Emptiness, like silence, like love, is indeed a gift.
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind
From "The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens, in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, copyright 1954 by Wallace Stevens. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
I have on my office door these words from an accomplished Indian yogi: "Before speaking, consider whether it is an improvement upon silence." The man who wrote them once went 19 years without speaking, setting a standard I can't hope to meet. Yet his words remind me that when we do speak, we must speak truth. Even more important, because truth so often eludes us, we must speak in kindness. In fact, we might amend the yogi's saying to read, "Before speaking, consider whether you speak out of love." If we could speak out of love, we could change everything, and maybe I could end this essay right here. But I have more to say about silence, about how we might bring silence into our lives and thereby make both our speaking and our doing more fruitful.
I'm speaking of a silence both ordinary and profound, the fundamental silence out of which words come and to which they return. The word infant means "without speech," and as infants we're allowed a few months of wordless union with our mothers. Our first cries express our desire to be returned to our mother's breast, and as soon as we are weaned from that breast, we start talking. Indeed, we talk our lives away, unaware that no amount of speech will get us back to where we really want to be. The fall into language is our expulsion from the garden, our fall into that separateness by which we gain a self, a speaking self whose words can do little more than mark the absence of all they signify. Only death shuts us up. From silence we come, and unto silence we will return. In the meantime, we talk. In a New Yorker cartoon, a gravestone reads: "Born 1932. Yada yada yada. Died 1995."
But we don't have to die to experience silence. We all have memories of important silences in our lives. I recall, from my New Hampshire youth, lying in a hayloft watching dust dance in a shaft of sunlight, and I recall looking down the front of Arlene Colebrook's dress in the snack booth at the Old Home Week penny sale, both occasions of wordless awe. At such moments we don't choose silence but fall silent. Silence, like love, isn't something we reason our way into. And once we are in it, we recognize that it has been there all along. It's there like the background noise of the universe, that uniform hiss astronomers find when they point their radio telescopes at the space between stars, the remnant of the Big Bang, the residual wind of our origin.
But let me speak of another wind, this one nearer home. I want to tell you about the sound of winter wind through a New Hampshire forest. Some of you have heard the sound I mean, though it's heard only in great stretches of northern woods, far from freeways and flight paths, and if you haven't been to such a place lately, you will have to work to remember it. It's the sound a whole forest makes, unlocatable and everywhere, near and far, intimate and impossibly remote. I don't mean a storm wind, full of high drama, but the gentle, subtle voice of a forest as it speaks of winter peace and winter desolation.
The forest where we live is mixed hardwoods and conifers: maple, oak, beech, and birch; white pine, spruce, and hemlock. Two mountain ridges lie between me and the interstate highway 20 miles off, and with no sizable town in earshot, I can hear the sound such a forest makes when gently dithered by winter air. Leaves are down, of course, so it's the pines that matter most. They stand tallest and catch the wind. Theirs is a finely sifted sound, a soft hiss through unnumbered needles. Stand by one as it takes the air, and you'll know how God breathes. Hear the accumulated sound of such trees coming at you over the miles, and you hear something like the breath of Being itself, the very sigh of our becoming and passing away. Unless the ground is covered in snow, the sound is accompanied by shrub turbulence and dead leaf scuttle. And there's more: hardwoods, their bare branches stiffened, provide an undertone, low and harder edged, the barely audible drag of sticks through cold air. And last, close by: the rattle of dead beech leaves still clinging to their boughs.
Most often the sound steals up on me, as I pause between house and barn or while I'm crunching down the dirt road to meet the children's school bus or opening the door at night to call the dog. I hear this wind in its purest form only a handful of times each winter, yet when I do, I imagine it has been there always, back of everything else I thought I was doing with my life. Whenever I hear it, I think: surely this is the sound I heard as I was born, the sound I will hear as I die.
But perhaps I'm getting too serious here. Winter does take us to extremes. John Donne, in a winter solstice poem written over three centuries ago, moans that "the whole world's sap is sunk." And so it is: maples stand brittle in the cold wind, their fluids drained to the roots. The earth cools, life hides in holes. Winter locks us in our solid states, flinty and frozen. My world goes nearly inorganic. The air's dryer, the stars give a harder glint. There's a purity to it all, of course. A cleanliness. And at the brink of lifelessness our taste for life grows keen. Wallace Stevens understood this when he wrote, "It is here, in this bad, that we reach / The last purity of the knowledge of good."
