Posts Tagged ‘silence’

DB 1a

                                      Dzogchen Beara

“Profound silence,” wrote Samuel Beckett, “is not something we fall into casually. This may indeed happen, and a blessed happening it is, but normally we choose to set aside a time and a place to enter into spiritual quietness.”

            For me, the time was a week in July, 1998, and the place was the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland. Traversed by two mountain ranges and jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, Beara offers a landscape rich in Bronze Age antiquities and rugged natural beauty but inhospitable to human habitation. The winters are “full-on,” a local resident told me. And even during the summers, when the temperature peaks in the 60s, and hikers and cyclists converge on the scenic Ring of Beara, the stony hills, steep cliffs, and fierce winds challenge the faint of heart. At one time the population of the Beara Peninsula was nearly 40,000. Today it is fewer than 6,000 hardy souls.

            I came to Beara not to hike or cycle but primarily to meditate. My specific destination was Dzogchen (pron. ZOGH-shen) Beara, a Buddhist retreat and conference center situated near the colorful village of Allihies. Perched on a high cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the center is affiliated with the Dzogchen school of Tibetan Buddhism, and during my weeklong stay, a few long-term residents were undergoing training in Tibetan Buddhist practice. But the ethos of the center was ecumenical, welcoming, and international. The then director was an Englishman, the staff mostly Irish. The bookshop included selections in English, Irish, and several other languages. Dzogchen Beara now boasts a modern, well-appointed conference center, bright commodious cottages with spectacular vistas (rentable at € 150/night), and a café that caters to tourists as well as retreatants. But twenty years ago, the ambience of the place was far more austere, and the “self-catering” cabin where I stayed was spartan, to say the least.

            The cabin’s most conspicuous feature was a long, old-fashioned bathtub. When I drew my first bath, I discovered that the water was amber-going-to-brown. This color, I was told, was caused by the peat in the soil. Not only was this additive harmless, I further learned, it was also, like Guinness, supposed to be good for me. Although I grew accustomed to bathing in the visual equivalent of pale ale, I cannot report any salubrious effects.

            The other prominent features of my home from home included a pot-bellied, peat-burning stove; an elderly, encrusted cook stove; a tiny fridge; a writing desk and lamp; and a single hard bed, which looked and felt like an oversized church pew. Fortunately, this Thoreauvian dwelling also featured a large window, from which I could look down at the water far below. In the mornings I watched the fishing boats emerging from the darkness onto Bantry Bay. In the evenings, I watched the sun setting on the distant ocean horizon.

            Dzogchen Beara had no fixed schedule for visitors, and after a brief orientation we were left on our own. But I soon developed a daily rhythm. Rising early, I brewed a pot of coffee, wrote in my journal, and worked on a lecture I would deliver the following week at the Kerry International Summer School in Tralee. After breakfast, I joined a few other visitors for guided meditation in the main hall. Looking out through tall windows on the ocean, we contemplated impermanence and cultivated the primordial awareness known in Tibetan Buddhism as rigpa. In the afternoons I explored the rocky hills and trails around the center, while listening to talks by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh on my aging Walkman. Toward evening, I prepared my simple dinners from provisions I’d bought in Castletownbere and brought with me. My most memorable meal: roasted bell peppers stuffed with quinoa and flavored with fresh herbs. Suitable fare, it seemed at the time, for a part-time eremite. In the evenings I sat in solitary meditation before retiring to my monkish bed.

            And what did I take away from this experience? Of the welter of memories I’ve retained, two in particular stand out.

            In southwest Ireland, which is warmed by the Gulf Stream, the wild fuchsia blooms abundantly in July. In his poem “The Fuchsia Blaze,” the Cork-born poet Greg Delanty recounts how this deep-red flower, imported from South America, “ran amuck . . . & wildfired the land / becoming the spirit of Kerry’s / Aztec farmers.” The Irish-speaking populace named the wild fuchsia Deora De, meaning “God’s Tears.” In Delanty’s poem, “each branch weeps / their God’s blood tears / as if sensing the earth’s hurt.” But at Dzogchen Beara, the spectacle of thousands of wild fuchsia cascading down the rocky cliff felt more celebratory than elegiac.

            That feeling was of a piece with the deep silence I experienced at Dzogchen Beara. “It seeps into you,” one visitor remarked. Early one morning, as I wrote in my journal and looked out at the bay, I realized that the only sounds I was hearing were those I was making myself: my heartbeat, the scratching of my pen on the page. As the Irish poet Sean Dunne (1956-1995), a native of Cork who also spent some time at Dzogchen Beara, wrote in his memoir The Road to Silence (1994): “silence is not just the absence of noise. It is also the absence of distraction and of mental busyness which prohibits the creation of an inner quiet. Silence is not a passive or quietist quality but an active one. . . . It is tactile, like the pages of a book or the texture of stone.” Such was my experience at Dzogchen Beara, and I have carried that nurturing, necessary stillness with me to this day.


Greg Delanty, Southward (Louisiana State, 1992).

Sean Dunne, The Road to Silence (New Island, 1994), 73.

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AustraliaSkyZen has been called the study of silence. “We need silence,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light.” But how, exactly, are we to study silence? By what means can we cultivate its nourishing presence?

