October  2001 
 Number 58 



Silence and Space; Luang Por Sumedho
Clarity of Insight; Ajahn Chah
Energy; Aj Sucitto
Form; Sister Thaniya

Silence and Space
From a Sunday talk at Amaravati, given by Luang Por Sumedho, summer 1994.

In the ordinary way of life in the world, silence is something that's not worth bothering with. It's more important to think, to create, and to do things: to fill the silence with sound. Usually we think of listening to sound, to music, to someone talking; with silence we think there is nothing to listen to. And in those times when we meet and neither party quite knows what to say to the other, we feel embarrassed or ill-at-ease; the silence between us feels uncomfortable.

However concepts such as silence and emptiness are beginning to indicate a direction to develop, something to pay attention to because one thing about modern life is that we've managed to blast out silence and demolish space. We've created a society where we are endlessly busy; we don't know how to rest or relax or to just be. Our lives have a driven quality in which our clever minds spend so much time developing a technology to make life easy - and yet we find ourselves stressed out by it. 'Time-saving devices' they were called, which would enable us to just push buttons and whatever we wanted would manifest. Tedious tasks would be turned over to robots and machinery. But what do we do with the time that we have saved?


To see the formed world always as a threat, as an attack on emptiness:
that's not it.

Somehow we need to have something to do, to keep busy; always having to fill up silence with sound or space with forms. The emphasis is on really being a personality, somebody who can prove their worth. This is the rat race, the endless cycle that we feel stressed by. When we're young and have a lot of energy we can enjoy the pleasures of youth, such as good health and romance and adventures and all that. But yet, those kind of experiences can be suddenly stopped: maybe through a disability; or perhaps when we lose somebody that we are very attached to. What happens to us can shake us so that the pleasures of the sense-realm, good health and vigour, good looks and personality, and the praise of the world no longer provide us with happiness. Or we can feel embittered because somehow we've not been able to achieve the level of pleasure and success that we imagine we should have as our right. So we're always having to prove ourselves or be somebody, and we get intimidated by the demands of our personalities.

The personality is conditioned into the mind. We're not born with a personality. To become a personality we have to think, to conceive of ourself as somebody. It can be good or bad; or a mixture of all kinds of things. The personality depends on being able to remember, having a history; having views or assumptions about ourself - whether we're attractive or unattractive, loveable or not, clever or stupid - and these can vary according to situations. But when we develop the contemplative mind we see through this. We begin to experience the original mind: the consciousness before it's conditioned by perception.

Now if we try to think about this original mind, we get caught up in our analytical faculties, so we have to watch and listen-rather than trying to figure out how to become somebody who's enlightened. To meditate in order to become somebody who's enlightened doesn't work - because as long as we're trying to do that we create our self as a person that is unenlightened now. We tend to think of ourselves as not enlightened, or people with a lot of problems - or even hopeless cases. Sometimes we imagine that the worst thing that we can think about ourselves is the truth. There's a kind of perversity that assumes real honesty lies in admitting the worst possible things about oneself!

I'm not making judgements against personality but suggesting that you get to know what it is, so that you're not operating from the delusion you create and the assumptions you have of yourself as a person. And in order to do that one learns to sit still and listen to the silence. Not that this is going to make you enlightened, but it's going against the momentum of habit; against restless energies of the body and emotions. So you listen to the silence. You can hear my voice; you can hear the sounds of things that happen, but behind all that is a kind of high-pitch, almost electronic buzz. That's what I call 'the sound of silence.' I find that a very helpful way of concentrating the mind because when one begins to notice that - without regarding it as any kind of attainment or achievement - it becomes a convenient method for contemplation, in order to hear yourself think. Thinking itself is a kind of sound, isn't it? When you're thinking you can hear yourself thinking. So when I listen to myself thinking it's the same as listening to somebody else talking. And so I listen to the thinking of the mind and the sound of silence: when I'm with the sound of silence, then I notice that I'm not thinking. There's a stillness there, so I note, consciously note the stillness and that helps in recognising the emptiness. The emptiness isn't a shutting off or a denial of anything but a letting go of the habitual tendencies of restless activity or obsessive thought.

