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On Turning a Zen Ear
By David Appelbaum


It is surprising to discover the extent to which Zen Buddhist encapsulates a heterodox conception of language. Much of its novel and shocking insightfulness derives from its use of an acoustic language. By 'acoustic language' I mean a linguistic system whose fundamental rules derive somehow from a primary emphasis on the activity of listening, rather than seeing. We should be able to agree at the beginning that our own linguistic system, even down to the level correspondent to primordial experience, is thoroughly visual. Vision has been the dominant metaphor for knwoing since Plato's time.(1) To know an object is to have an image(eidos) of that thing, a pictorial or preconceptual representation which my then be given a definite description in accordance with the rule of discourse.(2) But the non-standard conception of language in Zen has been overlooked, or camouflaged, also by the eidetic metaphor strewn throughout its principal writings. Huang Po, for instance, says in the Chun Chun Record: "Mind is like the void in which there is no confusion or evil, as when the sun wheels through it shining upon the four corners of the world."(3) Pai Ching states: "What in Buddhas is called illuminating wisdom is called knowledge in bodhisattvas.... It is not the same as the dark-enshrouded ignorance of sentient beings."(4) Ta Hui puts it: "But when a gentleman of affairs opens his eyes and is mindful of what he sees, there is nothing that is not an enemy spirit blocking the Path."(5) These examples could be multiplied endlessly. Perhaps they evidence a carelessness in choice of words. Perhaps they are part and parcel of the Zen knack for using a straw to drive home a nail. Without commenting on their meaning, I want to examine the special efficacy of an acoustic language in Zen. After some general cautions on regarding the Zen linguistic system visually, I will turn to the thinker most sensitive to its acoustic character Dogen Kigen. There, I will show that emphasis on listening imposes a peculiar ontological status on the human body, which will allow me to say something about the body's role in attaining a non-dualistic insight.


Taken at face value, an eidetic language collides with the main presuppositions of Zen Buddhism. It tends to affirm an unchanging, permanent realm of truths which exist apart from all phenomenal appearances, while Zen holds to the doctrine of annika(mujo(a)), or the unabidingness of all things. Hence, commitment to an eidetic metaphor as deeply formative of language favors (as did Plato) a Parmenidean universe over a Heraclitean one.(6) Second, it posits an eduring, self-identical soul, person, or self, in contradistinction to the Zen belief in annatman(muga(b)), or selflessness. Third, it places the phenomenal world in a secondary, derivative position relative to the changeless realm of the eidos. Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, maintains the doctrine of pratiityasamutpaada, or the essential dependence of things oil each other, in which, arising and perishing simultaneously and mutually dependent on one another, each entity depends solely on the totality and on the void for its existence. The impact of this threefold collision is the creation of a thoroughgoing dualism in language. Use of such a language to guide a student to the satori experience is necessarily self-defeating, much in the same way that utterance of Descartes' primary proposition, "I am," defeats any attempt to deny self-existence.(7) The hubris of such a linguistic system that which confers duality on it is that its use points away from the immediate act of using it points to the transcendent truth, or an ideal subject, or a universe of objects pre-or post-existent to the act of employing the language. The point of language, when non-dualistically encountered, is that its self-identity is the totality, and on it alone rests the extreme tension of arising from and out of the void.


Dogen adumbrates an acoustic view of a linguistic system first in his discussion of the mitsugo(c), "secret words." Commenting on their intrinsic "secrecy," he says:

The mitsu(d) in question means intimacy (shimmitsu(e)) and absence of distance.(8)

The mitsugo are "secret" or "hidden" insofar as their concealment derives from our habitual objectifying tendencies with regard to the discriminants of our experience. Our usual linguistic conventions suppose the referent cleaved from the reference. Russell is essentially correct when he tries to reduce all language to names.(9)

Once this assumption is rejected, however, and the proximity of the two elements reidentified, meaning takes on another dimension. The word-object complex, in its transparency, reveals the suchness of mind (shinsho(f)). Thus, only the mitsugo can serve to reveal the self-nature of what is, since once the back of objectification is broken "nothing is concealed throughout the entire universe (henkai-fuzozo(g))." Part of this revelation goes to show: that convention entails concealment. The secrecy of the mitsugo results from our eidetically induced blindness to things.