Just be quiet, one is tempted to suggest. Just be still. But in a world rife with noise and distraction, that choice may no longer seem plausible–or even very desirable. In her book Reclaiming Conversation, the sociologist Sherry Turkle reports that many of the people she has interviewed, particularly young people, have an aversion to silence, finding it merely boring. They would rather go online. And as Thich Nhat Hanh observes in his book Silence, many of us are afraid to sit quietly, doing nothing. By keeping ourselves ever-busy and ever-connected, we avoid such negative feelings as loneliness, restlessness, and sadness, which can become all too present when we are silent and alone. If we wish to study and cultivate silence, it would seem, we have first to overcome our resistance, whether it be grounded in aversion or fear. (more…)

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Baltimore_Oriole_eating_orangeBrowsing the Internet one summer afternoon, I learned that Baltimore Orioles relish grape jelly. Cut an orange in half, my source instructed me, and place a dollop of grape jelly at the center of each half. Hang the halves from a branch, and you will soon have those beautiful birds in your own backyard.

Enticed by that prospect, I put grape jelly on our grocery list. And before long, I found myself in Aisle 10B at Wegman’s Supermarket, searching for that elusive product.

“What are you looking for?” asked a petite, white-haired lady standing nearby, as she deposited a jar of Bonne Maman Apricot Preserves in her cart.

“Grape jelly,” I replied. “Baltimore Orioles like it.”

“They do?” she asked, giving me a wary, quizzical look, as though I had just said something very strange. “I never heard that. I used to live in Baltimore.”

Realizing what had just occurred, I hastened to explain. “I mean the birds, not the baseball team.”

“Oh,” she sighed, visibly relieved. Meanwhile, I was imagining the Orioles in their dugout, passing around a jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly. Perhaps that image had crossed her mind as well. (more…)

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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 . . . [1]

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. (more…)

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Early one morning, a friend of mine ventured to compliment his wife, who was sitting upright in bed.  “You look lovely today,” he noted.

“Only today?” she replied.

My friend might learn two lessons from this experience. The first is ably expressed by a character in one of the Irish writer Claire Keegan’s stories. “Many’s the man,” he reflects, “lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.”*

The second lesson is that the English language is inherently dualistic. “Today” in this instance is an adverb, indicating when an action occurred. Today is not yesterday and not tomorrow. By implication, if not by overt statement, my friend excluded those other possibilities.

Applying this principle to the word “holiness,” Thich Nhat Hanh offers this observation:

Holiness is only the word “holiness.” And when we say the word “holiness,” we eliminate everything that isn’t holy, like the ordinary. If there is no ordinary, how can there be holiness?  Therefore any words, even words like “holiness,” “beautiful,” and “Buddha,” eliminate part of the true nature of the thing in describing it. . . . When we say a name out loud, it is as if we are slashing a knife into reality and cutting it into small pieces. **

In Zen teachings, the act of slashing reality into small pieces is called discrimination, and the mind that performs this act is the discriminating mind, which distinguishes self from other and this from that. Employing dualistic language to that end, the discriminating mind might say that someone is an “acquaintance” rather than a “friend,” implying that the same person cannot be both.  Or, to view it the other way round, by employing language in the first place, the mind is led to discriminate, since language itself discriminates, eliminating part of what it purports to describe. To say that someone is an acquaintance is to think, or to lead oneself to think, that he or she is not a friend.

Dualistic language also generates opinion. The language may be minimal, as when women express their opinion of “men” simply by saying the word. Or it may be elaborate, as when Oscar Wilde observes that “all women become like their mothers. That’s their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” But whether the expression be simple or complex, direct or ironic,  personal opinion and dualistic language are of a piece, each serving to reinforce the other.

The American poet Jane Hirshfield, a longtime Zen practitioner, acknowledges as much in her poem “To Opinion,” in which she addresses Opinion as though it were a sentient being. Positing that a capacity to have opinions is what defines the human, she notes that “a mosquito’s estimation of her meal, however subtle, / is not an opinion.” She also recognizes that to think about Opinion is to have one. It is to “step into” something (“your arms? a thicket? a pitfall?”) Most poignantly, when she senses Opinion “rising strongly” in her, she feels herself “grow separate / and more lonely.” Opinions divide people, not only from others but from the wholeness of their own experience. And language—the poet’s medium—is both the source and the instrument of Opinion.

What, then, is one to do? Hirshfield recalls a line from the Japanese poet Myoe—Bright, bright, bright, bright, the moon—as if to suggest that by simply repeating a word we might honor the presence of an object, rather than slash its reality into pieces. And in her closing lines, she offers an instance of her own, as she recalls a few brief minutes when Opinion “released her,” and “[o]cean ocean ocean was the sound the sand / made of the moonlit waves / breaking on it.” Rather than generate an opinion, or divide self from other, the act of repeating a mimetic name drew her closer to the natural world.***

By such means, the dualistic character of language may sometimes be transcended. The self’s isolation may be overcome. But should those means fail, there is another option, which is to listen rather than speak: to say nothing rather than something. In one of his many reflections on language and silence, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton entertains that possibility:

No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is “heard” when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.****

Eloquent though they are, these sentences evoke the wisdom of saying nothing.


*Claire Keegan, “Foster,” The New Yorker, February 15, 2010.

**Thich Nhat Hanh, Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go ( Parallax, 2007), 122.

***Jane Hirshfield, After (HarperCollins, 2006), 41.

****Thomas Merton, Echoing Silence, ed. Robert Inchausti (New Seeds, 2007), 55.

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