Listening with the heart of a Buddha

Listening with the heart of a Buddha

One of the practices that my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, stresses is listening deeply.  This kind of listening involves the whole heart and complete presence.  It means really being there for the other person, putting aside all our self-defenses and self-interests, and really listening.   Of course, this requires great empathy, but also mindfulness, so that we do get caught up in or overwhelmed by what is said.

In Buddhism, this kind of listening is exemplified in the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.  One of most widely revered bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism, this Buddha is also depicted in female form as Guan Yin, or Kwan Yin.  In Tibetan Buddhism, this compassionate listener to the suffering of the world is called Chenrezig.

Anyone can learn to be a skillful listener

By whatever name, this bodhisattva exemplifies a kind of skillful listening that anyone can aspire to and learn how to do.  Even if we are a lousy listener, this can change. All it takes is the aspiration to be able to listen in a healing way and to then to practice.

If we find it difficult to listen compassionately and patiently to the woes of others, we can almost be certain this is because we haven’t been able to sit still and listen to our own heart’s cries.  If we don’t listen to our own needs, if we don’t listen deeply to the cries of our own hearts, how can we do that skillfully for others?

Listening to others, listening to ourselves—one thing

So while we shouldn’t put off the practice of listening deeply to others, we should also make sure that we practice listening to ourselves skillfully in our meditation and metta practice.  You will find, as I have, that love for ourselves enables love for others, and that love for others, helps us love ourselves.

At the deepest level, there’s no difference between the two—love of self is love of others; love of others really is love of oneself. Listening deeply to our own hearts is listening to the cries of the world; hearing the cries of the world is listening to our own hearts.

In the excerpt below, Thich Nhat Hanh focuses on how family members can learn to listen deeply to each other, but the skill can be practiced in any relationship.


Living together in Harmony

by Thich Nhat Hanh

“Listening deeply is something we have to learn to do—we can’t do it just like that. When the other person is talking he or she is trying to express his or her difficulties and sufferings, and needs us to listen to that. But if we are not capable of listening, then the person who is speaking will not feel any relief in his or her suffering, and will finally give up talking.”

“People who have suffering, who have feelings hidden deep in their hearts, which they have not been able to express, they need an opportunity to express this suffering, and if no one sits to listen to them, how can they have that opportunity to express these hidden feelings of suffering? Therefore we need to practice looking deeply into that person, and that is the way to show that we love them.”

Deep listening in a family

“If we are a father and we want to listen to our children, we can sit alongside our child in silence, and then we say: ‘My dear child, please tell me, do you have any difficulties? Do you have any suffering? Please tell me. I want to listen so I can see if I can help you at all.’ So the father says this with his heart.”

“And if we are a wife, and we know our husband has sufferings and difficulties which he has not been able to talk about, we go to our husband, and sit silently, very freshly, alongside him, and then we say: ‘My dear husband, do you have any suffering? Do you have any difficulties hidden in your heart? Please let me know about them.’ The wife must say that.”

“If we are a husband or a father and we have suffering—and we all have suffering; some of us have a great deal, some of us have a little—when the other person says that to us, we see we have an opportunity to say what we want to. At first it’s difficult for us to say it. No one has tried to listen to us before, and now when somebody invites us to speak like that, we’re not sure if we really believe it.”

“But the wife, or whoever asks the question, should be patient and say, ‘Please, please tell me. It may be because of my un-skillfulness, my foolishness, that you suffer, and I want to hear this. Please tell me if I do anything foolish or clumsy which makes you suffer. I promise that I will sit by you very calmly and silently and listen, because I am practicing as a student of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. I will not judge, I will not react, I will not be angry.’”

“We all have to practice in the family: mother, father, and child. We can’t just listen deeply because we want to do it, we have to practice first…”

Excerpts from a talk called “Living Together in Harmony” given on July 19, 1998, Plum Village, France

About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

3 Responses to “Listening with the heart of a Buddha”

  1. Hey Michael J!

    Thanks for your comments and appreciation. It’s been crazy here today, post-holiday and all of that, but I just felt impelled to get this one out. (Like you, I hate to miss a day.)

    And, the post came out of dealing with family today, and practicing deep listening, so I knew it was probably going to be helpful to someone else too. 🙂

    I’m behind in answering blog comments, but wanted to get back quickly to your much-appreciated loving embrace.

    Best wishes,

  2. Steve,

    I’m going to listen to my family.

    Thanks for listening to your heart, which evidently, told you to share this. I can see by the graphics used, the cropping of the pictured, use of headlines, etc., that you put a lot into this. It felt like I was reading a magazine article as I looked from one word to the other.

    Nice work, nice thoughts, nice metta.


  1. Loving others-a skillful means, not a principle « Metta Refuge - 2009/12/02

    […] truth of this is not discovered by theoretical argument, but in practice. As I explained in Listening with the Heart of a Buddha: “…love for ourselves enables love for others, and that love for others, helps us love […]

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