3 Tutorials that teach Silence
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Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson explores how a variety of religious traditions have understood silence as a an important spiritual practice.

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I bet that most of us live fairly noisy lives. This is probably not by choice. It's just a noisy world. Maybe we have to make time for quiet in our lives. How many of us are accustomed to finding silence in our lives, entering and understanding silence? Can it serve some purpose?

Well, one foundational category in most of the Buddhist lines of teaching is the foundationless notion of sunyata or sunyata. It's a Sanskrit word that's translated as emptiness and openness. In the context of the many different silent meditation practices, you might think of it as the silence of ontological being.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, an essential practice is silent meditation called zazen. Zazen simply means seated meditation. There are, however, traditional chants that are often a part of zazen practice.

Saying that the purpose of zazen is to achieve liberation from suffering and thus experience enlightenment is not quite accurate. Zazen practice is characteristically non-conceptual. Applying positive descriptions and attributes to the meditation process, in fact, moves the meditater further into the mental snares that cloud the experience of empty silence.

The Japanese term "mu" describes emptiness or nothingness. Everything else is a construction of mind, and therefore has no ultimate value. Silence is the space where the meditater might experience the purity of emptiness. And frequently, silence accompanies meals, and the preparation and clean-up will often only involve necessary speech.

The Samatha technique emphasizes strong concentration of mind, called jhana, focused on the object of meditation itself. The meditater, after achieving some relative state of concentration, will then engage in Vipassana meditation. They don't always go together. There are Buddhist communities that are devoted more exclusively to Vipassana or Samatha depending.

However, they very often do go together because with the clarity of mind that can be reached with Samatha, he or she can now have insight into the processes of mind and body that are occurring, just as they do, just as they are. And Vipassana meditation allows one to see that. Silence supports this process, as well as a conscious awareness of one's breath, inhalation, exhalation.

Christianity also has a long history of monasticism infused with silence in the practice of contemplative prayer. This is one of the first Christian monasteries in Mount Sinai, Egypt, where it is believed that Moses received the Ten Commandments and witnessed God and the burning bush.

This Orthodox monastery, along with the Benedictine monasteries, which are Roman Catholic, are throughout the world, and they present the original monastic traditions. In the Middle Ages, other monastic orders emerged, and many of them are still thriving today.

So the first monastic orders were Orthodox and Catholic and have a long history and solid, established tradition of silence as a part of monastic life. More so than in Protestantism, which, of course, didn't emerge until the 16th century.

However, the importance of silence is not unique to Catholicism. And finally, as we've suggested, it plays a significant role in other elements of religious life for the general community of many traditions, both within the broad diversity of Christianity and in other religions as well.

In general, one thing that hasn't changed for most of the orders is the commitment to contemplative life and silent prayer and work as a means of getting closer to God in this life and in the next. Many novices who are beginning to consider their training as a monk will undertake vows of silence, which last for different periods of time depending on the order.

During this period of silence, the novice undergoes profound introspection, perhaps in conversation with God about his or her future life commitment as a monk or a nun. In the silence of religious life, no one is excluded. So the laity are also encouraged to explore their relationship to silence and to God through this silence.

So now we can review silence. We started in Japan with Zen Buddhism and the practice of zazen, seated silent meditation. In zazen, silence is a vehicle, a method, and a practice for possibly experiencing emptiness or nothingness. And the term that we used was "mu." And then we looked at other traditions and techniques of meditation called the Vipassana and Samatha.

And then we looked at the Western Christian monastic tradition starting with St. Catherine's. We looked at images of some of the monasteries. And we indicated that silence is very much a part of monastic life in terms of getting closer to God in this life and in the next life.

Notes on “Silence”


Image of Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, Creative Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Silence.JPG

Image of The Trappist Monastery at Latrun, Israel, Creative Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Latrun-Monastery.jpg 

Image of Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt, Creative Commons, 

Image of Zazen Meditation, Creative Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zazen.jpg

Image of Japanese Character – Wu, Public Domain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wu_(negative).svg   

Image of Hills and Zen Temple, Creative Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sunriseatsojiji.jpg

Image of Lokrum Island Benedictine Monastery, Public Domain, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lokrum_island,_Benedictine_monastery.jpg  



Sound Effect Crowd Noise, Creative Commons, http://soundjax.com/crowd+noise-2.html 

Sound Effect Ambulance, Creative Commons, http://soundjax.com/ambulance_sounds-1.html

Sound Effect Motorcycle, Creative Commons, http://soundjax.com/motorcycle_sounds-1.html

Sound Effect Siren, Creative Commons, http://soundjax.com/siren_sounds-1.html 

  • Meditation

    A process of mental focus and relaxation, generally involving silence and physical inactivity, whereby an individual attempts to calm the mind, often in order to achieve a more spiritual state of mind, or to set aside the cares that impede spiritual contemplation.

  • Spiritual or Monastic Silence

    The practice of using silence as a means of prayer or spiritual contemplation, frequently practiced in Roman Catholic monasteries.

  • Vipassana

    A Buddhist meditation technique requiring silence.

  • Zazen

    In Zen Buddhism, a sitting meditation that is conducted either in silence or while chanting.