The Sound of Silence: The Selected Teachings of Ajahn Sumedho
The sound of silence is like a subtlety behind everything that you awaken to; you don’t notice it if you’re seeking the extremes. Yet as we start to become more poised, more present, fully receptive of all this moment has to offer, we start to experience it vividly and listening to it can draw us ever–deeper into the mysteries of now.
Always skillful and good humored, Ajahn Sumedho’s teachings defy boundaries. Anyone–from laypeople looking to deepen their grasp of the Buddha’s message, to lifetime Buddhist monastics–will appreciate the author’s sparkling insights into to such key Buddhist themes as awareness, consciousness, identity, relief from suffering, and mindfulness of the body. The Sound of Silence represents the best of Ajahn Sumedho’s masterful work to help us all see each life with a new and sustaining clarity.
Excerpt from the book – Chapter 12 The Sound of Silence
“Somebody referred to the sound of silence as a cosmic hum, a scintillating almost electric background sound. Even though it’s going on all the time we don’t generally notice it, but when your mind is open and relaxed you begin to hear it. I found this a very useful reference because in order to hear it, to notice it, you have to be in a relaxed state of awareness. When I describe this people try to find it. They go on a ten-day retreat trying to find the sound of silence, and then they say, ‘I can’t hear it, what’s wrong with me?’ They are trying to find this thing. But it’s not a thing you have to find – rather you just open to it: it’s the ability to listen with your mind in a receptive state, which makes it possible to hear the sound of silence. You’re not trying to solve any problems but just listening. You’re putting your mind into a state of receptive awareness. Awareness that is willing to receive whatever is, and one of the things you begin to recognize in that is the sound of silence.
Some people become averse to the sound of silence. One woman started hearing it and she wanted it to stop, so she resisted it. She said, ‘I used to have peaceful meditations. Now all I hear is that blasted sound and I’m trying to stop it. Before I never heard it, now I sit down and immediately I hear zzzz.’ She was creating aversion towards the way it is, ‘I don’t want that.’ She was creating suffering around the sound of silence. But the sound of silence, rather than creating suffering, can help to focus the mind, because when the mind is aware of it, it’s in a very expanded state. This state of mind is one that welcomes whatever arises in consciousness; it’s not a state where you are excluding anything. The sound of silence is like infinite space because it includes all other sounds, everything. It gives a sense of expansion, unlimitedness, infinity. Other sounds come and go, change and move accordingly, but it is like a continuum, a stream.
I was once giving a retreat in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, in a lovely mountain resort with a waterfall and stream. The meditation hall had been built right by the stream, and the sound of the waterfall was continuous and quite loud. Somebody on the retreat became very averse to the sound of the stream. ‘I can’t meditate here, it’s too noisy. The sound of the stream is just too much, I can’t bear it.’ You can either listen to and open your mind to the sound, or resist it, in which case you are fighting and resisting, and that creates suffering.
I noticed the sound of the waterfall and the stream, and the sound of silence was in the background as well. In fact the sound of silence became the stronger and more obvious, but it did not obliterate the sound of the stream; the two sounds worked together. The sound of the stream did not obliterate or cover up the sound of silence.
So it’s like radar. The mind is in a very wide, expansive state of awareness: inclusive, open, and receptive rather than closed and controlled. So notice and contemplate this experience, and then just concentrate your attention on the sound of silence. If you think about it, think of it like a blessing, grace, or a lovely feeling of being open, rather than as a buzz in the ear, in which case you think that it’s tinnitus or some other disease. If you start contemplating it as the sound of angels, as a cosmic or primordial sound, blessing every moment as you open to it, then you will feel blessed. Reflecting in this way, in a positive way, helps us to take an interest in it and get a good feeling from it.
Listening to the sound of silence, you can begin to contemplate non-thinking, because when you are just listening to the cosmic sound there is no thought. It’s like this – emptiness, not-self. When you’re just with the cosmic sound alone, there is pure attention, no sense of a person or personality, of me and mine. This points to anattā.
Relax into the sound, don’t try to force attention onto it. Just have a sense of relaxing and resting, peacefulness. Try counting to say, ten, to sustain listening to the sound of silence: ‘one, two, three … nine, ten.’ The mind is not used to resting in that way, it’s used to thinking and to restless mental activities. It takes a while to calm, to relax, and to rest in this silence.
