Noble Silence is a term attributed to the Buddha for his response to certain questions about reality. When it came to the big unanswerable questions, the Buddha was notably silent. In this podcast episode, I will discuss what Noble Silence is, how we can practice it, and what benefits we may see from such a practice.
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Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 117. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today, I’m going to talk about noble silence.
Keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use it to learn to be a better whatever you already are. Now, before I jump into the topic topic for today and before I talk about the Zen koan that I left in the podcast episode last week, I want to address the fact that today I am recording this podcast episode on December 8th, which happens to be Bodhi Day in many Buddhist countries, Japan specifically. Bodhi Day is the day that’s celebrated as a commemoration of the Buddha’s awakening. So today, millions of Buddhists around the world commemorate the awakening of the Buddha and his realization that he was his own source of light and darkness.
For me, this is a reminder that when we learn to look inward and we start to understand the nature of our own minds, we also start to see things differently. Now, what we see in the world may not change, but how we see the world does change, and that changes everything.
A couple days ago I was talking to my son, Ryko, about how as he gets older he’s going to rely less and less on what I and others tell him is the right thing to do and he’ll start to rely more on more on what he himself believes is the right thing to do. I gave him the example that right now he may only brush his teeth at night because his parents are telling him to do it, but one day he’ll probably brush his teeth because he himself cares about it and he won’t need to be told. He will just want to do it.
While external sources and guidelines can be helpful and they can point in the right direction, they will never be more powerful than the inner guidelines that we awaken to as we spend more time looking inward and getting to know ourselves. For me, that’s the beauty of what we celebrate today. It’s an invitation to continually look inward and to understand yourself and to make peace with your own mind and reach the point where your thoughts, words, and actions are all in harmony. So to anyone listening today on Sunday, December 8th, happy Bodhi day. And now, let’s talk about the Zen koan that I shared last week.
The koan says, “Dizang asked, Xiushan, ‘Where do you come from?’ Xiushan said, ‘From the south.’ Dizang said, ‘How is Buddhism in the south these days?’ Xiushan said, ‘There’s extensive discussion.’ Dizang said, ‘How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?’ Xiushan said, ‘What can you do about the world?’ Dizang said, ‘What do you call the world?'”
Now, this comes out of, I believe, The Book of Serenity. Now, I posted this on the Patreon community, and we have discussions there every week. After I record a podcast episode, I’ll post the episode, and we usually talk about the podcast and/or discuss the Zen koan that’s in the podcast for that week. And I wanted to share a couple of thoughts that came from there.
The first one is from Dan who says, “Dizang inadvertently provoked a valuable point. If frames of reference are relative, how can you judge things? If his world is his farm and he’s doing an awesome job being a farmer, is that any less than, say, a president of a country whose world is physically bigger but is just a different frame of reference?” I really like that thought that Dan shared. I think he’s onto something there where that’s … To me, that’s also what this koan is, is trying to point at, the idea of, what do you call the world? And more importantly, what you call the world may not be what I call the world.
This was kind of discussed again in the community. Stefan said, “It seems like a typical discussion between Xiushan and Dizang all the way up until the end. And this might be a basic answer, but I feel all Dizang is asking from Xiushan clarity for what is world. And I think it ties perfectly with this podcast about self. Because even though world and self are two different things, I think the abstraction Buddhism presents of them are exactly the same, meaning self is nothing but the compilation of everything everyone has ever thought of you, yourself included, but it does not really exist and is different to everyone. World is nothing but the compilation of everything you have sensed and experienced to those around you as well, but it doesn’t really exist, and is, again, different to everyone.”
Stefan goes on to say, “These concepts tie in nicely with the is-my-red-different-than-your-red philosophical gem. In the end, do any of these ideas of self or world even matter? The present moment will happen anyway whether we all see the world or our individual selves the same or completely different from one another.” He then says, “To really stretch it out and possibly invite a healthy debate, I think self and world are as irrelevant as many of the frequent discussed existential thoughts that frequently come up in Buddhism. It’s an unsettling idea at first but really opens one’s mind up when one accepts the idea.” Thank you for sharing that in the group, Stefan. I really enjoy that line of thought, and I agree a lot with what you’re saying. I think I want to elaborate on that a little bit more in the topic that’s going to be discussed in the podcast.
