Returning to Silence

When we think about what real silence is, we have to look at it from two angles; the first is to see silence through human eyes and the second is to see silence through Buddha's eyes or the universal eye. The opportunity to experience real silence occurs when we have been driven into a corner and simply cannot move an inch. This seems like a situation of complete despair, but this silence is quite different from despair, because in the area of despair the conscious flame of human desire is still burning. But real silence is the state of human existence that passes through this despair. How can we experience this silence? Without everyday life, it is impossible to experience silence. 

In terms of the human perspective, silence has at least three flavors: pessimistic, optimistic and mystical. They work together and cannot be separated. 

In terms of the universe or Buddha's eye, silence is exactly as-it-is-ness, or what-is-just-is-of-itself. It is very quiet. Buddha's teaching always mentions this. If we want to know who we are and touch the real, silent, deep nature of our life, we must be as we really are. How? Sit zazen, that is all. When we sit, two flavors are there. One is very sharp, cutting through delusions, suffering, pain and any emotion like a sharp sword. This is called wisdom. But within wisdom there must be compassion. That compassion is to see human life for the long run. Compassion is not something we try to create; we cannot do it. Compassion comes from the measure of our practice, which we have accumulated for a long, long time. It naturally happens. 

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The second flavor of silence seen by the Buddha's eye is to accept all sentient beings just as they are; what is just is of itself. To see everything just as it is, is not so easy for us. We need to polish ourselves again and again. We have to refine our spiritual life with all sentient beings. Otherwise we cannot see a thing as it is.

Silence means you have to be you as you really are - what is just is of itself. If we want to know real spiritual life, we have to taste ourselves as we really are. It is not necessary to stick to the forms and rituals. All we have to do is taste ourselves as we are.

In terms of the Buddha's eye, silence is the total manifestation of our whole personality, in which we have digested the three flavors of optimism, pessimism and mysticism. They never come up, because they are all digested. They become just energy for us. This silence is quite different from silence in terms of human eyes. According to human eyes, there is a vague disconsolate pain or pensiveness in the depths of our life that we cannot wipe out. It is very sticky and we stumble over it pretty easily. It is beyond our consciousness or unconsciousness. It is already there. But in terms of the Buddha's eye, or Zen teaching, silence is exactly the total manifestation of our whole personality. Whole personality means our individual personality is manifested with the whole universe. All other beings are the contents of our personality. So when we manifest our whole personality it is not just our individual personality, but simultaneously through this personality we can feel the whole universe. That is why we can feel magnanimity, tolerance and compassion.

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Buddhism teaches us that we have to pass at once through this deep human suffering and be touched to the heart. Then we can experience silence. But as Buddhists, we have a responsibility for doing something more than that. We have to transmute the silence seen by human eyes into the silence seen by Buddha's eye. At that time we can show our life just as we really are. When we encounter each moment of life, we face it, penetrate it and practice it. This is not egoistic. It is not a narrow view. It already accepts all sentient beings as the contents of our life.

Zazen is the right gate for entering the Buddha-dharma. But the Buddha-dharma is actually human life. So this zazen is not an exclusive practice; it is the most fundamental practice for all sentient beings. For instance, when you really want to know who you are or what the real significance of human life, human suffering, pleasure, Buddhist teaching is, very naturally you come back to silence. Even though you don't want to, you return to an area of no-sound. It cannot be explained, but in this silence you can realize, even if only dimly, what the real point is that you want to know. Whatever kind of question you ask or whatever you think, finally you have to return to silence. This silence is vast; you don't know what it is.

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Whatever question you want to study, you cannot study it from your own shallow viewpoint. Finally, you will come to a vastness that is like spring water endlessly coming up out of the earth. The more you study something seriously, the more you will realize that everything is boundless.

From where does this spring water come? Not from anyone's small, individual territory. The water that comes from your territory is limited, not deep. The original nature of your life, or of your study, or of your personality or character is the spring water that comes up from the vastness of the earth. This is where you have to sit down.

