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,
When 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.