John Suler's Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors

Sounds of Silence


Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out.

The first monk said, "Oh, no! The candle is out."

The second monk said, "Aren't we not suppose to talk?"

The third monk said, "Why must you two break the silence?"

The fourth monk laughed and said, "Ha! I'm the only one who didn't speak."

zen story about silence

People's reactions to this story:

"Each monk broke the silence for a different reason, each of which is a common stumbling block to meditation. The first monk became distracted by one element of the world (the candle) and so lost sight of the rest. The second monk was more worried about rules than the meditation itself. The third monk let his anger at the first two rule him. And the final monk was lost in his ego."

The path is open to its failures as they are the stones to its success.

"I am reminded of a car game I used to play with my children called 'Listening for Silence.' The object of the game for me was to stop the noise in the car. The object of the game for the children was to see who could resist speaking the longest by listening for silence. If the first child spoke and the second child automatically burst out proclaiming victory, then both children lost. The object was to listen for silence and silence speaks for itself"

Things do not always go as planned.

This is symbolic of something else, I know, but I'll just say it the way it was told. If you're used to talking, it's going to be hard to resist the temptation to talk, moreso when you're with others, which I would think they would've thought of. It's like telling someone who sees just fine to close their eyes for a week, staying awake, and not open them at all, no matter what noises they heard. It's pretty near impossible to resist temptation when you've never had to resist that type of temptation before.

You could have ended the story at the point when "the candle flickered and went out."

The four monks have each broken their silence for an altogether different reason. But another side is in the fact that the 4th monk spoke at all. Had he simply maintained his silence, he would've been successful in his endeavor. But if he had, in all likelihood, the other three would've probably continued to argue and not even noticed his silence. I know many people who are like the 4th monk; their motto: If I'm doing something good and no one is watching (or no one notices), I might as well not be doing it at all. They believe that the reward is not in the effort, but in the recognition.

Were I a fifth monk I would wait 10 minutes into the exercise, stand up and yell loudly. HAAAAAAH I LOSE!!!! Then walk out to do some non-competitive meditation.

Enter a woods and hear the wilderness listen. That's where you'll find it.... John, your "Ph.D." is not silent.

This story reminds me a teaching. When you meditate in breathing, you should concentrate your mind to your breath only and cast out all thoughts, including a thought that you are breathing.

"If you can describe the zen then you do not know it. 'The buffalo left his enclosure for the abyss, his head passed the doorway, his shoulders, girth and haunches, yet his tail would not pass through' - - koan from the gateless gate"

"Oaths and Promises - Lightly spoken..Hardly Kept."

It is the Provence of knowledge to speak; it is the privilege of wisdom - to listen.

It is clear from reading the story that none of the monks are spiritually ready to perform the difficult silent meditation. Unfocused and easily distracted by their surroundings(the burnt out candle and the conversations of themselves) they all failed to reach their aim of meditating in silent for two weeks. I see the moral of the story is 'to plan thoroughly and be solidly ready before embarking on an action. Focus your mind constantly in reaching your aim, and the objective will be reached, no matter how hard it is.'

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~ Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors ~