Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Into great silence

It might be the modern day equivalent of a medieval monastic enclosure. Everyone sleeps in a common dormer; we sit in our assigned places, as if in choir; once the doors are closed, you can't leave; you eat what is served, when it is served; we have made temporary promises of obedience; bells rings and we tighten our belts. There are no cell phones, no landlines, no wi-fi. It is a remarkably silent place, and I imagine not a few of us are praying.

No, I'm not on retreat, I'm on a China Air 747 somewhere between New York and Osaka, traveling with my students and two colleagues to Japan. We're off to see and experience Buddhist practices of mindfullness and meditation in particular, but we are also keeping our eyes open to the ways in which silent spaces are constructed. What constitutes a sacred architecture of silence? of solitude? of stillness? How many of these constructs, physical and metaphorical, cross traditions?

I watched Into Great Silence during the night, preparing to watch it with my students when we are back. This time, I was struck by the sheer physicality of the monks' lives, not only in the quotidian chopping of wood and hauling of water, but in prayer. The young monk lifted off his feet by the bell, the monk prostrate on the floor in his cell, the elderly monk with his canes hurrying to the church.

And I wondered if the monastery I long for is right under my nose.


  1. This might forever change how I think about airplane travel.

    I'm eager to hear about your experiences in Japan. I got to a yearly silent retreat at a Trappist monastery, and that is always an intense experience.

  2. You know, I agree with jo(e) this will definitely change how I think about airplane travel!!

    And also, if this had been offered as a Chemistry class in my college days I might have made a better grade!! :)