But before getting to the topic, still addressing last week’s koan, I think a common question that arises is, what is the use of just sitting in silent meditation when there’s so much suffering in the world? Questions such as this seem to challenge the kind of passiveness that seems common among Buddhist practitioners. It’s true. There is a lot of suffering in the world. There are humans, animals, and plants, and the entire planet itself seem to be suffering, and it’s a valid question to consider what we as individuals should or could be doing. Should I be vocal? Should I be protesting? Should I be implementing changes in how I live? I think these are all great things to think about.
And for me, this koan, like all the other koans, it’s meant to pause my habitual thought patterns, and it brings awareness to the importance of the question even more so than the answer. How can I see a world that is separate from myself? How could it be that I’ve been perceiving myself as separate from the world? Could I be more skillful and beneficial in my relationship to the world if I understand deeply that there really is no separation between myself and the world? What if there is no world out there that even needs saving? Perhaps it is only in every moment and every action that I’m actually doing something about how the world is and about how I am. When and how are my actions going to be more helpful than they are less helpful? And thus, in the exploration of the questions, I find that I start changing my actions and happens to be more relevant to have explored the question than it was to have discovered the answer. I like to think of this koan along those lines, for every aspect of how I interact with this world that I’m actually not really even separate from.
Those are some of the thoughts I wanted to share about last week’s Zen koan. That’s a fun one to think about. What do you call the world? What do you call yourself? Fascinating things to think about. Thank you to Dan, Stefan, and everyone else who participated in the discussion on the Patreon community. I hope that you had the chance to entertain some of these thoughts yourself in the week that you had after listening to the koan.
So let’s jump into the topic that I wanted to share today, the topic of noble silence, which I think is very fitting given the fact that today is Bodhi Day in many parts of the world. Now, I have to admit, I consider doing a 30-minute episode that was just silence. It was going to be called Noble Silence, and then it was going to be an entire episode of silence to see if anyone would get the joke. But then, I realized noble silence isn’t just about silence. It’s about what words, if any, are going to be used. And I think the more skillful thing was to talk about noble silence rather than to just sit silently.
So, let’s talk about noble silence. In episode 107, I shared the koan of the pupils. And if you’ll recall, the pupils of the Tendai school used to study meditation before Zen entered Japan. And four of them who were intimate friends promised one another to observe seven days of silence. And on the first day, all of them were silent. Their meditation had begun auspiciously. But when the night came and the oil lamps were growing dim, one of the pupils could not help exclaiming to a servant, “Fix those lamps!” The second pupil was surprised to hear the first one talk. “We’re not supposed to say a word,” he remarked. “You two are stupid,” said the third. “Why did you talk?” “I’m the only one who has not talked,” concluded the fourth.” And that ends the koan.
But, I like to imagine that perhaps there was a fifth student that was totally overlooked because of noble silence. He wasn’t in the koan because he didn’t say anything. I like to imagine that. I don’t know if there really was a fifth one. But, it’s a fun thought.
So, what is noble silence? Noble silence is a term attributed to the Buddha for his response to certain questions about reality. When it came to the big unanswerable questions, the Buddha was notably silent. And the Buddha’s understanding of interdependence, what we sometimes call dependent origination or the idea that all things have causes and conditions, I think provided him with a framework to be able to analyze reality and to base his understanding of things on direct experience rather than on metaphysical assumptions.
So, his silence regarding certain topics was not an instance of biting his tongue or forcing himself to stay quiet. I think that silence started in his mind. There was no need to answer something that he didn’t seem to even spend time thinking about. It was an exercise in skillful means. What was the point of spending time thinking about, much less answering, the unanswerable things when there were more pressing things to think about, like suffering and the causes of suffering? In fact, this is where the parable of the poisoned arrow comes from.
