Listen Like a Bodhisattva

Pink cloud

Pink Cloud and full moon. Photo by Celia

“We invoke your name, Avalokiteshvara. We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We will sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.”

~Invoking the Bodhisattvas, from the Plum Village Chanting Book


Dear Friends,

As practitioners, we learn about Right Speech, speech that is timely, true, spoken with kindness, with heartfelt-ness, and with a mind of goodwill. When we practice in community, we also have the opportunity to cultivate Right Listening. In our culture, we often listen to find out the views of others. We can listen for signs of political affiliation, for biases, for education level and for information. Our listening to others determines our comfort level. Are they like me or are they very different? We listen to position ourselves in the hierarchy of intelligence, money, and power. Are they dull or do they outshine me? We listen to find if it is safe to express ourselves openly, especially if the person we are listening to is our boss or holds a position of power. We listen to gather information so we can be safe and thrive or persuade others to think as we do. We listen from a place of self-interest to maximize our advantages. Our listening is a form of self- protection.

If you come to a Plum Village sangha, or if you are in a healing profession, you are taught to listen in a different way. The instructions at sangha include listening to hear what it is like for that other person. We are encouraged to aspire to the qualities of Avalokiteshvara, or Quan Yin, the Bodhisattva who listens to the cries of the world. The mission of this great being is to hear the voices of those who are suffering. When our pain is heard by another and we and our situation are held with compassion, there is often a profound shift. When another being can hold our pain with us, our burden is halved.

In order to listen like a Bodhisattva, we must be able to have the capacity to sit with another’s pain without trying to fix, to advise, to manage, spiritualize, or minimize their experience. We may say things that we believe to be helpful, but these expressions ward off any authentic connection. We’ve all been there and heard or said, “everything happens for a reason. We don’t get things we can’t handle. When one window closes, another opens. You need to let go…” and the list goes on. Or we ride over what the person is expressing and fill the space with our own experiences, “When that happened to me I…I know a friend who had the same thing and she…” Unwittingly we abandon the other person and shine our attention back on our own experience and our perceptions of how and what should be happening. This is false empathy because it does not allow the other to feel felt and understood; it keeps us in the foreground as the authority and denies the validity of another’s experience. If we find ourselves drawn into a quick comeback to fix the issue, we can silently tell ourselves, “Just listening, just listening.”

hillsideSometimes it’s hard for us to listen when we feel filled up with our own grief or sorrow. We may become frustrated and impatient when we hear about someone else’s confusion and fear. We may want the problem solved so we do not have to be close to these painful and unpleasant emotions. They may be too real and trigger these feelings in ourselves because we haven’t had the time or training to care for these feelings in ourselves. When we are under stress and filled with big emotions, we do not have room for more. Our ability to listen and to hear is only as large as the space we are able to create in ourselves. That’s why it is so important to take care of our own pain in order to show up for others.

Listening without rushing to solve or fix means that we trust the other person to find their own solution in their own time. When we rush to fix with advice, spiritualizing, or platitudes we do not allow the other person to develop their own agency. Most advice is not taken because it is not given to one who is ready to hear it. One of the factors of right speech is speaking at the right time. The time for advice is when it is wanted and it is truly beneficial for the other person.

The ability to listen to others requires us to first listen to ourselves, to take stock of what our emotional capacity is and to care for what is longing to be known in ourselves. Only when we can stop and care for our own wellbeing do we have the capacity to show up for others with real listening. We know the body and mind are one and all thought have a reverberation in the body. Being aware of and consciously releasing tension and contraction in the body are ways to create more solidity and equanimity in ourselves as we practice listening. When our body is calm our mind can be calm also. One of the greatest gifts we can give to someone we love is to listen with a calm mind.

Often when I listen, I imagine that it is me saying the words. When I find myself reacting with judgment, comparing, or criticizing, I come back to my body and breathe to my belly, letting my shoulders be soft, consciously releasing tension as I exhale. “Listening is enough,” I tell myself, “Just listen.” When I can stay with this openness, aware of the other and aware of my own presence, something shifts. Understanding appears. When I can offer the other person my non-judgmental attention, we are connected in the act of compassion. I become big enough to hold this shared pain without sinking and in the sharing—the pain is lessened. This is one of the ways out of suffering. This is a way we can become a presence of compassion in the world.

May we all trust our light,


When Someone Deeply Listens to You

by John Fox in Finding What You Didn’t Lose.

When someone deeply listens to you

it is like holding out a dented cup

you’ve had since childhood

and watching it fill up with

cold, fresh water.

When it balances on top of the brim,

you are understood.

When it overflows and touches your skin,

You are loved.


When someone deeply listens to you,

the room where you stay

starts a new life

and the place where you wrote

your first poem

begins to glow in your mind’s eye.

It is as if gold has been discovered!

When someone deeply listens to you,

your bare feet are on the earth

and a beloved land that seemed distant

is now at home within you.

