The Silence of Buddha and his Contemplation of the Truth
A. J. V. Chandrakanthan
In the life and teaching of the Buddha, true Silence leads to Truth by avoiding both wordiness and wordlessness because such Silence is Truth.
Fr. Chandrakanthan earned his doctorate in theology at St. Paul University, Ottawa, where he also teaches Eastern Religions. This article is based on a talk he gave in July, 1986, at the Christian Meditation Centre, London.
A philosopher once visited Buddha and asked him: "Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?"
Buddha kept silence.
After a while the philosopher rose up gently, made a solemn bow and thanked Buddha saying: "With your loving kindness, I have cleared away all my delusions and entered the true path."
When the philosopher had left, Ananda, a senior disciple of Buddha, enquired: "O, Blessed one, what hath this philosopher attained?"
Buddha replied: "A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip!"(1)
THIS little anecdote eloquently illustrates the manner and method by which Gautama Buddha sought to experience and express the truth. Buddha's entire life could be briefly summed up as a relentless search, a revolutionary discovery, and a revealing experience of Truth. Stories and anecdotes attributed to him in popular Buddhist legends, like the art, architecture, and sculpture that endeavor to capture and contain the radical mystique of the person of Buddha, often, if not always, present him as a serene, sober, and silent sage. His first disciples and followers also perceived these qualities of serenity, sobriety, and silence as indistinguishable traits of his enlightened personality.
A brief exploration of our little anecdote will unfold to us the importance and the necessity of Silence as an indispensable means towards an interior experience of the Truth. Because as we shall illustrate later, silence at the interior and exterior levels is a sine qua non condition for both mediation and contemplation. In fact, despite the doctrinal differences that separate the various schools of Buddhism,(2) a remarkable unity exists among them in recognizing the indispensability of silence as a powerful catalyst for dhyan or meditation.
BUDDHA: THE SILENT SAGE
Buddha was born in or around 563 B.C. into a religious milieu which had in its tradition two distinct approaches to the pursuit and personal discovery of the Truth. The first approach was that of sharpening one's intellect through active engagement in philosophical inquiries. Truth was sought through metaphysical debates and discussions.(3) This approach placed strong emphasis on the power of rational knowledge. The second way was to enter into seclusion and solitude and to search for the Truth in personal silence.(4) Here the emphasis was placed on renunciation, detachment, and an ascetical way of life. Eschewing the first approach, Buddha deliberately and decisively chose the second. Mauna, rendered in English as "silence," was the chief characteristic trait of this path.
The word mauna is one of the few terms used commonly by all language and religious groups in India. In religious treatises and traditions, this word has a history of its own. Mauna, from which the noun muni, meaning "sage" or "hermit" is derived, has a meaning exorbitantly wealthier than its English counterpart "silence." Mauna means blissful calmness, joyous recollection, tranquil quietude, and peaceful stillness.
In many of the legends and stories ascribed to Gautama Buddha,(5) he is referred to as Sakyamuni. Literally this means, "the silent one of the Sakya clan." But the popular use of this name for the Buddha also contains a dual significance. For besides referring to Buddha's clan, in certain Indian languages the word sakya also refers to something "graceful" or "pleasing." Thus Sakyamuni can also mean "one who is gracefully silent."
Buddha began his search for the Truth as a muni walking on this graceful path of mauna, whereas the philosopher referred to in the above story symbolizes one who has chosen the first path, that of rational inquiries and metaphysical investigations. A philosopher paying a visit to Buddha to learn about the Truth was thus an exceptionally uncommon event. And because the path opted for by Buddha and the way chosen by the philosopher are two parallel lines that never meet, one can only jump from one to the other. It was indeed a rare event.
The decision of the philosopher to swerve from his path is indicative of his tacit acknowledgement of the limitations and even failures of reason and logic. It points to the philosopher's gross disappointment with metaphysical discussions and debates. He had resolved to eschew both, words (discourses and debates) and the wordless (signs and gestures), and humbly requests Buddha to tell him of the Truth, without using either words or the wordless.