If we step back a moment to ask after the origin of linguistic distance the opposite of the mitsugo's proximity a subtle projection of the eidetic metaphor becomes apparent. To see visually any object requires us, given our bipedal stance in the world, to be physically separate from that object. As Erwin Straus claims. our visual perceptive capacities, with their entailed epistemic values, do not function properly until the object is held at length, at the focal point of our binocular system.(10) Visual perception is necessarily a sense of distance. When vision is allowed to order the sensorium. then language, which reflects sense experience mirrors the original act of distantiation. If the mitsugo exist, as Dogen says they do, they must belong to a language not so committed. In their "intimacy," they intimate a language which echoes the ear.

Surely, such a language is primarily a spoken and only derivatively a written, one. It is parole rather than langue, socratic rather than platonic. But, it is not just the speaking of a language that confers a different ontological character. Words can fall on deaf ears, or on ones which reiterate the distance-making structure of eidetic speech. Dogen indicate the addition prerequisite: Nevertheless it is possible to realize and penetrate into the inaudible in speech (gowaji no fumon(h)).(12)

Speech (gowa) persists in conveying a subject-object dualism until the listener enters it proximately and discerns the silence which arises simultaneous to it. Speech hears the eidetic distance once the listener becomes attuned to (and hears) that which makes no sound because it can make no sound. Speech acoustically announces itself as a message from no-speech (fugowa(i)).(13)

The dissolution of visualism in Zen language results, according to Dgoen, in gaining perception of the ground which audibly unites the auditor with what is spoken. Such "penetration" uncovers that which is neither audible (mon(j)) nor inaudible (fumon(k)), but which represents that continuity at whose poles the latter two reside. At the level of continuity, where neither predication nor its privation obtains, the essential suchness of things stands forth: such is "the essential substance of the Buddha", as Huang Po calls it.(14) If we now pose the question as to the mode of perception Dogen has in mind, he refers us to Tung-shan, who says: "I await the time of no-speech (fugowa) and hear immediately." The activity of hearing-immediately(sokumon(l)) is that which contacts the ground of an acoustic language. Dogen explains: When speech is uttered ordinarily there is no immediate hearing at all. Hearing-immediately is realized at the time of no-speech. But no-speech does not wait for a special occasion....In hearing-immediately, speech is not removed from its own place to a distant location. When speech is uttered, hearing-immediately hitherto hidden in the bosom of speech--does nor thunder suudenly....In other words, you apprehend hearing-immediately when speech is uttered.(15)

Hearing-immediately is a form of audition which exists as a possibility during any auditory : experience. It differs from ordinary hearing in at least three characteristics: (1) direction, (2) objective, and (3) evidence.

(1) The direction of ordinary listening is toward the object, a word-sound, while hearing-immediately is directed exclusively toward itself, the activity of audition. It thus occupies itself with the inner relations of audition rather than with the conventional relations the word-sound assumes by participating in the rules attaching it to an object.

(2) The objective of or-dinary listening is comprehension of the meaning of the word-sound, supplied by the set of conventions and rules, subsisting apart from the speech (gowa). Hearing-immediately, directed toward no-speech, as Dogen says, seeks to understand the polar tension binding the universe of speech to its emanation from the void. Such understanding occurs as spontaneous entry into the field created by the polarity speech itself marks. It is the eruption of the ineffable into the audible continuum speech participates in. It does not annihilate speech, but simultaneously affirms it and displaces it.

