Some mischievous part of me was tempted to try to get away with not uttering a single word during this talk; to just stand up here in the silence and see what happened. After all, as Shunryu Suzuki says, “the best way to communicate may be just to sit without saying anything. Then you will have the full meaning of Zen.”

Yes, I wonder if our time together might best be served if I just shut up and we instead use the opportunity to simply sit quietly and do nothing. Words often only get in the way, especially if it’s someone like me saying them—someone who doesn’t actually know a whole hell of a lot. Fortunately for me, I’m talking about how words fail, so there’s not a ton of pressure: after all, how could I possibly succeed?

One of the wonderful things about Zen and Taoist literature is how honest it is about its own shortcomings. When it comes to the great matters of life and death, it does not pretend to have the answers. Indeed, one of its hallmarks is a certain distrust of language and its ability to express the inexpressible. “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” So opens the Tao Te Ching, but what does this even mean? Well, for one thing, it means what we all already know about language: that words are not the things themselves, but only symbols for them. This applies equally to concepts as grand as the Great Way and to things as plain as a potato. No matter how deliciously I describe a roast potato, it will not fill your belly; no matter how luxuriously detailed my account of an armchair, if you try to sit in it, you will most certainly fall on your ass.

But the opening of the Tao Te Ching is not only a critique of language and its inevitable failure but also an actual description of the Tao. How does the ancient Chinese text describe it? By saying it is beyond description, beyond naming, beyond imagination and definition, beyond the power of words to capture. And yet of course it is words that are telling us this, that are in fact functioning, through their very failure, to give us if not the Tao itself, then at least a sense of it—of its overwhelming immensity, its unfathomable mystery. It’s that old rhetorical trick of telling us what something is by admitting that language can’t convey it. Consider Buson’s haiku, as translated by Sam Hamill: “Sweet springtime showers, / and no words can express / how sad it all is.”

This is what Zen loves to point out when it comes to the topic of expressing the inexpressible. Not this, not that; not speech, not silence; whatever you call it, however you approach it, you’re mistaken. “Turning away and touching are both wrong,” as the Zen poem “Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi” reminds us. Yes, any way you try to capture it, it will slip away, and as soon as you think you’ve finally got it and are standing on solid ground, the rug gets pulled out from under you again. And it is this resulting feeling, of plummeting into the abyss, of true not-knowing, an ultimate resignation to the great mystery and absurdity of it all, and of ourselves, that somehow comes closest to embracing the truth of it. These are the moments that language drops away, becomes meaningless, its efforts only laughable.

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