The Silence of the Undisturbed Mind

You might have read that about fourteen days ago Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh spoke for the first time since suffering a stroke in November 2014. According to Plum Village, his community of practitioners in France, among his very first words were, “In, out; happy; thank you.”

As difficult as this time certainly must have been for Thay, as his followers call him, I am confident that he viewed his suffering as an opportunity to deepen his practice and further refine the art of ‘deep listening.’ When you cannot speak, what else is there but to listen?

In Buddhist terms, being silent has a deeper level of meaning than merely the absence of sound or a state where one does not talk. In his recent book, Silence, Thay writes,

TNH0921b2When we release our ideas, thoughts, and concepts, we make space for our true mind. Our true mind is silent of all words and all notions, and is so much vaster than limited mental constructs. Only when the ocean is calm and quiet can we see the moon reflected in it.

Silence is ultimately something that comes from the heart, not from any set of conditions outside us. Living from a place of silence doesn’t mean never talking, never engaging or doing things; it simply means that we are not disturbed inside; there isn’t constant internal chatter. If we’re truly silent, then no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can enjoy the sweet spaciousness of silence.”

It is the action of thought that moves us from silence to disturbance. Another word we could use for silence is quiescence, which indicates tranquility, being at rest. According to Buddhist teachings, when our mind is quiescent, our thoughts are not disturbed and our actions will not disturb others.

This means to look within ourselves and harmonize with the essence of life. When our mind constantly looks outward, this can cause it to be distracted and unsettled.

In the Hsin Hsin Ming (“Trust in Mind Inscription”) Seng-ts’an wrote,

When the mind abides undisturbed in the Way,
there is nothing that can offend,
and when  things no longer offend,
they ceases to exist in the old way.   

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What Is Faith?

Kuan-Ting (also known as Chang-an) was the 2nd patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school, although some sources cite him as the 5th. In his introduction of the Mo Ho Chih Kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), the monumental work compiled from the teachings of the de facto founder of the T’ien-t’ai sect, Chih-i, he says,

What is Perfect Faith? It is the conviction that all entities are empty, that they are nevertheless provisionally existent, and that they are the middle between these extremes. Though ultimately there are not three separate views, provisionally there are three. To say separately they do not exist forestalls the interpretation that there are three, while to say there are three illuminates the truth in each of them. yet in the absence of either forestalling or illuminating the difference between them, one has conviction that all entities are alike, ultimate, pure and unimpeded. When hearing of the profundity and the vastness, not to fear or doubt; and when hearing of the shallow and the narrow, to still have courage in one’s mind – this is what is called having perfect faith.”

In the text of the MHCK itself, Chih-i says,

It is like talking about burning a candle: it is not beginning, yet not apart from the beginning, not final, yet not apart from ending. If knowledge and faith are complete, when one hears that a single instant is it [bodhicitta: the thought of awakening], by virtue of faith one does not repudiate it, and by virtue of knowledge one does not fear it. beginning and end are both right, both it.

If one has no faith, one will elevate it to the sphere of sages and think one has no knowledge of it. If one has no knowledge, one will become conceited and think one is equal to Buddha. Then beginning and end are both wrong, both not it.

In one of the footnotes of Neal Donner’s translation of the MHCK, he quotes from the Kogi, a Japanese commentary on the MHCK by Chiku (1780-1862):

Faith means to accept the teaching directly without superimposing one’s personal opinions.”

Chinese characters for Xinxin or "faith."

And, of course, Seng-ts’an in his poem Xinxin Ming (“Verses on Faith in Mind”) wrote,

To understand the mystery of this One-essence
is to be released from all entanglements.
When all things are seen equally
the timeless Self-essence is reached.
No comparisons or analogies are possible
in this causeless, relationless state.
Consider motion in stillness
and stillness in motion;
both movement and stillness disappear.
When such dualities cease to exist
Oneness itself cannot exist.
To this ultimate finality
no law or description applies.

For the unified mind in accord with the Way
all self-centered striving ceases.
Doubts and irresolutions vanish
and life in true faith is possible.”

Kuan-Ting translation by Neal Donner; Chih-i translation by Thomas Cleary

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