Thus, in the penetrating eyes of the Lord Buddha, the philosopher had become a receptacle ideally prepared to receive the treasure of the Truth. In his humble request, Buddha astutely recognized the sense of defeat and despair.
A great mystic like Buddha could easily sense the interior preparedness of the philosopher, who had unreservedly surrendered himself, with profound trust, docile humility, and audacious hope. The very decision of the philosopher to come to him asking for an experience of the Truth was already a revolutionary step of personal conversion. Thus Buddha did not need any external force to teach him or lead him to the Truth. Neither was there any need to prescribe techniques and exercises or lessons on meditation. For Buddha, the philosopher's sheer openness, the sublime emptiness that could now be filled to the brim, was enough. He therefore compares this philosopher to a good horse that is so watchfully alert and aware that it begins to run if it merely sees the shadow of the whip. The master has only to touch the whip and the horse nearly flies. Buddha has only to look into the eyes of the philosopher and all the teaching that can ever be imparted is readily received.
TRUTH AND SILENCE
In the stories and discourses attributed to Buddha, one can clearly see a close link between Truth and Silence. Wherever Truth is mentioned in reference to Buddha it is always said in relation to Silence. In fact, popular Buddhist religious tradition attests that whenever someone asked Buddha to explain the Truth, he invariably answered by Silence. Thus he gave a new and deep significance to both Truth and Silence. His silence was not a mere absence of speech or words. Buddha's silence was eloquent! It was so blissful and ecstatic that it always provided the perfect answer to those akin to the philosopher in the above anecdote who sincerely sought for the Truth.
For Buddha, Silence as the inevitable path that leads to the Truth is not distinct from the Truth itself. That is, as the way to the Truth, Silence already contains the reality of the Truth. They are two aspects of the same reality.(6) It is no wonder that even in Christian tradition silence is spoken of as the language of God.7 In Christian terms, we may say that for Buddha, Silence is the sacrament of the Truth.
Satya, the word translated "truth" in English, is one of the oldest words in the Indian religious heritage. It too has a wealth of meanings. Derived from the root sat, meaning "being," "existence," "pure," "holy," "perfect;"(8) etc., satya signifies the Truth in all its unlimited perfection and plenitude. As the ground of all existence, satya can only be experienced through the medium of Silence. It cannot be expressed. The moment one tries to express it, one runs the danger of falsifying it, of rendering it asatya, "untruth." The fountain of Silence is the sole medium that is capable of delivering the Truth.
Buddha did not communicate any knowledge with his Silence, but he nevertheless communed with seekers of the Truth. He did not offer them a part of his knowledge, but imparted to them an aspect of his being. He used neither words nor the wordless (signs and gestures). Rather, the language he used was Silence in the sense of an effulgent mauna. That is why even a philosopher who counted rational power as the sole source of true knowledge could accept the failure of logic and reason and surrender to Buddha, asking him for the Truth in a medium that does not involve words and the wordless. Perhaps the experience disclosed to the philosopher both the poverty of words and concepts and the paucity of wordlessness, thereby motivating him to choose a medium that transcends them.
Buddha's Silence was not wordlessness or noiselessness. It had a transforming power, permeating and filling the atmosphere around him with such intensity that people seated at his presence experienced "the ineffable and the inexplicable." His Silence had no movement, yet people around him moved closer to the Truth just by being in his presence, permeated and filled by the effulgence of his joyous stillness. His Silence was contagious. It was like the unseen powers of a magnetic field or the invisible sound waves that travel in the atmosphere.
The close affinity that is said to enjoin Truth with Silence is not uncommon in the mystical traditions of other religions including Christianity. Whether it be in the Sufism of Islam or in the Hasidim of Judaism, silence is always referred to as the prerequisite for an interior experience of the divine. Silence is often eulogized as the language of the heart. Buddha's Silence reveals to us the nature and significance of an ideal form of silence. This becomes more evident when we contrast the mauna with our ordinary experience of silence.
