Quiet Mind & Open Heart
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NOTE: This writing continues our theme of Buddhist teaching on "Right View," an aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. For the previous essays, one can begin reading August 24, 2021, "Jewels in the Garbage." In this writing, we differentiate Right View and wrong views and posit the conversion of the latter into right views, so Right View. We explore how silence affords an internal environment for this transformation.
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A temple with a thousand bells was built on an island. There were bells big and small, fashioned by the most skilled craftsmen in the world. When the wind blew or a storm raged, the bells would peal out in a symphony that would send the heart of hearers into rapture. Over the centuries, the island sank into the ocean, with the temple and its bells, too.
An ancient legend said the bells still rang out ceaselessly and could be heard by listening closely. Inspired by this legend, a young man traveled across sea and land to listen to the bells.
After arriving, the man sat for days on the shore, facing where the island sank and listening with all his might. All he heard was the sound of the sea churning and roaring. He made every effort to block out the chaos of the sea, but to no avail; the sound of the sea seemed to flood the shore, even the world.
The young man kept at his task for weeks, trying to hear the bells. Each time, failing to hear them, he got more disheartened, even, at times, angry. Every few days, he would walk into the village and listen to the villagers speak with him about the legend. Their words would inflame his heart to try again, only for him to become discouraged when further efforts yielded no results. Finally, he decided to give up efforts to hear the pealing of the thousand bells. Perhaps, he thought to himself, he was not fated to listen to the bells. Maybe the legend was not even true, he contemplated.
On his final day in the distant land, he went to the shore to say goodbye to the sea, sky, wind, and coconut trees; these had been his companions for many weeks. He lay on the soft, wet, and warm sand, and for the first time, he listened to the sea. He no longer thought of the bells. He listened to the waves, the roaring of breakers upon the shore, and the waters returning out to open sea. Soon, he was so lost in the sound that he was barely conscious of himself, so deep was the silence that had arisen within him. The silence seemed to surround his body and all about him.
In the depth of that silence, he heard the tinkle of a bell. The tinkle was followed by the sound of another bell, and more and more, until each one of the thousand bells was pealing out in exuberant harmony. This symphony rapt his heart and body in joyous ecstasy. He rested in this peace for several hours, but what seemed like timelessness.
Before leaving for home, the man visited the villagers for the last time. He told them of the miracle of the bells. When asked how he had come to hear the bells, he said, "I came to listen to the bells. I had to learn to listen to the sea." They smiled, and he sensed they already had learned that same lesson.
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Earlier in my spiritual training, I sought to flee the world to enjoy union with the Beloved. I learned, after years, of the need to enter fully into the world to discover the Truth. The prior attempt to escape had served a role - to prepare for an inscape into the world. Afterward, I learned what is outside this human realm is in it, and what is inside this human realm is outside it. In Buddhist terms, the Saha world - that of suffering, birth and death -, and Nirvana - that of the extinction of suffering, birthlessness and deathlessness - is where I sit right now writing these words. Theistically speaking, whether you run from or to God, there is God.
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Silence was essential to the arising of this native understanding within me. To discover the wisdom, I spent over two decades in daily practices of devotion and meditation. I see that without silence, I would not see what I now see. Without silence, I will not see what I have yet to see. We never arrive at a point of not needing silence to evolve spiritually. There is no exit ramp from spiritual practice.
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Buddhists utilize the image of mud in teaching meditation. The mind, or heart, is cloudy. The mind is not impure, yet the churning of thought, whether seen as good or bad, creates consternation and impurities overlaying consciousness. This churning of thought, a habit energy, is referred to as Monkey Mind. Hence, for insight to arise, silence is the principal means of calming this rush of thought. The mud of the mind-in-a-hurry, with its racing, blocks clarity.
The Pure Land sutra lists five impurities, or pollutions, creating what is read as "turbidity" (Thich Nhat Hanh. Finding our True Home). One of these aspects is wrong views, or wrong perceptions. Incorrect perception obstructs seeing correctly. If I perceive something as it is not, I do not see it as it is. Hence, to live with Right View, or spiritual wisdom, wrong views are transformed into right views. Here, wrong or right is not a moral matter; it is a matter of insight.
