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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Does it Improve Upon the Silence?

to find an answer
you must lose the question first.

James: This is the saying for the month of February on my Zen calender and reminds me of another jewel of wisdom. That being, "Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary, does it improve upon the silence?" -Shirdi Sai Baba. It is also attributed to the Quakers.

I don't always improve upon the silence but It is something that I strive toward via mindfulness, which I work on cultivating through the practice of meditation. I have personally found it to be somewhat difficult to foster right speech without mindfulness because through mindfulness I am more aware of what I'm saying. I have found personally that it is hard to expect mindfulness to unfold in the moment without practicing it regularly. I find it to be like exercising muscles to maintain top fitness.

When I'm not being aware it is easy for my mind to simply go on auto-pilot and thoughts arise without awareness, which are all too often blurted out in verbal excess and disharmony. It seems to me that eventually we won't have to actively concentrate on cultivating mindfulness but that it will be our inner and outer reality spontaneously arising in each present moment without thought.

Until then I still need the training wheels on my bicycle to use an example. I still need to actively concentrate upon what is going on in the present moment, which includes of course being aware of what I am saying and what consequences those words carry. There is a paradox between realizing the imperfection of language and that words in the end can't replace practice and experiencing the moment. However, we still need language to describe how to get to the point where we no longer need so much communication.

In closing I'd like to share some wonderful thoughts on mindfulness meditation from the Tibetan Buddhist master Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche:

No matter what kind of thought comes up, you should say to yourself, “That may be a really important issue in my life, but right now is not the time to think about it. Now I’m practicing meditation.” It gets down to how honest we are, how true we can be to ourselves, during each session.

Everyone gets lost in thought sometimes. You might think, “I can’t believe I got so absorbed in something like that,” but try not to make it too personal. Just try to be as unbiased as possible. Mind will be wild and we have to recognize that. We can’t push ourselves. If we’re trying to be completely concept-free, with no discursiveness at all, it’s just not going to happen.

So through the labeling process, we simply see our discursiveness. We notice that we have been lost in thought, we mentally label it “thinking”—gently and without judgment—and we come back to the breath. When we have a thought—no matter how wild or bizarre it may be—we just let it go and come back to the breath, come back to the situation here.

PHOTO: Portland Japanese garden.
~Peace to all beings~

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Paul said...

Wow. Wow. I love that little piece of insight. It is truly amazing. I have put it now as my email footer as that is too much of a powerful message not to spread.

I am far from perfect when it comes to silence but one thing I can do is shut up ;) Not my monkey mind but I've never really felt the need to fill the air with waffle (waffle is a UK term not sure if its used in North America but it basically means pointless rambling).

I *get* the silence. I love the silence. The silence loves me back.

Excellent post. I always look forward to seeing a number against this blog in my Google Reader

St.John said...

I have to be mindful about discursive speech everyday, as I should. My transition into this practice was difficult coming from a vulgar military background where discursive speech was not only common, but encouraged. Enjoyed the post.

elf_man said...

Ooh, I've been to that garden. Great place.

Artspan Staff said...

"to find an answer
you must lose the question first."

-just perfect. thanks.

M:e said...

This is simply beautiful...thank you for sharing your thoughts here. It has given me much to take away with me.

love and hugs xxx

anonymous said...

Perhaps this does

They call him James Ure said...


Thank-you Dharma brother. It is a powerful insight to contemplate indeed.

St. John:

Yeah I do more cussing than I should and I get angry at people easily at times. I also need to be more patient though I am pretty patient in some areas where many are not.


Me too. I wish I could visit it every day or at least once a week. I'd meditate there if they'd let me.


It is a wonderful message and one that I need to hear. I'm glad that I shared it with you all.


Thank-you for the warm wishes and I'm glad that you enjoy the blog. It has given me much to think about too. The beauty for me of this blog in part is enjoying learning with everyone else.


That VERY much DOES improve upon the silence and it is so wonderful!! And yet people still think animals are "dumb." Thank-you for sharing this with us all. I know for me personally it has made my day.

smellincoffee said...

I've read (on Wikiquote) that Gandhi said "Speak only if it improves upon the silence". I like the expanded quotation you used to introduce the post with: thank you.,

PeterAtLarge said...

Silence is hard to improve on, James. They say it's "golden." I say, more valuable than gold. Thanks for posting these thoughts.

Earnest said...

Excellent post and really insightful and important lessons. I think if we can do just this, the world and our lives would be such a much better place.



They call him James Ure said...


I thought I'd heard the quote before. I adore Gandhi.


It is one of the most precious things in life I have found.


Oh exactly. It is a profound lesson and could do so much good for all of us as you alluded to. Silence is where I reset myself

Tom said...

As people who know me online know too well, I would perfer someone say what's on his mind rather than there be silence. Not that I've achieved my ideal, but I would prefer the messiness of convoluted, stinging speech that too much tranquility.

Freedom of Speech [A United States, not a Buddhism, ideal. Granted.] allows for and perhaps requires an element of bluster.

I figure our job in being kind is not to mind the mess so much. Maybe I don't practice Right Speech, but I do strive for Right Hearing.

Tom said...

"to find an answer you must lose the question first"

An interest quote. But what does it mean?

My first thought is that it means you must be so open in finding the anwswer that you must be willing to disregard the "thesis" or foundation of the question. Of course, in koan practice, the quote is, perhaps, most easily understandable.

But maybe the quote is dadaist or absurdist.

When is Lincoln's birthday?
An umbrella stuck to your nose.

They call him James Ure said...


True, silence isn't always what is needed. Sometimes you have to be direct and straightforward. But that doesn't mean either that we should just go around and chew everyone's lips off. I'm not suggesting that you are saying that--just throwing my thoughts around.

I like your interpretation of the koan that we must forget the thesis. I would add that I think it partly means too that we all ask too many questions lol.

Tom said...

Yay! I hadn't thought of that: We ask too many questions!

StillOnTheRaft said...

"to find an answer you must lose the question first"

I love this, I think it means that we have to let go of all dharmas until there is no question and no answer; a complete understanding of interdependance,perception, emptyness and non dulity, know what I mean?


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