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.   


Silence is Golden, But My Eyes’ Still See

Silence is Golden

Vacchagotta was a wandering ascetic who one day put a series of questions to the Buddha inquiring if the world is eternal or not, if the universe is infinite or not, is the self identical with the body or not, if the Buddha exists after death, and so on. The Buddha’s answer to these questions was silence.

On another occasion, a large group of followers sat by a lake on Vulture’s Peak waiting for the Buddha to give a dharma talk. When the Buddha arrived he pulled a white lotus flower from the water and held it up and was silent for a very long time. It is said that only the disciple Kashyapa understood the message the Buddha was conveying.

The account of the Buddha’s Flower Talk is a pivotal story in the Ch’an/Zen traditions. Kashyapa is considered the first to receive the lamp of Dharma Transmission, the way in which dharma is passed from Zen masters to disciples. The Buddha’s silence here is regarded as pointing directly to the Dharma of the Mind – the mind that all dharmas depend upon, the mind that we cannot physically see, the mind that is Buddha, the mind that manifests all phenomena and permeates the universe.

Yet, pure silence transcends all that. Silence, like emptiness, is the ground of everything. Silence can be another word for emptiness. Before there is a sound, there is silence. Where there is no sound, there is only silence. Silence is the true nature of our mind. What thoughts does a baby have while in the womb? I suspect that even after the mind is formed, there is just silence. We come from silence and we eventually return to it.

The story of Vacchagotta’s questions and the Buddha’s refusal to be drawn into a thicket of views, speculation and dogma, was crucial for Nagarjuna. Understanding the Buddha’s silence in this context is perhaps the key to understanding Nagarjuna’s own doctrine. As I quoted him recently, he maintained, “Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.”

But my eyes still see

There is another truth we must contend with: the relative truth of the everyday world. And in that world, the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority community in Burma continues. This has engendered criticism directed at Aung Suu San Kyi for her silence on this issue, and the Dalai Lama as well. Not to mention criticism of the Burmese Buddhists for their part in attacks on the Rohingya. And I’ve seen this on many secular blogs like the Huffington Post, the Nation, and Voice of America and many news services. However, the Buddhist community seems strangely silent.

As of this writing, the only bloggers I know of who have even mentioned the current situation in Burma are myself and Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist. I don’t subscribe to every Buddhist blog or even know of every one, but I am aware of quite a few. I don’t mean to pass judgment on anyone. I know that some bloggers prefer to write about the more personal aspects of Buddhism, and I respect and admire their more intimate approach. At the same time, there are others who often blog about social issues and ethics, and some who consider themselves social activists as well as Buddhist.

It’s not up to me to decide what others should blog about, but one would expect that a few Buddhists would find the situation in Burma disturbing enough to say something about it. I would also think that some of higher profile Buddhists would want to use the platform they have to say something also.

Some might contend that it’s not our business to tell Buddhists in another country what to do. But when I hear of attacks and killings and the torching of homes perpetrated by Buddhists, or what Hanna Hindstrom reports at The Independent, “In recent days, [Buddhist] monks have emerged in a leading role to enforce denial of humanitarian assistance to Muslims,” then I say, it’s everyone’s business. Amnesty International is making it their business, and a U.N. human rights envoy is, too. Do we believe in interconnectedness or not? In this case, silence to that question is not an ultimate truth, or wise. No one had a problem cheering the Burmese Buddhists on when they faced down the military junta, so why the silence now?

I apologize for going off on what may seem like a rant on the subject of speaking out, yet again. But if nothing else I feel it is a discussion worth having, and you never know, if enough voices were raised it might influence the monks in Burma to disengage themselves from the attacks on this Muslim minority, who apparently have no place in this world. It is article of my faith as a Buddhist to believe that the Buddha would say we cannot turn our eyes away and abide in silence like this.

Oh, don’t it hurt deep inside . . .
Oh, don’t it pain to see someone cry . . .
Talkin’ is cheap, people follow like sheep
Even tho’ there is nowhere to go

Silence is golden
But my eyes’ still see
Silence is golden, golden
But my eyes still see

But my eyes still see
But my eyes still see

– The Tremeloes


Silence in action

The heat has backed off some. Now we have monsoonal weather which means humidity which means it’s only slightly more comfortable. I shouldn’t complain. At least we have weather. Most of the time we don’t in Southern California. TV weather people have it easy here. All they have to do is forecast widely scattered sunshine and they’re right 98% of the time.

Today’s post is about another interesting woman.

On Tuesday, a commenter mentioned Vimala Thakar. Some readers may not be familiar with her.

Born in 1923 to a middle class Brahmin family in India, Thakar spent the early part of her life working to improve the lot of poor Indian farmers. In the 1950’s she met Jiddu Krishnamurti, a meeting that had a huge impact upon her. Afterward, she devoted herself to teaching spiritual philosophy and meditation.

I am not well acquainted with Thakar. Although she was well respected and apparently thought of as Krishnamurti’s successor, when she passed away in 2009, as one writer stated, “the details of her passing were scarce.”

I do have a book of hers. It’s called Silence in action, published by some individuals in Holland in 1968.

I like the title. This, of course, is the silence of inner peace. We practice silence in order to experience silence, to realize it. Silence is dynamic, but it’s deceptive because it unfolds non-dynamically, a part of the subtle process of awakening. Silence in action, reminds me of that old Willie Nelson line, “Still is still moving to me.” I see it as similar to the Taoist wu-wei or harmonious action, because silence is harmony and stillness is just silence flowing naturally.

So, here are some words from Vimala Thakar, from a talk given in 1968:

When the total mind becomes silent, that silence permeates the whole being; you know what permeation of silence in the being is. Permeating of silence in the totality of our being, is awareness. We have no motives, we have no aims; nothing to acquire, and nothing to save; so the defense-mechanism is not working. The totality of your being becomes aware of everything that goes on within and without you, right from the toes to the head. So, you become movement of awareness in flesh and bone.

Oh the beauty of it, if one could just describe it! We will go into it tomorrow. We start by saying that man has not been able to resolve the problems of the individual and the so-called collective life, because the earth is inhabited by human animals and not by human beings yet. A human being is yet to be born.

And the challenge is: ‘Am I willing to let the new human being get born in me? Am I willing to go through such a radical revolution, that I will be born anew?’

That is the challenge. The challenge is the total transformation of the human consciousness.