Silence (1)

Silence in Theravada Buddhism and Orthodox Christianity:
Cases of the Buddha and Evagrius of Pontus

Introduction

It is really hard to dispute with the claim that the modern life offers to us quite rare opportunities to experience silence. Traffic noise, news media dramatic reports, screaming of various marketing channels or peoples’ voices are constantly around us. On top of that, our mobile devices are producing an endless stream of notifications, announcements, mails, messages, photos, music or video clips, constantly hijacking our attention and disturbing internal balance. This disturbance than reflects as a new layer of noise in our head: noise of thoughts, myriad of internal comments and memories. Having all this in mind, there are two facts we are all aware of: first, silence is something that in the modern world doesn’t come to us spontaneously anymore; and second, we therefore need to actively pursue it, as it is vital for our well-being.

One of the main ways of that pursuit leads through religious practice, where silence in its most fruitful moments is by rule accompanied with solitude, constituting a powerful ground for our greater sanity and a vehicle of spiritual development. As Thomas Aquinas puts it: “Solitude, like poverty, is not the essence of perfection, but a means of perfection.” This close connection between silence and religion in its various forms and expressions indicates that the problem of regaining inner equilibrium with the help of silence is not a new one. It just might be that in our time the importance of silence became more obvious.

Silence plays the crucial role in various religious systems, but here we will limit our discussion to two of them: Buddhism and Christianity. Or more precisely, the focus of our investigation will be the words (and the silence) of the Buddha as preserved in the Pāli Canon and the writings of Evagrius of Pontus, one of the early Church fathers and an influential figure among the founders of Christian mysticism. By reviewing the legacy of these two figures, we will try to answer some pertinent questions: what does silence mean in the framework of both religious systems, can we distinguish different types and usages of silence and, finally, what are the similarities and differences between two religious traditions regarding their understanding and use of silence. We will try to show that use to be much broader than usually considered, covering four categories of pedagogical silence, ascetic silence, silence about ultimate reality and finally silence of convention. But let us start with one of the examples for the pedagogical silence which so far was the most discussed one in the literature on Buddhism and latter expand the subject with some new examples from the Buddhist and early Christian literature.

(part 2)


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