A monk was so troubled by the fact that the Buddha was remaining silent regarding some big existential unanswerable questions and the Buddha finally spoke and said, “It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow, thickly smeared with poison, his friends, and companions, kinsmen, and relatives would provide him with a surgeon and the man would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.” He would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name and clan name of the man who wounded me, until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short, until I know whether he was dark, ready brown, or golden colored, until I know his home village, town, or city, until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a longbow or a crossbow, until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo, thread, sinew, hemp, or bark, until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated, until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird, until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langer, or a monkey.”
He would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed or calftooth, or an oleander arrow.” The man would die, and those things would still remain unknown to him. In this case, noble silence wasn’t just the lack of words. Quite opposite, it was the use of words that strengthened the case for remaining silent about the original question or for not answering that original question.
I think sometimes we think of silence as an outside state, but the Buddhist view is one of silence that happens on the inside, and it starts in the mind and permeates through our words and our actions. In Buddhism, the concept of noble generally refers to someone who has accomplished the unification of their thoughts, words, and actions. So in this case, while silence would seem to apply only to words, in Buddhism, noble silence is also the silence of thoughts and actions. The Buddha didn’t seem to wrestle with mentally entertaining these unanswerable questions. And while some might think he didn’t answer because he didn’t have an answer good enough to give, I would argue that he didn’t answer because the question itself was entirely unskillful in the first place, so his mind never even entertained the question.
As I mentioned before, I want to be clear in communicating that noble silence is not about being silent for the sake of being silent. The early disciples of the Buddha were tasked to communicate the Dharma, the teachings. And the primary purpose of the Buddha’s teachings pertained to understanding suffering and the cessation of the causes of suffering. And when the Dharma teachers were not able to accomplish these goals in their discussions, they were encouraged to pursue noble silence.
I’m sure we’ve all experienced a similar instance where we’re trying to communicate something and we reach a point in that conversation where what we’re saying or what we’re doing is no longer beneficial towards what we were trying to communicate. And in those instances, we can probably ask ourselves, “Are my words going to be an improvement or would it be skillful perhaps to refrain from speaking about this topic?” And perhaps we’ll conclude that in such instances we can practice noble silence.
So, I want to talk about noble silence a little bit in the context of how do we actually practice it. Well, you’ll remember, noble silence does not mean that we’re not allowed to talk. So, we’re not forcing ourselves to sit there in silence. It means that we don’t have to talk. And when we realize that we don’t have to talk, we get to make the decision. Is it skillful at this point to refrain from talking? There’s no obligation to talk during that period of time that you’re practicing.
Also, silence becomes noble when it’s an inner silence rather than just an outer silence. So we’re striving to practice having a mind that is calm and at ease. I find it easy to practice this when we’re out in nature. In fact, recently in Nepal, while we were doing the trek, there would be multiple instances during the trek where noble silence was being practiced, albeit unintentionally. We didn’t necessarily deliberately plan that. When you’re walking for hours upon hours taking step after step climbing a mountain, for example, it becomes easy to settle into this state of noble silence where you are externally silent, but it’s happening because you are internally silent as well. I’m only focused on my steps, one step at a time. Where is my foot going to step? What does it feel like as I step? Is this rock solid? Is it going to wobble on me?
And in this practice of walking silently and of practicing noble silence, you start to ponder things, like the sound of nature, the sound of the wind blowing in the trees, or the birds, the sound of the other trekkers and their steps, or perhaps their chitchat and the conversations going on. And in those moments, you’re enjoying the experience just as it is. And suddenly, you have this sense or this feeling that your voice, your whatever you’re going to add to the experience isn’t necessary. It doesn’t add anything to the experience.
And that was fun. I got to experience that on multiple instances where there was nothing that I could add to it, nothing that needed to be added to it. And in that moment, I was able to practice noble silence, just enjoying the moment as it was, enjoying the fact that my mind was at ease doing the one thing that it’s doing, in this case step, after step, after step.
