What is silence?
Silence (seijaku) is a principle tenet of Zen. Because of the reputation of Zen as aesthetics guiding philosophy, silence is often approached by visitors to Zen as an image or metaphor or epiphenomenon. The image is usually a garden, a temple, a quiet forest, a physical object evoking silence. But the same concreting happens in music, as when composer John Cage identifies silence as that which happens when there is no noise or sound. Such an interpretation of silence falls short of understanding, and reduces silence to a material category.
If silence is not a concrete thing but an absence, then perhaps there is no other alternative to this conventional approach. In modern culture, one is used to approaching the transcendent by a sleight-of-hand, a stealthy trick of either ignoring, obliterating, or denying the oppressive present with its technology and its artificial culture. Or, instead, we evoke something positive by analogy, as in the images of garden, temple, or forest. We exhaust grasping silence in itself and seek other ways.
But then the images themselves become transcendent objects, evoking silence as immanent, evoking not a physical reality but an imagination, a mental construct of something we demand should be essence rather than ephemera. Even in that process, however, we cannot obliterate our surroundings, only suspend them a while. We necessarily are conscious of the oppressive society around us, making silence just a welcome if temporary time-out.
One danger, particularly Western, is to make forays at silence, periods of recovery before resuming our pursuit of profit, sociability, or pleasure. Such forays are a spiritual tourism, even voyeurism. This attitude often infects meditation, yoga, or other spiritual practices. Traditional Western practices were infected by it long ago because the age of materialism came earlier to the culture.
The world and society consists primarily of raw noise, with culture being what one could call filtered noise. Raw noise is what the world sounds like if compressed in time and space: talk, noise, music, marketing, roars of pleasure, laughter, terror, fear, or hatred, news, talk shows, noisy technology, noisy events, humming workplace, urban centers, loud or faraway aircraft, low-frequency disturbances … A number of writers have pursued sounds of nature and non-human origins, but modern society and culture are best defined by sound as noise (“noise” being “undesired sound”). Take away sound and one experiences an eerie deafness, nd the acts and events and human movements become surreal and meaningless.
Silence is never absolute in nature, but can usually be defined as meaningful, of following consequence and act. The sound of volcanic eruption follows logically, as do communicative sounds of animals. Birds sing serendipitously to our layperson’s ear, but some scientists maintain that human speech may have ultimately evolved from bird song, it being so magical in its vocalization and variety. But if sound in nature always follows a purpose, its silence also follows a purpose. When nothing is happening in nature, there is silence. Can human beings achieve such self-discipline?
Short of a more thorough-going eremitic approach to the society and culture as far as eschewing non-silence, or anti-silence — not feasible for most people, even most solitaries — the engagement with silence must be deliberate and conscious. To expect silence in one’s life requires cultivating it. To cultivate silence requires practicing silence. Aesthetics is useful in understanding what we want to pursue, even when silence cannot be grasped directly. Even meditation does not grasp silence directly but always bids us forward slowly. Silence must be disclosed and cannot be manufactured. Silence is not intrinsic to the mind because our body is constantly pursuing activities that nourish the bain’s desire for engagement, alertness, and participation in the environment around us, an accretion left over from the animal world of alertness, of fight or fright, always “on.” Silence in nature is not absolute because it may mean merely an attentive fear on the part of prey.
But the human brain has the potential to be aware and conscious, not collapsing into an attentive fear or watchfulness, which is what keeps us so attuned to our artificial social and cultural environment. A natural environment has been stripped from most people, replaced by urban physical environments but also modern mental environments with telecommunications, marketing, consumerism, and an overlay of psychological dependency. This intrusiveness of the modern world reaches even remote settings, especially if people still crave connection to the world. Silence in nature, simplicity in setting, is the most revelatory of what silence consists. This pursuit can be cultivated, being secure in insecurity, or better, being comfortable eliminating the subtle instincts and false positives of the body.
The pursuit of silence may be occasional, as in a vacation in nature or a spiritual retreat, or deliberate, such as daily meditation practice. But most people will have to stop at some point in order to return to the world: to commute, work, socialize, and carry out the mundane trivialities that comprise life. A key insight of Zen philosophy is identification of silence not as a tool for manipulation and accommodation so much as an essential characteristic of the universe that eludes us if we do not actively engage it.
Only from that premise can one return to the necessities of life and yet be thoroughly engaged in them, having eliminated what is not necessary and embracing that which is left only because it is essential. Cooking rice and drinking tea were seen as such activities in classical Japan, activities not only nourishing but requiring complete attention, however simple they are. As Shunryu Suzuki used to say, when we do something, we should do it so thoroughly that we burn to an ash. By definition, this would be possible only after we had thoroughly engaged in the principles of Zen in simplifying life and freeing ourselves from worldly attachments. Then our activities would be completely appropriate. The we would appreciate the interpenetration of our lives with silence.
While meditation is a direct engagement with silence, aesthetics affords an oblique path. We stare at the object, and the object stares at us, and only contextually do we break down our ego and begin to empathize with the whole — the setting, the texture, the context, the possibility of being one in identifying with the object, with its fragility, its imperfection, its artlessness, its dependence, and, ultimately, its transience. Thus aesthetics reflects philosophy, and philosophy provides the links between disparate parts of our lives. We live in harmony with the objects that satisfy principles of aesthetics, and our lives become as compelling as the objects. We share the objects’ silence.
This is why the Zen garden impresses the most casual viewer. An immediate and negative reaction might be a demand for greenness, lushness, pleasure derived from fecundity and display. But the Zen garden startles in its though embrace of Zen principles. The silence of a kitchen garden is based on modesty, whereas the silence of the Zen garden is based on the purest philosophy. Both are otherworldly if we completely empathize with them in their silence.
Similarly, to enter ambient music is startling because the immediate and negative reaction is to demand flourishes, melodies, happy engagement. Instead there is the conscious presentation of silence as a theme, a complementary evocation of simplicity and profundity that is close to silence while still being a soundscape that can be ignored as background or actively listened to as aesthetics. In such music, the sound is, in effect, that which we would hear if we wanted to hear silence. Of course, there are versions of ambient music, whereas there is only one version of the Japanese garden, but seeking out the better examples is similar to seeking out the craft objects inspired by Zen principles of wabi and sabi.
Silence is a fundamental structure of existence, avoided by many and actively opposed by institutions and social structures because silence takes down the artificiality of society and daily life, and naturally allows the mind to deconstruct its facade, to identify with the larger whole. Silence bypasses the contrivances of human effort and society. Silence restores the notion of creativity to that aesthetic plane from which humans occasionally draw but seldom seem to comprehend as more than a source of amusement and time-wasting indulgence. Silence becomes a part of our lives when we see in it a commonality that all beings share.