(3) The evidence of ordinary listening is given by the consequences or implications of having received the word-sound for example, listening to the question, "What is the Buddha's real name?" and responding on the basis of memory or deduction. Hearing-immediately, on the other hand, evidences itself, in the transformation of the auditor's total understanding. Hence, responses to spoken interrogation are notorious non sequiturs by conventional measures. Examples abound in Zen literature. One is: A monk asked Yun Men, "What is talk that goes beyond Buddhas and Patriarchs? '' Men said, "Cake."(16)

The utterance, when spoken, remains in contact with the vector pointing from speech to no-speech, by which vector hearing-immediately is impacted. The difference between ordinary audition and hearing-immediately can be more sharp or less. Repeated investigation of its occurrence in a person's experience constitutes for Dogen the process of "ongoing enlightenment" (bukkojoji(m)).(17) His recommended training regimen is simply a preparedness for the unexpected advent of hearing-immediately.(18) The examination forms a natural progression. At the furthest extreme lies the satori experience of Chi Hsien, whose realization of the force binding the audible to the inaudible arose from the ping with which a broken tile hit a bamboo stick. He wrote: The sound of a blow causes all knowledge to cease, Gone is my need of further practice and observance.(19)

Dogen claims that an acoustic language supplies a sounder basis than an eidetic one for a continuing investigation of how the phenomenal world arises moment-by-moment from the void. Why does he believe a language of the ear sustains "ongoing enlightenment"? Or, to ask a corollary question, what peculiarity of structure in immediate-hearing (sokumon) opens onto nntological possibilizing? In part, as suggested, it is its proximate nature that immediate hearing comes from so close as not to be entirely captive to the conventions of speech (gowa). It retains cognizance of what is other than speech.(20) In part, its understanding is actional, to use Bergson's phrase. Hearing necessarily is temporal: it registers a tempo and a rhythm, which can be translated musically to a score.

Hearing-immediately thus pertains to activity, unfolding, doing. It is less prone. therefore, to fall prey to a Parmenidean illusion. And, in part, it is its character as sensate. Immediate-hearing, unlike ordinary sense experience, does not yield a sense datum, as object of a perception-event, nor does it fall easily into Hume's distinction between sensation and perception.(21) If it did, it still would be cast under the mold of the eidetic: it would image an outer event, along the model of the photographic plate. Rather, immediate hearing is sensate perceptivity, or, by the same token, perceptive sensation.

These three attributes of immediate hearing its proximity, its actional nature, and its sensate nature remind one of Marcel's analysis of the body-as-mine." Their commonality allows us to conclude without the shadow of a doubt that it is the management of the lived-body experience, through the means of immediate-hearing, that produces its special ontologizing possibilities. Immediate-hearing converges with the general field of sensation underlying all organic movement, willed or no. The experience of this general field Marcel calls sentir; Husserl derives his notion of kinaesthesia from it; others have spoken of it as proprioception.(23) By whatever name, this experience, it is clear, lays open the path leading through the inaudible in speech (gowaji no fumon) to a non-dualistic understanding of language.

Immediate-hearing functions then like a broad conduit, through which the auditor is enabled to pass toward the general field of sensation. Once participating in this field, he is able to orient

himself along the line extending from the audible to the inaudible, through on to the void.(24)

It is clear likewise that these deliberations were not unknown to Dogen. The engagement of the general field of sensation, Marcel's sentir. Dogen speaks of as "mustering the body-mind" (shinjin o

koshite(n)). He states: Mustering our bodies and minds, we see things and mustering our bodies and minds we hear sounds, thereby understand them intimately.(25) To muster the body-mind, to enter into the lived-body experience, is to cast off the perceived objects together with their reliance on the dualistic tendencies of eidetic language. It is to relinquish the outer-directedness of the body's senses, which distance the world by positing sense data. Furthermore, until the mustering, one has failed to understand the first truth about shingakudo(o) , the activity of understanding (gakudo(p)) through the body: Shingakudo is to learn the Way with the body the study on the part of the naked bodily whole (seki-nikudan or shaku-nikudan(q)).(26)

Dogen's Way is that of the "naked bodily whole," not intended as a poetic metaphor, but as an acute insight into the efficacy of the organism's own structure for elucidating the Real. The body comes forth from the study of the Way, and what originates from the investigation of the Way is likewise the body. The entire universe is precisely the very human body....(27)

In a similar fashion, Dogen's supportive concepts indicate a knowledge of the general field of sensation. The very idea of the non-dual unity of body and mind (shinjin-ichinyo(r)), as implied by the phrase "the body-mind.'' represents his search for descriptive power in a region of experience where description is nil. Or, at least it must remain moot whether description can ever be cleansed of its eidetic supposition which tends to picture or portray an object, thereby separating mind from body, body from mind. In its intimate alliance with audition, the naked bodily whole and the Way with the body it points to is there simply for the mustering. Similarly, immediate-hearing is there simply for the speech. Activity is all. Movement is all. Dogen's practice runs in Heraclitus' universe. Attuning the ear means attuning it to incessant change. Mustering the body-mind means re-mustering it under the changeful conditions of its newly reinhabited state. Devising a language which captures this changefulness, an acoustic language, is surely a job to be done by casting the conceptual net into new waters, if it is to be done at all.


Dogen is fond of saying, "Mindfulness of the body (kanshin(s))is the body's mindfulness (shinkan(t))." He goes on to explain: It is the body's mindfulness, but no others. While he body's mindfulness is realised, the mind's unmindfulness cannot grasp anything though groping for it, and it is not consummated.(28)

Here, we are given a justification for the Way with the body (shingakudo), in conjunction with immediate-hearing, as contrasted with the way with the mind (shingakudo(u) ). The latter plays an integral part in developing an understanding which can penetrate the continuum from the arising of all phenomena to the void. This role involves the student in the rigorous meditation training of the conscious mind, the cosmic mind, and the transcendental mind, But, left to its own devises, the mind's mindfulness remains shot through with the suppositions of eidetic language. These necessarily are dualistic. The defilements of the mind its inborn and acquired inherencies to seek its object are apparently ineradicable so long as the mind is used to slay the mind.(29) It is at this juncture that Dogen's radical. redefinition of the enlightenment experience comes to the fore. To hold enlightenment to be an event which transpires and is over "once and for all" is to conceive it in eidetic terms. The atemporal nature of vision again looms, threatening the fundamental Buddhist belief in impermanence, annika. Because enlightenment is objectified, reified, and expected to remain confined to a specified event. it is misconceived.

Hence. the mind's mindfulness is "not consummated." By contrast. the power of bukkojoji, ongoing enlightenment, lies in avoiding the tendency to leave time behind. The naked bodily whole (sekinikuden) possesses an organic continuity which registers the temporal passage by means of its own mortality. Here, by joining to it a sensate perceptivity, we can study cosmic movement, participate in it mindfully, and, thereby, come to realize it. Indeed, as Dogen indicates, the movement of our sensate perceptivity is precisely our realizing our understanding as beings having a lived-body experience. It is ongoing in the way that there is no end to redirecting the sensate perceptivity back to the naked bodily whole; there is perpetually a fresh field of general sensation requiring a readjustment of our perceptivity. The attunement of these two is what Dogen calls ongoing enlightenment.

Indeed you should know that ongoing enlightenment is neither the process of practice nor the result of enlightenment.(30) Curiously, it is at the point of ongoing enlightenment that we encounter the inaudible in speech. We had hitherto listened to the inaudible in speech the way we listen to things eidetically, in expectation of a result external to our listening. In the threes of ongoing enlightenment, we listen to our own listening. Finally, we are able to listen across the expanse of the two realms, the eidetic and the acoustic, the objective and the non-objective. For, we listen to what is being said conventionally. and we listen to that from where our conventional notions arise in listening. We listen to the void. Or, as Tung-shan says,(31) regarding when we listen in this way, "I understand the meaning of speech a little."(32)


1. The extent to which this is true in Plato's thought is shown by recalling that the essence of what can be known the proper object of knowledge-is the Form, or the Eidos. Vision plays an equally important role in the key epistemic myths of the Cave and the Divided Line.

2. Wittgenstein brings this idea to finest clarity when he notes: "In the proposition we hold a proto-picture up against reality." (Notebooks, 1914-1916 (New York: Harper Row. 1961), p. 32).

3. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, trans. John Blofield (New York: Grove Press, 1958), p. 31.

4. Sayings and Doing of Pai-Chang, trans. Thomas Clear) (Los Angeles. Center Publications, 1978), p. 63.

5. Swampland Flowers, trans. Christopher Cleary (New York: Grove Press, 1977), p. 39.

6. It also favors realism and verificationism over constructivism and a phenomenological, diachronic analysis of experience.

