One weekend I shared a couple of silence and fasting days with some friends when a funny little Zen story kept popping up in my mind: There once were four monks that lived in a small monastery. One morning they decided to remain silent for the rest of the day and spend it meditating. They entered the meditation room, placed several candles around themselves, closed their eyes and submerged into meditation. After a couple of hours some candles began to go out. One of them remarked: “Look. The flames are dying out.” The monk sitting next to him immediately replied: “ssssh! We are not supposed to break the silence today so we shouldn’t talk.” With a loud voice the third snapped at the second: “Don’t you see you break the silence yourself by saying so?” The last monk waited two minutes but eventually said: “Imbeciles, I’m the only one who hasn’t spoken.”
What occurred to me during my fasting was the psychological and spiritual depth underneath the typical Zen humour as the monks not only broke the external silence, but each of them, in turn, broke the inner silence as well.
The first one lost his inner peace when he got caught in his own indecisiveness. Had he gotten up and had he, instead of worrying, simply lighted the candles again, he would have had no reason to break the silence with words.
The second broke his inner silence by getting stuck on the rules. The remark of the first wasn’t that problematic after all. So he could just as well not have cared about it or could have helped the first to lighten the candles again.
The third fell into the trap of anger. He could also have kept his thoughts to himself, and he could have talked to the second in a soft manner the next day. Harsh reproaches weren’t necessary at all.
And the fourth in the end showed the most treacherous social poison: arrogance. He could have preserved the silence both for himself and others, but he felt it necessary to distinguish himself from the other three with cutting words and he saw the need to underline his own importance.
Clearly and in a recognisable manner the story thus goes beyond the joke and shows the four human traits that break the silence and peace of the soul in all relationships: indecisiveness, rulerust, anger and arrogance. Under the first three a whole lot of fear is hidden: fear to do the wrong thing, fear to deviate from the known path and fear not to be the best. Under the last trait something far more ugly can be found: pure egocentrism.
The one who seeks to retain the silence of the soul, therefore, does well by shaping the opposite traits in his or her relationships: independence, authenticity, forgiveness and humbleness. They preserve inner rest when living and working together with others.
Under independence, authenticity and forgiveness, in fact, the opposite of fear is hidden: acceptance – acceptance of reality, acceptance of one’s own being and acceptance of the stream of life. And underneath humbleness something far more beautiful can be found: love for the transcendent.