franciscan - September 1997
© The Society of Saint Francis, 1997
From Silence to Peace
by Elaine MacInnes OLM
Even to a non-Franciscan, the name St Francis is synonymous with peace. We are told that Francis taught his companions to use the greeting ‘The Lord give you peace’, and the ‘Prayer for Peace’, based on his spirituality, has been adopted and used by people of all the great religions of the world. It is no longer the prerogative of the Franciscan family only.
Because I was asked a short time ago to write for this particular journal, I thought about the probable Franciscan spirituality and, calling on my own frame of reference, I felt I wanted to ask, ‘Whence comes that peace?’ The Franciscan prayer for peace reminds us how to practise peace, and that inner state of quiet, that oft-quoted still point, of the essence in mystics such as he, is of course the work of grace. But what can practitioners do in upholding their need to participate in the process?
My long stay in the Orient tells me immediately that the beginnings of peace are to be found in silence. Japanese Zen Buddhists call this anshin, which most faithfully translated is peace of mind. They almost take it for granted that that is why the thousands have been going to Oriental masters for the last thirty years, for anshin, peace of mind. And, in my experience, the best of those masters reveal their secret of the centuries by teaching disciples how to be truly silent.
The peace of mind which silence brings is not just a psychological state, nor is it the repression of thought or expression. One of the most eminent sages of our time, Raimon Panikkar, gave a seminar on silence here some months ago. He said, ‘Even though silence says nothing, it is the realisation of our true nature.’ When I placed myself at the feet of one of the greatest Zen Masters of the century, he responded, ‘I will help you to become a better Christian through the means of the silence of Zen meditation.’ He was, in reality, pointing to that experience of realisation. The only condition on which he would accept disciples was that they would choose as their goal to come to experience.
This is where anshin will be found, and it has existed as a hunger in human beings throughout the ages. For the Oriental Masters, once deeply experienced, the realisation answers the fundamental problem of life and death.
Silence is the meeting point of time and eternity. Silence is not a vacuum but rather the impetus of infinite power that moves us. It is an eye-opener – the third eye, as the ancients put it. And it is the third eye that sees the hidden dimension, from which come our hope and peace.
We westerners usually think of silence as having to do with the mind. But in practice, we discover that, for meditation, we have to still the body as well. If it chatters away, so will the mind. We do this not for control but in a being sort of way, for we learn the best physical position for meditation, which we offer the body opportunity to assume. This process demands asceticism and, hence, the need mentioned above for discipline.
Nor do we control the mind. Panikkar’s articulation: ‘As the mind becomes silent, the third eye of human consciousness opens and the teaching of Jesus on the sound eye giving health to the whole person (Matthew 6.22) is realised in personal experience.’ My Zen Buddhist Master taught that when the third eye opens, we experience not only life but also that that life never ends. Only people who have not experienced life will fear death. Once deeply realised, they have no fear of death. Thus, the fundamental problem can be solved and anshin is within grasp.
We in the Prison Phoenix Trust are attempting to bring that peace to prisoners using the same means: silence and experience. When I first introduce a meditation class to inmates, I usually try to catch their interest by saying that the Beatles and I went to the Orient at about the same time and we were seeking the same thing. Many among our two thousand five hundred prisoners, with whom we, the Trust, are in letter-contact concerning their spiritual growth, seek to go beyond the therapeutic effects to a certain realisation in experience.
We find that young offenders are, perhaps, the most difficult to work with, as they seem to be sizzling most of the time. And yet, when I speak of inmates having even a tiny opening of the third eye, I most frequently quote from a young offender’s letter: ‘As long as I can remember, I have had this hurt inside. I can’t get away from it and sometimes I cut or burn myself so that the pain will be in a different place and on the outside. Then I saw the Prison Phoenix Trust Newsletter, and something spoke to me about meditation and, although I really didn’t know what it was, I wrote for your book. I just want you to know that after only four weeks of meditating half an hour in the morning and the same at night, not only is the pain not so bad but, for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something within myself that I can like.’
Christians also have long regarded silent, contemplative prayer as the way to experience God, but I was never able to find, during my formative years in North America, help in holding silence. Step One in the Orient was to embark on discipline, which I was to learn later brings us freedom, the discipline of bringing the body and mind to silence.
So I was taught a silent body (the Japanese bath ofuro was a great help in loosening tight groin muscles) and how to maintain silence in consciousness. No thinking, no feeling, no remembering, no imagining, etc., just silence whilst directing our perception into the in-breath and out-breath. It doesn’t happen overnight but, as the mind becomes silent, the third eye begins to open in experience. One soon discovers that the difference between understanding what happens and experiencing it is like the difference between understanding electricity and touching a live wire.
The Zen experience is called kensho in Japanese. Ken is ‘to see’ and sho is your ‘true nature’. As a teacher, I can say that we confirm an experience as kensho when it meets a certain criterion. In other words, people reveal by their very words what they ‘saw’ with the third eye. Rather frequently when I read Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross, or Tauler or Hugh of St Victor, I recognise third eye encounters!
Oriental Masters say that the anshin of real peace comes when we have solved, to our satisfaction, the ultimate problem of life and death. Without any apology, my Buddhist Master used to say ‘at the end of our life here, we do not die.’ Not empty words, for I had the privilege of being with him during his last hours. Indeed, at some moment, he just ceased breathing. There seemed no death at all. He had lain there in silence for about five months, in a deep state of consciousness, ‘attending to unfinished business’ his wife said. In the end, life was not taken away, it was merely changed into an eternal peace which was his final endowment and greatest teaching to us his disciples. §
Sister Elaine belongs to Our Lady’s Missionary Congregation, which she joined in Canada in 1953. Much of her time has been spent teaching Zen, and her book Light Sitting in Light was reviewed in the May 1997 edition of franciscan.
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