Sesshin: The Great Silence


September 17, 2013

As our sangha approaches its first sesshin, I offer these teachings with our circumstances and experiences in mind. If others can also draw  encouragement and inspiration from them as well, I am truly grateful.

Formal zazen is grounded in silence.Sometimes, even without ever hearing of Zen, something deep within us is drawn to stillness or silence or solitude. It is like the Buddha, after six years of ascetic practice recalling his childhood  experience of peace and calm under the rose apple tree. The resonance of this upaya  reverberates through sesshin and zazenkai. If we allow it, it reverberates through the entirety of life. During sesshin our attention is drawn to it. At those times the container, an all-pervading  embrace we call “the great silence”, is the foundation of our practice together . It allows us to open into and beyond whatever experience we have had of silence or solitude, even though we are among sounds and among others.

It may be helpful to draw our attention to the distinctions between our usual way of defining “silence” and “solitude” and the broader way we tend to use those words in describing the ground of our  practice.

Silence is usually defined as the forebearance or absence of speech, sound, or noise. Solitude is usually defined as being alone, apart or remote from all human beings. “Solitude” often connotes choice and “isolation” often connotes lack of choice.

As we enter, abide in, and embody the Great Silence of sesshin, we use the broadest definition of silence that we can sense or manifest. It is not a silence defined by absence, but by our own turn toward who we truly are.  During sesshin it is quiet, but sounds will be arising all around us. It is not a silence arising through being apart from others. We will be in community. It is a stillness arising through our settling into being who, what, and where we are. It is wordless awareness and wholehearted presence that is generous  through its absence of knowing, labeling, and commenting. It is a silence so spacious that it includes all the sounds of the universe. It is the silence of Avalokiteshvara, the one who hears the cries of the world. As the universe gives off the noise and sound that naturally arises, we have the intention of listening, observing, holding a deep interior silence. When we notice our own internal chatter, we drop it so that we can be present to the sounds of the world, of our whole self. We let the breath blow through the mind. The great silence is the experience of living deeply settled into ourselves regardless of setting or circumstances.