Sunday, December 18, 2011


"Thus, by its very nature, idle talk is a closing-off, since to go back to the ground of what is talked about is something which it leaves undone." Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Sharyn Skeeter wrote "Walking Meditation: Sangha on Unbound Pages" for you. Here is the last stanza of her poem:
Your pages breathe, flicker
      in light. Gongs vibrate,
      pulse, dissolve into silence.
What might one learn from the "silence" in your life?  What have you decided not to place on paper? Sharyn Skeeter seems to be a kindred spirit. When did you meet her?

I think this question is very important. What things do we---should we---remain silent about? I can answer this question by referring to the title of a book of my collected interviews, Passing the Three Gates: Interviews with Charles Johnson, edited by Jim McWilliams (University of Washington Press, 2004). And what does "passing the three gates" mean? 

In Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic literature I've seen versions of the spiritual advice known as "passing the three gates." The advice is a guide for how we should speak, or what Buddhists call Right Speech. Before we make our thoughts and feeling public in speech (and I would also say, writing), we must first mindfully determine if they are worthy of being shared by passing them through Three Gates. These gates take the form of three questions: (1) Is what we are about to say true? (2) Is it necessary? And (3) Will it do no harm?

I always try to consider these three questions (or gates) before I speak or write anything. For example, after reading some of my E-Channel posts that described my father, a writer-friend here in Seattle told me that he thought a book about my Dad would be a great idea. I assured him that book will never happen because my father was a very private man who had no interest in the details of his life being offered up for public consumption or, if you will, public entertainment. (That stance was very much a part of what I always saw as his personal integrity.) So, no, he would not have approved of my doing such a book.
If there is a principle here, it is this: it is not always necessary to say or write everything we know. Or feel. Or think. Some matters we should be silent about, especially if they will potentially cause harm or hurt to others. Indeed, some matters we remain silent about because they are no one else's damned business. And there is a beauty in silence. It is the background, the backdrop, and the precondition for speech and sound, the Ground from which all sounds arise and into which they vanish as all things do in shūnyatā, or emptiness or the Void. For this reason I abhor gossip, what Heidegger in Being and Time called "idle talk," and unmindful speech that plays fast and loose with truth. Listen to Heidegger for a moment on this matter:

        "Idle talk is constituted by just such gossiping and passing the word along---a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on becomes aggravated to complete groundlessness. And indeed this idle talk is not confined to vocal gossip, but even spreads to what we write, where it takes the form of 'scribbling.' In this case the gossip is not based so much on hearsay. It feeds upon superficial reading. The average understanding of the reader will never be able to decide what has been drawn from primordial sources with a struggle and how much is just gossip...Discourse...has the possibility of becoming idle talk. And when it does, it serves not so much to keep Being-in-the world open for us in an articulated understanding, as rather to close it off, and cover up the entities within-the-world. To do this one need not aim to deceive...The fact that something has been said groundlessly, and then gets passed along in further retelling, amounts to perverting the act of disclosing."
 In the 1995 film Crimson Tide, the character Captain Frank Ramsey (played by Gene Hackman) is commander of a nuclear missile submarine. Early in the story he has a strong, important moment with his new executive officer or (XO) Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (played by Denzel Washington), who spent a year at Harvard. As they depart on their mission, just before their submarine slips beneath the waves, they stand together topside, watching a gorgeous sunset. This scene is brief, but like so many quick, well-done scenes in film or fiction it captures in just a few words the essence of Captain Ramsey's character. Hunter, smoking his first cigar (a gift from Ramsey), just quietly watches the last sunset they will see for a long time. He does not speak. He is silent. And all the while, Ramsey is carefully watching Hunter, his new XO, sizing him up, scrutinizing him in order to determine what kind of leader he potentially might be. At last, he smiles and says:

          "Bravo, Hunter! You knew to shut up and enjoy the view. Most eggheads want to talk it away. Your stock just went up a couple of points."

I really do love that moment in Crimson Tide. Too much speech or over-thinking can obscure the beauty of that which is ultimately ineffable and beyond speech---like the experience of Nirvana itself, which is beyond words and concepts. Silence, then, shows respect for Being. And it speaks directly to one of my favorite  sayings by Zen master Wu Kwang, which is the title of his book: Open Mouth Already a Mistake.

I see writer, educator, and former editor Sharyn Skeeter as one of my sisters in the Dharma. We correspond via email about many subjects: spiritual practice, cultural matters, literature, politics, issues pertaining to the state of black America and the state of the world, and more. We first met in 1976 when writer Clarence Major, her husband at the time, and I were both hired by the English Department at the University of Washington. I was delighted (and very humbled) to see her poem in the festschrift volume published this year in India, Charles Johnson: Embracing the World, just as I felt deeply moved by the contributions so many of my old friends and former students made to this book, including yours, Ethelbert. Perhaps some writers seek fame. But I cannot say enough about how the friendships I've enjoyed for decades have enriched my life. That sense of the value of enduring friends is captured, I think, in a poem I've never forgotten by Henry Austin Dobson (1840-1921):

Fame is the food that dead men eat,---
I have no stomach for such meat.
In little light and narrow room,
They eat it in the silent tomb,
With no kind voice of comrade near
To bid the banquet be of cheer.

But Friendship is a nobler thing,---
Of friendship it is good to sing.
For truly, when a man shall end,
He lives in memory of his friend,
Who doth his better part recall,
And of his faults make funeral.


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