Transmission of Truth — from the Trivial to the Transcendental

Please pardon my indulging in a discourse, some might say a rant, on the precision of language. Or, rather, the presumptions we make in regard to verbal concepts we use every day. And the potential light that closer examination may shed upon your Zen perspective.

It occurs to me that language itself holds clues to Buddhist truths, especially those usages that go largely unexamined, standing as cultural memes, customs, or precepts, so to speak. That we speak of such inherited notions as a "manner of speaking," as does Buddha, in explaining his teaching, betrays the fact that we intuitively regard attempts to reduce reality to words as inherently futile, if not entirely fatuous.

This intuition—not to dignify it as insight—has come to me often, most recently while "making the bed," specifically a single sized guest bed, originally our granddaughter's. The cover sheet is a flower print, matching the rest of the bedding set, one side being the "front," the other side being, well, the "back." When spreading it over the fitted sheet, ordinarily one would make sure that the front side (with the best rendering of the print) would face down, so that when one turns back the cover to welcome a guest, or oneself, into the warm embrace of the bed sheets, the "good" side would be revealed.

(Editorial alert: "quote marks" are used liberally herein to mark clichés, usually a "no-no"; they are meant to invoke the phrase "so-called," challenging the mundane trope quoted. Likewise, italics are sprinkled throughout for emphasis; and parentheses (parens) are utilized freely to bracket some, though not all, of the asides—such as this one. These punctuations are intended to provoke a high level of irritation value, while drawing attention to the language, as well as the content, of the piece.)

It bothered me, for a moment, that the bed sheet in question would be upside-down, and so I flipped it over. I did "mind" that the bed would be wrongly made. Suddenly, the abject ridiculousness of that impulsive reaction dawned on me. Followed immediately by realization of the triviality of such everyday concerns (which Master Dogen kindly suggests we gently set aside in zazen), standing out in stark relief. They simply do not matter—not a whit. (Which raises another: Wherefore this "whit," to which I so readily resort? As the sage Roseanne Roseannadanna would advise, "Never mind.")

It just! really! doesn't! matter!—whether the sheet is "right-side-up" or not. In fact, my "making the bed" doesn't really matter, in any absolute sense. It is a cultural meme, a nicety; a hopeful celebration of "order" in the face of the "chaos" of the real world. Of course, looking at a "made" bed is less disturbing to the mind than a messy bed. But "messy" is a matter of degree, a conception of perception. The "mess" is in my preoccupation with it.

More than the specific matter of "making the bed" being an absurdity, I fear that most, or all, of our daily (and nightly) preoccupations may, upon examination, turn out to be equally trivial. For example, our current indulgence in the orgy of presidential politics (See "Primary Anger," last month's installment). Haven't we been there, done this, every four years, for as long as memory serves? Is it really all that important? Doesn't it keep coming out pretty much the same, each time? Isn't that one definition of in...never mind.

Examining the expression, "making the bed," is instructive—in that we never actually make a bed. Even if we design and build the frame from scratch ("scratch?"); we do not "make" that bed. Or to quote the present POTUS, we do not build that. We do put together the materials—by definition preexistent in the material world, along with available infrastructure, tools and technologies—to conform to our culturally agreed definition of what constitutes "a bed." Which includes, in our culture of consumption, designing to fit "king-" "queen-" sized mattresses and box springs, which we are encouraged to replace every eight years or so, supposedly for health reasons. Which results in curbsides and landfills filled with tons of oversized, discarded upholstery.

In many other cultures around the world, the beds we find would not match our preconception, certainly not our standards of obsession with comfort. These are the customs to which we become accustomed, and typically don't ever give a second thought.

More fundamentally, we do not ever "make" anything, actually; we merely rearrange the components already made, in the environment. This is the essence of creativity, of "making."

"For that matter," (note the quotes) and for purposes of this dissertation, the bandying about of various everyday expressions cavalierly referring to matter, as well as to mind, may be usefully examined. Mind and Matter (note the caps) are set in opposition to each other by the philosophizing class, just as matter and energy once were. At least in the West.

Which brings up another aside: What is "west," except in regard to what is "east," of it? "Western Europe" is on the same land mass as the "Middle East," as well as most of the areas regarded as the "Far East." But from an outside perspective—read "non-human"—no literal separation appears as we traverse the equator from West to East, or vice-versa. The oceans lend credence, by dint of the apparent separation of continents, to what is at best a tenuous construction: the eastern and western "hemispheres."

This may seem a specious example of beating the dead horse of convention, but it provides an entry point for the view of Zen—to critically examine that which we usually take for granted. Did Bodhidharma come from the West, or not? Is the buddhadharma transmitted from West to East? How can there be either West or East, in the buddhadharma? (See Dogen's Bendowa.)

