Deaf and Blind in the Land of Zen

By coincidence, I came across the following sermon by Dogen Zenji, in Taigen Dan Leighton’s translation of Dogen’s Eihei Koroku, having just put down A Blind Man in the Land of Zen, which is newly published by fellow Sangha-member Steve Hobson:

Hyakujo received a shout from Baso, whereupon he became deaf for three days. All people in the monasteries going back to ancient times call this event extraordinarily fine. This is not without meaning, and there is more to it that it is extraordinary. This mountain monk has not yet received a shout from Baso, so why I am completely deaf for one, two, three, even four lifetimes?
All Buddhas in the three times have one deaf ear and the six ancestral teachers in China were slightly deaf.

How can you understand this principle [of deafness]?

After a pause Dogen said: Whereas this favourable wind current spreads and pervades, do not let six ears uselessly know about it.

Dogen’s sermon and Steve’s book together suggest to me that, if there is an extraordinary principle to deafness, then so too is there one to blindness.

In his book, Steve makes this interesting observation, in relation to the onset of blindness, rather than deafness:

Because I have no detailed vision, I have to learn to do without it. I have discovered that detailed vision is good for detail, unsurprisingly, but not much help with the whole picture, the sweep of the landscape. It sees the pebble, but not the beach.

In discussing detail and the whole picture, Steve draws a distinction between two perspectives: one that is ‘central’ and another that is ‘peripheral’.

He likens central perspective, or detailed vision, to the light of a flashlight. It is directed and focussed on one thing. Peripheral vision, by contrast, is by its nature general and takes in the broad sweep of the background.

Peripheral vision provides an important but perhaps, in well sighted people, unacknowledged sense of the spatial awareness that the more consciously directed detailed vision obscures.

I recognise Steve’s perspective on the importance of peripheral vision in the context of hill walking. Walking off mountaintops after dark, I have found my head torch useful for taking compass bearings and for seeing the ground beneath my feet, but no use for picking out the features of the landscape and my place within it. As Steve argues, it is my peripheral vision that I use to work out my where I am at night.

Steve has been forced by disease to accept that his loss of central vision denies him the reliance he previously placed on directly perceived detail for understanding his world. He has lost the commonly unquestioned atomistic certainty that might have prescribed the way he previously interpreted what was presented in central vision as an objective world of things.

Challenged by the loss of central vision, and thrown back on peripheral vision, Steve re-evaluates his world in a dimmer, liminal light. He discovers that so much of what is habitually taken for granted as objectively true is actually a contingency of the way he had been accustomed to see. Steve now has to imagine the hard and fast lines of subject and object by conscious choice. He cannot otherwise make them out. In this way, he realises paradoxically that, in fact:

The way I see things, or appear to see things, is the same way you do – I get the general gist of something and then fill in the details with the help of my past experience.

Steve hints here at the Buddhist teaching that, without necessarily recognising that it’s so, we ‘take in the gist’ and ‘fill in the gaps’ all the time. I am reminded of Vasubandhu’s Treatise in Thirty Stanzas (Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratā), according to which we habitually read into what we see without noticing the extent to which we  rely on belief:

The subject matter that is liable to subject-object distinction by whatsoever sort of subject-object discrimination, is all just imagined nature; it does not exist.

Steve’s remarks about his blindness, suggest the disconcerting possibility that what we think we see may not actually be what is objectively out there!

I know for example that, caught out by the late-afternoon sunset, in Winter, and retracing my steps through a landscape I crossed earlier in sunlight how strikingly different it seems in the silence of a deepening dusk: how truncated and extended perspectives can be, how unexpectedly alien and different are the contours of the hills, the twists and forks in the path, the courses of streams and the shapes of boulders and trees. I am disorientated; and have to re-orientate myself to read the landscape in a new way, based on the dimmer less certain features and perspectives of an unfamiliar topography.

In a similar vein, Steve explains how failing sight has, he feels, given him an extraordinary means to study the way in which Zen practice undermines the usual, polarised perspective of a solidly certain and differentiated self distinct from the world. Through his disability, Steve finds a window on the mysteriously ambiguous world in flux that Zen articulates. For him:

… form has become fluid and distorted, and the sharp division between one ‘thing’ and another ‘thing’ has been de-constructed.

This understanding, that what is normally considered a disability can be a spiritual advantage, is precisely what Dogen’s sermon on the deafening shout plays with.  A disabled organ of perception is presented as a means to perceive more generally and peripherally, rather than intentionally and specifically, so that what Buddhism calls the emptiness, the non-existence, the insubstantially and the inter-dependency of everything can emerge into recognition.