Whenever I read the poem in which these lines appear (Stevens's "No Possum, No Sop, No Taters"), I recall boyhood nights when I went sledding by moonlight. This went best when several feet of snow had been followed by rain and then a freeze, forming an icy crust that was dangerously fast and just hard enough to bear the weight of children and dogs. Grownups would punch through up to their thighs, so that they couldn't follow us when after dinner we trooped out into a neighbor's field glowing with moonlight. Stevens had it right: "Snow sparkles like eyesight falling to earth, / Like seeing fallen brightly away." Walking out to the top of the sloping field, my younger brother and I with the neighbor's kids, we filled the night with our noise: boastful chatter, the dull booming of our molded plastic sleds held and struck like gongs. But there came a moment at the top of the field when we fell silent, looking down over that creamy slope toward the dark woods waiting at the bottom. In silence we lined up our sleds, lay flat on our bellies, noses just inches above the snow. It was a sobering business, and that was how we wanted it. For me then—12 or 14 years old—the essence of good sledding was fear. Speed mattered, and anything that amplified the sense of speed was welcome: darkness, cold, the absence of grownups, the waiting woods. Like all adolescent boys, we were in love with our own annihilation. There was no end to those woods, we knew. They sunk into swamp, rose over hills, and in our minds swept on forever into Canada and the frozen north. Our goal was to plunge into them, to be swallowed up, and then to return victorious. The key was not to bail out too soon and so be cheated of glory. We knew that on this icy crust, on sleds of hard plastic, we would quickly reach a terminal velocity of several hundred miles an hour. We knew, too, that our glossy nylon parkas had a coefficient of friction only slightly higher than that of plastic, so that when we did bail out, we would continue sliding on our backs, watching the wall of the woods rise over us like a dark wave until we tore through the brambles at the field's edge, broke through alder and willow saplings, and carried on to our final appointment with a stone wall topped with barbed wire. This was good sledding.
When the run was over and I lay bruised and torn and unbearably happy, the silence would fall. And that's when I would hear it: the winter wind, breathing from the miles of forest at whose edge I lay, that chill spirit mingling with my own breath rising in plumes toward the brilliant moon, the cold stars. I would lie there a long time, feeling my back cool, my whole body cool toward the temperature of snow, listening to that wind that was hardly a wind, that subtle non-sound. At such times I would know what Stevens wants us to know in another of his poems, "The Snow Man": "One must have a mind of winter . . . / And have been cold a long time . . . not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind." To be of winter mind is to be so empty of preconception as to hear without judgment and thus to hear in that wind neither misery nor happiness. Such a "listener, who listens in the snow," beholds the world without delusion or projection, seeing "nothing that is not there." To have a mind of winter requires, however, that the listener be "nothing himself." Lying in the snow, I let my body cool, my breath slow, my mind empty of thoughts. The winter mind, knowing its own emptiness, beholds "nothing that is not there" but also, as its final achievement, "the nothing that is." At this moment of merging, one emptiness beholds another emptiness not different from itself. All separateness falls away, and I am one with snow and stars, rooted as pine, imperturbable as stone.
This may seem quite an accomplishment for a boy on a plastic sled, but adolescents are natural mystics. I suspect that most of us can recall such moments from the years when the snow's crust still bore our weight. In childhood we enter naturally those realms of spirit that as adults we touch only through conscious effort and practice. The world itself is the child's cathedral, and so it may be for us adults, if we can relearn our childlike openness to it.
John Tarrant's wonderful book The Light inside the Dark lay on my desk as I was writing this. Seeing it, and sounding out the title, my seven-year-old daughter asked, "How can there be light inside the dark?" It took her half a second to answer her own question: "Oh, yes, the moon."
Which returns me to that dreamy adolescent lying at the edge of a moonlit field, for I think I can learn something more from him. This essay, like good sledding, begins with silence and moonlight and goes down the slippery slope toward emptiness. "Emptiness"—the usual translation for the Sanskrit term sunyata—occupies a central place in Buddhist thought. From the Prajnaparamita, or Heart Sutra (one of Buddhism's central texts), we learn that "emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness." Here, as in so many sacred texts, paradoxical language gestures toward something that cannot be grasped by intellect alone. Just as silence is the necessary condition or ground of speech, emptiness is not negation but pure possibility, the condition or ground of being. And as with the silence I spoke of earlier, to become aware of it is to know that it's been there all along. As John Tarrant writes: "The emptiness is the host of which we are every moment the guest. . . . The empty realm is not a place we may live in, but if we want freedom, we must pass through it. It is the gate of spiritual initiation, the destination to which our sincerity, our foolishness, our suffering, our meditation and prayer have led us.
