Varieties of Buddhist Silence
Words “silence” (P. mona and tuṇhībhāva, Skt. mauna) and “silent” (P. tuṇhī) appear in the Pali Canon in various contexts. Let us explore the most frequent of these cases to uncover the main possible uses of these terms by the Buddha and his leading disciples. It seems proper to start with the Buddha himself and one of his epithets, which is Sakyamuni, “silent sage from the Sakya clan”. An epithet muni as one who took a vow of silence has a long tradition in India, appearing as early as the Vedas:
The munis, girdled with the wind, wear garments soiled of yellow hue.
They, following the wind’s swift course go where the Gods have gone before.
Chāndogya Upanishad, while explaining the practice of a student (brahmacarya), also explains what does a vow of silence mean: “And what people normally call a vow of silence (mauna) is, in reality, the life of a celibate student, for it is through the life of a celibate student that one finds the self and then thinks of it.”
Certainly the vow of silence as a form of ascetic silence, as we called it, was in India one of devotional actions in many non-Vedic schools too. As Tilakaratne says: “In the Indian context, it seems customary to refer to one who lives a religious life as muni, perhaps, because silence may have been an obvious characteristic of them.” Thus, among Jains, where male ascetics were also called muni, one of the festive days of a religious calendar is a day solely devoted to silence. It is called ‘Silence Eleventh’ (maunekadaśī) and falls on the eleventh day of the bright half (i.e. when the moon is waxing) of the month of Mārgaśīrṣa (November/December).
Probably the most striking example of an ascetic silence in the Pali Canon is embodied by a silent sage, muni, as an ideal worth striving to. It is found in the famous Khaggavissāṇa Sutta of the Suttanipāta. This long poem is actually a collection of verses which were, according to tradition, uttered by various paccekabuddhas, often translated as “silent Buddhas”. The sutta gives us an insight into their true character and an exceptional value of a solitary life, as the verses explain how they became disenchanted with the world, went forth, and attained enlightenment:
Having seen radiant [bracelets] of gold,
skillfully fashioned by a goldsmith,
clashing together in pairs on the arm,
one should live alone like a rhinoceros horn.
Thus if I had a partner, I would incur
[fond] words of address or verbal friction.
Looking out for this peril in the future,
one should live alone like a rhinoceros horn.
The ambiguity of the metaphor used in the last verse of each stanza (eko care khaggavisāṇakappo) later gave birth to a variety of interpretations and long-standing debate, as the Pāli word khagga (Skt. khaḍga) has two meanings, “rhinoceros” and “sword”. Anyhow, this unforgettable refrain in a very telling way praises solitary life and ascetic silence as the most beneficial for achieving the final goal of liberation.
Ascetic silence certainly represented a key part of a proper training of bhikkhus. They were expected to speak only when it is appropriate for the given situation and also beneficial for the listeners. In the Dhamaññū Sutta (AN 7:68) seven qualities of the monk who is accomplished in the Dhamma (dhammehi samannāgato) are listed. Two of them are related to our topic. The fifth quality is that he knows when it is time for seclusion, that means silence of presence in general. The sixth one is that he is “the one who knows the assembly” (parisaññu). The sutta further explains that the monk, being with different groups of people, knows how to behave, when is the right time to speak and when to just keep silent.
And how is a bhikkhu one who knows the assembly? Here, a bhikkhu knows the assembly: ‘This is an assembly of khattiyas, this is an assembly of brahmins, this is an assembly of householders, this is an assembly of ascetics. Among these, one should approach [this assembly] in such a way; one should stop in such a way; one should act in such a way; one should sit down in such a way; one should speak in such a way; one should remain silent in such a way.
The Buddha points out to this type of silence in Pariyesana Sutta (M 26) as well, when exhorts the monks: “When you gather together, bhikkhus, you should do either of two things: hold discussion on the Dhamma or maintain noble silence.” In other words, the teacher advises them to deepen their understanding of the teachings through mutual discussion or to maintain their minds in the state of watchfulness and inner silence. That bhikkhus took quite seriously such exhortation of the Teacher is visible by high regard they had for silent behavior. Thus, Kandaraka Sutta (M 51) records great admiration a visiting ascetic expressed for the silence of the community of monks. On other occasion, a large community of bhikkhus was sitting around the Buddha in a wood and were so silent that a king who were approaching the place was overwhelmed by fear from ambush, unable even to imagine that such a crowd could sit in perfect silence.
