Last November 11, Remembrance Day here in Canada, I was driving to the store, listening to the radio, when the DJ abruptly announced that there would now be a moment of silence. I didn’t immediately register the reason why, so I changed the station to see if this was happening elsewhere. It was. The radio had just gone silent, in its entirety.
The next minute was interesting. It was quiet, obviously, but not in the same way as if I had simply turned off the radio. This was a silence that I was being asked to hold. Everyone in every other car, everyone in the whole city, was being asked to hold it at the same time I was.
But what were we being asked to hold? In a way, we’re all old hands at this—we have all, at many times in our lives, been invited into a moment of silence. It’s usually to commemorate death—either of an individual or a group—which can be a lot to take in. But what I find, looking back at all those moments of silence, is that I don’t think I’ve ever been told how to do it. We’re told, “We will now observe a moment of silence.” You might think we’d also be encouraged to reflect on the particular person or group or event, or that we might be invited to pray or consider what it all means to us personally. But we aren’t. We’re simply told to be quiet, to be respectful, to agree to this simple thing.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and what I’ve come to is this: meditation (zazen in particular) is just a moment of silence.
It’s easy enough to explain the physicality of meditation—back like this, hands like this, eyes like this, breathing through the nose—but then we get to the question of what’s happening in our heads, and that’s trickier than one might expect. We’re told to be curious but not to follow our thoughts, to be alert but not focused on a single thing, to be vigilant but somehow permeable, to have deep resolve but not to be attached to any particular feeling or outcome. It’s all good advice, but it also seems so foreign. If you’re receiving those instructions for the first time, you’re thinking, I’ve never done anything like this before.
You have. When you’re asked to participate in a moment of silence in memory of someone who died, you’re just being asked to hold something for a few breaths. That’s all. You don’t have to manipulate it or figure it out; you don’t have to visualize it in three dimensions. You just have to carry the weight of it, to remain with it. Maybe, in that minute, it becomes a part of you. Or maybe, when the time is up, you just put it down. But you know what it is to let it in, to let it be.
In zazen, we aren’t asked to hold a particular person or group or event—we’re asked to hold everything. Absolutely everything. We sit in that posture, in silence, and we breathe. And as we do, we hold the entirety of what we’ve been handed: our own lives, the suffering and joy of others, the world. There’s no task here, nothing to be transformed or transcended, just an agreement to hold this—all of this—as it is.
In Japan, Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is called Kannon—literally, “observes sound.” She hears all the cries of the world, all at once, all the time. It’s a painful, beautiful image of vulnerability and the responsibility that comes with never, ever tuning out the world around you. Observing silence sounds like the opposite, but in that silence, we open ourselves up to everything Kannon does.
Is it heavy, the weight of the universe and all its beings in past, present, and future? That depends. The truth is, this is what we’re holding all the time. We hold the totality of this moment when we wake up in the night, when we go to the store, when we watch TV, and if at those times we feel “the weight of the world,” it’s not just that it’s so huge—it’s also that we want so desperately to put it down. In zazen, though, we don’t put it down, and in that decision, that agreement not to slough it off, we finally learn how to hold it. We let it sink in. This is what it means to say yes to your life. This is the quiet side of vow.
Take your seat. Find your posture, arrange your hands just so. Open your eyes, and begin to breathe in that silence. This moment contains everything. Do you know how to hold it? Yes. You do—you always have. This time, just don’t put it down.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.