Day 1: Speech and Silence

Sep 7, 2005

Today is the first of ten days of the college meditation course. If I had to take a guess, I would say that these 22 year olds have never woken up at 4AM, nor have they ever been silent for a whole day.

Our primary purpose today, as the "dharma servers", is to establish authority and set a culture of strong discipline, to essentially create an environment conducive for meditation. Yet I can understand their difficulty, especially the silence bit.

Purpose of noble silence -- no reading, writing, or talking -- is a rather subtle concept to grasp. In theory, many people will say that if you don't babble your usual dose of few thousand daily words, you deepen your awareness. For these kids, though, it's a daunting task. Being from a competitive premier institution, where 120 students are selected from 40,000 applicants, the students simply don't understand how it is useful to spend time "doing nothing" and that too, in complete silence.

To be honest, I don't think I really understood noble silence or noble speech until recently when I broke silence after 10 days of meditation. Somehow that day I naturally started listening to myself speak. After the whole day of deliberate talking, the sharp contrast between my deep, meditative silence and shallow, idle speech created a temporary void in which the interdependence of speech and silence became vividly clear.

That night, as I was meditating, I came face to face with my white lies -- all unannounced visitors in my conscious mind, with repeated streams of half-truths said for this justified reason or that selfless outcome. While watching the charade, the only question that came to mind is this: where exactly did I learn to stop being fully honest?

Ever since I was young, I've had two good habits: first, I am brutally honest with myself, and second, I don't lie to others. The first habit I have kept intact, but I now realize that I have manipulated myself out of the second habit.

I certainly don't lie to others, but I also don't speak the full truth. And I know that because of my first habit. :) In my own defense, I would argue that the full truth is often tactless and inexpedient; while that maybe a good defense for an enlightened being, it's a lousy one for a seeker of Truth like myself. It's a lousy excuse because those half-truths cloud your experience of present moment reality. With lies, you have keep track of the context so you don't get caught in contradictions; maybe we can play chess with a hundred or two hundred lies, but beyond a few thousand of them, we lose track and start living unnatural lives. Furthermore, all that extra baggage creates a subtle-yet-distinct internal static that is clearly heard during serious meditation.

If you break it all down, lying is a very curious habit. To lie is to fabricate the truth, ultimately because we don't have the guts to face reality as it is. We will manipulate the truth for a personal sense of power, exaggerate the facts to reinforce the images in our mind, exploit the weakness of our circumstances for multiplying self-benefit. It's all a rather silly game we play with ourselves because we are afraid of accepting the reality of each situation. And over years of deception, not only do we keep rotating in our confusions but we also can't recognize the grand illusions that we've created.

So, as I sat and watched my stream of thoughts unwind on my 11th day, I randomly recalled the beginning of CharityFocus.

When I first thought up CharityFocus in January 1999, Viral and I invited about 20 of our like-hearted friends for a pizza meeting in our living room; a few months of work later, 4 of us helped a homeless shelter setup a website as the first official CharityFocus project. Some more people joined as we all did a few more humble service projects. At one point, someone asked me how many volunteers CharityFocus has. I knew the exact count. It was 26. And I said, "About 30".

About 30? Why didn't I say 26? Ok, I was barely 24 at the time, I had never led an organization and I might've been a little over-zealous in wanting to make "my" effort look successful. But unfortunately, the problem runs a whole lot deeper than that. One white lie begets another and it all starts adding up. By the end of a decade, you might've built a mighty institution but all you've really done is confined others in the shackles of your own hallucinations. In truth, of course, no one gives a hoot if CharityFocus has 26 or 30 volunteers; it's just a game you play with your own mental projections. In ignorance, if you positively reinforce that behavior pattern, the grooves run deeper and deeper.

That was just one example. Crowded by so many personal examples, one after another, I wondered where exactly I picked up this habit. For one, it's steeped in our global media culture. Kids see 50,000 ads per years (and till they're 8, they can't even differentiate between regular TV programming and commercials), and we all know how honest ads are. According to E magazine, advertising budgets have doubled every decade since 1976 and companies now spend about $162 billion each year to bombard us with print and broadcast ads. That's $623 for every man, woman and child in the United States to show us how we can look better, feel superior, do more and be successful. In a world where a child recognizes McDonalds before he can even speak, where we have to struggle for a commerical-free childhood, is it any wonder that we grow up without a clear understanding of honesty?

I mean, is BMW really the ultimate driving machine? Is Chevy actually built like a rock? Is Visa everywhere I want to be? In our greed for being number 1, to be the omnipotent power to grow bigger and badder, we over-hype, dramatize and sensationalize the truth. Pretty soon, we become numb to these kind of half-truths and we start adding fancy fine-prints and hiring top-notch lawyers to cover up our lies.

That cultural corruption, though, eventually boils down to personal responsibility and commitment to one's own values. For most folks, the individual bottom line has this logic -- everyone does it, so I also need to do it to survive. Unfortunately, there is no easy way out of this logic. I have myself used that excuse so many times, albeit to inspire other people to serve (which is no justification). It is only when we realize the true opportunity cost of playing the lying game that we will end the game. Lies, half-truths all add up as mental tensions in our minds and collectively, they create a unnatural culture for others. At a subtler level, they widen the barrier between our image of reality and the reality as it is; and this ignorance unnecessarily puts us in position of playing dice with our happiness. Our challenge, at a personal level, is deepening our awareness to see that.

When I see these college kids having a *really* hard time with nobel silence on day 1 of this 10-day meditation course, I think about the difficulty I have with nobel speech because ultimately, silence and speech are two sides of the same coin. Everytime I fold my hands with a subtle bow or place my index finger on my lips with a "shhhh" whispher to request silence, I'm actually reminding myself to stop all my white lies, to drop all the baggage of images, and boldly accept life as it manifests in each present moment.

Dishonesty, however subtle, is an expression of dis-satisfaction with your current world view. We think lying will help us create favorable circumstances but that conclusion is a result of a confused intellect that has been built upon an accumulated pile of lies. In practice, if we just cultivate a heart of simplicity, our contentment will bring nobel speech to our lips and noble silence in our minds. Then, we will stop wasting our lives in weaving through the imaginary maze of white lies, and actually start being the change we wish to see in the world.

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