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.
And yet if this is the case—that in describing the most important matters, language must inevitably fail—what, you might ask, are we even doing here? Why are you listening to me prattle on?
As much as language may not itself be the answer, it can indeed help guide us there. There is the old Zen metaphor about the finger pointing at the moon: one shouldn’t mistake the finger for the moon, language for the thing it describes. But sometimes, if you’re walking along through the night with someone you love, your mind wandering off onto other things, if they don’t stop you and say, “Look!” and point up at the forgotten moon shining there in the dark, you may easily miss it.
The issue might not be so much with language as it is with us. Even though Zen literature specifically warns us against looking to it for answers, we just can’t seem to help ourselves. We think that if we read the right book or listen to the right dharma talk, finally we’ll come to some sort of true understanding. Finally it will all make sense.
Let me go right ahead and admit that I am fully guilty of this myself: I love words about the Way. The Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, Maezumi Roshi’s Appreciate Your Life, Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen: I read and reread them, and then read them again. I devour them hungrily, I dog-ear pages where something particular strikes me, so that I may return to it and be struck once more. And along the way, words for me have indeed provided insight, brief moments of awakening. I remember being on a road trip, reading Roshi Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen, and coming across Harada Roshi’s verse: “For 40 years I’ve been selling water / By the bank of a river. / Ho! Ho! / My labors have been wholly without merit.” I spent the rest of the day laughing and crying as I drove east through the panhandle of Texas, the sky endless and blue, gas stations glinting in the sun. By one of the pumps where I stopped to fill up, a diamond earring lay shining on the ground, and I brought it into the cashier, feeling all enlightened and benevolent and stinking of good deeds.
Don’t get me wrong: my little moment of awakening faded away, but for others—Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch, for instance, who was enlightened through and through upon hearing the Diamond Sutra in the marketplace—words were enough. It’s too bad that it’s not this way for everyone. If it were, then life would be really fucking easy. Everyone could just read the Tao Te Ching and that would be that. Except what happens is, you read it, and yeah, it’s wonderful, and yeah, it’s full of wisdom, and yeah, maybe it even gives you some fresh insight—as if it had opened the door a crack, let some light in—but it can’t solve everything. An abyss words cannot bridge remains, and somehow you have to cross it on your own. You have to push open that door yourself, lower your shoulder and barrel through it into the light.
Great, I’ve said it. But how do you do it? At this point, more words would be of little use. As Zen literature, and more importantly, Zen practice, teaches, the true answer is nonverbal, nonintellectual. It involves getting out of your mind and into your body, into life. Of course, that’s easier said than done (which is, in part, my point). We enjoy it up here in our heads, after all. The realm of words and ideas can be so comforting, so familiar. In this sense, language not only fails to bridge that final gap, it’s part of what creates it. Consider me, a thousand times on any given day, up in my head as if it were an attic, playing with words, using them to imagine, fantasize, escape, dream: anything to avoid being present to my life as it is.
And of course, I use these words to make up stories, too, not just on the page as a writer but in my head, about my life. Oh man, do I make up stories. One might even say that I live my life as if it were a book. Indeed, it sometimes seems like I make poor life decisions exactly because I know they will result in greater drama, in a better story. After all, if nothing’s wrong or missing, where’s the potential for narrative arc? If there’s no conflict, how can there be resolution? To be fair, I’m not actually doing this consciously, but it’s not far from what we seem to do subconsciously all the time. In love with theater, we spin unnecessary tales out of our lives; we invent things we are missing so that we can go off on epic quests. Perhaps we all do this, whether we are writers or not. We see ourselves as if in a great film, and great films need heartbreak, villains, plot twists, heroics. They do not involve eating your rice gruel and then washing your bowl.
Yes, when you get right down to it, the good, simple, ordinary Zen life is the antithesis of these grand theatrics. The funny thing is that we so enjoy playing the gloomy lead role in this tragicomedy we’ve invented that we forget it’s just an act, and that the drama we’ve draped ourselves in is just a costume. What’s beneath this costume? What would things look like naked, without words? Is there such a thing as a life lived without story? A life that is exposed, honest, true?
Then again, I have a feeling this is where we’ll end up anyway, no matter how elaborate the story we tell. After all, the thing about stories is that, like language, they tend to fall apart, unravel, prove themselves to be empty, fictitious, insubstantial; revealing behind them, beneath them, whether you like it or not: you.
Good Zen words can perhaps speed this process, though, and help to unravel these stories rather than reinforce them. Take my particular tale, for instance, that I’m sure I share with many a seeker: I am on a spiritual journey, out to find myself. This has been my story for more than half my life now, and implicit in it is the notion that I am incomplete, separate, yearning to close the gap and become whole. And this idea that we are separate—sure, it may feel that way, but Zen literature reminds us that this is just fiction, delusion. The great Buddhist truth is that we have been whole from the very beginning: we only need realize it.
