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The Sound of Silence Pervades the Western Zen Retreat

What is notable about this enchantingly beautiful and remote wooded area of the Dharma Drum Retreat Center is silence, complete silence if you compare it with the continuous ninety decibel shock wave pounding the massively mechanized world of New York City just over eighty-five miles away. But after five days here, you realize silence can be anything but silent.

sound-silence
photo by Lan Xu

At 9:00 am Wednesday the 21st of April, Dr. John Crook gave the last of his many illuminating talks in the Chan Hall, followed by a closing ceremony expressing gratitude for a successful retreat. At 10:00 am conversation broke out among participants signaling the end of the vow of silence and the retreat. Many spoke to each other for the first time outside the structured confines of a communication exercise, an exercise I first thought appeared to compromise the vow of silence. I reminded myself this is my first retreat since taking refuge through Master Sheng Yen in Dallas last year, so I resisted passing judgment. As a new Buddhist, I have much to learn. I realize I may not find myself on the path I’d expected, but I’m confident I’m on the path nevertheless.

The Questioning Begins

The retreat is a study in contrasts. To the extreme, we circumnavigated our Western compulsion to speak to one another. The precedent for this does not exist in daily life, at least in my experience living in New York City. Confounding the silence was a seemingly endless series of communication exercises requiring us to answer the same question over and over again. I began looking forward to the quietude of meditation and the peaceful presentation of the sutra.
Every few hours, we would have a communication exercise requiring the group to break off into pairs with each person asking the other the question, “Who are you?” The person asking the question is to listen without comment to his partner’s five-minute answer. The math was incredible: eight sessions a day, two different partners in each session who ask and answer the question in turn twice. By the end of the retreat, most of us had answered the question an astounding eighty times not to mention the eighty times listening to someone else’s answer! Imagine telling someone who you are for over six and half hours! Dr. Crook in one of his daily talks offered an interesting insight; he suggested if we pressured someone in our outside personal life to answer this question as relentlessly as we are here, we would most likely lose our friends, our jobs, and may even end up in a messy divorce. As it turns out six and half hours is barely enough time to answer the question.

The context of the question is difficult. I am not facing an airline ticket agent asking for my name, I am facing a stranger whose question is rhetorical and designed to facilitate a process of discovery that requires serious self-reflection. Understandably, this led me into some far-flung probe that in my case created a whopping composite of myself as some transcendental metaphysical being that bore little resemblance to me even in the abstract. I said some very foolish things. Where am I going with this, I thought? And yet it is an important question leading us to a very important place.

A Frog Shares an Epiphany

Dr. Crook, sensing the groups’ struggle, talked at length about the peculiarities of Western thinking. He described a culture where ambition and confidence in our problem-solving abilities define who we are as a people. Our society, above all others, believes in the power of logic to unravel all mysteries. He recalled a story from Chan Master Sheng Yen, who spoke of an American with numerous PhD’s and a reputation for brilliance who has taken the Western penchant for logic and academic pursuit to an extreme. This man as a novice signed up for a class on Chan taught by the Master himself. By the afternoon, less than five hours after starting this course, this man thought he had come to terms with Zen in a significant way. He asked for an immediate interview with the Master. In the interview this man proclaimed that something big had over come him. The Master agreed and said to him, “Yes, your ego.”

The Master’s point is well taken: logic and the exaggerated value placed on logic to solve problems is exactly what I was using to answer this question, although unlike my brilliant Western counterpart, I had no logical answer that satisfied me. I am the person the Chinese Philosopher Chuang Tzu spoke about when he said, “A frog in a well cannot be talked to about the sea.” I allowed myself to hear the murmur of surf in the distance – it is time to leave the well and set out for the sea. I have been discussing the shape of the walls that close me in for too long.
Dr. Crook proposed that we not confront the question of who we are head on, but let the question overtake us. This was a turning point for me. I was trying to answer the question instead of living with the question.

Dr. Crook said in one of his talks: Master Sheng Yen was admonished by his Master Bantetsuga Roshi for complaining to him that he did not know English after being told to go teach in America. Roshi told him, “Do you think Zen is taught with words? Why worry about words?” I pondered the significance of this story and how words in the past describing East Asian Buddhism and Chan (Zen) had failed in my mind to connect some imagined logical progression of dots leading to enlightenment. I stood at the edge of this great paradox of religions staring inward at something marvelous, but perhaps for my Western mind unfathomable.

Waves and Woodpecker

I began taking extended walks in the woods during breaks, resisted asking questions and suppressed the urge to think in words. I tried viewing my surroundings as a young child having no command of language. I found this hard to do but continued to suppress my strong desire to think in terms of language. I found that in the communication exercises I failed to listen to my partner’s answer carefully because I was too distracted by what I was going to say next. I wanted to change this. I not only wanted to hear what was being said, I wanted to experience it. The little pond; a roaring ocean On this day I noticed the wind swept through the forest like an invisible wave, creating a sound similar to roaring surf; the wave would pass overhead and gradually disappear into the distance. I never noticed this wave action before. I am center stage and focused on the actions of the forest towering above me. I listen carefully. I hear a sound that I had not been aware of before, a very distant clicking sound that earlier I would have thought of as background noise, the kind of noise that in the city would pass for silence and therefore would not be noticed. The clicking sound is a woodpecker. I felt an incomprehensible joy, and for the first time perhaps since childhood I am completely conscious of this moment. I am here. I am a five-year-old again visiting the beach for the first time. Tomorrow may change who I am, where I go and what I become. Life remains uncertain. But for the remainder of the afternoon, there is nowhere on earth I’d rather be than here in this windswept forest.

My wife later asked me the question, “So who you are?” I told her I am whom you see, we are here together at this moment and I care about you very much. Beyond that what constitutes my physical being does not matter. What I am now makes me happy. She looked at me in a curious way wondering perhaps if I had just escaped from a block of ice like Houdini. We began to laugh. I now stand next to my apartment window in midtown Manhattan at 3:00 am. peering out at the familiar sight of the Chrysler Building two blocks away and pondering the concerns of the day ahead. In this predawn darkness, the magnificent lights crowning the building are glowing in the mist of a gentle rain. Even now just outside my window I hear the sound of silence. My heart is dust scattered yesterday. Wind on the skin.