Hearing the Cries Near and Afar

A Zen koan invites, “Stop the sound of the distant temple bell.” The usual focus of this koan asks the student to show how to stop a bell that, in our usual way of thinking, is far out of our reach. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I would like to focus on the hearing and listening of the bell itself. We cannot stop the sound of the bell unless we hear it, and we can’t hear it unless we put forth the effort to train our hearts, minds and ears to listen. In the same way, we cannot take wise action until we put forth the effort to listen carefully. Not so easy to do in this loud and shouting world of ours! What bells do you hear? How do you respond?

The bells that call us to action come in all forms—a baby crying in the middle of the night, the alarm that wakes us up to get ready to go to work or to meditation, a suspicious lump under the arm. Bells, when heeded, set wheels into action. They summon us to gather energy and make effort—placing our feet on the cold floor, dialing the doctor’s number to make an appointment. Sometimes, we just answer the alarm to wake up and get moving, and we don’t necessarily know where we’ll end up. It’s an invitation that we choose to accept. And if this type of effort stems from wise action, then it is an essential element of deep hope.

There are many bells in the world ringing for us every second of the day. Some are ringing the sound of screaming babies as bombs fall on their rooftops. Some are ringing the sound of shivers as a man huddles into a corner of a building in our neighborhood, trying to escape the cold rain. Some are ringing the hate-filled shouts of extremists and so on. Do we hear those bells? Make no mistake, no matter how much we meditate, unless we are striving to open our ears and sound the bell wisely, we are not truly on the path.

Adapted From Deep Hope: Zen Guidance for Staying Steadfast When the World Seems Hopeless