A seemingly inescapable fact of my life is that I write poems and I keep on writing poems. Why would I feel the need to do this? I don’t think of poetry as self expression or making something beautiful with words. So these furnish me with no motivation. Instead I seem to be convinced that the point of poetry is to clarify language through a process of ongoing exploration, so that I can more and more find out how to live within language as a joy and a liberation, rather than as a prison, which it can be and usually is when I am defining myself and the world in language, without knowing I am doing this; and when the world and my situation in it is unsatisfactory it is because my language has become confined. Just think about political discourse and how hopelessly entrapped within itself it is. There’s talking and talking within a narrow and depressing framework. This same thing happens to our inner lives. We are our own CNN and Fox News. It’s terrible.
So I am interested in and fascinated with language and consider it a vital social and personal force that cries out for clarification and maybe too some pressure, some exercising or exorcism. I realize that not many people feel this way. But whether you feel this way 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 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 (though there may be something wrong with you and the world - but what does this mean outside language?) - 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 in part (the greatest part) a process of talking about something.
I suppose you could say that language is humaness, because human consciousness is language-consciousness. Language is so close to us (is us, we are it) we can’t understand it. We are in language as a fish is in water: for the fish there’s no such thing as water, water is just the way things are, it’s the medium for being. Language is that for our being human. I have been wondering about language almost all my life and I cannot understand it and I cannot get used to it. It is probably 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 become familiar with language. It seems to be my chief topic: can we get friendly with language, 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.” (in his speech “The Meridian,” in Paul Celan Collected Prose, translated by Rosemary Waldrop, the Sheep Meadow Press, 1986, page 50)
So language is on one hand a prison: we’re locked inside it, created by, defined by, it, and can see only as far as we can say. On the other hand, language frees us: it opens our imagination and allows us to reach out to the world, and to fly beyond it. This is what poets try to do. Of course they 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 you are always trying to stand within language as an amazement, to open up the hand of thought and gawk at language, let language gawk at you. This means coming to understand and dwell within language in many ways. A word means something and not something else. But also a word is gone even as we speak or write it and so it isn’t anything. When we speak or write something we think we are understanding or controlling, but actually that is not so. When we are speaking or writing we are, mainly, speaking about nothing. Primarily what we are doing when we are speaking or writing is articulating humanness. Speaking or writing is just being ourselves, expressing that. When we get tangled up in something we think we are speaking about we suffer. All language is music. Music doesn't meaning anything, but this doesn’t diminish its importance. We need music. Air and water don’t mean anything either. And yet the paradox of language is that meaning is part of the medium; words have meanings assigned to them, but meaning doesn’t mean anything, it’s just part of the procedure.
This is a simple point but mostly we don’t appreciate it. We grip objects we have created with 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 that experience, no need to change it, 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 living 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 - and liberation is possible. So from the first, Buddhist thought recognized that the pivot point of our conditioning is language, that views, intentions, and uttered words, would need to be examined, and that training in an increased awareness of this process is 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 experience to be “mere designation,” empty of any fixed definable reality.
As a spiritual teacher operating in the real world with real students, the historical Buddha was sophisticated and quite practical in these matters. Like Socrates, he was a master of dialog. He knew that getting caught up in language was 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- simply to say yes or no without ambiguity. The second way was to examine the question analytically, clarifying definitions of terms, trying to determine what was actually being said, usually by deconstructing the question. 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- and this doesn’t help. 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, 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 sacred 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 Zhazhou, “What is the Great Perfection of Wisdom?”
Zhaozhou replied, “The Great Perfection of Wisdom.”
(in The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu, trans. James Green, Shambhala (1998), page 89)
Another monk asked him, “What is meditation?”
Zhazhou replied, “Non-meditation.”
Monk: “How can meditation be non meditation?”
Zhaozhou: “It’s alive.”
(Green page 42)
Another monk: “What is one word?”
Zhaozhou: “Two words.”
(Green page 90)
A monk asked Feng Hsueh, “How can I go beyond speech and silence?”
In response, Feng Hsueh quoted lines from a famous poem.
(in The Gateless Barrier, trans. Robert Aiken, North Point Press (1990), page 155)
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 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 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, awareness in our daily life acts, and through a practice of writing. 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!”
This essay appears in Norman Fischer, Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language, and Religion (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, Dec 20, 2015). An earlier version appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Volume 20, Number 4 (Summer 2011).