Why does the Buddha have big ears?

Recently at a talk, someone pointed to the Buddha statue and asked me, "Why does the Buddha have such big ears?" Buddhas and bodhisattvas are always portrayed as having large, pendulous ears. In Western culture small ears close to the head are thought to be the most beautiful, but in the Orient large ears are looked upon as auspicious because they indicate wisdom and compassion. So, the Buddha is depicted as having big ears because he is the compassionate one. He hears the sound of the world - hears the cries of suffering beings - and responds. The important thing for us is not how large our ears are, but how open are our "mind ears."

At our last Enlightenment Day ceremony, Zen Master Seung Sahn gave a talk in which he posed the question, "If Buddha got enlightenment today, what kind of enlightenment would he get?" He then answered himself, "Crying for the suffering of this world." What does this kind of enlightenment mean? Our morning bell chant uses the phrase "dae ja dae bi." "Dae ja" means Great Love (or Great Compassion) and "dae bi" means Great Sadness. The English word "compassion" comes from Latin roots, and means "to suffer with" (in Zen, we would say "become one with the suffering of another.") Great Sadness is the feeling we get when we see someone doing something which will cause suffering for themselves or others. If someone harms us, rather than reacting in anger, we feel sadness for the person because of the suffering they are causing for themselves. Great Sadness does not have "I, my, me." It is compassion.

Zen means finding your true self and helping this world. Your original true self is Great Compassion and Great Sadness. When the Buddha left home to find the answer to the great question of life and death -- What is a human being? Why are we on this planet? It was not to solve some intellectual puzzle, or even to take away his own suffering. Rather, it was for all beings. During his Fall trip to Europe, Zen Master Seung Sahn said, "This world doesn't need arhats anymore; it needs bodhisattvas."* So, how can this need be fulfilled? Every evening we chant the Thousand Hands and Eyes Sutra, the sutra of Kwan Seum Bosal, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. This Bodhisattva is very high class. It has a thousand hands and eyes to help this world; but, which of these eyes are the correct eyes? Which hands are the correct hands? If you attain that, then this world will say, "Thank you!"

*An arhat is one who has attained enlightenment and left the world behind. A bodhisattva is someone who delays their own enlightenment to help save all beings from suffering.