A year ago, I attended a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist Monk from Vietnam. 800 of us gathered in a large meditation room on a dusty mountain side north of San Diego. With great anticipation, people from around the country gathered to hear this spiritual master give what Buddhists call a “dharma” talk – a lesson for the day.
During the first 15 minutes of the first session, all he talked about was how to ‘invite the bell’ used to call people to meditation.
Using a simple whiteboard, he drew these shapes as he explained first to the children and then the adults the proper way – not to ring, but to invite – the bell.
The circle with the slash through it represents one breath in and breath out. Two such circles means in/out, in/out. The half circle means a half hit with the ringer. A whole circle means a full hit. Breathe twice, half hit, breathe 3 times, full ring, three times more, full ring, three times more.
In his teaching Hanh said there is a tranquility and calmness and peace and joy in us, but we have to call them so that they can manifest themselves. This love, joy, stability, is what he would call the Buddah within us; what Christians would call the Kingdom of God within or the Christ Spirit within.
When we invite the bell to sound, it is because the bell is considered as a friend, someone who helps us to come back to ourselves, become calm.
Even preparing for silent meditation, I began to realize, requires mindfulness and intentionality.
As we continue our journey called “Outside the Box,” today we will explore the power of silence from a Buddhist vantage point. While silence is not new to the Christian experience, we in the Protestant tradition, especially, are often a faith rooted in words. We typically express our faith through Scriptures, hymns, prayers, sermons and testimony. Today we ask what we might gain from adding to these words a deeper appreciation for and practice of silence.
One of the reasons we turn to Buddhists for insight is in most practicing communities, they use silence not as an escape, but as a centering, clarifying, deepening practice that allows them more authentic and heartfelt action in a world needing compassion and hope.
Paul Knitter writes in his book, Without Buddha I could Not be A Christian, that his experience with Buddhism has shown him more deeply the power of this practice and actually claims that Christians need an additional sacrament – the sacrament of silence.
Sacraments – like communion and baptism – point us to a deep mystery that transcends the words and rituals. They point us to the presence of the sacred all around us. In the same way, he suggests, the Buddhist practice of silent meditation might help us enter the mystery of faith and our own sense of the sacred.
There are many forms of meditation, but the Zen Buddhist practice is one that emphasizes not mantras or singing, but wordlessness. In Zen Buddhism, the practitioner is invited to let words, pictures, thoughts drop away. This ‘wordlessness’ they believe, helps us come to see that the experience of faith is essentially one of trust. Rather than coming to God with a list of concerns or gratitudes, we can seek in meditation to sense or intuit trust.
We are reminded (from Buddhists) that the point of departure in all prayer is mindfulness.
Mindfulness in prayer helps us first acknowledge what is going on as honestly as we can and then allows us to accept it as fully as we can. This does not mean we agree, that we like it, that we approve of it. But it does acknowledge that we don’t control it. As we acknowledge and accept, we are able to then make room for ‘letting the Spirit in.’ As we let the Spirit in, our response will come from the place where we connect with that Spirit – not as a knee jerk reaction of fear, envy or anger.
Petitionary prayer is first and foremost to connect –with the Spirit alive within us and in the people, situations and experiences that we care about or are concerned about. We might consider our time of sharing Joys and Concerns as a model for all our petitionary prayer. Do you notice that as we collect all the joys and concerns together into a concluding prayer – we don’t tell God what to do? We seek to honor the loving intention that lifted the concern or joy to us; we seek to be open ourselves to insight on how to embody God’s grace. We aren’t ‘solving’ problems through bringing the prayers to this community or to God. Rather, we share the truth of our lives and the people we care about, and seek to be open to the Spirit.
For many of us, it is easier to ‘let the Spirit’ in the presence of a community than by ourselves. And quite honestly, in community we can be surrounded by others who in this moment are more grounded and trusting than we can be. We benefit from their practice of letting the Spirit in. Next week, we might do that same for them.
We acknowledge that what we have to offer is not analysis or ideas for God about what God can do. What we do offer is our our mindful, loving, hopeful presence or attention. What we do – alone and together –when we pray – is to honor the Christ Spirit in all things and all people, and we trust that this is enough.
Knitter goes further in suggesting silence as integral to our experience of worship. Silence, he suggests, helps us see more deeply into the liturgy- the words, the images, the community. Silence helps us sit with the mystery that surrounds all of our faith. Maybe we don’t understand the Scripture, or we don’t like the text of a prayer, or we cringe at the way another frames their experience of God. In silence, he suggests, we are able to attend to truth that all of this is mystery. The words are only pointing to a reality beyond words.
For example, I struggle with the word Father for God. I struggle when the pro nouns are always ‘he.’ But what Knitter suggests is that given an opportunity for communal silence and meditation, I might more easily see through the language to the deep and abiding faith someone is expressing. Or conversely, I might resonate with the language but in silence, I might understand more deeply our collective desire to live into what we say, and acknowledge how hard it is to trust even with the ‘right’ language. The words – words I may or may not have chosen for myself – can be ‘true’ for me or someone else, but they do not represent “The truth.” They are only pointing to a truth we are all seeking to embrace and understand.
As we cross back over to the Christian faith and the Christian narrative, our sacred readings today are just a small sample of the ways Jesus incorporated silence in his own practice of faith. Like us, he found it hard to do in the midst of his daily routine, and so the stories speak of him stealing away to a quiet and deserted place. Many of his miracles came on the heels of having his silent and solitary prayer interrupted. These small stories, which often feel like ‘throw away’ lines before or after larger more famous stories – point to a deep understanding of the practice of faith. One might wonder if the reason they were so lightly mentioned is that it was so widely understood that this kind of silence was central to the practice of faith. So central that it didn’t really need much mention.
Mindful of our long tradition, cognizant of Buddhist methods, and keenly aware that for many of us silence is not our friend, I’d invite us into a lengthy period of silent prayer right now.
In ‘inviting the bell’ we’ll be inviting the kingdom of God within to be present. As we ‘invite the bell,” we know that some of us long for silence and others of us dread it. But together, we seek to open ourselves to the mystery of faith around us. We’ll use Hanh’s method, and I’ll close our time by ringing the bell twice.