In Steve’s case, he has found that blindness discloses to him new perspectives and new possibilities for self-understanding:

I am acutely aware of sounds. It is not my hearing that has improved but my attention to sound.

When he walks with his dog, he finds wonder in woodlands, which are never silent:

…I listen to the birds – to the three caws of a crow, or the chucks of the jackdaws flying out to the fields to feed. I am aware of the huge number of birds who are living around me – the goldcrests, the blue tits, the robins. I know where they are because I listen to them. By the gate, in the little field, I sit entranced, while two wrens compete for winter territory to the right and left of me.

His appreciation for his improved attention to sound enables him to make the seemingly astonishing assertion that:

I am blind and I can see.

And he recalls The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in which the prince tells the author:

“… eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”

In the same way, I think that perhaps Dogen might have said in answer to his own question: how do you understand this principle of deafness? – ears are deaf. You have to hear with the heart.

Reflecting on the meaning of this, the Heart Sutra drifts through my mind, as it does for Steve. Edward Conze’s seminal translation reads:

“…in emptiness there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness. No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or objects of mind; no sight organ element and so forth, until we come to: no mind consciousness element…”

Conze warns his reader that this seeming denial of phenomenal experience does not mean what it appears to say. The Heart Sutra is paradoxical. It does not follow the rules of ordinary logic; and assertion and denial do not have their ordinary meanings. As he says, it is only ignorance that is truly denied by this sutra.

To understand the emptiness of form, feeling, perception and so on is to understand, to feel, to see, to hear with the heart, which to leave aside the intellect and its intentional engagement in perception. It is to engage the sensory whole-heartedly. It is to listen or to see completely, with all of the senses.

In his sermon, Dogen asked rhetorically why he was completely deaf for several lifetimes. I think this was his way of going beyond Hyakujo’s temporary, three-day deafness and asking why he was originally completely deaf. Taigen Dan Leighton, says that Dogen’s word “completely”, as in “completely deaf”, is shikan, as in shikantaza: which means just-sitting-Zen. So we could say that Dogen was talking about just being deaf; as in just letting things be and not intentionally setting out to hear any thing in particular. This kind of complete deafness is deafness to the distraction of the thinking mind. It allows the whole body-mind to hear, as for example when we jump at the unexpected crack! of a firework.

In the crack! of a firework we are immersed in the crack! There is no gap between our engagement in the crack! and our understanding of what it means. We do not need to understand by thinking about it. We simply understand.

Many Zen stories disclose this simple immersion of the senses. For example, there is the story of Kyogen who, whilst clearing the ground around the grave of the National Teacher, flipped a small piece of tile through the air off his broom, so that it struck a stalk of bamboo. Upon hearing the sound, clok!, Kyogen experienced great enlightenment. Afterwards he wrote a verse, which we study in koan practice. It begins:

The sound of something struck! – And I have forgotten all I knew.

I find in Kyogen’s ‘forgotten all I knew’ and Dogen’s ‘completely deaf for one, two, three, even four lifetimes’ different ways of describing the same immediacy of understanding.

We are able to approach it  through the practice of zazen.

Zazen enables us to be less reliant on what we think we know and to begin to allow our senses to function freely, responding spontaneously as we see, hear, smell, feel or taste.

Of course, we put a lot of value on reasoning and would worry about losing the ability to do it; but zazen does not repress the reasoning faculty, which is always right there when we need it. Objectifying our experience is something we are innately able to do, and from a Buddhist perspective there need be nothing wrong with that. Thinking itself is already what Dogen calls ‘realisation’ and because of that we are able to make effective use of it. This is perhaps why Dogen said that the six Chinese Zen ancestors were ‘slightly deaf’. Dogen did not make a make fetish of unthinking impulsiveness. As Steve’s case shows, even if one of the perceptive faculties, on which the intellect depends, is no longer working, we still find it immensely helpful to interpret the sense data we can access.

However, when Dogen wrote of ‘realisation’ it was intimacy with, not the interpretation of, everyday events to which he directed attention. This is how I understand his ‘one deaf ear’ of the Buddha of the three times. It is ‘one’ in the sense  that it is not ‘two’: it does not polarise into our usual subjective v. objective epistemology.

