The Practice of Noble Silence
At One Mind Dharma, we often observe the practice of noble silence during daylong meditation retreats. This is a practice utilized by many retreat centers and monasteries, and can help create an environment conducive to the development of insight, compassion, and concentration.
Practicing noble silence at a daylong retreat is different than practicing at a monastery. In the Theravada tradition, the practice is often encouraged from the time of the last dhamma talk in the evening until after the first meal in the morning. This helps keep living quarters quiet, promote mindfulness while outside formal sitting practice, and create an overall calm environment. Different Buddhist traditions often have unique guidelines around the practice.
At One Mind Dharma, we encourage noble silence during our daylong retreats to encourage individuals to turn their attention inward. It may be seen as a practice in wise speech, one of the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. During the day, we only speak or communicate if absolutely necessary. The exception is during periods of discussion or question & answer.
To practice noble silence, you can use it as a true investigation. Notice when the desire to speak arises, or even the wish to communicate without words. Tune into your direct experience. It is not just a rule, it truly can be an insightful way to practice.
A Brief History of Noble Silence
The term “noble silence” comes from the time of the Buddha, when the Buddha would remain silent when asked questions that were irrelevant or unanswerable. The belief held by many is that this was the Buddha’s lesson in not speaking if we don’t need to.
Since the Buddha’s time, monasteries have been practicing noble silence across the world. There are periods of talking during working meditation or discussion, but the monastic community remains largely silent. During vassa, or the annual rains retreat, many monastics remain silent and practicing for the entire three month period.
During a period of teacher training, Jack Kornfield said to our group that when they brought the dharma back from Southeast Asia, they brought back just 5% of the tradition. They tried to bring what was useful for our community and investigate what helped cultivate awakening. When Buddhism came to the West, one of the things brought along was the practice of silence.
Through teachers like Jack Kornfield, S.N. Goenka, Sharon Salzberg, Ruth Denison, and many others, the retreat setting we know began to take shape. The container of noble silence throughout the period of the retreat was encouraged as a way to mimic the conditions of a monastery. As far as I understand, the goal was to create a setting as similar to a monastery as possible, as monasteries were created to offer conditions conducive to the cultivation of freedom.
If you join us at our center for a daylong meditation, please be mindful of our practice of keeping silence. This includes quiet conversation, using cell phones, and communicating with our hands. We understand some communication is necessary. If you do need to communicate with somebody outside the retreat, please do so in a secluded area as to not distract the sangha. If you wish to communicate with someone within the daylong, pause before doing so! Keep in mind that this person is observing noble silence as well, and make sure it is necessary before speaking!