Hearing in Ch’an Practice

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‘Hearing’ (聞 – wen4) is written as an ‘ear’ listening to something through a ‘door’ or ‘gate’.  However, ‘hearing’ has a special connotation within the Chinese cultural milieu that is not limited to the ‘act’ of hearing with the ears.  When, for instance, in martial arts practice we are asked to ‘listen’ to the meaning of the technique, this listening is with the entire perceptual being, (i.e. all six senses at once). This type of ‘listening’ is in fact the act of learning, and the developed ability to understand.  By way of contrast, just ‘hearing’ with the ears is quite mundane in comparison.  Another Chinese ideogram used to refer to the act of ‘hearing’ is ‘聽’ (ting1), and this depicts the ‘conscious awareness’ that underlies all sensory data (including thoughts), as well as a mouth (that makes noise), and an axe that cuts through objects decisively, and which was a symbol of kingly power in ancient China.  The axe also denotes how a well-trained mind and body can clearly discern all sensory phenomena without error or confusion, such is the clarity of apprehension. When the hua tou is practised, it is with the entire being and not just the discursive mind, or the two ears.  Therefore, one’s listening should be all-embracing and non-discursive.  Hearing leaves the ears behind and penetrates deep into the fabric of the mind, and in so doing, includes all the other five senses without contradiction.

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