By: Mn. Dr. Brian Jin-Deng Kenna
“Last night I dreamed I was, temporarily, back at Gethsemani. I was dressed in a Buddhist monk’s habit, but with more black and red and gold, a “Zen habit,” in color more Tibetan than Zen… I met some women in the corridor, visitors and students of Asian religion, to whom I was explaining I was a kind of Zen monk and Gelugpa together, when I woke up.” 1 (pg. 107)
As I reflect on my own spiritual journey, one that started on a Christian path and moved to take a new direction at a fork in the road to my present path, I can see many similarities. My experience as an ordained minister and church leader has benefited and in ways shaped my experience as a Buddhist monastic. One of these ways has been in the lesson of silence.
Silence can be a scary thing for many people. Often times we try to fill our days with “noise.” Some people feel the need to fill silence with meaningless conversation, other with background noise from TV or radio.
But what if we embrace silence? What happens then? How can it impact and strengthen our spiritual lives? What is sacred silence and what are the requirements for it?
Well, to begin with we need to start with something else humans have trouble doing. Be Still! We need to stop with our busyness and take time to just Be Still. This is what is first required as the type of silence necessary for self and universal knowledge. It also becomes the purpose of silence to lay the foundation where one can awaken to the realities of the universe including self-knowledge. To become more open and in tune to the expressions the universe uses to show us glimpses of itself and ourselves. Silence apart from this and lacking an intimacy with the universe becomes nothing more than exercise to please and soothe ones ego.
This world we live in is very busy. I would venture to say that much of our communication between people is not done face to face anymore. We have text messages, and emails, and instant messages, as well as old fashioned phone calls and snail mail. We often try to fit these in when we have few moments between meeting, shuffling kids to sports or other events, cooking meals, shopping, etc, etc. The list becomes long and endless. After an amount of time of rushing about and communicating using these modern tech-tools we may begin to lose our ability to communicate in real and meaningful ways that only comes from body language added to our verbal expressions that is unique to what it means to be human. Our ability to personally connect may not be as strong as it once was. This tends to happen when we try to apply our fast food world mentality to the more complicated issues of life and the questions dealing with it.
In my business (work practice) we are often looking for ways to maximize output. We are always “watching the clock” and seeing where precious seconds can be gained. However problems occur when we try to apply this to our personal and spiritual lives. We cannot become efficiency experts in spirituality. We need to move more like a glacier. Slow and with purpose. My teacher Xi-Ken Shi often speaks of the benefits of spiritual retreats as a way to strengthen ones practice because it allows one to do so in a setting that allows us to withdraw into silence and come face to face with universe and ourselves. It is the opposite of what the busy-world teaches us. Instead of hurry up and wait, we need to take time to smell the proverbial roses.
Be Still and Embrace Silence. These two things seem simple in idea but become a real challenge to practice. With all the demands and pressures of life how can we live Be Still and Embrace Silence? Most of us are not living behind the walls of a monastery. Most of us have more on our plates on any given day then we have hours to deal with. But the reality is that many among us do achieve the silence necessary to begin to awaken to universal realities and the discovery of our self natures. Is it easy? Is it fast? Of course not, but what in life that truly means something is easy or comes quickly? It is a dedication to our practice. It is renewing that dedication on a day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute basis. Breaking away from the fast food mentality to a sitting down for a 5 course mean mentality. Silence has much to tell us if we are truly ready to listen.
1 The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton by Thomas Merton, A New Directions Book 1975