There are many interesting things to do in the human world. To do as much as possible keeps you busy making lots of sounds. That's fine, but you have to understand that these sounds come from no-sound. (No-sound: Condition prior to conceptualization of sound or no-sound, i.e., prior to hearing either sound or silence. The term does not mean silence. ) If you always understand sound as coming from sound, you become confused and lose the direction in which you should go. You have to know no-sound, because no-sound is your nature. Then, very naturally, you will want to come back from no-sound and look at your own particular sound. That's wonderful. Then you can know it.

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Zazen is to come back to no-sound. Come back to the sound of no-sound and see it. It's not just your limited territory, it is a vastness from which your capacity, your knowledge, your nature comes, just like spring water coming up from the earth. This is zazen, exactly; this is you.

In the vastness of existence there are many sources of spring water. So come back to the silent world.

How can zazen, just sitting and doing nothing, be depended upon for attaining enlightenment? This question is always asked. No one understands this kind of zazen because we are always looking for the zazen that can be used as a toy to satisfy ourselves. If we use zazen as a toy, even though we feel good from the toy, we can throw it away at any time pretty easily. Look at modern society. We always throw things away and then we have to create new things, new toys to replace those we have thrown away. All sentient beings are being used as toys.

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Right faith is perfect trust. Perfect trust means to accept silence, and in the silence everything becomes zero. When you come back to the silent world, everything becomes "not-personal", no-person, no-sound. So come back, become a zero and there is a wonderful place. This is the silent world. Even though you say "I am", the "I" is shrinking - until it disappears. If I think "I am good", this is making a sound. Finally, I ask, "What am I doing here?". Nothing. If I try to know who I am finally I have to come back to silence.

All we have to do is just sit, just come back to the silent world and the vastness of existence. This is just sitting (shikantaza). Even though you don't understand, this is zazen. Then when you come back, there is total trust, because you are silent. This is called right faith. Faith does not mean belief. You cannot believe anything. Right faith means you must just be there, soaking in the silence and the vastness of existence. This faith is called trust. Then, when you really feel something through this practice, temporarily we call it faith.

To enter into this realm of faith is zazen. Zazen is not a method. If you think so then zazen becomes a toy. If you are going to use zazen as a toy, it's not necessary to do zazen; there are lots of other toys that are better.

The teaching of Buddhism, the teaching of Christianity, the teaching of modern physics, the teaching of anything is nothing but a finger pointing at the moon. The finger is secondary but still it is important; when you deal with the finger, do your best. Without the finger it is pretty much difficult to know where the truth is.

Those who do not have faith will not accept zazen, however much they are taught. If you don't trust this silence and the vastness of existence, if you do not soak yourself in this realm, how can you trust yourself? How can you trust others? How can you deal with human life? No matter how long you try to study the sutras or Zen, you will never understand. Even though you say, "I understand", that understanding is not understanding. Without this trust you don't understand. If you want to understand the sutras or Buddha's teaching, not as toys, but as a finger pointing at the moon, with your wholeheartedness, jump into the silence and the vastness of existence. Let the teaching really penetrate your skin and muscle and bone. Then you can get a hint of where the real moon is. Don't expect too much through scriptures and words. Don't discuss superiority or inferiority. All we have to do is to study the scriptures with wholeheartedness and jump into the silence and the vastness of existence. At that time the scripture become light through which you can see many things in the darkness. Whatever it is, not only zazen or Buddhist scriptures, but sports, music, or anything else, if you really devote yourself with wholeheartedness, you can learn many things. Nevertheless, if you really accept those things totally on the basis of silence and the vastness of existence, the beauty of your life blooms, the beauty of existence blooms. This understanding is completely beyond human speculation. 

Excerpt from Returning to Silence by Dainin Katagiri, Shambhala Publications, 1988

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