You can actually stop the momentum of your habits and desires by listening. And in that, with the sound of silence, there's attentiveness. You don't have to close your eyes; you don't have to plug up your ears or ask somebody to leave the room; you don't have to do it in a special place - wherever you are it seems to work. It can be very helpful in a communal or family situation where life gets habitual. That is, in these situations, we get used to each other and then tend to operate through assumptions and habits that we don't even know about. Now the silence of the mind allows all these conditions to be what they are. But the ability to reflect on them in terms of arising and ceasing allows us to see that all the perceptions and ideas we have about ourselves are conditions of the mind, and not what we really are. What you think you are is not what you are.

So you say, 'What am I then?' But do you need to know what you are? You just need to know what you're not, that's enough. The problem is that we think we're all kinds of things that we're not and that's where we suffer. We don't suffer from not-self, anatta, from not being anybody; we suffer from being somebody all the time. That's where the suffering is. So when we're not anybody it's not suffering, it's a relief, it's like putting down a heavy burden of, self-consciousness, and fears of what other people think. The whole lot that's connected to the sense of our self, we can drop. We can just let it go. What a relief to not be anybody! Or to not feel we're somebody that has got all kinds of problems and 'I should practise more meditation'; 'I should come to Amaravati more often'; 'I've got to get rid of all this and I can't do it!' All this is thought, isn't it? It's making all kinds of assumptions about yourself. It's the critical mind. It's the discriminative mind that's always saying you're not good enough or you've got to be better.

So we can listen; this listening is available to us all the time. At first maybe it's helpful to go to meditation retreats or situations where you have reminders around you, where you're supported, where a teacher is there to keep prodding you along, helping you to remember - because it's easy to fall right back into the old habits. This is especially the case with mental habits because they're subtle; and the sound of silence doesn't seem like anything worth listening to. But even if you listen to music, you can listen to the silence behind the music. This doesn't destroy the music, but puts it in a perspective where you're not carried away by the music or addicted to sound. You can appreciate the sound and also the silence.

So the Middle Way that the Buddha talks about isn't an extreme of annihilation. It's not saying 'Silence, emptiness, no self, this is what we've all got to do. We've got to get rid of our desires, our personalities, all the sense realm is an attack on silence. We've got to destroy all the conditions; all music, all forms, we shouldn't have any forms in this room, just have white walls.' To see the formed world always as a threat, as an attack on emptiness; that's not it. It's not taking sides for the conditioned or the unconditioned but rather recognising their relationship - which is an on-going practice.

That's where mindfulness is the way because in the state we're in on Planet Earth and with these human bodies, we have a very strong conditioning to bear with. For the whole of our lifetime we have to live within the limits and problems and difficulties of the human body. And we have emotions. We feel everything and we remember all kinds of things. We're in this state of pleasure and pain for our lifetime. But we can see it in the right way - and this is the point the Buddha is making too: to understand things as they really are, to be able to let things be what they really are rather than create delusions around things.

Out of ignorance we can create endless delusions around the things of our life, around our own bodies, around our memories, around language, around perceptions, views, opinions, the culture, the religious conventions, so it becomes complicated, difficult and separative. The alienation that modern people feel is this alienation that results from self-obsession - where our sense of our self is of absolute importance. It's been held up to us that this is what life is all about, so we can become full of our own self-importance. Even the fact that we might think we're a hopeless case: we still give that tremendous importance. We can spend years going to psychiatrists to discuss the reasons for our own hopelessness - because we are very important to ourselves. And that is also quite a natural thing for us because we've got to be with ourselves all the time. We can escape from other people but we are always stuck with this.

So anatta or non-self: many people misinterpret that and say it's a denial of self, a kind of put-down of the self as something we shouldn't have. That's not how anatta works. Anatta or non-self is a suggestion to the mind; it's a tool to begin to reflect on what we really are. And in the long-run we don't have to see ourselves in any way as being anything. If we take this reflection to its ultimate, then the body, the emotions, the memories, the whole lot that seems so definitely, so insistently ourselves, can be seen in terms of 'they arise, they cease.' And when we're aware of the cessation of things, that appears more real to us than the ephemeral conditions that we tend to grasp or be obsessed with. It takes a while to be able to get over the hump of this self-obsession, but you can do it. It's not something one can't do but it does take a while because the habit tendencies are so strong.

