I don't know when mothers (and maybe fathers) and teachers started saying it, or whether they still do, but when I was young, I'd be told, "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all." I'd like to amend that to, "If you don't have anything to say, don't say anything." Better yet, "If I don't have anything to say, don't say it."
Before the assembled monks, the Buddha held up a flower. The vast majority of them raised one collective eyebrow (well, one each anyway),and cocked their collective heads (again, one each) like a confused dog. But only Mahakasyapa smiled. To him, the Buddha transmitted the wordless, formless Dharma. One flower held aloft, one subtle smile. Before thought, Mahakasyapa smiles. And so, the legend has it, Zen is born, beyond words and scriptures.
The talk this week started with noting the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Bell is struck, no words, just silence. Bell is hit again, talking may resume. If you listen, there's a bit of a gap even after the second bell. I wanted to experiment with something, and I had to go with what was at hand. I didn't have a flower. I did however have a big blue Pilates ball. I held it aloft, and it elicited a smile. Correct response to the stimulus. If I'd looked menacing, looking like I might throw it, cowering might have been the appropriate response. But I didn't, and in return received a smile. No words yet, just a big old grin.
The assembled Bodhisattvas try to explain the entry to non-duality under the guidance of Manjusri. They take their turns, and do alright. But Manjusri tells them that all their explanations are in and of themselves dualistic. He turns to the layman Vimalakirti for his explanation. Vimalakirti says nothing, which has since become known as Vimalakirti's "thunderous silence". Great response. There was no explanation of non-duality that wouldn't involve some duality, even if it were only to juxtapose duality with non-duality. I've given this a shot when working through kong-ans with my teacher; sometimes it's acceptable. Sometimes not (dammit!).
Huineng said he had one thing that had no name or form. He asked if any of his monks knew what it was. Shenhui responds by saying "It's my Buddha-Nature". Nope. Years later, Nanyue Huairang comes back to Huineng and says, "To call it 'one thing' is not correct."
In Zen meditation, we sit and walk silently, the only sound is the clap of the chugpi or bell, sometimes instruction from the meditation leader, and chanting. The silence allows us the space to investigate ourselves, to ask, "What is this?" that's doing the investigating. It allows us the space to listen. The incessant chatter can distract us from hearing the "cries of the world."
In the NYC subways, commuter rail lines, and most likely elsewhere, since 2001, they've put up these signs, "If you see something, say something." I'd like to amend that to, "If you see something, see something Hear something, hear something".
I picked up the big blue Pilates ball again at the end of the talk. I did throw it that time. A hearty laugh was had by all. Sometimes, laughter, or a silent smile is the correct response. And sometimes, we need to think silently, "Don't fill in the ___________".
Click this to listen to the talk: