Silence (6)

(part 5)

The Life in Silence and Mind Purified

As we have seen so far, there are noticeable similarities between Christian and Buddhist way of liberation observed from the point of view of Evagrius of Pontus and the Buddha, as well as between their use of silence as a skillful mean to this liberation. For both Evagrian and Buddhist way of self-purification and self-transformation, it takes acquiring a deep self-knowledge. “You want to know God? First know yourself”, advises Evagrius. This knowledge is key to eradicating of all egocentric tendencies that torment us. The path goes through a series of steps building atop each other and minutely described by both teachers. These tendencies and everything else that diverts a mind from his goal was also analyzed into details in both traditions, creating a specific map of mind as a safe guide for spiritual explorers. Thus, Evagrius writes lengthily about his scheme of eight thoughts (logismoi) that are the essence of all negative lines of thinking, giving also advice on how to deal with each of them. This classification is similar to the Buddhist set of five hindrances (nīvaraṇa) as initial difficulties to be faced by an aspiring traveler along the Buddhist path. And as, for example, in the Mahā-Assapura Sutta (M 39), the Buddha also gives advice on how to overcome them. Therefore, and that is remarkable, both ways, Noble Eightfold Path and a path of a hesychast, stress the importance of studying functioning and also purification of the human mind. In both cases, it is recommended for this arduous process to be supported by external and internal silence. Time and again the Buddha recommends solitude of a “root of a tree” or an “empty hut” as a place most favorable for practice: “A bhikkhu delights in solitary meditation and takes delight in solitary meditation; he is devoted to internal serenity of mind, does not neglect meditation, possesses insight, and dwells in empty huts.”1 At the same time, it comes as no surprise that Evagrius, like thousands of other hermits, found his “empty hut”, an abundant source of ascetic silence, in the middle of Egyptian desert.

Indeed, I tell you, love voluntary exile, for it separates you from the circumstances of your own country and allows you to enjoy the unique benefit of practising stillness. Avoid stays in the city, persevere with your stay in the desert.2

Once the silent place was found, the long road of the practical life goes through well-defined phases. In the case of Evagrius, this meant growing in virtue (catharsis), the step which strongly correlates with the Buddhist training in sīla. With the final goal of calming passions (apatheia), a state of mind quite similar to the one designated by the Buddhist term upekkhā. This is achieved through cultivating stillness, also observing, understanding and distancing oneself from logismoi (negative thoughts like anger or pride) caused by passions (or demons).

A certain measure of apatheia allows a hesychast to enter the phase of contemplation, together with gradual acquiring of spiritual vision and insight (theoria). This is achieved by maintaining mind focused, the method which resembles Buddhist practice of samadhi, collecting the mind. There are in both traditions a number of objects and methods for a mind to stay focused and contemplative that overlap. For example, well know practice of maranasati has a counterpart mirrored in Evagrius’ instructions: “Seated in your cell, gather together your mind, give heed to the day of your death, and then look at the dying of your body.”3 But in Christian system the greatest importance among different methods by far has a prayer. As with the states of mind starting with the second absorption (jhāna) and up inside the system of Buddhist meditation, Evagrian prayer means complete silencing of thoughts and moving beyond words into wordless contemplation.

This similarity between two methods is underlined by the use of the word mind (nous) to describe what is in us that prays/meditates. Although for most of us today the word “mind” refers to the faculty of logical reasoning, in the Greek tradition, the nous was our intuitive side. It enables us to know and recognize the truth of things instantly, directly, without thinking, like instantly recognizing a beauty of a landscape or a friend’s face in a city crowd. Likewise, for Evagrius, the way the mind silenced by sincere prayer knows God is not a matter of logic or reasoning; it is a direct seeing, direct intuition:

“For knowledge of God, one needs not a debater’s soul, but a seer’s soul.”4

With sincere and persistent practice, a mind starts to uncover its so far hidden potentials. As mentioned previously, Evagrius was puzzled with the experience of inner light while in deep contemplation. This reminds us that the Buddha was also describing pure mind, devoid of mental impurities, as luminous by its own nature:

Luminous, bhikkhus, is this mind, and it is freed from adventitious defilements. The instructed noble disciple understands this as it really is; therefore I say that for the instructed noble disciple there is development of the mind.5

How intriguing these experiences of light were for Evagrius and some of the monks he was surrounded with can be concluded on the basis of an episode described in the famous Palladius’ Lausiac History.6 There he describes how Evagrius and Ammonius on one occasion visited John of Lycopolis, the famed “Seer of the Thebaid”, to consult him on an urgent question concerning certain peak experiences during prayer: “whether the light comes out of the purified mind itself (implying that the mind’s primordial nature is luminous) or whether the light comes from God, whose light in turn illuminates the mind, much as the sun illuminates the moon. John’s answer was a bit coy: ‘It is not in the power of human beings to explain it. Besides, the mind cannot be illuminated during prayer without the grace of God’.”7

Be it as it is, this shows us that the direction of the both ways of practice, Evagrian and Buddhist, was towards development and purification of the mind. As a result of such training, it will unfold its intrinsic luminosity and ultimately an ascetic arrives to the bliss of knowing and harmony with God (theosis) or knowing and harmony with the Truth (nibbāna), which in Buddhist vocabulary would be described as yathābhūtañāṇadassana. In the case of Christian ascetic this act is not possible without God’s help, as he receives transforming grace from the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the entire process is described as a synergy of a human and divine forces. In the case of a Buddhist ascetic, he has got to essentially rely on himself only. In practice, that means emptying the mind of its usual discursive content and entering a place of silence and stillness (samādhi) or the state of hesychia.

As we have also already seen, the type of prayer highly recommended by Evagrius has another important quality. It is constant prayer. No doubts that here we can draw a parallel with the Buddhist practice of maintaining mindfulness in everything one does:

A bhikkhu is one who acts in full awareness when going forward and returning; who acts in full awareness when looking ahead and looking away; who acts in full awareness when flexing and extending his limbs; who acts in full awareness when wearing his robes and carrying his outer robe and bowl; who acts in full awareness when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting; who acts in full awareness when defecating and urinating; who acts in full awareness when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent.8

The last step of the training is divinization or union with God, described by Evagrius as „true gnosis of existent things”. This may correlate with liberating pañña or the “seeing things as they are”. Thus, there are a number of points of resemblance in Christian and Buddhist way of ennobling the mind/heart.

However, it should be also noticed that this resemblance is strongest at the beginning, in the domain of moral training, and the weakest with the last element of the triad, the final outcome of the ascetic interior quest. This is quite understandable, as the wisdom element, the final knowledge about the ultimate reality in these two paths directs us to two divergent directions, sometimes labeled as personalistic (in case of Orthodox Christianity) and impersonalistic mysticism (in case of Theravada Buddhism). One aims at meeting the God, Creator of this world, while the other one, completely negating the very existence of such Creator, brings us a vision of a universe as a totality of causally created, conditioned phenomena, but also of what is beyond that – unconditioned, nibbāna. In that respect, although those who arrived at the final point of these two paths, gnostikos and arahant, were so far traveling through a similar landscape, now they arrive at two essentially different points. And both of them claim of seeing directly the ultimate reality. What they saw, they hesitate to explicitly describe, supposedly for the similar reasons: “Do not speak about God inconsiderately and never define the Divinity. For definitions belong to created and composite beings”.9 The Buddha would agree with this claim that Uncreated (asaṅkara) is not possible to fully describe by what is created and composite, by language, that the experience of an awakening is not possible to fully translate into words:

“There is no measure of one who has gone out,
(Upasīva,” said the Blessed One).
“There is no means by which they might speak of him.
When all phenomena have been uprooted,
all pathways of speech are also uprooted.”10

What gnostikos and arahant see, they understand in crucially different fashion. Christian mystic sees a universe, created with a certain goal in mind and geared toward this goal by a divine providence. He observes the universe with a purpose and willed toward that purpose by a force of God’s forethought, at the same time incomprehensible, indescribable and irresistible. This picture is completely opposite to the Buddhist interpretation of the awakening experience, which lack recognition of any intentionality, pre-made plan in the world.

Let us at the end return to our classification of silence from the beginning of this text. After making a distinction between silence of absence, the outer silence of a desert, a forest or a cave, and silence of presence, which follows the end of a dialogue and represents a version of non-verbal communication, we further diversified the latter. Thus, four types of internal silence was postulated: (1) silence of social convention, (2) pedagogical silence, as a teaching tool, (3) ascetic silence, as a skillful mean, and (4) silence about the ultimate reality. So far we pointed out that in the context of spiritual practice in both religions there is a correlation between silence of absence as a necessary external condition for developing the silence of presence, internal peace and stillness. Another observation is that there is a relationship of hierarchy between these four types of silence, one builds on top of another. Starting with the silence of convention as a form of social interaction, we come to the more confined area of relationship between a disciple and a teacher, who uses pedagogical silence to instruct his devotees when deems appropriate. Higher than that stands ascetic silence, as a powerful tool of avoiding all traps of careless words and letting go of deeply ingrained tendencies of verbal actions. Once it is firmly established in a mind of a silent sage, a muni, he is ready for a meeting with the ultimate reality. This meeting, as we’ve seen in both traditions of Buddhist and Christian asceticism, bring an experience that is expressed, in many instances, if not by metaphors or negative terms, that simply by silence. In that respect, silence or stillness, but of different degree, stands at the beginning and the end of the path of practice. It is thus an often hidden treasure of mind and heart which allow us, in words of Evagrius, to “live according to the law”.11

Finally, it should be added that we started by setting a modest goal of comparing Buddhist and Orthodox Christian spiritual path through the use of silence as a useful tool of practice. But it seems obvious that this research uncovered much more points of convergence, which are not historical, not coming from direct contacts, but more psychological, being rather reflections of the basic structure of a human mind and the possibilities of its purification. Such a multitude of similarities certainly beg for further exploration. In that respect, this paper might be just a starting point for more comprehensive research in the future.

Notes
1 Bodhi (1995), p. 308.
2 Foundations, 6. In Sinkewicz, p. 7.
3 Foundations, 9. In Sinkewicz, p. 9.
4 Kefalaia gnostika, IV, 90.
5 Bodhi (2012), p. 97.
6 Palladius, Historia Lausiaca, 35.
7 Harmless (2001), p. 512-513.
8 Bodhi (1995), p. 147. Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (M 10).
9 Skemmata, 20.
10 Bodhi (2017), p. 335.
11 Maxims, 13.


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