Silence is not the opposite of thought and sound Barry Magid May 28th 2009

Last week we had a morning of silent sitting. There was no dharma talk or dokusan. I think because we’ve gotten used to having those things most people’s initial reaction was to experience the silence in terms of the absence of the talk, the absence of a chance to come down to dokusan. But as the morning went on, I think many of us developed the sense of the silence not as an absence but as a presence in its own right, a deepening of something that we sit with all the time but often keep in some kind of balance with the interactions that go on between each other and with the teacher and so on.

Uchiyama Roshi, the Soto teacher who wrote a very good book, Opening the Hand of Thought, used to run entire sesshins that way. He called them sesshins without toys. There were no talks and no dokusan -- just sitting, where the form and the silence were the teaching, were the teacher. Very simple, very powerful, sometimes very misleading, very easy, perhaps, to go astray in that context, which is why I wouldn’t do that on any regular basis. But it’s a good reminder that the teacher is not outside of us, that ultimately we have to be grounded in our own experience.

In a lot of ways, sitting is a practice of cultivating silence as a positive experience, though I think when we begin, we may come feeling plagued by thought and emotion, feeling that our thoughts and feelings are running out of control. We can see silence as a way to put an end to that kind of compulsive thinking, or as a way to cultivate calmness rather than emotional agitation.

There is a way in which this is a useful aspect of practice. So often thought and noise dominate our lives, both inside and outside, and we do need to be able to give equal time to silence and not let thought and noise simply overrun our mind and our life. But we’re really not here to put an end to thought, to quiet our minds once and for all, and achieve some kind of flat-line state of internal emptiness or silence.

In his instructions for zazen, Dogen said that we should think non-thinking -- which requires a little bit of translation. But I think the phrase non-thinking is used to try to get at something other than “don’t think.” It means that we settle into experience of thought as process, as something that goes on in our head without getting caught up in the content in our usual way. Sometimes I make an analogy to treating the thoughts in our head the same way we experience the sounds in the street as a kind of background noise that we don’t try to suppress but we don’t necessarily pay attention to. We might also think of it as experiencing your own thoughts as if you are listening to speech in a foreign language you don’t understand. You know that it’s talking, you know that it’s speech, but you get disconnected from any notion of what it’s all about.

The main thing is to find a way to settle naturally into silence and let the experience carry us along without turning silence into the opposite of thought or the opposite of sound. We always have to be very careful that we don’t set up in the name of practice a new dualism, a new internal fight with ourselves in which we take one state of consciousness and label it as good and find all the others as bad and set up an internal war with one part of our mind against the other and call it practice. We always have to watch out for a subtle tendency to drift into that way of practicing.

The Heart Sutra says, “Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.” We might rephrase that: Silence is exactly sound, sound exactly silence. It makes a much more literal and vivid expression of what the Heart Sutra is getting at. Form is not in opposition to emptiness, sound is not in opposition to silence.

An old teacher once went a long long time without giving any talks to his monks and eventually they started to grumble and they sent the head monk to him and he said, Master, the monks want to hear from you. They want your teaching. You haven’t said anything to them in months and months. Please -- give us a dharma talk! So, the Master said, All right, if they insist. Go, hit the board, call all the monks together in the dharma hall and I’ll give them a talk. So the monk hits the board and sounds the gong, everyone gathers in the dharma hall, the Master ascends the high seat, bows to the monks, sits in silence for a moment, bows again and walks off. The koan asks, Did the Master deliver a teisho or not? The answer isn’t yes, the answer isn’t no. But what did they hear?

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