In Philip Larkin’s celebrated poem “Church Going,” a secular Englishman, out for a ride on his bicycle, stops at a local parish church. After making sure that “there’s nothing going on,” he steps inside, casting a cool but observant eye on what he encounters:
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence . . . 
As can be seen from these perceptions, Larkin’s narrator is ill at ease in his surroundings. They are musty and make him tense. Yet, as he will inform us later on, he was drawn to this “cross of ground” and its “unignorable” silence. And though he summons an ironic phrase (“up at the holy end”) to bolster his resistance, he attempts a gesture of respect.
“Church Going” was written in 1954. Since that time, the personal and cultural ambivalence the poem embodies has grown ever more acute. On the one hand, there is our culture’s collective yearning, widely felt and frequently expressed, for silence and silent spaces. On the other, there is our seemingly inexhaustible will, enabled by cell phones, mobile devices, and other components of advanced technology, to resist, avoid, or destroy whatever silence remains. We want to be silent, it would seem, but we no longer know how.
In his book In Pursuit of Silence the physicist George Prochnik examines this ambivalence, giving a fair hearing to either side. His wide-ranging exploration leads him to the New Melleray Abbey, a Trappist monastery in northeastern Iowa, where he experiences the soundlessness of an underground chapel, and on to the Portland Japanese Garden, where raked white gravel represents emptiness and silence. But Prochnik also investigates the engineered “soundscapes” of restaurants and stores, the “harmonic relations in infant cries,” and, at the furthest extreme, a “boom car” “boom-off” in Tampa, Florida, where enthusiasts of loudness compete with their woofers to shatter the windshields of their cars. Throughout his auditory journey, Prochnik maintains his objectivity, balancing his love of silence with his interest in all things acoustic. But in the end he is led to conclude that as a culture we are experiencing an “epidemic of excessive acoustical stimulation,” whose impact on our health and sanity may be far more damaging than we’ve realized. Noise is “defiantly on the rise.” If we truly want silence, we must build spaces that create and protect it.
For centuries Zen monasteries, like their Trappist counterparts, have endeavored to do just that. Josh Swiller, a former Buddhist monk, has described Buddhist meditation as “the study of silence,” and for the most part the daily life of a Zen monastery is tailored to that purpose. Idle chat is discouraged. Talk is kept to a functional minimum. And during the extended retreats known as sesshin, a code of silence is strictly enforced. Among the benefits of this “noble silence,” as it is called, are the conservation of energy, the replenishment of the senses, and the realization that speech, when not overtly harmful, is often redundant. And, as I learned from my own experience at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Rinzai Zen monastery in the Catskills, the noble silence of monastic life can also provide insights into the nature of sound, whether its source be external or internal.
Silence and sound are sometimes thought of as polarities, but they might better be seen as points on a continuum. Silence is a matter of degree. And within the relative silence of the monastery, such sounds as do occur are often starkly amplified. Like black dots on a vast white canvas, they take on an unwonted magnitude.
So it was one morning at Dai Bosatsu, when a few of us were sitting in our robes in the dimly-lit zendo. Streams of early light shimmered on the dark oak floor. All was quiet and still. And then, abruptly, the jikijitsu broke the prevailing silence. “Breathe silently!” he barked. “If I can hear you breathing, it’s too loud!” Duly admonished, we resumed our zazen. But not long afterward, we learned that our vigilant jikijitsu had missed the mark. What he had heard as audible breathing was in fact a porcupine, rustling in the bushes outside the open door.
Beyond such external sounds, there is also the noise our minds are making. Whether its specific content be memories or fantasies, judgments or speculations, that egocentric racket is more or less continuous, and it becomes especially pronounced in the silence of the zendo. In a teaching entitled “This Silence is Called Great Joy,” Thich Nhat Hanh quotes a classic Buddhist verse:
All formations are impermanent.
They are subject to birth and death.
But remove the notions of birth and death,
and this silence is called great joy.
As Thich Nhat Hanh explains, the first two lines of this verse remind us that all things come and go. They are born and die. But the last two lines make a counter-assertion, which is that dualistic notions—impermanence and permanence, birth and death, sound and silence—can be removed. Through the diligent practice of zazen they can be released, leaving us in the silence of absolute reality. In Buddhist teachings, silence of this kind is known as nirvana, which means, among other things, “the extinction of all notions,” especially notions of self and other. Should we be fortunate enough to experience this deeper silence, Zen teachings promise, and should we manage to maintain it in our daily round, it will bring great joy, whether we happen to be sitting zazen, or visiting an empty parish church, or enduring the ignoble noise of contemporary life.
 Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988), 97.
 George Prochnik, In Pursuit of Silence (Doubleday, 2011), Kindle edition, 82.
 Prochnik, 235.
 Prochnik, 289.
 Thich Nhat Hanh, “This Silence is Called Great Joy,” Shambhala Sun, September, 2007.
My thanks to Val Crompton for her photo of Adel St. John the Baptist Church, Adel, North Leeds, England.