Indestructible Silence

However hard we shout, silence cannot be destroyed. It is always there, throughout space and time. Sounds come and go but silence remains unmoved; it can even be found in the loudest voice. We may not necessarily notice, but all sounds – even the most irritating noise –  carry with them pristine silence: it is the substance of everything that can be heard.

So, we don’t need to wait until everything is completely still. It is very much possible to hear silence while somebody is talking. But it is easier when listening to people who have themselves realized that all sounds carry silence, as such people express themselves differently. That’s why we need poetry and good music. We are more likely to hear the silence in Mozart’s string quartets than in the rumbling of an agricultural machine.

In our Saturday sutra-reading class, we have been reciting the Avatamsaka Sutra out loud. When we first started, it seemed a bit much and we had to get used to the flowery language and the elaborate metaphors. But after the third time, nobody wanted to stop. We all sensed that something was being conveyed that went far beyond what we were reciting. All these words seemed to be only a wrapping for deep and silent wisdom.

The question is, can we learn to manifest any of this wisdom when we open our mouths to talk? So much of our speech is offensive. It would definitely help if we allowed silence to remain present within and around the words we are using. A student once complained to me that nobody would listen to him. And I thought, that may be so but you do happen to be difficult to listen to – you give no space, no room to breathe – so there is no way to really communicate.

When we only talk and we ignore silence, we are not in tune with reality. In fact, we are actually lying. So, who would want to listen to us in the first place? When I heard Maezumi Roshi speak for the first time, I didn’t understand much of what he said, but I knew one thing: it was the most interesting thing I’d ever heard. I would focus on his face to try to catch his intent and closely follow the changes of expressions, from kind to stern, from hilarious to dead serious – an ungraspable landscape, alive and wide open. The words almost seemed superfluous.

This principle can easily be extended to space. It took me many years of painting and looking at paintings – contemplating the things that painters painted and then returning to those paintings, and then making my own paintings, over and over again – before I realized that forms cannot destroy or even substitute space. Essentially, all forms are space – the space they inhabit is not deleted by the fact of their being forms. Now, this may sound obvious but it is not so easy to make this visible in a painting. But if you don’t, you’ll end up with a really bad painting. The effect would be almost aggressive, something to turn your eyes away from. However, when the forms that cover a canvas really inhabit space, we feel an immediate attraction.

As a person who easily suffers from claustrophobia, I am so happy that we ended up in the north of Groningen. We are surrounded by endless fields, and for me they are all “fields of benefaction.” They make me feel as if anything can happen here, and that reflects back on my mind. I am constantly reminded of what often seems to be ignored: our inherent spaciousness that defies all dualistic notions about self and others.

When we hear the silence in words, and when we see the emptiness of forms, our world changes. Things start to move and fall into place. This eventually extends to what we do throughout the day. We are often so busy. But in the opening line of Shodoka (The Song of Enlightenment), the Chinese master Yoka Daishi asks us, “Haven’t you seen the one who is at ease and has not much to do?”  It is only when we recognize the leisurely one that lives deep within us that our activities will start to bear fruit, because we then allow them the time and the space to develop by themselves.

Needless to say, for this to take place, zazen is indispensable.


  1. Watching a docu about vlieland, the space, and there are you writen me about this space in Listening. Thank you for this pearl. I miss this!

  2. This blog brings to mind one of the first practices I learned from you — opening one’s awareness 360 degrees. No matter where I am, but especially when surrounded by nature, this practice brings me into the spaciousness of being. Even pulling weeds can be transformed into meditation. Thank you!

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