Thursday, 5 April 2012

Communication Through Silence

The article published in The Middle Way, 
February 2010 - Journal of The Buddhist Society, London

Communication Through Silence

Geshe Gedun Tharchin

For most of us, communication implies speaking and sometimes listening. Only on rare occasion do we listen first. Buddhist thought and culture presents an alternative possibility worth exploring.

During the historical Buddha’s life we see many critical moments where he was silent. When  was still Prince Siddhartha living in his palace, he saw four noble sights, for him troubling: a very weak old person, a sick person, a dead body on the way to the cremation ground, and a spiritual person walking peacefully on the road.

Those sights brought Siddhartha not to agitation but to speechlessness - no words. He kept himself in silence.Instead of responding immediately to the questions that sights raised to him, he took time to search for way to get out of the suffering in human life, and to find out the secret of that spiritual person's peaceful state of mind.

In silence he reflected length on his conflicting emotions. Of course he was already a very well-trained person, with all the education and mastery of arts and martial skills of a prince. In the end, he got the answer to his questions. Now he resolved that he must search for a true path, a means to get out of suffering. He decided to follow that spiritual person’s path: it might be the solution for himself and also for all humankind. 

This is how Siddhartha started to follow a spiritual path, through silent and reflection; Silence of  spirit gives time, space and energy, even beginning of our search for inner stability and self-confidence. Siddhartha was solitary in following the spiritual path, learning and practicing meditation with sages. He became a great yogi among them, and he then became known as Goutama, one who has achieved great progress in meditation. In this context, solitude is a very important in facilitating concentration, which includes silence. It naturally avoids gossiping, and that prevents the arising of further conceptual thoughts. Goutama attained the supreme contemplations, the highest state of ordinary concentration power, in a short time.But he realized that the supreme concentrations alone do not resolve suffering.

Now Gautama sought more, and by himself in strict solitude. He stayed six years by a river, eating just few seeds a day. He kept complete silence in meditation in an attempt to find a way to end human suffering. At last, he realized the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of cause of suffering, the truth of cessation of suffering and the truth of path leading to the cessation of suffering.

His initial motivation was to share with others the path that he had found. He went to another solitary place under a tree for intensive meditation in order to come to full Enlightenment, which would enable him to help others. At Enlightenment, he became Gautama Buddha, generally known as simply as Buddha. But he had to remain silent for seven weeks, as there were no listerners who might understand the truth he had come to. This was a very critical time for him to be silent, not to speak if someone did not understand his message.

Gautama Buddha taught his doctrine for 45 years in various places; at many times he had to keep silent, for many reason. Silence had much significance for him. It was a way to answer certain questions and to give others time and space for reflection and also another means of teaching, as by his mental power or through his physical gestures. (Less realized Buddhas, such as solitary Buddhas , often taught their doctrine through physical gestures and silence meditation.) 

In view of silence means in Buddhist culture, we can see that it has a big role in giving significant meaning to our daily life. Being silent is a great spiritual practice. It  naturally leads us into spontaneous inner reflection, awareness of our mind. It is means of purifying and stilling our mind; and stillness of mind brings a virtuous mind, which leads a virtuous thoughts, speech and physical actions. It is a process of natural law, of cause and effect.

We can see that if there is not enough space for reflection, there is often senseless speech and action. We need to make a silent space in order to allow reflection before speech and physical action take place. 

To be silent is a natural, untaught form of meditation. To allow oneself to think deeply is, along with smooth breathing and the nervous system's ability to relax, a natural gift for the well-being of all humankind. It is an innate and natural way of healing for the human spirit and of enriching the quality of our life. We should realize its value; we should be aware of it and care for and preserve it with understanding throughout our life.

To be present in silence is a means for the well-being of the human heart and a resource of the human knowledge and profound reflection. It is human meditation and the fundamental spiritual value for all stages of spiritual growth, from the ordinary level of moral value to the state of full Enlightenment. 

I have dealt here with the value of silence based on Tibetan culture, but other cultures offer a similar message. Today, in a multi-ethnic society and a cross-cultural century, we must respect other cultures and their values for the benefit of humanity. We must recognize silence as the world's intangible human heritage, to be preserved for future generations.