52 – The Sound of Silence

What is the sound of silence? Listen to find out…In this episode, I will discuss the ideas of emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness, known as the 3 doors of liberation.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 52. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about The Sound Of Silence. I let this long awkward pause here at the beginning, hoping to trick you that this whole episode would be silent. After all, the sound of silence. The truth is, even if it was, you can still gain a lot of insight and wisdom by listening just to the sound of silence. This topic came out because I’ve been reading through some of the stories, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Is Nothing Something? Kids’ Questions and Zen Answers About Life, Death, Family, Friendship, and Everything In Between. That’s the title of the book. One of the first questions addressed in the book is the question, “Is nothing something?” The answer that Thich Nhat Hanh gives is that yes, nothing is something. You have an idea in your head of nothing, you have an idea in your head of something, both are things that can either create suffering or happiness.

This made me think of another quote or teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, where he says, “The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.” When I correlate these two ideas of nothing becoming something, or nothing being something, something conceptual, and the idea of removing ideas in order to see what is, it made me think about what would really be there if I was able to remove ideas, concepts, and beliefs, what would I actually see? What would I hear? In the Plum Village tradition of Zen Buddhism, there is a practice called Noble Silence. Noble Silence is a term attributed to the Buddha for his responses to certain questions about reality. For example, when he was asked unanswerable questions, he said to have responded with no response, silence.

This silence seems to have been the appropriate answer to what he considered an inappropriate question. To me, an inappropriate question is the question that evokes an answer that doesn’t lead to a proper understanding of reality. If the secrets of Buddhism is to remove all ideas and concepts, then we would want to avoid questions that will only add ideas or concepts. To me, metaphysical questions would only add ideas and concepts. Therefore, these questions are irrelevant and thus, the silent answer by the Buddha on such existential questions. Metaphysical assumptions regarding existence or nonexistence, what happens after we die, or the question of deities, these would all fall under the category of ideas and concepts. The very ideas and concepts that we’re trying to remove in order to see reality as it is. If you’ll recall my story about seeing Chris, and not seeing Chris, what blinded me from reality in that moment was an idea. It was a concept. It was a belief that Chris was a man, when in reality, Chris was a woman. There was Chris and I couldn’t see Chris because of the concept that I held.

This is kind of what it’s eluding to. What happens if we remove those concepts? Will we become more likely to see reality as it is? Perhaps The Sound Of Silence is what it sounds like when we become free of ideas and concepts. I’ve mentioned this before, but Buddhism is commonly referred to as the path of liberation. What would like be like if we were liberated from our own ideas and concepts, the beliefs that color our reality? Well, there’s a teaching in Buddhism about the three doors of liberation. These three doors are emptiness, [signlessness 00:04:26] and aimlessness. I want to talk about those.

First, emptiness. This is essentially no independent existence. Emptiness is always relative to something. A cup that is empty of water is empty in relationship to water, but it may be full of air. Emptiness is not the same thing as nonexistence. Emptiness is not a philosophy, it’s just a description of reality. It’s a direct understanding that all things are empty of a separate independent existence. In other words, this is because that is. There is no this without that. If you look at this in the context of time, it makes perfect sense. There is no present without the past. If you look at in terms of space, you can look at a flower. The flower does not exist without all of the non-flower elements. You cannot have flower without having bees, and clouds, and rain, and sun, all the non-flower elements. It’s the same with us. You are interdependent with all the non-you elements. Whether this be physical elements, like your genetics, your DNA, the very food that you eat, or non-physical elements like your memories, your cultural ideas and beliefs. Literally everything about you depends on everything that’s not you. That’s the idea of emptiness here.

The second door is signlessness. This is no form. Like clouds in the sky, if you attach to the form of, say, a cloud, as soon as the cloud is good, you’d have the tendency to think, “Well, the cloud no longer exists. It’s gone.” But the attachment to the form is what blinds you from seeing the cloud in its new form. Perhaps as rain, or mist, or even the water that you drink. There’s this understanding that the cloud is always there. It never ceased to exist, because it never started to exist. This is the first law of thermodynamics. Matter doesn’t cease to exist. It only changes. It changes form. We look beyond the form, beyond the sign of a thing, and we start to see impermanence. The nature of constant change in all things, in all forms. Forms just become like containers of what is in the present moment. We start to see that the object of our perception may not be what it seems. Instead of seeing forms or signs of things, we start to see things as continuations of complex processes of causes and conditions. We see constant change. We see things in a continual state of becoming, but always influx. That’s signlessness.

