By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | January 1, 2006
In topic: Writing / Art / Creativity
Summary: ...language is on one hand a prison: we are literally locked inside language, created by, defined by, language, and can only see as far as we can say. On the other hand, language can free us: it can open our imagination and allow us to reach out to the world, and also to fly beyond it...
A seemingly inescapable fact of my life is that I am a poet, or, at least, that I keep on writing poems. Why would I feel the need to do this? I do not believe that poetry is self expression or making something beautiful with words. I believe that the point of poetry is to clarify language through a process of endless exploration, so that we can more and more live within language as a joy and a liberation, rather than as a prison, which it can be and usually is.
As a poet I am interested and fascinated with language. I realize that not many people are. But whether you are fascinated with language or not, language is important to you because it is through language that you describe and therefore create the world you live in, and it is through language that you describe and therefore create yourself. If the world is difficult and life is difficult it is not so much that there is something wrong with you or the world- it is rather that there is something wrong with the way you understand your various descriptions of self and world.
We usually think there is something and then there is talking about something and that the something is substantial and real and the talking about it is secondary. But for the human mind there’s no way to separate something from talking about something. Even perception is, to some extent, partly a process of talking about something.
I suppose you could say that language is humanity, because human consciousness is language-making consciousness. Language is so close to us we cannot understand what it is. We are in language as a fish is in water: for the fish there no such thing as water, water is just the way things are, you can’t get outside of it and call it water. I have been wondering about language almost all my life and I cannot understand it at all. It is probabIy the case that I am no closer to understanding language now, after all these years of exploration, than I have ever been. Still, I am always writing about this effort to understand language in my poetry. It seems to be my chief topic: can we know what language is, can we know what we are? The poet Paul Celan writes, “whenever we speak with things in this way (in poetry) we dwell on the question of their where-from and where-to, an open question without resolution.”
So language is on one hand a prison: we are literally locked inside language, created by, defined by, language, and can only see as far as we can say. On the other hand, language can free us: it can open our imagination and allow us to reach out to the world, and also to fly beyond it. This is what poets try to do. They always fail but of course they would always fail. The point is not to succeed but to make the attempt; in this there is already some freedom and some delight.
In Zen practice we are always trying to stand within language in a fresh way, to open up the hand of thought and play with language, and let language play with us. This means we come to understand and dwell within language in many ways. Each word means something and not something else. But also each word is gone even as we speak it and so it isn’t anything. When we speak about something we might think we are understanding it or controlling it, but actually that is not so. When we are speaking about something we are also, and mainly, speaking about nothing. Primarily what we are doing when we are speaking is articulating our humanness. Speaking is just being ourselves, expressing ourselves. When we get tangled up in the something we think we are speaking about we suffer. All language is singing, like music. Music doesn't have any meaning, yet it is something very important and vital to our lives.
But we don’t know this. We hold onto objects we have created with our language, objects that don’t exist as we imagine that they do, and we suffer. If we could experience language as it really is for us, and truly abide within it, even without changing it a bit, because probably we can’t change it - we could be free from the suffering language creates. This doesn’t mean that we’d be free from pain or sorrow. Only that we’d be free from the special sort of anguish that human beings feel when they are lonely and estranged from themselves, others, and the world.
This thought lies at the heart of Buddhism, and has from the beginning. The first three members of the eightfold path are right view, right intention, and right speech. These make right conduct possible and when there is right conduct there can be meditation practice and mindfulness, which leads to wisdom, reinforcing right view. So from the first, the Buddha saw that our language conditions our spirituality through our views, intentions, and uttered words, and that training in an increased awareness of this process had to be the starting point for spiritual practice. In later Buddhist thought this insight was strengthened and made more explicit with the teachings on emptiness, which understood the nature of human reality to be “mere designation.”
As a spiritual teacher operating in the real world with real students, the Buddha was sophisticated yet quite practical in these matters. Like Socrates, he was a master of dialog. He knew that getting caught up in language was always a trap. He saw that nothing was more fundamental than right view- out of right view everything good unfolds - but he also saw that right view isn’t some doctrine or specific propositional truth about things. People sometimes ask me, what is the Buddhist view of this or that. But there is no Buddhist view of this or that. The Buddhist view is a non view, but not a non view that is the opposite of a view, a wishy washy non-commitalism. Non view includes various views that arise in response to conditions. Non view is an attitude, a spirit of openness, kindness and flexibility with regard to language. Non view is a way to stand within language, to make use of language so as to connect, without being caught by and separated from the world by language.
