Excerpt from “For a Future to Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts” by Thich Nhat Hanh
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is a person who has learned the art of listening and speaking deeply in order to help people let go of their fear, misery, and despair. He is the model of this practice, and the door he opens is called the “universal door.” If we practice listening and speaking according to Avalokitesvara, we too will be able to open the universal door and bring joy, peace, and happiness to many people and alleviate their suffering.
The universal door manifests itself
in the voice of the rolling tide.
Hearing and practicing it, we become a child,
born from the heart of a lotus,
fresh, pure, and happy,
capable of speaking and listening
in accord with the universal door.
With only one drop of the water of compassion
from the branch of the willow,
spring returns to the great Earth.
I learned this beautiful poem when I studied the Lotus Sutra at age sixteen. When you hear “the voice of the rolling tide,” which is Avalokitesvara’s practice, symbolizing the universal door, you are transformed into a child born in the heart of a lotus. With only one drop of the water of compassion from the willow branch of the bodhisattva, spring returns to our dry Earth. The dry Earth means the world of suffering and misery. The drop of
compassionate water is the practice of loving kindness, symbolized by the water on the willow branch.
Avalokitesvara is described by the Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, and Japanese as the person holding the willow branch. He dips the branch into the water of compassion of his heart, and wherever he sprinkles that water, everything is reborn. When he sprinkles it on dry, dead branches, they turn green. Dead branches also symbolize suffering and despair, and green vegetation symbolizes the return of peace and happiness. With only one drop of
that water, spring returns to our great Earth.
In the “Universal Door” chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Avalokitesvara’s voice is described in five ways: the wondrous voice, the voice of the world regarded, the brahma voice, the voice of the rising tide, and the voice of world surpassing. We should always keep these five voices in mind.
First, there is the wondrous voice. This is the kind of speaking that will open the universal door and make everything possible again. This voice is pleasant to hear. It is refreshing and brings calm, comfort, and healing to our soul. Its essence is compassion.
Second, there is the voice of the world regarded. The meaning of the word Avalokitesvara is “the one who looks deeply into the world and hears the cries of the world.” This voice relieves our suffering and suppressed feelings, because it is the voice of someone who understands us deeply — our anguish, despair, and fear. When we feel understood, we suffer much less.
Third, here is the brahma voice. Brahma means noble — not just the ordinary voice of people, but the noble speech that springs forth from the willingness to bring happiness and remove suffering. Love, compassion, joy, and impartiality are the Four Brahmaviharas, noble dwellings of buddhas and bodhisattvas. If we want to live with buddhas and bodhisattvas, we can dwell in these mansions. During the time of the Buddha, the aim of the practice of many people was to be born and to live together with Brahma. It was similar to the Christian practice of wanting to go to Heaven to be with God. “In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” and you want to live in one of these mansions. For those who wanted to be with Brahma, the Buddha said, “Practice the four noble dwellings: love, compassion, joy, and impartiality.” If we want to share one teaching of the Buddha with our Christian friends, it would be the same: “God is love, compassion, joy, and impartiality.” If you want to be with God, practice these four dwellings. If you don’t
practice these four, no matter how much you pray or talk about being with God, going to Heaven will not be possible.
Fourth, the voice of the rising tide is the voice of the Buddhadharma. It is a powerful voice, the kind of voice that silences all wrong views and speculations. It is the lion’s roar that brings absolute silence to the mountain and brings about transformation and healing.
Fifth, the voice of the world surpassing is the voice with which nothing can be compared. This voice does not aim at fame, profit, or a competitive edge. It is the thundering silence that shatters all notions and concepts. The wondrous voice, the voice of the world regarded, the brahma voice, the voice of the rising tide, and the voice of the world surpassing are the voices we are to be mindful of.
If we contemplate these five kinds of voices, we assist Avalokitesvara in opening the universal door, the door of real listening and real speaking. Because he lives a mindful life, always contemplating the world, and because he is the world regarder, Avalokitesvara notices a lot of suffering. He knows that much suffering is born from unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others; therefore he practices mindful, loving speech and listening deeply.
Avalokitesvara can be described as the one who teaches us the best way to practice the Fourth Precept. “Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech, and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.” This is exactly the universal door practiced by Avalokitesvara.