Stop that Distant Temple Bell
Miscellaneous Zen Koans
A friend recently posted on Facebook a quote attributed to a favorite author, Jorge Luis Borges, “Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.”
This is one of those really interesting quotes that seem to have several mothers. These include Confucius (of course), Mark Twain, (again, of course), and Abraham Lincoln (one more of those of courses…). I’ve also seen the assertion that the phrase about keeping silent unless it can improve the situation is an “American proverb,” a “New England proverb,” and a “Spanish proverb.” Perhaps it is.
The sentiment seems near universal. Actually perhaps it is universal wisdom. The oldest citation I can ascertain in a simple search is from Proverbs, which tells us “Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is counted wise: and he that shuts his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.” Or, in that more contemporary twist, it’s better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.
Of course this also suggests a certain ambivalence about silence. Which I find an important corrective to a mere worshiping of the absence of words. And, another corrective, Martin Luther King, Jr lamented how, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
So, what are we looking for here?
Plutarch tells us “Silence at the proper season is wisdom, and better than any speech.” Which I find very helpful. The Quaker William Penn reminds us “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” Another harmonizing of silence and speech.
And, with that, coming full circle, Mohandas Gandhi advised us to “Speak only if it improves upon the silence.”
Perhaps it’s obvious there are differing silences. And with that complexity, all of it, I find myself thinking of a koan one encounters early on in the Harada/Yasutani curriculum.
“Stop that distant temple bell.”
Here we get another angle yet on silence.
With this question every encounter that led to that moment of a bell ringing in the distance is drawn upon. Here you are, here I am. Perhaps sitting by a creek, in the shade of a tree on a lovely Summer day. And in the distance, somewhere beyond the horizon, a bell rings. Deep, lovely. Ring… A pause, perhaps. A ring.
To find the deep of the way the Zen student has to know that she is empty. The bell is empty. The sound is empty. The Zen student has to know he is here, the bell is here, the sound is here.
And it is all silent. What does stop mean in this context?
A hint or two. There is no deeper spiritual meaning veiled beneath the weight of thingness. It is silent. No dualism. And no reductive “one.” It is silent.
When we’ve allowed every thing to drop, including self and other, what is left? In the context of the koan, “stop that distant temple bell,” what is left?
Stop. That. Distant. Temple. Bell.
All tumbles into the silence. Everything before. Everything after.
Silence. What I find in this world of hurt and loss as I enter silence is something precious and powerful, terrible and beautiful. And. Out of the silence I have indeed found something.
Danin Katagiri Roshi was past familiar with silence. And he reminded us that “Sometimes you have to say something.” Here, out of the silence, I find a word. Love. Yes, as a word love falls so short. It has to do too much work, standing for sentimentality and the burning away of self and other, and so much in between.
And yet. Within the mystery of stopping the distant temple bell, really learning what that means, really finding the ways of silence, something mysterious and beautiful emerges. Silence and presence seem to intertwine. And it is experienced as love.
The story of Job speaks to that place, where in the end Job’s prayer is answered, not by words but by presence. A terrible and beautiful presence. A terrible and beautiful silence which can and often is experienced as love.