The third door is aimlessness. Essentially, no goal. This is the understanding that life itself is the goal. The path is the goal. As long as we think there is an ultimate destination, then it makes it difficult for us to really enjoy where we are, because we see separation between where we are and where we think we should be. In a way, it’s like always trying to get there, but then when we do, there’s no there, there. Everything we need to experience contentment, and joy, it’s found here in the present moment, the here and now. There’s no need to look outside of ourselves. The problem with this, with the opposite of aimlessness is that we run the risk of running our whole lives and never actually living it. What are we running after? Enlightenment? Happiness? The insight of aimlessness is to help us stop running, and instead, start living. You could ask yourself, “What am I chasing after? What is the thing that I think I need to finally have?”

You see this everywhere, whether it be money, fame, power. We’re always chasing after something. Now, a misconception with aimlessness, I think, in our western way of thinking, we would think aimlessness has a negative connotation. It’s like, “There you go, without a [rutter 00:08:53], where are you going?” From the Buddhist perspective, it’s saying, “I’m going to have a very clear understanding of what I’m after, because I know why I’m after it.” The real danger that negative aimlessness would be that I’m headed somewhere, and I don’t know why. It’s kind of like the parable that I share often times about the man running on the horse, and the person who’s standing there asking,”Hey, where are you going?” He says, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.” That’s a form of aimlessness. That, to me, would be the negative way of thinking of aimlessness. It’s that you’re on this horse and you don’t even know where it’s going.

The horse is running after money, or it’s running after fame, or it’s running after power. What the Buddhist perspective of aimlessness is that this is actually a good thing, but I don’t have to chase after anything. I’m enjoying the journey. The path itself is my goal. That’s the type of aimlessness that we’re talking about here in this third door. Those are the three doors of liberation. I think silence can be a powerful reminder of this lesson of liberation. If nothing is something, because it’s a concept, then what does that mean about silence? What is the implication about silence? Because silence is also a concept. In fact, the dictionary defines silence as the complete absence of sound. This understanding puts us in the same dilemma of emptiness. In other words, silence, like emptiness, is always relative to something. The empty cup is empty, and yet it’s actually not empty. It can be empty of water, but it’s full of air.

The old question of, “Is the cup half empty, or half full?” The answer will tell you if you’re an optimist or a pessimist, because the optimist will say it’s half full. The pessimist will say it’s half empty. Here’s a new one we can throw into this equation. The mindful individual will say, “Well, it’s neither half full or half empty, because it’s both full and empty.” When you understand that that’s a relative concept. Half full of water is half full of air. It’s completely full and it’s completely empty. Empty of milk, or whatever the relative term is. It’s both full and empty. What is the sound of silence? I think about this, and I imagine somebody in the city, and they’re trying to escape the sound of honking, the sound of ongoing movement of people and cars. They leave the city, and they go to the country. There they are sitting either in the fores, or sitting in a field trying to enjoy silence. This is the silence of no city sounds.

Now, there they are listening to the chirping of birds, or the sound of the river flowing, or the cows mooing, so silence is relative. You end one sound, but you hear another. Maybe this is … Imagine someone in the country who doesn’t want to hear any sound, so they escape the sound of the river, or the sound of the birds chirping. They’ll put noise-canceling headphones on, and discover that, “Well, now I just hear white noise.” Silence is always relative to something, but when there is no sound, then what? You’re just listening to your thoughts? How quiet are your thoughts? If you catch the gap between the thoughts, if you practice this, then what do you hear in that gap? Maybe even there, there’s still the subtle ringing or humming of silence. Have you ever heard that? This is interesting. Did you know that the earth has a constant hum? You can Google this. It’s a fascinating thing. Researchers claim that micro seismic activity from long ocean waves impacting the sea bed is what makes our planet vibrate and produce a humming sound.

There we have this scenario where there is this sound that’s always there. We’re trying to escape sound. We’re trying to hear silence, but what if silence isn’t real? It’s a concept. It’s not something you can hear. It’s like those hidden images inside the dotted image, that if you look at it and you focus in the right way they you realize that these aren’t just random dots. There’s a hidden image in there. Once you see that, you can’t not see it. I think it’s similar with silence. Once you’ve heard the sound of silence, you can’t not hear it. Once you’ve glimpsed reality without attachment to your ideas and concepts, everything changes, and yet nothing changed. Now, notice I mentioned that it’s the attachment to the ideas and concepts that’s so problematic. It’s not the ideas and concepts themselves. How do we eliminate our ideas and our concepts? The idea of not having ideas and concepts, well that’s also an idea. Now what? What do I do with that?