The silence which most of us have experienced or know of is an exterior absence of words or a stillness from noise. During such an experience we may not use words audibly and externally but the mind is unquiet, filled with words and noise, ideas, questions, desires, doubts, and conflicts. All this clouds and confuses the mind; silence is only on the surface. Quietude is only on the periphery. It is only a mirage or a deceptive appearance of Silence, because there is calamity inside and a pretense of calm outside. Such silence can easily be tilted by the least external noise. Instead of resulting in peace this forced stillness will explode into annoyance and irritation.
Persons under sudden shock or deeply excited by fear also experience a brief spell of silence. This silence may be wordless or it may render someone momentarily speechless. But there is no lasting peace or quietude. It only causes confusion and chaos, besides accelerating anxiety and tension. It is a silence thrust onto a person from outside and therefore has no natural flow or spontaneity.
Buddha's Silence is of a third category. His Silence is not forced by any internal or external factors. It is natural and spontaneous, active and sublime. It wells up from the depths of his personality and overflows with a certain rhythm. It is mauna in the fullest sense of the term. It radiates energy and emanates vitality. Peace and joy are inseparably interwoven in its very essence. This Silence is not negative; there is no "absence" of something. It is wholly positive, pervading the entire atmosphere around him, so that he can just sit without uttering anything and the people around him can receive wisdom. It is this pattern of Silence that the early Buddhist sculptors and artists endeavored to convey in their images and replicas of the Buddha.
Buddha's Silence was the result of a profound harmony within himself and with the world outside. It pointed to a deep concord between the center and periphery of his self and his states of awareness or consciousness. Buddhism refers to seven layers of such consciousness. A joyous quietude is attained when these seven layers throb harmoniously, pulsating in sublime awareness. Buddha is silent because he knows the narrow boundaries of rational knowledge and the blind alleys of metaphysical queries. He knows the frailty and feebleness of words and concepts. His discovery of the language of Silence helped him dispel the inner darkness and void created by a rational thirst for knowledge.(9)
SILENCE AND CONTEMPLATION
As we mentioned earlier, in the Indian languages a contemplative is a muni. Literally, this means "the silent one." Muni refers to one who is so totally and intensely silent, calm, serene, and recollected that his very presence becomes a pool of energy, radiating an ineffable spirit of stillness. Buddha was a muni par excellence. The strength of his contemplation was rooted in his power of Silence, which led him to enlightenment.
In the Eastern contemplative tradition, the act of doing something is already the thing done. The goal of life for Buddha was the act of living it. Thus Silence as the way to the Truth is itself the Truth. In fact, in Buddha's teaching the four-fold salvific truth(10) incorporates "the path" as one of its constituents, while "the eightfold path"(11) leads to the realization of the Truth.
Buddha persistently refused to define or describe the Truth. It can only be experienced and assimilated. It was part of his very being. It cannot be communicated by words, but can only be shared with someone who possesses the right prerequisites for receiving it into his or her being.
People who came to Buddha with adequate inner preparation received at least some experience of the Truth through their trustful silence. Otherwise it is hard to give any proper interpretation to the "cult of meditation" that is integral to Buddhism and eventually blossomed into Zen. Paintings and sculpture over two thousand years old portray Buddha as a serene and silent sage, a phenomenon found in almost all countries where Buddhism claims adherents.12 It further confirms that this elegant and eloquent trait of Buddha's personality had a universal attraction and appeal for over the millennia.
In the Christian mystical and contemplative tradition, silence is strongly recommended as an ingredient of the religio-spiritual quest. The Desert Fathers and the later monastic tradition stress the role of silence for interior spiritual growth. St. Benedict advises his followers, "Monks ought to be zealous for silence at all times . . . ."(13) Silence creates an atmosphere and an attitude for listening and receptivity, for response and recollection. Only thus can the Truth, that is, the Divine Reality, be able to permeate our entire being.
