Noble Silence—a technique used by a lot of Buddhists, monks, and nuns in which a person refrains from speaking as a way to help quiet the mind and condition the body in the discipline of right speech. By learning to keep from speaking every word that comes up, we can censor or even omit harmful speech, and thus keep from causing harm and suffering to others and ourselves.
Just this week I spent a day observing silence by not speaking. The purpose was to control my thoughts in order to control my speech. Sometimes I find myself just bursting out with all kinds of noises or words that I really regret speaking. I find that when I do not “bridle” my speech I can say all kinds of useless and hurtful things that I had no intention of saying. This can be really frustrating, especially when I’m trying to cultivate compassion and loving kindness towards others!
This was my second session of noble silence practice. It went fairly well and in the 24 hours I only spoke twice. Don’t laugh! It’s harder than you think, especially when one spends 23 hours a day in a cell by oneself. Add to this fact that other people seem to take this day (at least it seems to me) to holler down the tier to see how I am doing. Or, the guards are bringing around supplies and will want you to speak to them. It can be a bit frustrating.
The first thing I observed in the first few hours of silence was that I started to get angry. As I was lying on my bed reading a Dharma book, I felt a tightening in my chest, then the emotion of irritation, and then, outright anger.
The very first time that I practiced noble silence I had become so angry that I quit after a few hours. Our chaplain, who is trained in Tibetan Buddhism, had told me this might happen. I think it happens because you are putting your mind and body under a control that it is not used to, and therefore, you start to rebel against it.
So, I was prepared for it this time and when the anger arose, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath in and said to myself, “My mind is clear blue sky. Anger comes and anger goes (exhale), and my mind is a clear blue sky.” While reciting this “mantra,” I envisioned a clear blue sky and a cleansing energy going through my body, washing the anger away. After doing this once or twice, the unwanted emotions went away and I was left with a feeling of calm and peacefulness. I spent the rest of my day in peace and happiness. I felt a sense of accomplishment.
I am also aware that I think about the words I will say to others after breaking the silence and my thoughts are more considerate of others.
Our words when spoken without thought of how they will affect others are like arrows shot indiscriminately into the air. They can land anywhere hurting innocents and can even return to impale us with their barbed points. Practicing noble silence can turn those arrows into feathers that float harmlessly and land softly, and can even bring smiles to those hurting while bringing joy to our hearts at having done no harm.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.