Painter Fang Min has a series of paintings featuring Buddhist monks seeming happy enough despite an insect perched on or near their faces (you can see examples here and here). When I saw the exhibit in China, a small explanation accompanied the paintings. I don’t remember it in detail, and I can’t seem to find it anywhere online, but the story was fairly straightforward. It was about a monk who left the hustle bustle of the city to see peace and tranquility in the country only to find that his meditations were still disturbed by the sounds of the country: farmers working, livestock making noises, and so on. He retreated further away, deep into the woods, but still found the sounds of nature disturbing. Eventually, he fled deep inside a cave to find absolute quiet—except for the sound of a single insect. Frustrated that he still was unable to secure tranquility, he sought out the Buddha for advice. The Buddha told him, of course, that he must seek tranquility inside himself, not demand it from the world around him.
This reminded me of my experiences with the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers). The meetings I attended were unprogrammed, which means Friends sit in silent reflection receptive to spiritual prompting. Some people refer to this as “silent worship” or a “silent meeting.” This isn’t really accurate, as Friends are expected to speak when moved to do so. Nonetheless, some people would remark on how wonderful some meetings were when they remained especially quiet. On other occasions, some attendees would complain of being distracted by the sounds of people speaking, children, animals, neighbors mowing lawns, airplanes passing overhead, and on and on.
I always thought that if I were to sit in silent reflection, it meant that I would not make any noise, not that I wouldn’t hear any. If I understand correctly, Quakers have the idea that God is in everything and everyone. For me, listening for God is just to listen to whatever happens to be in the universe. I never took it that God could distract me from God. The work is in the contemplation I am doing, not in finding silence.
The composer John Cage said that music never stops, only listening does. To help people listen, he composed a piece that was four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. During that piece, the audience listened to ambient sounds in the environment (or even the sounds of their own bodies). Cage said that anyone can do this at any time. It just takes an aesthetic attitude. He wasn’t trying to create four and a half minutes of silence. He was trying to create four and a half minutes of attention. Some people did not like being forced into a meditative state, but some people don’t like anything.
I suppose some of this depends on what one seeks when one seeks God. Spinoza described God as being infinite and eternal. God occupies every point in space and every moment in time. What then, is not God? Everything in the universe must be God, and God must be everything in the universe. To believe anything else is to limit God’s presence and power. I think this is why Einstein said he believed in the God of Spinoza.
Everything you hear today is the voice of God. Everything you see is the presence of God. Keep your eyes and ears open, please.