The Vow of Silence
Theosophy, April, 1924
Re-Printed in “Living the Life”
One, if not the greatest, of evils by which modern society is corrupted, is that of gossip. Injurious speech, or small talk ensouled by the spirit of competition, not only ruins other people’s character, but also corrupts our own. This is not recognized. Small talk has become and is studied as an art, and the infamy of gossip has emerged as an institution of social amusement. Its infamous nature is forgotten, its dire effects fail to impart their lesson, and it has assumed for modern men and women the place of a necessity of life. Social avocations in cultured drawing rooms as also in abusive slums pursue the path of small talk and mean gossip.
The first requirement of the spiritual life is to learn the value of silence. The conservation of spiritual energy demands that the frittering away of soul-forces be stopped. There are few avenues through which man’s divinity goes to waste as through sound and speech. The dirt and dregs of our kamic nature often find their outlet in useless or injurious speech. There is a close connection and more than mere metaphorical analogy in the statement that refers to what is put in the mouth as food and what comes out of it as words. Through the process of eating, the assimilation of food and elimination of waste product take place. The health of the body improves or suffers with every morsel we take in. One of the main ways of determining the condition of the body is to examine the disposition of the process and product of elimination. Our psychic nature has its own ways of assimilation and elimination, of sustaining itself in good or ill health. One of the modes of elimination relates to the power of speech.
In spiritual growth, learning and listening go together. They precede teaching and speaking. In ancient India, the moment the seeker of the peace of wisdom resolved to follow in the footsteps of the guru, the pupil gained the name of Shravaka, a listener. The ancient Greeks named him Akoustikos. He was not even permitted to ask questions; bija-sutras, seed-thoughts, were given him to ponder over and understand to the best of his ability. These thoughts were intended as purificatory food that, if adequately assimilated, would cleanse his kamic nature; not only remove the accumulated poisons of the past but reveal to the pupil the correct alchemical process of transforming within his own constitution passion into compassion, lust into love, and antipathy into sympathy. Once started on this highway, he was ready to become an exerciser, a positive doer, Shramana, the Asketos of the Greeks.
Our modern Theosophical student has not fully recognized the occult significance of silence. A vow of silence does not mean to become mute and not to speak at all. It consists in: (1) self-imposition of periodic silence; (2) not indulging at any time in injurious and untruthful speech; (3) not giving way to useless speech; (4) not asking questions on philosophy or practice till what has already been taught or is before us is fully scanned and thoroughly looked into from the point of view of our particular questions; (5) not indulging in ahankaric speech, i.e., not making statements about the Divine Self or Ego in terms of our kamic or lower nature; (6) not indulging in injurious speech regarding our lower nature, our own faults and weaknesses, lest by speaking of them we lend them the strength that ensues from the power of speech; (7) not to speak even that that is true unless at proper times, to proper people, and under proper circumstances.
While this sevenfold exercise is practiced, secrecy has to he observed about it. To refer to or speak about the exercise we have undertaken and are practicing is to vitiate it altogether and make it worse than useless. Such an indulgence gives birth to conceit and enhances it where it already exists. We need secrecy and silence. Contemplation on their kinship should precede the sevenfold exercise.
There is a general desire ”to sit for meditation and to practice yoga,” but this first rule, this primary regulation, is found irksome and its desirability questioned. No doubt, it is difficult, well nigh impossible, for the moderns to attain this control over speech; but if not fully and wholly at least partly and partially it can be and should be practiced.
Deliberate speech will be the first result. It will not be rooted in Kama-passion, but in Buddhi-compassion. There are two types of criticism: one is faultfinding; the other is perception of virtue in meritorious expressions as also the perception of virtue behind vice, demerit, and weakness. The deceit of the dice is Sri Krishna, and the power to perceive that comes from the second type of criticism. The first is criticism by words of Kama; the second is by words of understanding. The first is on the plane of words; the second on the plane of ideas. The first is of head learning; the second of soul-wisdom. The firstpraises or condemns the lower nature; the second imports into it the strength of the higher, causing readjustment. The first has behind it the superior spirit of teaching; the second the sublime spirit of learning and propagating that which is learnt.
How different would be the world if even in some measure the power of this practice went into the doings of our civilization! Reviewers and critics would then not look for points to condemn, but for beauty, goodness, and worth in the books they review. In all affairs of thought, feeling, and action our tendency is to look for our thoughts repeated, our feelings reproduced, and our actions imitated. We regard ourselves as the model for all examination. We are the pattern whereby right and wrong is to be determined. Such an attitude is not blatantly expressed, but veils itself in a subtle form of humility, which is mock modesty.
There are a hundred who plunge into the waters of the ocean for pleasure or profit to only one who dives for the pearl of great price. The latter does his work in the secrecy of silence. His art in the ocean is of a different kind from that of the ordinary swimmer. Those who are in search of the pearl of wisdom must acquire the strength of muscle, the control of breath, and the finesse of stroke necessary against the stormy billows of this ocean of Samsara. These lie securely hidden in the Power of Silence. They must invoke that power, not by a pledge to some other being, but by a vow silently sung and silently registered in the sanctuary of the Heart. Thus, the path begins in silence and secrecy and ends in the hearing and the chanting of the Soundless Sound.