Listen with compassion



Permission to Rest

tree carving.JPG

Dear Friends,

We’ve made it past the holidays and stepped into the New Year. This is the time of year when we live with less daylight and most of us spend more time indoors, especially in the bitter cold and snow. If we pay attention to what we see that in the natural world, there is something called “winter rest” that is slowly and quietly happening. The animals are in their burrows and the plants are in their dormant stage. Although they look quite still, all the while in these protected realms, there is photosynthesis and cell development going on in the buds and twigs. The trees use little water and sugar and take care of all the housekeeping involved in the growth cycle. They utilize this period of dormancy to prepare for the time ahead and the push of the lifecycle that responds to the changing conditions. If trees and plants don’t get to stop and attend to their own nutriments their lives are dramatically shortened. It’s the same way the engine that continually runs burns out earlier.

With the stripped-down landscapes, the leafless trees, and quiet gardens we have less to distract us in winter. There are no gardens to weed, no lawns to mow, or lakes we want to swim in. The cold and darkness beckon us to conserve ourselves for the longer days of spring. If we are farmers, we have a season of leisure in which to recommit to our most cherished ways of being. We all have fallow time when we can rest and restore our energy and our intentions.

Believing that there is a season of rest, may feel unrealistic or alien. In our world with electric lights, twenty-four-hour news cycles and unlimited access to technology we can be plugged in and feel productive any time of the day or night. We keep going despite the natural world which tells all the beings to slow down and rest. But true creativity and innovation don’t come from busyness. They are the children of stillness. This is the time of year we are invited to turn inward and renew our commitments to what really matters. The Buddha and sangha lived in tune with the cycles of the Earth and Shakyamuni Buddha gave a teaching on the example of Sariputta, also known as Upatissa:

“Settled at the root of a tree,

With shaven head, clad in a robe,

The elder foremost in wisdom

— Upatissa just meditates.

He has become calm and at rest,

Wise in speech and not self-centered;

He’s shaken off unwholesome states

— Like wind would leaves from a tree.

He has become calm and at rest,

Wise in speech and not self-centered;

He has plucked off unwholesome states

— Like wind would leaves from a tree.”

(Sariputta Thera: Keeping the Wheel Rolling, Thag.17.2, A.Olendzki trans, 2 November 2013, Access to Insight. BCBS Edition.) * See full license below.

I am reminded as we approach the belly of winter, of the richness of practicing with this change and with the continuation of this season. The fragility of life and impermanence become more pronounce and poignant in winter. We hear the call for quiet and are subject to the natural limitations that come with ice and snow. Our travels are restricted; we aren’t free to go when and where we choose. We learn that we are also animals whose lives are conditioned by nature.

I am sharing a poem I wrote a few years back reflecting on the ways the winter added to my practice. The conditions that can sometimes seem so hard can also teach us the patience to stay, even with change. Additionally, this season demonstrates Interbeing—our connection to this Earth and to the other beings who help create our safety and wellness.

Early Spring

Hidden bench

Don’t let the spring come too soon for I need more winter to humble me.

Let the cold climb beneath my covers,

creep between my cells into the sinew and marrow of my cozy bed.

Give me stinging winds blasting my cheeks; shock my toes with freezing water in my boot. Keep the landscape gray, and the skeleton branches forever barren.

Let all the birds be voiceless, absent from the world now quiet as a bone. Stay frozen and bleak until I am wind carved, hollowed out, an empty log that is only contour, swept free of flesh and waiting.

When I’ve become as wanting as

a stone,

knowing there is nothing left to eat

in the frozen ground. I watch hope slip on black ice

and shatter, smash into only this, only now.

This crystal moment of things as they are and the eye blink of knowing

just how easily my shell can be broken.  I see the crisp edges of helplessness

reminding me that I am not equipped to live alone in this world.

Stay until I am broken

and there is nothing to lean on and I know it’s only grace and kindness that keeps life alive.

The well must be empty before it can be filled.  Let me spill it all out,

the wanting, the leaning in, the desire for change and ease and what’s around the corner. Stay until I am empty, purified, made present and whole.

Stay, until I am—just arrived.

~  Celia Landman

My wish is that we all arrive in this winter with slowness and dignity that acknowledges our connection to something greater than our small selves. We can see we too are formed by the rhythm of this cosmos and know we belong to the natural world. With that understanding, I hope that we all can embrace rest and this time of simplicity that makes ready for something new, something that will come to us without effort or strain, the insight and wisdom that arrives when we give space to just be, to stop, to rest, and to heal our lives.

May we all trust our light,


Be Still and heal.jpg

*©2005 Andrew Olendzki. You may copy, reformat, reprint, republish, and redistribute this work in any medium whatsoever, provided that: (1) you only make such copies, etc. available free of charge; (2) you clearly indicate that any derivatives of this work (including translations) are derived from this source document; and (3) you include the full text of this license in any copies or derivatives of this work. Otherwise, all rights reserved.