Consequently, with Right View, or Right Understanding, we see in the Eightfold Noble Path "concentration" and "meditation." I will explore these later in this series. For today, I stress the role of silence in transforming wrong views into Right View and right views.
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We might, in aspiring for truth, wish to ignore wrong views. This denial will not work. We need insight into our errant ideas. The wrong view aspect of the mud is our teacher. We know the straight by knowing the crooked. In clearly seeing false perceptions, they can be transformed through compassionate mindfulness. For example, we may have, unbeknownst to us, racial, gender, political, ethical, class, or religious biases, along with any one of a host of other prejudiced notions. Many of us have these biases lingering from the past of our ancestors and our present history, and they often are hidden in the unconscious. Some of these wrong view seeds were watered before we knew how to recognize them as wrong. We may be surprised when the repressed errant perceptions pop up into consciousness in a single, unkind thought or feeling. Seeing itself is transformative.
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Many years ago, when a seminary student, I was leaning toward espousing universalism - in Christianity, meaning God does or will eventually accept all persons. I had been taught an exclusivist form of Christian faith. I was raised in a culture where only professing Christians would go to enjoy a heaven forever, while all others would go to a hell forever. I struggled over many months with whether or not to accept universalism as the correct view, partly for this meant a major shift with significant consequences for life and career. To espouse universalism, even a Christian universalism, would be a break from my tradition, friends, and family. Proponents of an elitist form of faith surrounded me. My future work and income were based on this exclusivism.
A moment of truth occurred attending a Native American rite of sacred dance. I observed the dance and felt the environment. I listened with body and mind. All I could feel and think of what was happening was these dancing were as much of God as anyone in my sect. I sensed the Sacred and sacredness deeply. I could not deny they were as much of God as anyone I knew.
Before I left the rite, I knew I had been raised with a wrong view. After months of this dilemma cooking in the heart oven, the cooking had come to an end. I never returned to the prior exclusivism, even though the new perspective and other changes of religious belief led to much suffering and, eventually, the loss of work in the sect and, later, the Christian faith altogether.
The above story is important partly for its indication of the importance of time. Wrong views are like that bread-of-indecision in the oven. They go through a time of cooking. Our mistaken beliefs must be exposed to the Fires of Love. Of course, the heart already knows the truth, even while we escape into the head to try to justify our current view. And some transformations of perception may happen quickly; yet, most will not. And the more deeply engrained the wrong perception, the longer it will likely take for a right view to emerge into acceptance. Also, these transformations will occur more easily and quickly in supportive environments. Simply put, we cannot rush this process. We cooperate, trusting the change to occur provided we remain true to our aspiration to see rightly. When we value truth above all lesser loyalties, truth will reveal itself.
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So, silence will clear the way for wrong views to appear, previously repressed and latent in the store consciousness. We may start meditation seeking calm - this is where I began, and likely most do. We find out meditation opens up to disquiet, too. In the silence, we see both the "good" and the "bad" we have not welcomed into awareness. So, silence offers us many teachable moments. We do not want to miss the opportunity the mud offers us. Yet, if we go into silence only for peace, we will miss the openings to increase insight. Over time, we can relax into what appears, see it, and let it go. We gain in right views without getting stuck to wrong views.
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Again, we will continue this subject of the transmutation of wrong views into right views, so Right View, by exploring concentration, or mindfulness, and meditation, or meditative absorption. In doing so, we will introduce how one practicing meditation moves from Shamatha ("Calm Abiding Meditation") to Vipassana ("Insight Meditation") - Vajrayana is the third development, when one learns techniques of utilizing energies - "positive" or "negative" - to fuel spiritual awakening beyond dualistic consciousness. Yet, the ultimate of Right View is beyond any notion of wrong or right. This, too, we will address later in this series.
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*© Brian K. Wilcox, 2021
*Story of the temple bells adapted from Anthony De Mello. The Song of the Bird.
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse. The book consists of poems based on wisdom traditions, predominantly Christian, Buddhist, and Sufi, with extensive notes on the poetry's teachings and imagery.