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Sound of Silence

Last year the New York Times Magazine ran an article entitled, “White Noise,” about dissenters using blank signs or sheets of paper as potent protest placards. Viral clips of crowds on streets and campuses have shown just how prevalent this symbol has become in some countries. The white paper has become a way of spreading the “message.”

While commentators were quick to interpret the meaning of these “white-paper protests,” article author Jody Rosen writes, “A blank sign is both a symbol and a tactic. It is a passive-aggressive protest against censorship, a sarcastic performance of compliance that signals defiance.”

In these instances, then, to say nothing seems to say anything and everything that observers may impose on the blankness -- regardless of what the protestors’ actual message may have been.

The wordless posters demonstrate a significant Zen training concept: Words are both powerful and limiting – sometimes concurrently.

Zen masters of old would sometimes hold up a staff and ask students, “What do you call this?” A student who says it is a staff can be right or wrong; a student who says it is not a staff can also be right or wrong. Each has fallen into the master’s dualism trap. A staff both is and is-not. No utterance can suffice. Better to find a non-dualistic way to answer – sometimes no words are better.

The wordless white paper protests may convey different messages to different people, but for one who truly sees, silence can speak volumes. There is no doubt about its meaning. No words needed.

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