“ Silence has no internal structure (…) There are as many kinds of silence as there are relevant sounds” ( Bilmes: 1994)
Along the path that leads to Tushita, a Buddhist meditation retreat Center located in the northern part of the Indian hill station of Dharamshala, signs remind visitors that they are about to enter a silent area. And indeed, silence is one of the experiences that most of the 120 travelers who register for a ten-day “introduction to Buddhism” course come for. During the check-in process that introduces participants to the common rules of the course, a staff member nun explicitly defines silence as a synonym for speechlessness and as not communicating with others in any way. Many of the visitors nod their heads during this explanation, signaling that the understanding of silence as an absence of words, gestures, and eye contact, is a matter of common sense for everybody here.
This common understanding of the definition of silence puzzled me. In anthropological research, the voluntary observance of silence has long been apprehended as more than just an absence of words, but – depending on the social context – as a meaningful action (Basso, 1970; Jackson, 2004; Margry, 2011). Silence can communicate a painful situation; reinforce a sense of togetherness, remembrance and respect; create a form of communion with an inner self or a divine entity in a religious or non-religious context. In that regard, we can think about silent marches, observance of a minute of silence, prayers, and so on.
So, I started wandering, in the particular context of the Center, what silence means for retreatants and for myself and how it is lived, negotiated, fulfilled. I tried to illuminate this question through the lens of a phenomenologically inspired approach that focuses on a personal and embodied experiences as a starting point for understanding silence. Between August 2016 and December 2018, I conducted an in-depth ethnographic study of silence retreats in India. I participated in several ten-day retreats, conducted over 40 interviews with participants as well as staff members and followed a group of participants after their retreat in another part of India.
During my first ten-day retreat, I noticed that – as in many sites where silence prevails (museum, churches, nunneries and monasteries, exam classrooms) – the soundscape of the Tushita Meditation Center overflowed with sounds (such as those coming from the wind, birds, monkeys, car horns, coughs, sneezes and other forms of body sounds). Even when the volume of those surrounding sounds was low, the sounds of my own body – blood circulation, breathing – appeared as incredibly loud phenomenas. Subsequently, my interviews with participants – which I could conduct only at the end of the retreat – made clear to me that there were as many experiences of silence as there were participants. Each individual lived his/er silence in their own way, depending on their social background and motivation to undertake this meditation retreat.
For example, McKenzie, a Canadian woman who I’ve met during her first retreat (after which many followed), spoke at length about how important it was for her to be able to go back “into [her] silence” whenever someone tried to enter in communication with her during the retreat.
“This I actually find hard. Sometimes people would break their silence to me – and I really don’t want to break mine – but I also don’t want to be rude – so like one time a woman came over because I was coughing and gave me coughing drops and said “here you go”. So I just tried to make a quick “smiling eyes” – and then go back into my silence” (McKenzie, emphasis mine)
The possessive pronouns MY, MINE, THEIRS instead of THE, indicate that silence here is not an external, stable, commonly shared phenomenon, but an internal, intentional way of perceiving one’s lifeworld (Husserl, 1936), without the lens of language categorization. In the case of Tushita center, the lifeworld was entwined with people (staff members, other participants); animals (dogs, monkeys, cats); food; forest and the sounds of theirs silences; the practice of Buddhists teachings and many hours of meditation. Moreover, the silence prescribed by the Buddhist Center explicitly meant to attune all the sensory tools and to redirect the way individuals engage socially, physically, emotionally with their present world. People invested into the structure of their immediate experiences, which “precede connected expression in language” (Ricœur, 1979, p. 127), in order to heighten and make vivid the awareness of connections between the self and the external world.
Some retreatants associated silence with virtues. They thought of it, for example, as a clearer way to communicate than language, as creating a strong sense of togetherness and equality between individuals, as another way to explore and transform the self, and as another way to undertake a journey. Alexander, one of the participants, told me the following:
“So during the silence I really had the impression of a common ground. We were not next to each other, we were together. But when we started speaking, division occurred. That’s how we divide ourselves by talking. (…) When people started to talk, I felt instantly that differences existed between us.” (Alexander)
He also added that silence as well as immobility (physical and cognitive) was a type of journey for him:
“It’s funny that you spend ten days inside, and it’s just like travel; you go into inner places you’ve never been before. I just feel it’s a whole new world that opens up where you can travel. There is no words, it’s so hard to describe.” (Alexander)
To conclude, the silences of the retreat Center, as well as the silences of forests, seas, deserts, and cities do not exist without a certain space and a hearer or a listener, who creates a particular universe through an intentional relation to his/er imminent lifeworld (Bilmes, 1994). In this sense, silence is not a substance but a relation based on individual’s socio-cultural background and expectation, his/er worldviews and the social context in which silence occurs (Le Breton, 1997).
Ellina Mourtazina is a PhD candidate in Anthropology, and member of the research group “Culture and Nature of Tourism,” at the University of Lausanne. Her ethnographic research focuses on Buddhist retreat tourism practices in Northern India.
Basso, K. H. (1970). « To Give up on Words »: Silence in Western Apache Culture. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 26(3), 213‑230.
Bilmes, J. (1994). Constituting silence: Life in the world of total meaning. Semiotica, 98(1‑2), 73‑87.
Husserl, E. (1936). The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Northwestern University Press.
Jackson, M. (2004). The Prose of Suffering and the Practice of Silence. Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, 4(1), 44‑59.
Le Breton, D. (1997). Du silence. Paris: Métailié.
Margry, P. J. (2011). Civil Religion in Europe: Silent Marches, Pilgrim Treks and Processes of Mediatization. Ethnologia Europaea, 41(2), 5‑23.
Ricœur, P. (1979). Main Trends in Philosophy. Holmes & Meier.
Entrance of the Tushita Meditation Center (Photograph by the Author)