It is worth here pointing out that silence doesn’t have an absolute worth in the value system of the Buddha, as it is evident from several episodes described in the Vinaya Piṭāka. On one occasion king Bimbisāra, seeing followers of other sects getting together periodically and explaining their teachings, suggested to the Buddha to introduce the same. The Teacher agreed, but monks would on these occasions just sat in silence. This practice was met with strong disapproval by some lay people attending these gatherings and eager to be instructed:
They looked down upon, criticised, spread it about saying: “How can these recluses, sons of the Sakyans, having assembled together on the fourteenth, fifteenth and eight days of the half-month, sit in silence, like dumb pigs? Ought not dhamma to be spoken when they are assembled together?”
The Buddha concurred with that criticism and allowed the monks to talk about Dhamma when assembled on the observance day. On some other occasion a group of monks took a vow of silence and spent the whole rains period of three months not uttering a word to each other. This was their idea of a perfect training and living on friendly terms. But on hearing that, the Buddha harshly criticized such practice, qualifying it as a characteristic of some other (unnamed) sects and as a breach of bhikkhu rules: “Monks, an observance of members of other sects, the practice of silence, should not be observed. Whoever should observe it, there is an offense of wrong-doing.”
Another interesting example comes from Buddhaghosa’s Paramatthajotika. In the commentary for the Sutta Nipāta verse 781, these words of the Buddha were recorded:
“Ānanda, one should not remain silent under all circumstances,
simply thinking, ‘I am virtuous.’ For in the world:
When the wise man is in the midst of fools,
they do not know him if he does not speak.
Here too the Buddha treads a middle path between complete silence and verbosity. It is obvious that according to him in a life of a bhikkhu there was a room for silence, but also for wise speaking. Like with all other of their actions, the teacher required his disciples to be mindful and clearly understand the difference between these two ways of action. This was their way of purifying the mind. One should resort to silence only when it is beneficial, skillful (kusala), when it is ennobling us. In all other cases, by not uttering a word, we are degrading ourselves to a level of dumb animals.
Thus, we come to the idea of a noble silence, which plays a very important role in the system of training in the Dhamma. When discussing noble silence (ariyo tuṇhībhāvo) two levels of meaning should be distinguished. The first is a narrow one, explained by Mahāmoggallāna in the Kolita Sutta (SN 21:1):
‘Here, with the subsiding of thought and examination, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the second jhāna, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. This is called noble silence.’
In the commentary to this sutta it is further explained that the second jhāna is called noble silence because thought and examination (vitakka-vicārā) cease with it and by their cessation speech cannot occur.
Unlike this state of complete inner stillness, a wider meaning of the noble silence, that of just focusing attention to an object, can be discovered in the Dutiyakāmabhū Sutta (SN 41:6). There three kinds of formations (saṅkhārā) are discussed. Among them the verbal one (vacīsaṅkhāro) is again described as consisting of thought and examination as the mental factors responsible for articulation of speech: “First one thinks and examines, then afterwards one breaks into speech; that is why thought and examination are the verbal formation.” The commentary to this sutta claims that when the Buddha advises “either speak on the Dhamma or observe noble silence” he aims at saying that even attention to a meditation object, without achievement of any jhāna, can be considered a noble silence.
In its widest meaning, the term noble silence encompasses all examples of abstaining from speech for the sake of training, which would characterize them as instances of ascetic silence. It might be silence of endurance, when faced with unfounded accusations or insults. Thus, the Buddha would remain silent too when, out of hostility and hatred, someone approaches and starts scolding him. Faced with such a degree of hostility, he knows that any debate if fruitless. When, in the Asurindaka Sutta (SN 7:3), the brahmin proclaims a victory after such “debate”, the Buddha has a message for him:
“One who repays an angry man with anger
Thereby makes things worse for himself.
Not repaying an angry man with anger,
One wins a battle hard to win.