In the silence you can also be aware of any emotions that arise. It’s not an annihilating emptiness, it’s not a sterile nothingness, it’s full and embracing. You can be aware of the movements of emotions, doubts, memories, or feelings as they start to become conscious. Silence embraces them; it neither judges, resists, nor gets fascinated with them. It just recognizes and realizes the way it is.
We tend to use the word ‘sound’ in terms of how the mind has been perceptually conditioned. We connect sound with the ears. That’s why the sound of silence is heard as if it were a buzzing in the ears, because the impression of sound is always connected with the ears. But you can plug your ears up and you can still hear it. When you’re swimming underwater you can still hear it. So what is it?
Then you start to realize that it’s everywhere and not just in the ears. That perception of the sound of silence as something heard in the ears is the same misperception as thinking that the mind is in the brain. You’re changing from that very conditioned way of experiencing life, which arises through this sense of self and the culturally conditioned attitudes we hold, to a much wider understanding of the way it is.
So then one can see that the body is more like a radio, more like a conscious entity in the universe that picks up things. Being born as a separate entity in the universe, we are a point of light, a conscious being in a separate form. We tend to assume we are a fixed, solid, physical person, but are we something greater than that – not so limited, heavy, and fixed as our cultural conditioning makes it sound, or as we tend to perceive?
The sound of silence isn’t mine, nor is it in my head, but this form is able to recognize it and know things as they are. This knowing is not a cultural knowing; it’s not like interpreting everything from my cultural conditioning; it’s seeing things as they are, in a direct way, which is not dependent on cultural attitudes. So we really begin to understand anattā, not-self, which enables us to see that we are all connected, all one. We are not, as we appear to be, a collection of totally separate entities. If you start contemplating like this, you begin to expand your awareness to include rather than to define.
So in terms of meditation, we are establishing awareness in the present, collecting, recollecting, contemplating one-pointedness in the present – the body, the breath, the sound of silence. Then we can bring to this an attitude of mettā (loving-kindness), which is a way of relating to and recognizing conditioned phenomena without judging them. Without this attitude we tend to make value judgements about what we experience on a personal level. One person is feeling peace, another person is feeling restless, another person is feeling inspired, another person is feeling bored, another person high, another low; or you’re having good or bad thoughts, stupid or useful thoughts, judgements about the quality of the experience that each one of us is having. In terms of knowing, we are knowing that thought is a condition that arises and ceases. Bad thoughts or horrible thoughts arise and cease, just like good thoughts. It’s not a matter of passing judgement about how bad you are because you are having bad thoughts; it’s about the ability to recognize thought, and to see that the nature of thought is impermanent, changing, not-self. So now just use this cosmic hum, this gentle stream of owing, scintillating sound. Just get familiar with it.
Sometimes with emotional experience we wind ourselves up about something and sometimes have strong emotional feelings such as being indignant or upset – ‘I’m not standing for that; I’ve had enough.’ When that happens, go into the sound of silence and count to five, to ten, and see what happens. Experiment with it, right at this moment. ‘I’m totally fed up, I’ve had enough, this is it.’ Then go into the silence. I used to like to play with this, when I used to suffer from indignation, exasperation, and being fed up. I like that word ‘fed up,’ you can say it with such conviction.
This cosmic sound, the sound of silence, is really a natural sound. That’s why when you learn to rest with it, it’s sustainable; you don’t create it. It’s not like you’re creating a refined state that depends on conditions to support it. To sustain any kind of refined state you have to have very refined conditions supporting it. You can’t have coarse, noisy, raucous, nasty things happening and still sustain a sense of refinement in your mind. To have a refined mental state you have to have silence, few demands, no noise, no distractions, no quarreling, wars, explosions, just a very lovely scene where everything is very precious and controlled. When we get into that state, we can get very precious. Everybody whispers to one another in gentle tones. Then when somebody says, ‘Agh’ it really shatters us and we get very upset because we have become so sensitive.
With the sound of silence, you begin to hear it wherever you are – in the middle of London, in a trafic jam in Bangkok, in a heated argument with somebody, when the pneumatic drill, the lawn mower, and the chainsaw are all going at the same time, even when there is music. So learning to detect it and tuning into it is like a challenge. Sometimes people say: ‘I can’t hear it; there’s too much noise.’ If you are resisting the noise you can’t hear the sound of silence, but if you open to it then you begin to hear the gentle scintillating hum, even with the pneumatic drill blasting away.