Some psychologists and psychiatrists have commented that we need a self. This is an important thing to consider, that a self is not something that we shouldn't have but something we need to put in its proper place. And that this self be based on the goodness of our lives rather than a self that we create out of dwelling on the flaws and faults and negative tendencies of the mind.

It's so easy to see oneself in very critical ways, particularly when one compares oneself to other people or to images or to great figures in history. But when we always compare ourselves with ideals, we can only be critical with the way we are because life is like this; it's a flow, it's change, it's feeling tired, it's having to deal with emotional problems, with anger, jealousy, fears, all kinds of desires, all kinds of strange things that we don't want to admit even to ourselves. But that's a part of the process, and we have to recognise conditions and observe their nature whether they're good or bad, perfect or imperfect: they are impermanent, they arise, they cease. In this way we keep learning and we find strength working through our own kammic conditioning. Maybe we didn't get a very good deal at all in life. Maybe we've got all kinds of physical problems, health problems and emotional problems. But in terms of Dhamma, these are not obstacles because many times it's these flaws and difficulties that force us to awaken to life. And some part of us realises that trying to straighten up everything and make everything nice, with everything ordered and life pleasant is not the answer; we recognise that there is something more to life than just controlling it and trying to get the best of the conditions.

And so as a way of letting go of our own position, the sense of our self, our own convention, there is this recognition of silence. We can be in the silence where there is unity. Like the space in this room, it's the same for all of us. I can't say this space is mine. But space is just that, it's space, it's where the forms come and go: but it's also something we can notice, and we can contemplate. And what happens? As we develop awareness of space then we begin to have a sense of spaciousness, or of infinity - because space has no beginning or end. We can build rooms and look at space as it exists in a room like this, but we know that actually the building is in the space. So space is like infinity, it has no boundaries. But within the limitations of our own visual consciousness, boundaries help us see the space in a room because space as infinity is too much. The space in a room is enough so we can contemplate the relationship of the forms to the space. Then in your own thoughts as you listen, the sound of silence has the same effect.

I used to deliberately think thoughts, neutral thoughts like, 'I am a human being' - which is neutral, it doesn't arouse any emotional feelings. And while listening to myself thinking that thought, the intention would be to listen to the thought as thought and the silence that it's in. This way I'm contemplating and recognising the relationship of the thinking faculty to the silence, the natural silence of the mind. And in that I'm establishing mindfulness, the ability as an individual being to be a witness, to be the listener, to be that which is awake. Now emotionally this can be very difficult.

We can get very negative about it sometimes, because we haven't resolved a lot of our desires to have things, to feel things, to get high or to get rid of things. So this is where we listen to our emotional reactions. Just begin to notice when there is this silence, what happens emotionally. It may be negativity: 'I don' t know what I'm doing,' or: 'This is a waste of time.' Doubting states will arise around this practice. But listen also to those emotions: they're just habits of the mind. And by admitting them and accepting them, then they cease also. The emotional reactions will fall away more and more and you'll feel confident in just being that which is aware.

Then you can establish your life with the intention to do good and refrain from doing evil. Paradoxically we need that self-respect. Meditation doesn't come from the idea that if we're just mindful we can do anything we feel like, but it involves a respect for conditions: to respect the body we have, our humanity, our intelligence and our ability to do things. It doesn't mean to be attached or identified, but meditation does allow us to recognise what we have: this is the way it is, these conditions are this way. Even to respect our disabilities. Self-respect or respect for the conditions means respect for whatever state they're in. It doesn't mean liking that state, but it does mean accepting it and learning to work with the limitations of it.

So for the enlightened mind it's not a matter of having the best, is it? It's not that you need to have the best health and the best conditions, the best of everything in order to really make it - because that feeds a sense of yourself as being somebody who can only operate from having the very best of everything. But when we begin to realise that the disabilities, the flaws and the strange things that we each have are not obstructions then we're seeing them in the right way. We can respect them and be willing to accept and use them in order to get beyond our attachment to them. If we practise like this, we can be free from identifying and from being attached to those perceptions of ourselves as being this or that. And this is the marvellous thing that we can do as human beings: it allows us to use the whole of our lives, and it's an on-going process.