I like to practice this in other instances, too, like when I hear the sound of a bell. We encountered a lot of singing bowls and meditation bells that people sell in Nepal. You’ll be hiking and arrive at a camp, and there might be someone there selling bowls or singing bowls. And we would go out, and we would listen to them, and they would do the sounds. Those are instances that are really fun to be able to just enjoy the sound, to let it be what it is. And in those moments, you recognize there’s nothing I can add to that. The bell’s making its sound. What’s the point of me singing along with it? I’m just going to listen to it and allow it to make the sounds right now.
We can practice that in other instances. It doesn’t have to be singing bowls in Nepal. It can be the sound of the chime on your phone. Or in traffic, it can be the sound of a car honking. Any external sound can be an opportunity to practice noble silence. In these moments, we focus entirely on the sound that we are hearing, and we focus internally on our breath, and the feeling of the air moving in and out, and the awareness that we are bringing to that specific moment in time, and the recognition that there’s nothing that we need to add to that moment. The moment is perfectly fine just as it is. We recognize that for that specific moment, not only our words but our thoughts and our actions are also at ease because there’s no need to add to the experience by adding our voice to it.
We can practice this while sitting in meditation on a cushion, but we can also practice this while walking, being on a hike in nature, or it could be while doing the dishes, or so many other things. It’s really a matter of making it a deliberate practice. You can tell yourself, “I’m going to practice this every time I sit on the cushion at meditation,” or, “I can practice this every time I’m going to wash the dishes,” or you pick something, right? Every time I wash my car or every time I walk out to the mailbox to check the mailbox for mail, that’s a moment that I’m going to practice noble silence. I’m going to experience the moment as it is, take in all the sights and sounds, and I’m not going to add to it. There’s nothing that I can say that needs to be added to what I’m experiencing in that moment. And you make it a practice around whatever circumstances are ideal for you, whatever you choose to do. And that’s how we practice noble silence. At least that’s one way to practice it.
Now, some of the benefits of noble silence, I’ve noticed in my own practice that when my mind is calm and peaceful, my words and my actions also tend to be calm and peaceful. When practiced skillfully, our outer silence can often become an inner silence and it becomes the very foundation for understanding what’s happening inside of us. This stillness becomes the essence of being present and becoming better whatever we already are.
I’ve also noticed that through practicing noble silence I tend to pay more attention to the words that I’m going to use when I’m going to use them and, perhaps more importantly, to the thoughts that arise as they arise. This introspection enables us to essentially practice right speech or skillful communication, says one of the spokes on the eightfold path. So here, by practicing noble silence, in a way, we’re actually practicing right speech.
Our words have a way of influencing the world around us, whether we want to or not. They affect real people, and often they affect the people that we love the most. Our words can be the causes and conditions of our own suffering and the suffering that arises in others. Our words can also end up being very positive, influential things. They can put a smile on someone’s face. They can bring a sense of joy and happiness or contentment to someone. But unfortunately, at times, they act as arrows that we shoot out of our mouths that intentionally or unintentionally inflict pain and comfort, both to ourselves and to others. I like to think that noble silence can be the practice that refines the use of our words and our ability to communicate skillfully with others and with ourselves all by simply practicing at times to be silent and to practice noble silence both in terms of our thoughts, and our words, and our actions.
So, that’s what I wanted to discuss in terms of the concept of noble silence for today. That’s all I have for this podcast episode. It’s a Bodhi Day here, at least while I’m recording this, and hopefully still is for some of you as you first listen to this episode.
Again, I want to thank you for being a part of this journey with me. If you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, consider becoming a patron and joining our online community where we discuss the podcast episodes, where we discuss these koans. There’s even a weekly study group there. You can learn more about all this by visiting the online community section on secularbuddhism.com.
As always, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating in iTunes. And that’s all I have regarding this specific podcast episode. I look forward to recording another episode soon.
But before I go, here is your Zen koan to work with for this week. The title of this koan is The Moon Cannot Be Stolen, and here’s the koan. Ryokan, A Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, a thief visited the hut only to discover that there was nothing to steal. Ryokan returned and caught him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please, take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryokan sat naked watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused. “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.” That’s all I have this time. Until next time.