The great Buddhist truth is that we have been whole from the very beginning: we only need realize it.
Oddly, spiritual literature reminds us that words themselves may have been whole from the beginning as well—that as much as it seems like they are separate from the things they symbolize, that too is an illusion. So it is that language—the thing that supposedly cannot capture the most elusive concepts—is also associated with these concepts directly. In the Bible, for instance, we are told, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And in the koan Aji-kwan from Roshi Bernie Glassman’s 200 Miscellaneous Koans, we learn that A is not just the first letter of the alphabet but the beginning of growth, the very source of the universe, the Tao itself. In these cases, there is no separation between language and the thing it represents. It is the thing itself. In the beginning was the Word, true expression, the great primeval sound, OM, Ahhhh, Mu, the very hum and vibration of creation itself, and it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t point to anything, it just is.
And it still is. Some 14 billion years later, the great origin still permeates all things: every sound we hear or make, every object we see, animate or inanimate, is dancing, vibrating, playing, singing the Word of God. True expression is all around us and within us, whether we notice it or not. As Dogen’s cook reminds us, “Everywhere, nothing is hidden.”
Or, to put it another way, everywhere, everything is proclaiming its existence. The problem is that, caught in these illusory systems of separation and representation, we tend to look for something beyond what we see—we expect answers to be hidden behind the physical world, beneath it, and in so doing, we miss what’s right before us. This is what Baisao, the Old Tea Seller, is talking about in his poem “Impromptu in Late Summer,” “. . . anyone comes here looking / for the ‘special transmission’ of Zen / I’ll point them under their noses / to matters of their everyday life.” This is what the cook is talking about, too, when he laughs heartily at Dogen’s suggestion that he should be doing less cooking, and more meditating and studying of Buddhist texts: “My foreign friend, it seems you don’t really understand practice or the words of the ancients.”
Yes, from the Zen perspective, there is nowhere you can turn that is not the enlightened life. One of the lines we chant every night at the Zendo after sitting is, “The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them.” Another way of putting it might be: The truth is literally everywhere. Everywhere you look, lessons. Which is why the moments captured by haiku are themselves the great truth. The best haiku shed light on those common, concrete moments we spend our whole lives overlooking. The instances they describe, after all, are not extraordinary—a frog jumps in a pond, a warbler wipes its muddy feet on plum blossoms—if anything, they are extra-ordinary. And yet these captured moments are so perfectly precise and vivid that they accomplish in just a few brief words what all Zen literature is attempting—they get us out of our heads and into the physical world, back into the present moment, back to our ordinary everyday lives.
Perhaps this is why there’s something truly fulfilling in reading about the concrete stuff of life. Some of the best of Hemingway is the writer simply describing in detail a meal eaten by a river—the sliced onion sandwich, the wine chilled in the cold water of the creek, a nap afterwards. Nothing out of the ordinary is happening in these passages, and yet they are so gratifying to read. Why? It’s not even really his iceberg theory operating in these moments. Everything is just exactly what it is on the surface, and nothing more—the bread is bread, the wine is wine. But these are the things of life—our lives, just as they are, plain and simple, are filled with miracles. Nothing special, nothing holy; or rather, everything special, everything holy.
People tend to romanticize the wisdom and innocence of children, but I really do believe that this is the way my 18-month-old son, Oliver, naturally sees the world. He experiences everything fresh, encounters it as if never before—with open, clear eyes. He is the little embodiment of Beginner’s Mind. To him, the most ordinary everyday items—a ball, a wooden spoon, an ant—are marvelous curiosities. And one of these common miracles he’s beginning to delight in—as if it were a tool, or a toy, something to roll around on his tongue—is language. Over the past few months, for instance, he’s been doing this thing where he’ll pick up one of my notebooks, open it randomly to a page, and begin reading aloud with great sincerity and delight: “Da, da, da; da, da, da: Dah!” And then he’ll turn the page and read aloud some more.
I know Ollie doesn’t mean anything by it, but if it weren’t so cute, I might be a little insulted by this act. . . . I mean, it sort of insinuates that all my hard work, all these words I so painstakingly pour down onto the page, none of it means anything, not really—bla, bla, bla; da, da, da. It’s empty, another story, another dream, another bunch of words that necessarily misses the mark. And as a writer, I find it a little discouraging to have my beloved son point all this out with a few innocent syllables, thus threatening to completely undo the inherent worth of my livelihood. And yet the spirit with which he utters those syllables—that simple delight— somehow simultaneously redeems it. He reminds us that in the ultimate face of emptiness, one must be at play. And this is what he is doing, of course: he is having fun. With great joy, he is declaring himself alive, and every sound that escapes his lips—and every sound that escapes our own—is humming with that old sad, jubilant, beautiful, courageous cry: I am, I am, I am.
Adapted from a talk given to members of the Village Zendo in New York City on March 16, 2017.
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