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Sounds of Silence

June 10, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Yesterday, members of our San Francisco and Sunnyvale groups joined together for a day of quiet sitting at Jikoji Zen Center in the beautiful mountains above Los Gatos.  It was a beautiful, warm spring day. The deep quiet of the mountains was occasionally interrupted by the repair work going on somewhere on the property.  But the silence inside the Zendo was never interrupted.  I didn’t realize this until Mike Newhall, the resident teacher at Jikoji came up to us during lunch and apologized for the “less than tranquil” atmosphere of the day. He was, I think, referring to the power tools being used.

In truth, I had heard the occasional saw or hammer, but they only seemed to be expressions of the deepening silence of the day. In an odd sense, that is hard to put into words, I did not distinguish a power saw from the surrounding silence. Whatever “sounds” I heard had completely harmonized with the surrounding silence to the point that they were indistinguishable.  Trying to stay with this impression, I listened more attentively to what others were saying during lunch.  I found that if I really listened to the timber of someone’s voice and not to what they were saying I discovered that it blended perfectly with the silence. They were not whispering, but they were very quiet.  How interesting!  The voice of someone who is trying to stay present and mindful does not interrupt the deep silence that is behind everything. 

Staying with that impression I saw that it was only when I listened to what they were saying that things became a little “noisy.”  If I began to interpret what they were saying, my thoughts disrupted the silence.  My thoughts were “louder” than the voice of Tim who was explaining the ingredients of the meal he had prepared for us. My thoughts were even louder than the power tools being used to repair one of the structures on the property.

Towards the end of the afternoon, Holger, our doan, the person who rings bells before and after a sitting as well as in ceremonies,  gave a way seeking mind talk in which he talked about his experience learning how to ring bells and hit the han, a wooden board struck by a mallet with a particular rhythm to announce the beginning of a zazen. He told us how he had to learn the bodily precision of how and when to hit  the wooden board of the han as if he were a musician learning to play a new instrument. During the discussion that followed it became clear, that in order for the bells or the han to sound “good,” something besides bodily precision was needed: presence and mindfulness.  The sangha needs to feel the sincerity, dedication, and intention of the doan more than the way these instruments sound.  Only then can the bells or the wood harmonize with the silence as a support for our practice.

As is often the case during a sesshin, the most interesting part of yesterday was not the hours I spent on my cushion.  But of course, I would not have had the impressions I had during lunch, had I not spent the morning sitting quietly with friends. 

Bows,

Stephen

From → Zen Buddhism

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