Lessons from the Dojo #1: Silence

My journey as a Jewish seeker really began in the martial arts training of my youth. I will always remember as I stood deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the end of my black belt test, a brick lying broken on the rocks between my feet, looking out into the vast expanse of forest and granite cliffs. It was there that I felt myself overwhelmed by the presence of God for the first time. It was there that I felt the energy, the life-breath of the world coursing though me. I lacked the words to describe or to name it, but something had opened in my heart. My world changed forever.

Karate challenged my body and my heart, but I found that it gave me somewhat less intellectual stimulation. And although I was connected to the spirituality embodied in the katas (sets of movements), I was unsure how to access and concretize these feelings when I left the dojo. Could martial arts give me a life of praxis as well? Or would I need to fuse my physical training with a different philosophical or spiritual system? By the time I left for university I was searching for something more. Perhaps, I thought, I might study Zen Buddhism, Taoism, or Shintoism, spiritual paths that have been long intertwined with the philosophy of martial arts. Or maybe I should explore something of Judaism, the religion of my family and my ancestors. Might there be something in that ancient tradition to help me think about these questions? Thus began the Jewish stage of my spiritual quest.

This is my first public opportunity to reflect upon the relationship between these lessons from the dojo and what I have learned from the teachings of Jewish mysticism. I look forward to sharing and hope that it will resonate with others. And, as with any intensive writing project, I hope that putting pen to paper will allow me to better understand the connection between these two dimensions of my life.

My years of training in the dojo taught me to appreciate the graceful art of silence. I’ve yearned for silence for as long as I can remember. I’m often more comfortable sitting in silence with other people, both close friends and relative strangers, than I am in talking with them. My favorite songs have always been melodies without words. Yes, sometimes silence an expression of embarrassment, insecurity, or shyness. But in many other situations this quiet is a way of connecting to others. Quiet is so much more than the absence of language. For those who know its beauty, silence creates an unspeakable bond between us.

My training in the dojo cultivated this deep-seated love for silence. I discovered the power of physical movement that transcends words. I was forced to outgrow my personal tendency is to over-intellectualize, to substitute thought for action and consider things at great length before beginning to move. There is no time for this in martial arts. One must move with focus, concentration and discipline, never becoming getting trapped in the mind. As a way of preparing ourselves for each rank test, we would listen to our teacher ring the bowl gong three times, carefully following the sound as it slowly drifted into absolute silence. Then, as before every class, we sat in silent meditation for several moments before beginning to move.

Words do connect, but the bonds they forge are limited. Silence can build mighty bridges as well. Many of my most powerful and intimate moments of encounter, with God and with other people, take place in a realm beyond words. It comes as no surprise that I’m drawn to religious thinkers who love silence as well. John of the Cross, Augustine, the Quaker theologians, Attar of Nishapur, and Rumi have all been my teachers. But I remember being quite startled that Jewish mystics consistently underscore the value of language, though they are aware of its shortcomings. God created the world through the divine word, forever imbuing all language—including our own—with a creative power. On Mt. Sinai the infinite source of divine Wisdom was drawn forth from primordial silence and given articulation by the words of Torah. And so many of our devotional acts, including prayer and study, are inherently linguistic. But every once in a while one finds Jewish mystics who love silence as well. Hillel Zeitlin, a 20th c. Jewish spiritual writer, offers a particularly moving description of the beauty of sitting with God in silence:

In the depths of night. All silent. All asleep. My heart remains awake.

I am awake. You are awake. Let us dwell together!

I pour my meditation out to You, You pour out Yours to me. We listen to each other’s voice. Come, let’s cling together for all time!

This time, I don’t cry out to You. I don’t ask anything of You. I am with You. You, with me…

Why should You need my longings? Why should You need my desires? All of me is Yours already.

Why would You need words? Why would You need utterances?

Come to me here. Enter me without a word being said.[1]

Here Zeitlin is following in the footsteps of some of his Hasidic forbears. The teachings of the Great Maggid of Mezritch, one of the most powerful theologians of early Hasidism, describe a careful dance between using words that are infused with divine creativity on one hand, and the awesome potential of contemplative silence on the other.

Can spiritual messages be conveyed to the people around us through language? The Kotsker Rebbe was famous for his distrust of words, and he often challenged his disciples to break out of their old ways of thinking by using koan-like truisms. Students must be taught through action, he claimed, supplemented with a paradoxical usage of language. It is interesting to note that relatively few attempts have been made to write down essential teachings of martial arts. These are not matters that can be easily conveyed in words. True, they can be described, but in order to come to life these teachings must be embodied in motions and transmitted through deeds, not words. It is for this reason that these lessons can only be delivered by a living teacher, passed on from master to disciple. But that is a subject for another day.


[1]Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era: The Religious Writings of Hillel Zeitlin, ed. and trans. Arthur Green, poems trans. Joel Rosenberg (Paulist Press, 2012), p. 199)

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3 thoughts on “Lessons from the Dojo #1: Silence

  1. A beautiful reflection on meaningful silence and transmission. With a bow of gratitude.

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