In some other cases it might be silence of appreciation and respect, when deeply touched by what our senses provide or by what emerges from the depths on our inner life. All these types of noble silence is thus naturally closely related to the right speech as a factor of the Noble Eightfold Path: abstaining from uttering harsh, insulting words, also lies or boasting, divisive words and, finally, just chit-chat. In all these cases it is far more beneficial, not only for a bhikkhu, but for a lay person too to resort to the noble silence and avoid falling into a trap of unmindful talking.
Silence of Convention
There are many examples in the Pali Canon of what we already labeled a silence of convention. The frequent cases when the Buddha is invited for a meal by a lay devotee are in the suttas described in a quite stereotypical way. He wouldn’t accept the invitation for two consecutive times and just after the invitation was made for the third time, he would accept it simply by remaining silent. This seems to be a wider custom in India of the Buddha’s time, as we see in Jain sutras too, that monks when going an alms round also accepted donated food in silence. Later, after the meal, the Buddha would spend some time in silence, before giving a Dhamma talk for the host and his family.
But there are similar cases when the Buddha-s silence didn’t imply acceptance. One of them is found in the Bodhirājakumāra Sutta (M 85), when prince Bodhi invites the Buddha for a meal. After arrival, he was asked to step on the white cloth spread over the stairs at the entrance of the prince’s palace. Commentary explains that the childless prince spread the cloth with the idea: “If I am to have a son, the Buddha will step on a cloth”. The Buddha knew that, due to bad past kamma, the prince is destined to remain childless and stopped right at the entrance. Although an invitation to enter and step on the cloth was repeated for three times, he remained silent and refused to come in. Finally, Ānanda had to intervene and request the cloth to be removed.
It is well known that the time of the Buddha was marked by a very lively and extensively practiced tradition of formal debates in ancient India. Involvement in this practice, as might be gleaned from the suttas, aimed at proving one’s own spiritual superiority in front of a curious audience and attracting new followers. This can be illustrated by the Buddha’s debate with a Jain follower Saccaka, whose both parents were skilled debaters. As usual, the debate was finished once the opponent was not able to respond to the challenge and stayed speechless:
When this was said, Saccaka the Nigantha’s son sat silent, dismayed, with shoulders drooping and head down, glum, and without response.
In Alagadūppama Sutta (M 22) there is a case with a similar outcome. However, this time there is no real debate, but the Teacher admonishes the monk for promoting wrong views. Here too silence indicates a sense of bewilderment and defeat of a monk Arittha in a discussion.
A special example of silence of convention is seen when Sangha discusses an internal issue (sanghakamma). There the importance of silence as a medium of communicating communal consensus is remarkable. The decision is made when everyone present has nothing to add and keeps silent when invited by the presiding bhikkhu to further discuss it. This type of agreement appears also during ordination ceremony, when the silence of the bhikkhus marks their consent for the aspirant to be accepted into the Sangha.
When previously discussing the topic of the “silence of the Buddha”, we’ve already seen one of the examples of how silence was used by him in pedagogical purposes. He would turn back the question to his interlocutor for further consideration and reformulation, indicating at the same time that suppositions the question was based on should also be reevaluated. This was just one example of the Buddha as a skillful teacher, famous for his ability to transmit the message using the most appropriate means, depending on the occasion and the abilities of his audience. When speaking with a farmer, the Buddha would often use metaphors related to weather, agriculture, crops etc.
When talking to noblemen and rulers, he would support his message by comparisons based, for example, on a skill of waging a war or governing. And when approached by “metaphysician” like Mālunkyaputta, he didn’t hesitate to remain silent. In all of his dialogues he was asked an enormous number of questions and, as briefly referenced before, he would generally deal with them in four ways: (1) directly answering, (2) answering by analyzing a question first, (3) by counter question and (4) by setting a question aside. The last of them could be labeled a pedagogical silence, as it was also a way of teaching, this time transferring a lesson non-verbally.
We already shed some light to the last option in the discussion subtitled “The Enigma of the Buddha’s Silence”. Quite similar case of pedagogical silence is the Buddha’s conversation with the ascetic Vacchagota, described in the Ānanda Sutta (SN 44:10).
