Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Rule of Listening

"Wind Sounds"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Recently I was thinking about how many monasteries I have visited over the course of my life -Christian as well as Buddhist. I have spent time with Benedictine monks in a local monastery in California, I have stayed in monasteries in Italy and in Great Britain, and I have visited Buddhist monasteries in South Korea; and the one common characteristic of every single place I have visited is the fact that there is little to no talking among the monks.  In fact, in most cases the rule of most monasteries is that the monks are not allowed to talk to one another unless it is absolutely necessary.

I used to think that the "no talking rule" was kind of silly - after all we learn from one another by talking, by sharing and discussing ideas. So why is "no talking" such a valued virtue for those pursuing  a spiritual path in a monastic community? I have since come to realize that it's not so much  that monks don't talk, rather they devote their lives to the discipline of "listening." 

Saint Benedict who is cited as being the "Father of Western Monasticism" wrote a very complex "Rule of Life" for his monks to follow as they lived together in community- rules for when to pray or work, even rules for when to rest.  But the most important of these rules is summarized in one word - it is the very first word of the monastic rule of life: 


In fact the discipline of listening is supposed to influence everything the monk does throughout the entire day - throughout the day the monk is admonished to "listen and pay attention" to what is being revealed in every present moment. Of course if you are always talking and always engaged in a process of thinking, you can't do very much listening. So that's why monks throughout the world (in the West as well as the East) don't talk very much in monasteries. 

I actually think this is a good rule of life, not just for monks living in a monastery, but for any one of us on any spiritual path.

I remember an essay I once read in one of my Buddhist magazines:

Early human beings learned to survive by listening -
by constantly scanning their environment for an awareness of sounds.
But the modern world has become so full of white noise, 
so polluted by meaningless sounds that people have literally changed the way they listen.

Instead of keeping our ears open to everything,
we tune out the drone of a leaf blower or the noisy sound of passing traffic.
We only listen for what we think is important
and we filter out what is unimportant before we even hear it,
and so we don't make ourselves available to all the many sounds that come to us
in the present moment.

The problem is, of course, that life reveals itself to us in the preset moment- the present moment is alive with the sound of "God's" abiding presence for those who have the ears to listen.

Over the past few years I have noticed a considerable change in the way I listen, and I think the quiet of the desert has helped me to do this. While the desert may be a quiet place, it is certainly filled with sounds and I make it a point to "listen and pay attention" whenever possible.

I sit in my garden,  and in the quiet I can hear the gentle wind in the chimes hanging from my house. I also hear the sound of the gurgling fountain-  a bird struggling to make a nest in a bush. In the background I hear the sounds of everyday life being lived, a neighbor's air conditioner humming,  a car door in the distance, my dog running around - all those beautiful sounds of the everyday moment,  sounds of "God" speaking to me.

Of course you don't  have to be a monk or live in a desert to adopt "listening" as a rule of life- spend some time not talking - better than that, spend some time not thinking, and 

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