7. Meditations, II. Cf. J. Hintikka, "Cogito, Ergo Sum: Inference or Performance?" Philosophical Review 71 (January 1962): 3-32.

8. Translations from the Shobogenzo of Dogen are taken from Hee-jin Kim. Dogen Kigen Mystic Realist (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. 1975), p. 108. Hereafter designated as Shovogenzo. Kim's translations are from Dogen zenju zenshu, ed. Okubo Doshu, 2 vols. (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo. 1969 1970). English translations of the more familiar 2-chapter version of the Shobogenzo can be found in Yuho Yokoi, Zen Master Dogen (New York: Weatherhill, 1976): and in Thomas Cleary, Record of Things Heard (Boulder: Prajna Press, 1980).

9. "On Denoting". Mind 14(1909): 479-493. Quine continues the argument by claiming that all language can be reduced to the names of sets of things (predicates) and the relation of class-membership (Willard Van Orman Quine, Word and Object (New York and London: The Technology Press of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and John Wiley Sons, 1960)).

10. Cf. "The great abstraction of suchness is achieved in the beholding gaze: the eidos discerned from the hyle." (Erwin Straus, "Born to See, Bound to Behold" in Spicker, ed., The Philosophy of the Body (Chicago: Quadrangle Books. 1970), p. 343).

11. Socrates says, "And once a thing is put in writing, the composition. whatever it may be, drifts all over the place getting Into the hands not only of those who understand it. but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn't know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong." (Phaedrus, 275E)

12. Shobogenzo, "Bukkojoji."

13. Cf. the Surangama Suutra: At the start, by directing the hearing (ear) into the stream (of meditation) , this organ became detached from Its object. (In Luk, Ch'an and Zen Teaching (Berkeley: Shambala, 1970), p.89).

14. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, p.73.

15. Shobogenzo, "Bukkojoji."

16. The Blue Cliff Record (Pi Yen Lu), trans. Thomas Cleary and J. C. Cleary (Boulder: Shambala, 1977). vol. 3. p. 506.

17. Bukkojoji means literally "on (the matter of) going beyond the Buddhas." Zengaku daijiten defines this as follows: "The Buddha is the ideal of the practice of Buddhism; but true practice is not to attach to the practice itself, but to achieve a

state that transcends the Buddha." Kim's translation as "ongoing enlightenment" relies on the thought that the investigatory practice is itself no different from enlightenment, that enlightenment is not the end result, attained only after the practice, that the fully embodied (and fully audited) practice is enlightenment itself.

18. Shikan-taza, or just sitting, the persistent confrontation of the vector leading through the general field of sensation of the naked bodily whole, was Dogen's recommendation for engaging the process of ongoing enlightenment.

19. Luk, p.130.

20. Cf. Heidegger's analysis of the voice of conscience, in Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), sections 56 and 57.

21. Hume. David, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888), book I, part 1, section 2.

22. Gabriel Marcel, Being & Having, trans. J. Collins (New York: Harper & Row, 1965).

23. Cf. my "Medicine as the Moral Basis of Human Destiny,'' in Husserliana Analecta 9, forthcoming.

24. But Dogen warns: "However, it is not like a reflection dwelling in the mirror, nor is it like the moon and the water. As one side is illumined, the other side is darkened." (Shobogenzo, "Genjokoan").

25. Ibid. Kosu means "bring up a previous remark or comment," to 'cite.'

26. Shobogenzo, "Shinjin-gakudo.'' Sekinikudan means "lump of red flesh.''

27. Ibid.

28. Shobogenzo, "Sanjushichihon-bodaibumpo".

29. Dogen says suggestively that use of the mind "means also that after having the thought of enlightenment through cosmic resonance (kannodoko), you devote yourself to the great Way of the Buddhas and patriarchs...." Shobogenzo, "Shinjin-gakudo.''

That is, the mind is turned toward listening and acoustical reality.

30. Shobogenzo, "Bukkojoji."

31. Ibid

32. I wish to acknowledge with gratitude the assistance of Philip Yampolsky and Marleigh Grayer Ryan with regard to the translations I have used. Any errors in this final version are my own responsibility.


Updated: 1-3-2001

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