Buddha spent his life talking to people. In fact, he was one of the greatest masters of talking to people in recorded history. One gets the sense in the suttas that the Buddha talked not because he was particularly loquacious, or because he was given to elaborate explanations, but in order to help people see through the smokescreen of their own language and views.. Once someone asked him for his secret in answering questions as effectively as he did. He said that he had four ways of answering questions: one way was categorically- just to say yes or no without ambiguity. The second way was to examine the question analytically, clarifying definitions, trying to determine what was actually being said, usually by deconstructing it. Most of the time when the Buddha employed this method there was no need to answer the question: under analysis the question proved meaningless. The third way was by posing a counter question, whose purpose was to bring the questioner back to his or her own mind, redirecting attention away from the entanglement of the language of the question to something real that stood behind it. The fourth way was simply by putting the question aside, knowing that some questions are so hopelessly entangled that to take them up on any terms at all would be to get stuck in them like flypaper- something that does not help anyone at all. These questions are like beating your head against a wall- there is no end to it and you get a sore head. To put the question aside is simple to walk around the wall without beating your head bloody. This way you do get to the other side, which is after all the important thing. So sometimes the Buddha’s response to a question was silence.
In his discussion of right speech the Buddha similarly evidenced the subtle and nuanced understanding that words do not have fixed meanings and ought never to be taken at face value. The meanings of words depend on context: who is speaking and listening, the tone of voice employed, the underlying attitude evidenced, and the situation in which the words are spoken. The very fact that the Buddha did not recommend that his words be written down, that he allowed others to explain the teachings in their own words, and did not designate a special holy language for religious discourse, but insisted that ordinary common language be used, shows that he understood language to be a process, essentially a dialog, a dynamic experience, rather than a tool of exact description or explanation. Far from being a neutral conduit for the conveying of preexisting meanings, the Buddha saw that language is an ever-shifting vehicle for the self, and that the way to clarify the self, and the world, is to hold language in an accurate and sensitive way.
Of all the teachings of Buddhism they inherited from India, the Zen masters of ancient China emphasized most this point about language:
A monk asked Zhazho, “What is the Great Perfection of Wisdom?”
Zhaozho replied, “The Great Perfection of Wisdom.”
Another monk asked him, “What is meditation?”
Zhazho replied, “Non-meditation.”
“How can meditation be non meditation?”
Another monk: “What is one word?”
Zhaozho: “Two words.”
A monk asked Feng hsueh, “How can I go beyond speech and silence?”
In response, Feng hsueh quoted lines from a famous poem.
What makes us miserable, what causes us to be in conflict with one another? It’s views, our insistence on our particular view of things. Our view of what we deserve or want, our view of right and wrong, our view of self our view of other, our view of life our view of death. But views are just views. They’re not ultimate truth. There’s no way to eliminate views nor would we want to. As long as we are alive and aware there are always views. Views are colorful and interesting and life enhancing- as long as we know that they are views. These Zen Masters are just pointing out to us that views are views. They are asking us to know a view as a view, and not to mistake it for something else. If you know a view as a view you can be free of that view, beyond views through views. If you know a thought as a thought you can be free of that thought, free of thought through thought. Views are language, thoughts are language. To train ourselves in language, to open our language up, is a practice that cuts to the heart of Buddhist liberation. It is why the Buddha never engaged in metaphysical debate and kept silence in the face of language-trapping questions.
Going beyond language through language is something we can actually practice and develop through meditation, study, and awareness in our daily life acts. In meditation we can learn to pay attention not only to sensation, but also to emotion and the thinking that arises in the mind. Learning to let thinking come and go, we can eventually understand a thought as a thought and a word as a word, and with this understanding we can find a measure of freedom from thoughts and words. With study, we can begin to appreciate Buddhist thought not as a new set of concepts that we are to adhere to, but as a kind of mental yoga, a counterweight to the concepts we already, unconsciously, hold, and that hold us, locking us into a small, temporary, atomized self. When in daily living we learn to return again and again to where we are, in body, emotion, and mind, we are learning to hold our language and views lightly, to see that they are ever-evolving currents of being, that are not only ours, but belong to everyone else as well. When we cultivate the practice of paying close attention to the way we talk to ourselves, we won’t fool ourselves too much. Another old Zen Master used to call out to himself and answer himself. He’d say to himself, “Don’t be fooled by anything.” And he’d answer himself, “I won’t be!”
© 2006, Norman Fischer