A major question arises: how is this ideal form of Silence to be embraced? Can anyone experience it? Buddha himself provides the answer. It lies in the Buddhist understanding of the richness of emptiness.(14) As long as a person is willing to become empty(15) of all forms of desires and attachments, both within and without, and learns to avoid using any self-suppressive force, the path of silence is very accessible. It should be undertaken in an attitude of total self-surrender, humility, and trust. Otherwise it is very hard to quiet the mind, which is always clouded with thoughts and concerned with the deceptive power of the ego. This is possible only by incessant practice induced by the desire to reach into the very core of one's "inner-self."
A story of one of the Buddha's disciples can help us to discern how the process of achieving emptiness is an ideal means of attaining the Truth:
Subhuti was one of Buddha's disciples. He was able to understand the potency of emptiness: the viewpoint that nothing exists except in its relationship of subjectivity and objectivity.(16)
One day, when Subhuti was sitting under a tree in a mood of sublime emptiness, flowers began to fall around him.
"We are praising you for your discourse on emptiness;' the gods whispered to him.
'But I have not spoken of emptiness;' said Subhuti.
"You have not spoken of emptiness, we have not heard emptiness," responded the gods. "This is true emptiness."
And the blossoms showered upon Subhuti like rain.(l7)
This is the only story that exists about Subhuti. There is nothing remarkable about him simply because he was one of Buddha's numerous disciples. Tradition affirms that already during his lifetime, Buddha had some outstanding persons, kings and scholars, as his disciples. But the gods did not choose them. They chose the unknown Subhuti. Herein lies the key to the Buddhist notion of emptiness, which can be understood and cherished only by being empty.
Like tranquil silence, emptiness cannot be expressed. The moment an effort is made to express it, it loses its value. It is no longer emptiness. Because in "true emptiness" even the experience disappears. This is the significance of the Buddhist notion of sunyata, the attitude that Buddha had when he left the palace and chose to become a sage. It is not a negative emptiness, but a sublime emptiness that becomes the firm foundation on which the edifice of silence can stand.
For a few elusive moments, all of us have had glimpses of emptiness and experiences of silence. But as long as the mind is there, or the ego is there, such moments pass like a dream. The closer we move towards silent emptiness, the more elusive it becomes. To grasp this moment one has to be securely rooted in openness and humility. Only then can we who are temples of the Holy Spirit can become the sanctuary of the Truth.
JESUS AS THE WAY AND THE TRUTH
The striking affinity that binds truth with silence is not uncommon in Christian tradition. We come to experience Jesus the Truth by following Jesus the Way.(l8) The challenge is to travel with Jesus in our own historical context. Through this same process we can also come to experience Jesus as the Truth.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus reveals the subtle dimensions of the Truth when he says, "The Truth shall set you free" and "you shall worship in Spirit and Truth." This gospel also presents an incident not very dissimilar to that of the story at the beginning of this article. On the very eve of Jesus' death, a knowledgeable Roman governor asked him, "What is Truth?" (John 18:38). Little did Pilate realize that Truth in its plenitude was standing before him. Jesus' answer to Pilate was very similar to that of Buddha to the philosopher -- communing or conveying the Truth in Silence. But unlike the philosopher, Pilate lost the greatest opportunity he was ever afforded.
More than ever before, people today feel the need for silence, meditation, and contemplation. The growing number of Christian mediation groups in Europe and North America, like the mushrooming of ashrams and hermitages in South Asia, very clearly indicates their deep spiritual longing for an interior experience of the Truth through a process of silence and stillness.
Mahatma Gandhi entitled his autobiography Satya Sodhana, "an experiment with Truth." Regularly observing one day of the week as a day of mauna viradha, "fasting by silence," Gandhi described it as one which filled him with the vitality and strength necessary for him to generate Truth to others. For him, satyagraha, "insistence on truth," was an inseparable part of life. Gandhi is also reported to have said that on this day of silent fast, he was more in contact with his inner self and feelings than with the reality of God. It was thus not so much a day of prayer as one of personal reconciliation with his inner conflicts. When these conflicts are resolved, prayer blossoms as its joyous result. Such prayer gives peace and solace, comfort and consolation. Prayer and meditation are not just ways of learning to relax with God.