The school of Buddhism that I studied with, the Bright Dawn way of oneness Buddhism, has this concept called oneness, or [suchness 00:14:22]. I really enjoy this idea. The idea is that when we let go of the dualistic approach to life, good and bad, the true, false, Samsara, Nirvana, enlightenment or delusion. We find suchness, we find oneness, we discover reality just as it is. For example, I know that I have ideas. I know that I have my own beliefs and non-beliefs, and I have conceptualized understandings of reality, but I know that my ideas are just ideas. I know that they arise out of a complex web of interdependencies based on both space and time. In other words, if I were in a different time or in a different space, or had I been configured differently, I would have different ideas, different concepts, different beliefs.

What I let go of is my attachment to these things. I don’t necessarily let go of the ideas themselves, I let go of the attachment that I have to them. Sure, over time, I have let go of a lot of ideas and beliefs, but I don’t know that it’s possible to let go of all of them. Ideas and concepts are what make us human. It’s how we understand the world and we inherit it from our society and our culture, and thousands of years of evolution. To believe that I can or should let go of my ideas or beliefs, well, that’s just another belief. Oneness with reality is oneness with all things, including our ideas. But, in a non-attached manner. Noah Levine and I were talking about this a little bit. If you watched our interview about addiction and recovery, The Mindfulness Based Approach to Addiction And Recovery. You can visualize your palms together, like you’re about to pray or you’re doing the namaste-type palms together, that is a visualization of non-attachment. You have attachment, now, attachments where your hands are locked together. Like you’re holding hands with your fingers interlocked, that would be attachment. One is gripping the other.

Detachment is the separation of the two entirely. They’re nowhere near each other. Then, there’s non-attachment. They can be there together, but they’re not gripped. They’re not attached, and they’re not detached. This idea of suchness or oneness is a non-attached way of living with everything, including our ideas and our concepts. I like this. This helps me to visualize that this idea of letting go, or removing our ideas and concepts, it means removing them in the sense of they are no longer obstacles. It’s not removing in the sense of destroy, I’m going to destroy my ideas and my concepts, I don’t necessarily need to do that. I don’t let them get in the way anymore. They’re just there, it’s just an idea. Same with my opinions. I have opinions about things, but they’re just opinions. I don’t even believe some of my own beliefs. I don’t believe some of my own opinions.

Moving on, Alan Watts, he talks about searching for meaning. The meaning of life, for example, and he compares this process. He says it’s like you’re peeling the layers of an onion, hoping to discover the pit. In the process, you find that all you’ve done is peel back the layers and discarded and edible and useful part of the onion. There is no pit. It’s just layer after layer after layer. I think about that with regards to silence. With regards to this understanding of emptiness. How when you understand that nothing is still something and you hear the sound of silence, perhaps in that moment, we start understanding what it really means to remove idea, is to remove the concepts to get those things out of the way and let them be there but in a non-attached manner. That’s the understanding for me of what it means to hear the sound of silence.

I would wrap this up by raising the question once again, what is the sound of silence? I would invite you to explore this question, to listen for yourself. See what’s there. What happens when you hear something other than what you were expecting to hear? Because what is silence? What is it for you? Listen for the silence from sound, but then listen for the silence that’s found in the gap between your thoughts. What does that look like? Maybe just sitting there silently, maybe you’ll hear the same hum, this almost buzzing sound or ringing sound that’s always there. It’s always been there. I don’t think I had ever noticed it, until I started to sit there in silence asking myself, “What is the sound of silence?” I found that for me, the idea of silence is just that it’s a concept. There is no silence. There’s always something there, and I hear that now. I hear that when I don’t hear sound. I just hear there’s this low, almost like white noise humming.

I don’t think this is the same as the ringing in ears that people have. To me, this is different. This is the sound of what’s there. This is an in an audible way, this is saying, when you see what’s there and you remove what you thought was there, what are you left with? Reality, suchness, oneness. I’ve experienced this with sound. When I listen for the absence of sound, what’s there? Well, there’s a lot there. There are thoughts there. There are memories. There’s the monkey mind. There’s all kinds of stuff going on there, but my idea of what silence was, that’s just a concept. You can notice and you can increase the awareness that you have of this silence. What you might hear, maybe a profound discovery for you. I’d love to hear all about it.

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