The Listening Heart

‘Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.” – Sakyamuni Buddha

A few years ago now, I spent some time in hospital, undergoing surgery to remove a large polyp. Fortunately the surgery was a success and the tumour was benign so that the procedure was entirely curative and further treatment was unnecessary. I credit much of this success not only to the excellent medical care I received, but also to the fervent love and support of friends and family.

A hospital is a strange environment: it is a place where people go to be born, to be healed, to die, and where we so viscerally experience extremes of pain and suffering, elation and joy. The technical and scientific know-how is amazing. Doctors perform extraordinary feats – miracles almost – and nurses provide abundant care. There are medical specialists, social workers, nutritionists and clergy to answer almost every human need. But in the midst of all this incredible machinery and dedication and service there is often something strangely absent: the listening of the human heart.

What do I mean by the listening of the human heart? Compassion

(karuna) is one of the Four Illimitables (sublime virtues) and a cornerstone of Buddhist teaching. Quite simply it means the desire to relieve the suffering of others. For the Buddha, it was this compassion that led him to preach the dharma to “those with a little dust in their eyes”, even though he believed most would not comprehend his teaching. For us it means to reach out, to understand with our hearts the pain and suffering of others and to use whatever means is at our disposal to help alleviate that pain. In the teachings, the embodiment of compassion is Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (in Chinese Kuan Yin, in Tibetan Chenrezig) who transforms himself/herself into whatever form will be familiar to the person to be helped and is thus able to provide comfort and to relieve suffering. Throughout my hospital stay, in my pain, hunger, thirst and discouragement (and in many other moments too), I recited the great mantra “Om Mane Padme Hum” and called upon Avalokitesvara’s mercy. I believe my prayers were answered.

On the surgical ward, after the initial shock of surgery wears off, patients are encouraged to get out of bed and start moving around, slowly at first, but gradually for longer durations and outside the confines of the hospital room. As I began my slow and laborious walks around the hallway I came to know a number of patients and their families, came to hear their stories, watched their victories and setbacks, briefly entered into their lives in the way only another patient can (doctors do their job and move on, nurses are always responding to the next call – none really has time to listen to the patient’s story). As I had chanted and called upon Avalokitesvara’s mercy, I realized that I had been given an opportunity – an opportunity to listen, to offer a word of encouragement, to walk the halls with another patient, sometimes just to cry both for my own suffering and the suffering of others. I understood that my own suffering was small and I was able to overcome my own worries and provide some solace (however small) to others. And they, in their own way, were able to do the same for me.

Sometimes we think that our practice is confined to our time on the cushion or reciting the sutra or chanting or study, but I have come to realize that the wheel of the dharma is always turning and opportunities for realization present themselves continuously. Once, at the beginning of my Buddhist studies we had a luncheon where we were given the opportunity to choose a bookmark. On each bookmark was printed a Buddhist quotation (in Chinese characters), and we were asked to meditate on and contemplate this teaching. The phrase on my bookmark was to define the entire nature of my practice and I remember clearly the translation: “Every moment presents an opportunity for enlightenment.” Whether we are well or we are ill, whenever we are in the company of others we have the opportunity to reach out with a listening heart and transform sorrow into joy — to manifest compassion (the gift of Avalokitesvara) that exists within us all.