentiating (‘byed pa).

Here is how Vimalamitra (in his commentary on the Reverberation of Sound tantra) combines the equivalences between elements, sensory objects and the functions of these elements, through the practice of the sounds of the (four) elements:

[1] The earth element is connected to “apprehending” (‘dzin pa) forms through the eyes; when one trains in the sound of the earth element, one gradually becomes an expert in liberating perceived forms within the experience of Reality (chos nyid).

[2] The water element is connected to the function of “engaging” (‘jug pa) in the sense that it enables one to clearly know the characteristics of forms; therefore, when one trains in the sound of the water element, all sounds liberate within the state of Reality.

[3] The fire element is connected to the function of “increasing” (mched pa) in the sense that it enables one to know outer and inner specificities of forms, etc.; when one trains in the sound of the fire element, all scents naturally liberate within the state of Reality.

[4] The air element is connected to the function of “differentiating” (‘byed pa) insofar as it enables one to distinguish clearly the various colors of perceived forms, such as white, red, yellow, green and so forth. Through the mastery of this element, one can also distinguish individual forms such as squares, triangles, spheres, half-moons, as well as their size, thickness, etc.; when one trains in the outer air element, one is able to liberate all flavors within the experience of Reality itself.⁠¹⁹

Thus, we can readily see why the Four Elements sound practice — which will lead directly to the apprehending of visual forms — was, and still is, the best “preliminary” practice for accessing the visual marvels that are used in Dzogchen — it is a natural segue into the visionary practice of Thögal, and that is, today, the main and most important Dzogchen practice.

When using the four Elements sound practice today, however, you should understand that you are not practicing Dzogchen, because the sound practice is no longer included under the umbrella of “Dzogchen.”

A positive benefit of this practice, however, is that as it is a natural segue into the visionary practice of Thögal, and it obviates the common expedient of using the application of finger pressure on one’s closed eyeballs — which can cause physical damage to the eye — in order to elicit the manifestation of analog displays of light so as to familiarize the practitioner of Thögal with what the authentic visionary displays are somewhat like.

So, yes, this practice can be used as a preliminary practice, in the sense of its use coming before other practices, such as Thögal. If you are under the guidance of a teacher, then the natural autonomy of the four Elements sound practice is superfluous. However, you will forfeit the progressive alchemical effect that manifests great responsiveness (mahākaruṇā) while using inner spontaneous sound as your meditation support. That appears to be a characteristic solely derived from the use of inner spontaneous sound — I have found no reference to it in regard to the use of the visionary displays as a support.

However, one can choose to move directly from this practice into Thögal practice, once the visionary displays start to arise, before the supreme attainment is gained directly through the four Elements sound practice. Using this practice as a vehicle to enter into the visionary displays is certainly possible, and may be necessary if you are instructed to do so by a teacher.

Although it was most recently considered a preliminary practice, it does require the accomplishment of a certain minimum level of mind-training, with the attainment of fixed concentration, and the concomitant attenuation of thoughts arising, without which the supreme sounds of the Elements, which are very initially very subtle, non-blocking resonances, will be difficult or impossible to notice and engage with.

The salient benefit of this practice — before the supreme attainment — is that it catalyzes you to begin manifesting the nirmāṇakāya, also known as the “perfect body of great responsiveness” (mahākaruṇā). And this makes sense as the perfection of the trikaya is the perfect manifestation of Emptiness:

The final attribute of emptiness to be mentioned is a quality peculiar to the Buddhist analysis: responsiveness. It is the third and final denominator in the list of categories or aspects by which emptiness can be defined: essence, nature, responsiveness.⁠²⁰

In order to perfect the nirmāṇakāya, to benefit all sentient beings, it is necessary that one breaks the bind of one’s ego, and this is a natural result of this practice, through its inherent union with the essential naturing of reality.

Those who emanate to bring benefit to others must first practice this for, if not, then they will not have the ability to plant the seeds that bring forth such emanations. Hence, train in the sound of the elements.⁠²¹

ཨེ་མ་ཧོ། ཕན་ནོ་ཕན་ནོ་སྭཱཧཱ།
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