The Sound of Silence

The other morning during my meditation, I suddenly noticed how quiet things had become. What had, a few moments earlier, been quite noisy, was now suffused with a blanket of silence. It led me to wonder what all the noise had been. And then I realized, in a brief epiphany – for all this was quite immediate and took no more than the fraction of a second, between inhalation and exhalation – that the noise was merely the sound of my own thoughts, a background of white noise, like the hum of an air- conditioner, or an out-of-tune radio. This ever-present chatter or buzz, that had previously gone unnoticed, was now noticeable by its absence, replaced by the rising and falling of my breath and a feeling of lightness as if a great and heavy weight had been lifted and I was finally free.

My brother travels frequently in his job and spends a lot of time in noisy airplanes. He bought himself a set of noise canceling headphones that electronically cancel out the background noise and practically eliminate the roar caused by the plane’s engines.

The difference is quite spectacular. The headphones, by eliminating the noise, allow him to really hear the music. I think this is what meditation does. Meditation allows us to calm ourselves and quiet our thinking. The purpose of this, in Buddhism, is that when our thinking is quieted, we can really hear the Dharma, and through listening to the Dharma, attain enlightenment.

Listening is a difficult undertaking. The following humorous anecdote illustrates this difficulty:

As the Jodo Shinshu Priest spoke, those in attendance began taking notes, busily scribbling away. The Priest admonished them, saying, “Don’t take notes; just listen!” But moments later, again they started to jot down notes. Finally, the Priest stopped and said, “If you take notes, you’ll go straight to Hell!” Just then, he noticed a listener in the front row writing, “If you take notes, you’ll go straight to Hell!” – From JODOSHINSHU BUDDHISM by Tetsuo Unno, 1980

The problem with being able to listen is that we are so distracted by our own internal noise, that we don’t really hear what the other person is saying. Like the person in the story, we are too busy taking notes to listen to the message.

The Buddha attached a great deal of importance to listening; so much so that one of the words he used for his disciples was savakas, meaning ‘hearers’ or ‘listeners’. According to the sutras, one of the conditions for becoming an Arhant (enlightened one) is “Listening to the Dharma” (dhammasavana). But in order to listen, we must first dispense with the clutter of unnecessary thoughts and quiet our minds, to “Sweep away the dust and remove the dirt”.

One well-known story of the Buddha involves a young man named Ksudrapanthaka. When the Buddha first encountered the distraught Ksudrapanthaka, he enquired as to the nature of his distress.

Ksudrapanthaka replied that he was a slow learner. No matter how hard he tried he was unable to remember the simplest words of scripture. Because of this, his brother and the other Bhikshus had labeled him stupid and told him that his vocation was hopeless. The Buddha reassured him by saying that those who know themselves to be stupid are really wise, and those that think they are wise are truly stupid. He also promised to help to teach him. After a number of failed attempts, the Buddha taught Ksudrapanthaka to recite the phrase: “Sweep away the dust and remove the dirt”, and, in order to reinforce this, he assigned Ksudrapanthaka the task of cleaning the shoes of his fellow Bhikshus and sweeping the floor of the monastery. As he swept and cleaned, Ksudrapanthaka repeated to himself the phrase, “Sweep away the dust and remove the dirt”, until after many days, he realized the truth — that the dust and the dirt that needed cleaning were not on the monastery floor and the Bhikshu’s sandals, but were the grasping and clinging thoughts in his own mind, the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. It was this truth that the Buddha was pointing to, and understanding this, Ksudrapanthaka attained enlightenment.

To listen, we need a clear mind, a mind free of clutter. We also need to be able to listen with our hearts. To be compassionate is to truly enter into the suffering of others, to understand them, to be able to help them. It is difficult to be compassionate when we are distracted by our own muddy thoughts and turbulent emotions. Even when listening to someone speaking we are often too pre-occupied with what we are going to say or reacting to the emotional content of what was said to really give ourselves fully to the other person. Listening means giving ourselves up to others, not being distracted by our own noise, in order to be in the moment for them.

Our world is so noisy: The sounds of war, cries of hunger, voices raised in anger against injustice. Our televisions blare with bad news, worse news, products we can buy that promise to make us happy, meaningless and trivial melodramas. Traffic noise assaults our ears, pollution stings our eyes and we surround ourselves with images of ugliness. We long with all of our hearts and all of our minds for a quiet place where we can be at peace. Yet when we find ourselves alone, away from the crowds and the clamor, we are nervous and uncomfortable. The refuge that the Buddha offers is a retreat from the racket and the uproar of the world. The practice that the Buddha offers is not always comfortable: In the universal place of meditation, in the infinite space between breaths, our true selves confront us. This is indeed a lonely and dangerous practice. No wonder we need to come together, to be together, to take refuge in each other.

When I am disturbed in my meditation practice, when I am distracted by ten thousand wandering thoughts, when I can’t count to one, let alone to ten, when my knees ache and my legs become numb, I wonder if maybe I am just wasting my time, or maybe, I’m just not very good at this. I always think that others are much more accomplished than I am. When I can’t control my anger, when I am unable to curb my desires, when I can only think of my own wants and needs, I wonder if I am, perhaps, not worthy of this undertaking. Yet, each day, doubt and cushion in hand, I return to my sitting, my prayers, and my practice. Each day I arise, set my square mat against the noise and the chaos, and launch myself into the turbulent current of the mind. Every once in a while, I feel a cool wave wash over me, a ripple of joy run through me, or a patch of calm appear in the midst of the mad roar of rushing thoughts. Then I know I am home, and this is exactly where I was meant to be.

The bright moon shines in the early morning
Who am I to say
What casts the shadows that dance upon the walls