Then the wanderer Vacchagotta approached the Blessed One… and said to him:
“How is it now, Master Gotama, is there a self?”
When this was said, the Blessed One was silent.
“Then, Master Gotama, is there no self?”
A second time the Blessed One was silent.
Then the wanderer Vacchagotta rose from his seat and departed.
When later Ānanda asks the Teacher about the event, The Buddha explains his silence was an expression of the middle way. If he confirmed the existence of a self, explains the Teacher, he would be in the camp of eternalists and would not support the arising of the knowledge that all things are non-self (anattā). And if he denied, he would reinforce an annihilationist view that there is only this life and that the self or soul is identical with the body. Such a view further entails that there is no moral accountability for our actions, nor rebirth. Contrary to all this, the Buddha’s insight into the reality of this world revealed that all phenomena are impermanent. Whatever is impermanent is also unsatisfactory. Because it will not last, sooner or later it will decay or change into something else. This change is a source of our frustration and unsatisfactoriness of all these phenomena. Also, we don’t have control over this process, we cannot make these phenomena stable and fixed. In other words, the Buddha discovered that all life is a network of beings interacting, influencing and defining each other in a way that can not be fully controlled. And exactly the totality of these causal relationships are what defines us as beings and not any supposed, forever fixed internal essence.
Therefore, Vacchagotta’s question about existence or non-existence of self or something fixed and stable was meaningless. Something like asking a blind man whether light exists or not. The light is simply not part of his world and therefore the question doesn’t have any value or meaning. Aware of that meaninglessness and probably having in mind a profile of the ascetic, the Buddha decided to apply pedagogical silence. He didn’t want to give any food for his interlocutor’s fruitless speculations, completely unrelated to the nature of true reality. By staying silent, the Buddha had not retreated from his role of a masterful teacher. He just had chosen a different communication formula, the one not relying on words. Of course, this approach is the most fruitful for those who are able to benefit from this kind of non-verbal teaching method. If Vacchagotta was one of them we can not conclude based on the sutta text.
A variant of pedagogical silence could be considered a way of teaching by a living example, as this is also a very powerful way of communicating liberating insight. Here „silence” doesn’t mean only “not talking” unless and until one is invited or when the audience is ready, but that one emits joyful calm and serenity in a way the others are able to appreciate it. An example of silent transmission of the Dhamma, by mere appearance and charisma, beside the Buddha’s, comes here to mind. The Vinaya Piṭaka records Sāriputta’s encounter with one of the first five Buddhist monks, the elder Assaji and being immediately inspired by the elder’s peaceful demeanor:
He was pleasing whether he was approaching or departing, whether he was looking in front or looking behind, whether he was drawing in or stretching out (his arm), his eyes were cast down, he was possessed of pleasant behaviour.
When approached by Sāriputta and asked about his teacher and the teachings he proclaims, the elder Assaji’s inner silence transpires outwardly as modesty and materializes in just a few words, aimed at the maintaining the outer silence too or at least avoiding verbosity:
Now, I, friend, am new, not long gone forth, fresh to this dhamma and discipline. I am not able to teach you dhamma in full, but I can tell you its purport briefly… Those things which proceed from a cause, of these the Truth-finder has told the cause, and that which is their stopping, the great recluse has such a doctrine.
Just this terse, but powerful statement was enough for Sāriputta to become a stream-enterer. But this transformation was made possible by the whole impression the elder Assaji made on Sāriputta by his inner and outer silence materialized in a minimal use of words.
Silence about the ultimate reality
The phenomenon of silence we are interested here is the one related to the Buddha’s teaching on and also describing the final goal of the path he proclaimed – nibbāna. We can start with his very indicative claim right after Awakening: “This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise.” This claim can be taken as pointing into two directions: to the limits of the comprehension of the Teachings and also implying its ineffability. Both of them are, in a way, contradicted by the later history of Buddhism, as the teacher spend the rest of his life teaching the Dhamma and Buddhist schools in general are known by their voluminous Canons, comprising thousands of pages, many times surpassing, for example, the Bible. Therefore, starting from the quoted assertion, it might be confusing that Buddhism with the later rise of Abhidhamma minute analysis of the reality grew into a predominantly scholastic and a book-based tradition.
