The opening line of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) says ‘The Way that can be spoken is not the Way’. In zen, Vimilikirti’s silence is taken to be the marrow and Buddhism itself resounds to the silence of Buddha’s claim to have not said a word after a lifetime of teaching!
I have recently been reading Thomas Merton’s, The Silent Life, in which, in the opening chapters, he seeks to express what it is that draws men and women to the contemplative life. In a number of different ways he says one thing and the same: The way that can be spoken is not the way.
Now the way that is spoken here is the zen way and as ‘A special tradition outside the sutras, No dependence on words and letters’ (Bodhidharma), it too cannot be spoken – as Alan Watts was fond of saying; any talk given on zen is in reality a hoax! But just as the audience for Watts would expect to hear him say something about zen, so would the readers of Merton expect him to fill a book on the ‘silent life’ with words.
And he does, eloquently.
But what is clear from Merton’s words is the utter necessity of any sincere spiritual quest to ultimately dash itself against the imperturbable rock of silence. Because it is only in silence that all our projects and goals, all that we have ever taken to be true, is slowly reduced to nothing and we are left bare and bereft in a featureless and measureless desert.
This zen is the zen that found the West in the last century, it is the zen that is not Buddhism, although it is also not not Buddhism – and considering the words of Merton on the ‘silent life’, it is also not not Christianity. This is the zen of the ‘Great Death’ that leaves the dead body of the seeker to come back to life, to find itself in this very same infinite desert alongside the Buddhist or Christian monk. For what each of them discovers is that the desert has entered into them and that the silence that they have now become itself begins to speak:
“The true word of eternity is spoken only in the spirit of that man who himself is a wilderness.” Meister Eckhart
Merton goes on in his book to describe the different orders of monks and their lives and ultimately the book reads as a Catholic advertisement for monasteries! Which is a pity for it might have served the Church better if they had let Merton express himself more and the dictates of the Church less.
I am sorry Merton died when he did, he had found a way to speak from that utter poverty of the desert, which reveals the eternal way. And it is just this that these few words on this ephemeral screen seek to say also. Beyond the words of this religion or that, beyond the words of this philosophy or that, words come from out of the tractless desert, coming from nowhere, going to nowhere, they speak the way because no man has spoken.
It does not matter from out of which tradition you come for you will, if you can muster the faith, ultimately find yourself bereft of everything, and it is only in and as this complete poverty that the ‘silent life’ fulfils itself in the torrent of words that pours forth from out of the source.