“The word prevents silence from speaking” (Eugene Ionesco)
“Few things under heaven are as instructive as the lessons of Silence/ or as beneficial as the fruits of Non-Ado” (Lao-Tzu)
Silence has a special meaning in Buddhism. That is why it is called Noble Silence. It is not just an obligation to keep quiet - like one is expected to do when listening to a Chopin Nocturne played in a concert hall. It is also not simply the abstention from making an audible noise. It is a voluntary undertaking to open up to a world that exists independently from our interpretation of it – whether in spoken or written words or thoughts. Such stillness can only happen when you make yourself available to receive whatever the universe is presenting you with; when you are quiet and keep still.
It therefore includes quietening down our internal chatter as well. Because in the absence of noise, physical or mental, our mind conjures up all manner of storylines that masquerade as real living - usually involving the past or the future, fantasies and imaginations that retell us how things were - or could have been. Or it projects how things could be in the future. That is a very frenetic world indeed. Such noise continues even as we sleep - in our dreams and nightmares.
The inability to listen can become so compulsive and obsessive that we no longer hear what real life is telling us. We are therefore left with our opinions, demands and expectations, which real life, as it unfolds, can seldom meet. Hence we are increasingly out of touch with what is in front of us; with what is possible and what is not. We project onto reality what we want or don’t want from it. And expect it to comply with our wishes.
Modern life has burdened us with all manner of noise - from music that is poured into us from radios and television sets, to walkmans plugged into our ears when we are at the gym, and street traffic that keeps us awake at night. Whether we like it or not, we have become accustomed to noise. In fact, some of us cannot live without it. We have become addicted to it. We compulsively create it when it is not there, filling a space that would be better left empty and silent.
Many religions advocate that one takes a vow of silence for a period of time - sometimes for the rest of your life. When asked what places are the most suitable for such silent meditation practice, the Buddha answered that the ideal place is at the foot of a tree in a forest - which, of course, he chose himself on the night of the full moon of May, 26 centuries ago. This involves withdrawing from a world dominated by sources of sound, particularly those created by the presence of other humans. Mountain caves are favourite places for such silent retreats, as are deserts or forests.
Records of the time tell us that monasteries should not be built within 200 “bow lengths” from any human habitation; neither should they be near places where people gather for the purpose of drawing water or washing.
The BRC is not a monastery. Yet, our meditation hall is more than 200 bow lengths away from the nearest gravel district road. Even so, we can still hear the occasional car coming past on the road as we sit in meditation. Birds sing and rain falls on the roof. These things become our meditation practice: we just hear them. Our mind, our inner silence, is not disturbed by them. That enables us to remain centred in a deep quiescence in a noisy market place or a busy office, or even in the middle of a challenging argument.