There is an apparent contradiction between ineffability of the final truth and such verbosity, which is not unique to Buddhism. One of the explanations might point to the fact that the ineffable truth of a meditative experience or nibbāna is what characterizes the goal, while all this ocean of words, instructions and metaphors is only the way or vehicle bringing us closer to that goal. Although it is obvious fact that religious experience, as any other for that matter, can never be fully expressed in linguistic terms, words are the best what we invented so far for that purpose. But where words fall short of expectations, the Buddha, similarly to the other religious teachers, inclines towards use of metaphors or silence that we labeled silence about the ultimate reality. Here ultimate reality can be understood as a nibbāna, a direct experience of an awakened mind.
As remarked above, The Buddha had to overcome the inadequacy of ordinary language who is substantially oriented, describing essence where there is absence. This was, no doubt, a difficult task, because the medium of instruction was prone to misunderstanding. This is, as Tilakaratne defines it: “the challenge the Buddha had to face as a teacher who intended to show people the way out of the quagmire of substances. In a manner of speaking, this has to be done by using language against itself. In this context, the Buddha makes such statements as there is no person, no individual, no soul etc., which are mostly negative.” This negative type of discourse, which borders with silence by the fact that often obscures more than it reveals, is particularly noticeable when nibbāna is being described: “There exists, monks, that which is unborn, that which is unbecome, that which is uncreated, that which is unconditioned.” And after declaring that the born, become, co-arisen and conditioned is “seat of disease”, the Buddha continues: “The escape from this is calm, beyond the sphere of logic, being that which is stable, that which is unborn, that which is not co-arisen; grief-free, dustless, this tract is the cessation of states involving dukkha, the pacification of formations, bliss”. Here, as we see it, “calm, beyond logic” points to this ultimate state of internal silence and peace that is unique characteristic of an arahant.
Here is one more example of this “negative” discourse, a description of nibbāna or unconditioned reality, describing what it is not, and staying silent on what it is. The method might be compared to a work of a sculptor, chipping away excess of material in a block of stone, with a form left at the end. Just in this case, it is more difficult to construe the meaning, as we are dealing with contours of something immaterial:
There is that sphere (āyatana) where there is no earth, no water, no fire nor wind; no sphere of infinity of space, of infinity of consciousness, of nothingness or even of neither-perception-nor-non-perception; there, there is neither this world nor the other world, neither moon nor sun; this sphere I call neither a coming nor a going nor a staying still, neither a dying nor a reappearance; it has no basis, no evolution and no support: this, just this, is the end of dukkha.
As we shall see later, this negative method of describing ultimate reality is nothing unique, but is well-known in Christian thought on God too, as apophatic theology.
 It is interesting that the great muni, the Buddha, would later adopt the same color for the robes of his disciples.
 Rig Veda, hymn X, 136. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Rig_Veda/Mandala_10/Hymn_136.
 Olivelle (1998), p. 279.
 Tilakaratne (1993), p. 99.
 Bodhi (2017), p. 163.
 Bodhi (2012), p. 1081.
 Bodhi (1995), p. 254.
 Walshe (1987), p. 92. Sāmaññaphala Sutta (D 2).
 Horner (1971), p. 131.
 Horner (1971), p. 211. Mūgabbata is a custom of being dumb (mūga) for three months.
 Bodhi (2017), p. 1041.
 Bodhi (2000), p. 713.
 Bodhi (2000), p. 1322.
 Bodhi (2000), p. 258.
 Bodhi (1995), p. 748.
 Bodhi (1995), p. 328. Cūḷasaccaka Sutta (M 35).
 Bodhi (1995), p. 226.
 The other four Buddha’s former companions in the ascetic life before his Awakening and the first monastics were Añña-Koṇḍañña, Bhaddiya, Vappa and Mahānāma.
 Horner (1971), p. 52.
 Ibid., p. 53.
 Bodhi (1995), p. 260.
 Tilakaratne (1993), p. 139.
 Udana, 8:1. Quoted in Amaro-Passano (2009), p. 158.