The problem with thinking about sensory data is that it is always at one step removed from the data it is about – whether afterwards or in anticipation. From the subjective point of view, events themselves are unknowable in the moment of their happening. In the Yuibutsu Yobutsu fascicle of Shobogenzo (Only Buddha and Buddha), Dogen said:

Buddha-dharma cannot be known by a person. For this reason since olden times no ordinary person has realised Buddha-dharma…

If we understand events as phenomena about which we can have some realisation, they cannot be realised; and therefore Dogen spoke of true realisation as a non-realisation. InYuibutsu Yobutsu, he said:

Realisation does not depend on thoughts, but comes forth from beyond them; realisation is helped only by the power of realisation itself. Know then that there is no delusion, and there is no realisation.

I would say it is this ‘no realisation’ that Dogen meant when he spoke of being completely deaf. He began his sermon on deafness by referring to Hyakujo’s deafness for three days. About this, Hyakujo himself explained:

When Baso saw me approach, he raised his whisk. I asked, ‘Do you indentify with this action or detach from this action?’ Baso then hung his whisk on the corner of the meditation seat. There was a long silence; then Baso asked me, ‘Later on, when you’re flapping your lips, how will you help people?’ I took the whisk and held it up. Baso said, ‘Do you indentify with this action or detach from this action?’ I hung the whisk back on the corner of the meditation seat. Baso drew himself up and gave a shout that left me deaf for three days.

Taigen Dan Leighton describes the traditional interpretation of Baso’s shout and Hyakujo’s deafness for three days as exemplifying the one-to-one intimacy of dharma transmission between a teacher and a student, which discloses the extraordinary meaning of the instant of not knowing. In Yuibutsu Yobutsu, Dogen wrote of realisation being helped ‘only by the power of realisation itself’. It is a principle that was articulated in the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra, where the Buddha says:

… what the Buddha has achieved is the rarest and most difficult to understand Dharma. The true entity of all phenomena can only be understood and shared between Buddhas.

The interesting thing, is that in spite of this (and as the vast Buddhist canon illustrates), Buddhas ‘flap their lips’, as Baso put it, to try to help ordinary people, in the hope that at least a few of them might be only partially blind or deaf. In this way Dogen said that the ‘favourable wind current’ of the Dharma ‘spreads and pervades’.

Nevertheless, if it is heard with ‘six ears’, that is so say by a third person, as objective knowledge rather than intimate connection, it is useless.

So how does the practice work? How is it possible to become blind, deaf or maybe numb enough to hear with the heart? Towards the end of his book, Steve asks us to imagine becoming suddenly blind and abandoned in the middle of a field. In harrowing terms he describes how we might claw our way out on all fours. Even in the imagination ‘six ears’ cannot begin to get to grips with this crisis, which is that dark night of the soul in which help must come from another source than the scheming of the rational mind. I have nothing but admiration for those like Steve who have gone through this experience and I am hesitant to draw superficial analogies. Nevertheless, it is interesting to me that in zazen we deliberately allow ourselves to become disorientated. We stop using the intellect to interpret our sensations and we allow them simply to be whole body experiences. In effect, we stop chasing after things, we become deaf, dumb, blind and without feeling in the sense that we suspend our intentional engagement with seeing, speaking, hearing and feeling and allow the world to appear before us, just as-it-is. In that moment we understand; but we do this continuously, without expectation and without limit. It is the practice of lifetimes not merely thirty minutes, or even three days. As Steve says:

It is much better as a blind man to let the world come to me, to nuzzle me like dog, than it is to leap at the world and miss it …



  • A Blind Man in the Land of Zen by  Steve Hobson; published Braiswick (2013)
  • Dogen’s Eihei Koroku translated by  Taigen Dan Leighton’
  • Verse 20 of Vasubandhu’s Treatise in Thirty Stanzas is taken from Thomas Kochumuttom’s translation in A Buddhist Doctrine of Experience (1982)
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (I used the translation Richard Howard)
  • Buddhist Wisdom Books by Edward Conze (1958)
  • The text of Yuibutsu Yobutsu is from Moon in a Dewdrop edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi (1985)
  • The encounter between Baso and Hyakujo is related in Engo’s commentary on case 11 of the Blue Cliff Record, see the translation  by T and J C Cleary (1977)
  • I used Burton Watson’s translation of the Lotus Sutra (1993)
  • In the quotations from Leighton and Cleary and Cleary I have substituted the Japanese transliterations Baso and Hyakujo for their original Chinese names