Listening to the sound of silence allows us to integrate mindfulness meditation into movement, work, business. If you are in the kitchen washing the dishes, or walking from here back to your room, or driving a car, you are able to listen to the sound of silence at the same time. It does not make you heedless. It allows you to be fully with what you are doing; it increases your mindfulness. It helps you to wash the dishes fully and really be with the washing of the dishes, rather than just washing the dishes and being with all kinds of other things. Walking back to your room, you could be thinking about anything. Using the sound of silence helps you to be with walking, being mindful and with the very action that’s happening in the present.
Sometimes this sound of silence will become very loud and quite unpleasant, but it won’t stay that way. I remember one time it was incredibly loud, ear-splitting. I thought, ‘something’s going wrong.’ Then it changed and I tried to get it loud again and couldn’t. It’s not something that is dangerous. It depends how you look at it. If you resist it or are negative to it, you’re creating that negativity towards it. If you relax and open, then you feel this gently scintillating background sound that is peaceful, calming, and restful. You begin to recognize emptiness – it’s not some vague idea that if you practise meditation you might experience emptiness some day. It’s not a vague kind of thing. It’s very direct.
Then in that emptiness contemplate what ‘self’ is. When you become a personality, what happens? You start thinking, grasping your feelings, then you become a monk or nun, man or woman, a personality, Pisces or an Aries, an Asian or a European or an American, an old man or a young woman or whatever. It’s through thinking, grasping at the khandhas, that we start getting wound up into that, and then we become something. But in this emptiness there is no nationality. It’s a pure intelligence; it does not belong to anybody or any group. So then you start recognizing when you’ve become somebody and nobody, when there is attā (self) and anattā.
In the emptiness there is no self, no Ajahn Sumedho right now. ‘But I want to tell you about my personal history and all my qualifications and my achievements in the holy life over the past thirty-three years. I’m abbot of a monastery, considered a VIB, a Very Important Bhikkhu, and I want you to respect me and treat me properly because you get a lot of merit for being kind to old people!’ That’s Ajahn Sumedho! Or, ‘You don’t have to respect me at all, it does not matter to me in the slightest, I can take it if you don’t like me or if you criticize me and find fault with me. It’s okay, and I’m quite willing to bear it because I’ve sacrificed a lot for all of you.’ But that’s Ajahn Sumedho again. Born again and then gone! Empty.
Just by exploring this you really get to understand what attā is, how you become a personality, and you also get to see that when there is no person, there is still awareness. It’s an intelligent awareness, not an unconscious dull stupidity. It’s a bright, clear, intelligent emptiness. You become a personality through having thoughts like: feeling sorry for yourself, views and opinions, self-criticism and so forth, and then it stops – there is the silence. But the silence is bright and clear, intelligent. I prefer this silence rather than this endless, proliferating nattering that goes on in the mind.
I used to have what I call an ‘inner tyrant,’ a bad habit that I picked up of always criticizing myself. It’s a real tyrant – there is nobody in this world that has been more tyrannical, critical, or nasty to me than I have. Even the most critical person, however much they have harmed and made me miserable, has never made me relentlessly miserable as much as I have myself, as a result of this inner tyrant. It’s a real wet blanket of a tyrant. No matter what I do, it’s never good enough. Even if everybody says, ‘Ajahn Sumedho, you gave such a wonderful desanā (Dhamma talk),’ the inner tyrant says, ‘You shouldn’t have said this, you didn’t say that right.’ It goes on, in an endless perpetual tirade of criticism and fault- finding. Yet it’s just habit; I freed my mind from this habit, it has no footing anymore. I know exactly what it is, and I no longer believe in it or even try to get rid of it. I know not to pursue it and just let it dissolve into the silence.
That’s a way of breaking a lot of these emotional habits we have that plague us and obsess our minds. You can actually train your mind, not through rejection or denial but through understanding and cultivating this silence. So don’t use this silence as a way of annihilating or getting rid of what is arising in experience, but as a way of resolving and liberating your mind from the obsessive thoughts and negative attitudes that can endlessly plague conscious experience.”
source Google Books