Today's world is a world of the outer. It has sought and bought the outer at the cost and expense of the inner. Hence the need to return to the source and the center of ourselves in Silence and solitude to discover the treasure of the Truth buried within. As a priceless statement attributed to Buddha has it, "As long as I had no knowledge of the treasures within me, all outside things seemed valuable. Now since I have found the diamond within, all earthly diamonds have paled into insignificance."
Paul Reps, (ed.), Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (London: Penguin Books, reprinted 1982), pp. 119-120.
The major schools of Buddhism are known as Mahayana (practiced in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam), Theravada or Hinayana (practiced in Burma, Ceylon, India, Laos, and Campuchea), Ch'an or Zen (China and Japan) and Tibetan Buddhism.
R.E. Hume, (ed.) The Thirteen Principal Upanishads (London: Oxford University Press, revised and reprinted, 1934), p. 30. See also Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad, 5.1 to 6.5 and Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.1 to 3.2.11.
For some pertinent religious texts see R.M. Panikkar, (ed.), Matranmanjari: The Vedic Experience, (University of California Press, 1977), pp. 250, 264, 412, 629-630.
Gautama was the family name of Buddha. Siddhartha was the name given to him by his parents. "Buddha," in fact, is a title rather than a name, meaning "the blessed" or "enlightened one." The name Sakyamuni is used in later legends and literature.
See Joel Giallanza, "Silence as a Second Language" in Review for Religious, 46 (1986: 453-457.
R. M. Panikkar, op. cit., pp. 60-66, 110-111, 123-124, 716-720, and 740-742.
Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind (London: Collins, 1986), pp. 109-117.
Buddhist traditions maintain that "The Four Noble Truths" were pronounced by Buddha when he delivered his first sermon. Briefly the Four Noble or Great Truths are: 1) Sorrow is associated with all stages of life (i.e. birth, aging, death etc.). 2) Selfish desire is the cause of all sorrow. 3) Emancipation from sorrow is possible only by abandoning all selfish desires. 4) The Eightfold Path is the means by which human beings can overcome all selfish cravings or desires. I have translated the word duhkka as "sorrow" but it also means "misery," "pain," and "anguish." For more on this see P.L. Narasu, The Essence of Buddhism (Delhi: Bharatya Publishing House, 1979), pp. 128-133.
The Eightfold Path is said to contain the scheme of spiritual self-development leading to enlightenment. It consists of 1) right understanding, 2) right aspiration, 3) right speech, 4) right action, 5) right pursuits (including means of livelihood), 6) right effort, 7) right attitudes, and 8) right concentration or contemplation.
The paintings and sculptures of Buddha found in Burma, India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam are illustrations of this phenomena.
Rule of St. Benedict, Chap. 42.
The word sunyata is used in Buddhism to refer to the notion of emptiness. The religious significance of this term is very much similar to that of the Greek word kenosis, used by St. Paul, (esp. Phil. 2:6). Sunyata means emptiness as openness, freedom and fullness. See A.J.V. Chandrakanthan, "The Richness of Emptiness in Religious Life," a talk given on the occasion of the Silver jubilee celebrations of Sr. Anne Leonard, R.S.C.J., Canadian Provincial of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, (mimeographed), Ottawa, 1987, pp. 2-9.
For more on the Buddhist understanding of emptiness, see F.J. Streng, Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1967), pp. 43-81.
In Buddhism and Zen, the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity means that reality is to be understood in terms of its impermanent relationships, e.g. a middle-class rich man compared to a millionaire is a poor man.
Paul Reps, op. cit., p. 43.
Jon Sobrino, The True Church and the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984), p. 24.