And like good sledding, the slide toward emptiness can be scary. Emptiness is akin, if not identical, to nothingness, and our work in this world is all about its opposite, somethingness. We're told to make something of ourselves; we want to be somebody. These are the callings and warnings of ego, and they're not all bad: in responding to them we create something not only for ourselves but for our children and our communities. But the Buddhists see nothingness differently. In a cartoon I saw once, it's the Dalai Lama's birthday, and he's opening a gift-wrapped box, which turns out to be empty. Looking into it, the Dalai Lama says: "Nothing. Just what I've always wanted.
Emptiness, like silence, like love, is indeed a gift: not something we choose, not something we reason our way into, but rather something into which we fall, something in which we find ourselves. The fall into emptiness, into silence, has the nature of an accident. And though we can't choose our accidents, we can learn to make ourselves accident prone, to make ourselves available for the fall into emptiness, which always comes as a grace.
We can do this by sitting silently. In the most common form of Buddhist meditation, one sits silently, often for long periods, continually returning the awareness to the breath, to this wind of our origin and of our passing away. Our word "spirit" comes from the Latin spiritus, or "breath"; in returning to the breath, we return to spirit, we hear the winter wind, we allow ourselves to cool into winter mind, we prepare for the fall into emptiness. And in touching emptiness we touch the source, the spring, the creative power out of which the universe flows at every moment. That source has many names, but I call it "God."
Americans seem to think Asian religions have a lock on emptiness, just as in the 1970s we thought that only the Japanese could make quality automobiles. I'm struck, though, by how much the Buddhist tradition I have been describing has in common with Christian mysticism and the long tradition of the via negativa, which emphasizes God's essential unknowability. Meister Eckhart, the medieval Christian mystic, who belongs to this tradition, tells us quite bluntly that "people should stand empty." He advocates a radical letting go, not only of material possessions but of intellectual and spiritual ones as well. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," and for Eckhart the truly poor in spirit let go of all knowledge, including the knowledge of God; they let go of all will, even the will to do the will of God. As Matthew Fox comments, "It is this radical letting go of willing, of knowing, and of having that allows God to enter."
Many who reject traditional Christianity find Buddhism attractive because it seems like a way to have religion without having God. But Eckhart's God is far from the bearded old man in the clouds. In fact, Eckhart does not believe in a personal deity of any description, and when he is at his most radical, the line between his notion of God and the Buddhist conception of ultimate reality vanishes. He writes: "The masters say that God is a being, an intelligent being, and that he knows all things. We say, however: God is neither being nor intelligent nor does he know this or that. Thus God is free of all things, and therefore he is all things." Eckhart also says provocatively: "I pray God to rid me of God." By this he expresses his desire to be rid of any notion of a God that stands separate and apart from himself. Merely to utter the name of God, or to say that God "enters in," is to "preserve distinction," to continue to place ourselves apart from God. In our moments of highest realization we stand so empty as to have merged with our source, and in that state no words are necessary. We have returned to the great silence from which we came.
On a recent night I found I couldn't sleep, so some time after midnight I went to my study to read Meister Eckhart's sermons. As profound as this experience was, after an hour or so I set the book aside and picked up the L.L. Bean catalog. Nothingness is great, I thought, but that's a really nice sweater. We never leave our humanness behind, and we aren't supposed to. It's not a matter of choosing between spirit and world. Instead, we must let the things of this world become, as John Tarrant puts it, "stained through with spirit." Our current situation demands mystics who can balance their checkbooks, get the kids to school, and put food on the table. We are called not to sit in a cave, or even to lie at the edge of a moonlit field, but to see every object and every action against the luminous background of emptiness. In the midst of our working and doing, we open ourselves to emptiness, as Tarrant writes, "bringing the great background near, so that whatever we do, rising in the quiet, has force and beauty." Coming out of silence, each word gains substance; coming out of emptiness, each action grows distinct, and we find ourselves free, regardless of our circumstances, to speak in kindness and act for the good.
These days, my own relationship with silence grows more intimate. With Lou Gehrig's disease I face the loss of my ability to speak. Already my speech slows, my tongue grows unwieldy. Before hefting another syllable across my palate I consider more seriously whether it will improve upon silence. Because I'm too dense to get the message any other way, and despite my years of meditation, the fates are instructing me quite literally in the art of sitting down and shutting up. I'm being shown what is essential. But my situation only dramatizes the choice we all face. Whatever our personal circumstances, we can resist our fate and continue to suffer, or we can open ourselves to the fall into emptiness. We can choose to point our sleds downhill. The dark woods are waiting, but also the moon.