"Emptiness and Silence:" Session No. 9 -- readings from chapter 9, "Winter Mind"

Opening words:

In most western philosophical traditions emptiness means loss, negation, death, the void.  But the Buddhists see things differently... Just as silence is the necessary condition or ground of speech, Buddhist "emptiness" is not negation but pure possibility, the condition or ground of being.   In a cartoon I saw once, it’s the Dalai Lama’s birthday, and he’s opening a gift-wrapped box, which turns out to be empty. Looking into it, the Dalai Lama says: “Nothing.  Just what I’ve always wanted!”

You can think of this essay as offering the gift of an empty box, but you shouldn’t think of me as having offered it.  I merely point out that the gift has already been offered, is offered to you at every moment, is in fact all around you and within you, available as breath.  All that remains is for you to accept it.  That’s both easier and harder than it sounds.  Emptiness, like silence, like love, is not something we choose, not something we reason our way into, but rather something into which we fall, something in which we find ourselves.  The fall into emptiness, into silence, has the nature of an accident.  And though we can’t choose our accidents, we can learn [through meditation, prayer, and other spiritual practices] to make ourselves accident prone. ... In touching emptiness we touch the source, the spring, the creative power out of which the universe flows at every moment.  That source has many names, but I call it “God.”

Preparation (distribute pencils and paper or note cards):

1.  List some of the times and places in which you have found meaningful silence in your life.

2.  List some of the sources of noise in your life -- both literal, external noise and the "noise" inside your head. 


1.  When do you experience meaningful silence in your life?  Is it more often when you are alone, or when with another person or group of people?  Is it more often accidental or the result of a conscious choice?

2.  What's the relationship, for you, between silence and spirituality?

3.  What are some of the sources of noise in your life?

4.  A wise Indian yogi once said, "Before speaking, consider whether it is an improvement upon silence."  When is speaking an improvement upon silence?  When is it not?

5.  How might you reduce the noise in your life?

6.  When are you most aware of what you would call the "sacred" or "God" or "the source of life"?

7.  What difference would it make in your life if you carried this awareness with you all the time?

Closing words:

Our current situation demands mystics who can balance their checkbooks, get the kids to school, and put food on the table.  We are called not to sit in a cave, or even to lie at the edge of a moonlit field, but to see every object and every action against the luminous background of emptiness.  In the midst of our working and doing we take our stand, we open ourselves to emptiness, as John Tarrant writes, “bringing the great background near, so that whatever we do, rising in the quiet, has force and beauty.”  Coming out of silence each word gains substance; coming out of emptiness each action grows distinct.  In [remaining aware of the sacred background behind all that we do] we find ourselves free, regardless of our circumstances, to speak in kindness and act for the good.