Not All Silence is Sacred - Science and Nonduality (SAND)

Not All Silence is Sacred

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In my spiritual work at the intersection of sound, meditation, and Deep Listening, I’m intimately aware of the sacred and nuanced realms of silence. However, bearing witness to the unspeakable violence unfolding in the world in places like Congo, Myanmar, and especially (writing as an American whose tax money is funding the carnage there) Gaza, it is clear that not all silences are universally sacred.

Silence, in its purest form, is honored within many spiritual doctrines as a sacred space for introspection and connection with the divine in the forms of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Yet, this sanctity is predicated upon the premise of silence as a choice—a retreat from the external chaos to delve into the inner sanctum. When silence morphs into a mantle of inaction in the face of human suffering, its divinity is tarnished. In contexts of injustice, silence transitions from a state of sacredness to a posture ranging from apathy to complicity.

Nearly all spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of silence as a refuge for communing with God, the divine, or the source. As Jesuit priest and psychologist Anthony De Mello said, “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self”. Also, Sufi mystic Rumi writes “Silence is the language of God, all else is a poor translation.” In many Indian spiritual paths (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) one of their most profound concepts is Śūnyatā (often translated as emptiness, but here can be thought of as “silence”). This doctrine of Śūnyatā can be thought of as the formless oneness that permeates all things in a constant motion of interdependence. 

Indeed, from the subatomic world zooming out into the recesses of deep space, we know that almost all existence is an empty nearly silent vacuum. So if we simply sit and commune with what is, we find a profound interconnected field of silence. Paradoxically this field is not empty, in the traditional sense, but pregnant with the infinite potentiality of all that will ever come into being. All sounds emerge from this field of silence, and will eventually fade returning to their source.

Silence is the mother, the source of all, it is the substrate that binds us all together and nourishes our very being.

Avalokiteśvara

As we develop along the spiritual path, it’s essential, especially in our noisy over-mediated spaces, that we spend as much time as possible in silence. Anyone who has tried meditation, gone for a walk in nature, or sat in a silent sacred space knows how profound and healing silence can be. As we nourish our souls in this collective field of silence, we also must develop the wisdom to know when to step out of this field and share the wisdom we find there.

The Buddha did not spend the rest of his life sitting under the Bodhi tree basking inwardly in his own awakening. He stood up and traveled the land describing his awakened state in the hopes that all beings may be free.

Walking the spiritual walk and talking the spiritual talk requires our full devotion to be present with it all. We can’t pick and choose when to be spiritual, only when it’s safe and quiet in our little corner of the world. We must listen with compassion to all of the complexity and messy pain that is our interconnected existence with complete compassion. To listen with compassion means to not turn a blind ear to those who suffer.  We must amplify the energy of our inner spiritual work outwardly to do what we can to relieve the world’s suffering. We must endeavor to hear the cries of the world with the compassionate ear of Avalokiteśvara.

In reflecting upon the embodiment of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, or Guanyin (Kuan-yin) as she is known in East Asian Buddhism, offers a poignant lesson for our times. Avalokiteśvara is a Buddhist deity celebrated for her unwavering compassion. She is said to symbolize the boundless compassion that “hears the cries of the world”. Unlike the passive notion of listening, Guanyin’s listening is an active, vibrant force—a beacon reminding us that our spiritual path is intertwined with the world’s sufferings, activating us towards an awakened engagement.

And this compassionate listening is not simply meek and accepting of reality “just as it is”. It’s an engaged listening grounded in truth and light. It’s the strength of a heart that knows whatever ignorance, fear and hatred fuels the fire of violence in Gaza, the strength of compassion and love will prevail. It’s Martin Luther King’s “arc of the moral universe bending towards justice” under the weight of our collective compassion.

“If floating on a vast sea,
menaced by dragons, fish, or demons,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
the billowing waves cannot drown you.

If from Mount Sumeru’s lofty peak,
someone were to throw you down,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
like the sun you would stand firm in the sky…

If, persecuted by rulers,
you face torture and execution,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
their weapons will thereby shatter to pieces.

If imprisoned in shackles and chains,
hands and feet bound in restraints,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
suddenly you shall be released.”
Chant for Avalokiteśvara

Listen to the voices of Gaza

In the face of such overwhelming violence as we see in Gaza it can be paralyzing to ponder where to begin. I offer a simple place: start by listening. Listening is the first act of loving.

Simply go on YouTube and search for the voices and sounds of what’s happening in Gaza. You don’t even need to watch if that’s too much for you, simply close your eyes and listen. Listen to the voices of two million children, women, and men living through endless bombing, hospitals, schools, and homes destroyed, facing mass starvation, water being cut off, humiliation, terror, and being trapped in a living hell. These voices and experiences need to be heard. It’s not easy, but the spiritual path is not easy.

There’s no shortage of videos to listen to. Although much of it is censored by social media, there is plenty to find even by news organizations like Al Jazeera and Democracy Now.

This act of listening is not merely an auditory process but a profound practice of opening our hearts to the pain and despair of others. True listening is the genesis of love, a portal through which we are invited to share in the collective human experience of suffering and resilience. When you listen your heart will tell you what to do next. As 5th century Christian monk, St. Benedict wrote, “incline the ear of thine heart” and listen deeply to what is happening there. Bear witness. Then listen inwardly to yourself and your body will tell you what to do next to try and stop this madness.

Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism. When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Vietnamese monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh, originator of the deep listening practice of compassionate listening was one of the 20th century’s greatest spiritual leaders. Despite his gentleness and peacefulness, he rose to the challenges of war in his homeland with nonviolent protest and what he coined “Engaged Buddhism”. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism. When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time.”

Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King, Jr. worked together to protest an end to the US / Vietnam War. In 1965 King even nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Listening with compassion can lead to speaking up with your family, friends, colleagues and social circles, it can lead to protesting, it can lead to writing your leaders to stop this unfolding genocide, it can lead to donation money. Maybe it will even lead to you traveling to this or other conflict zones to listen even deeper and volunteer in person.

Embarking on the final steps of our spiritual awakening, we are called to defend the defenseless, to align our actions with the compassionate essence of Avalokiteśvara. This is the embodiment of sacred action—an acknowledgment of our interconnectedness not merely as a philosophical concept but as a lived, actionable truth. By embracing this path, we recognize that the sanctity of silence is contingent upon its context. True sacredness lies in our capacity to listen, empathize, and act with love.

Please visit SAND’s Helpful Resources on Israel/Palestine for more ways to support.

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