"Mind over matter" is an expression oft-quoted in the West, as if it had some actual meaning. In the humble example of making one's own bed—and lying in it—it would seem much to be desired that the mind of reason would triumph over the matter of making one's bed, thus suggesting a reassuring level of confidence in our control over the order of the world. Chaos will not reign triumphant, as long as I spread the duvet, and arrange the pillow shams. Morning birds probably imagine that their singing brings the daylight.

Back to matter and energy. To say that something matters or not is a hoary expression, but now we do speak of being energized by things, or devoting energy to them. We "pay attention" to those things that matter, and ignore those that do not, that is, until they do. Giving gravitas to some concerns that matter more to us indicates the weightiness of their disposition, resolution, and the gravity of their effect on our lives. The choice of the substantial terms, including matter, seems obviously rooted in a material worldview, one that recognizes that if we drop a brick on our toe, it will hurt. The effects of raw energy are more difficult to trace.

But when we consider the not-so-obvious yet undeniable fact that matter is impounded energy, and not the other way round, the bias built into the language is revealed once again. Not necessarily in favor of the matter side of dual pair, but in favor of duality itself. We cannot say the truth that comprehends both matter and energy simultaneously; there is no readily available word for that. Or we would have to make one up.

Buckminster Fuller, one of my ideals and mentors, was famous for doing so. One such term he coined, if memory serves, is "tensegrity," the balanced combination of tensional and compressional forces in any physical system, which "always and only co-exist" and operate at 90 degrees to each other. But I digress.

Coming back to mattering, we find the Buddhist phrase, the "Great Matter." This Great Matter must matter a lot, to deserve capitalization. So what is so great about the Great Matter? Sometimes and in some places it is expressed as the great matter of life and death—the fundamental problem of existence—against which all other so-called problems are diminished in importance. All or most of the world's religions and philosophies represent attempts to confront this matter, though most tend to come at it sideways, and with a bracing set of doctrines and beliefs. Zen is not like that. Buddhism promotes a direct method of confronting reality, rather than preconceptions as to its character and meaning.

Upon analysis, the very tools that we use to conduct the analysis, such as language, come into question. If the structure by which we attempt to structure our world is, itself, built on a shaky foundation, we should not expect it to hold up to the scrutiny of the unknowable. We are left with words like "inconceivable," "ineffable," "unconstructed," and the "Great Matter."

But we also have reassuring hints from the great Chinese Zen poems, like, "Although it is not constructed, it is not beyond words" (Hokyo Zammai). The old Master goes on to say, "Like facing a precious mirror, form and reflection behold each other; although you are not it, in truth it is you." In a manner of speaking, of course.

Here, the words are pointing at Zen's take on reality, which is not amenable to description or definition in verbal terms. Far beyond assuming any essential meaning in language, which is tantamount to being used by language, the Masters use language to indicate that which is "round and rolling, slippery and slick," as Matsuoka Roshi would often refer to the truth of Zen. It doesn't matter what you call the Great Matter; it is only a manner of speaking, and the point of Zen is to experience it yourself, directly.

To illustrate the point of this essay, let me restate that with emphasis:

          The "point" of "Zen" is to "experience" "it" "yourself," "directly."

We can go further to question the quotable "is," as well—not to quote the former POTUS and potential First Gentleman (our version of "royalty"); but to suggest that the point of Zen always has been, and always will be, to experience it directly—not just as "is." This point is reinforced by the traditional introduction, to any teachings attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha: "Thus have I heard..."; as reassurance that the speaker is not making this up.

Even "the" is suspect, suggesting that the noun it is modifying should be accorded singular respect, as if it is the one and only case in point (in this case, "point"), and thus uniquely worthy of consideration. Similarly, "of" implies that there is indeed a real connection between the point being made ("point" again) and the subject matter under consideration ("Zen"). It is needless to say (then why say it?) that this connection is assumed in lieu of any supporting evidence. This is a presumption built into any assertion, which is why Zen does not make assertions, but only questions the ones that we, and our contemporaries, habitually make.

Zen has no "point" to make, in the usual sense of the phrase. Further, there is no such thing as "Zen." In fact (a phrase so far unsubstantiated by evidence), the term itself is a misnomer applied to the practice of shikantaza (note the high degree of respect and acceptance accorded terms in foreign language, particularly of countries we associate with the origins of Buddhism; "just precisely sitting" doesn't have the same ring, nor imputed gravitas). Zen is phonetic for ch'an, which is phonetic for dhyana, which indicates a practice of "contemplation," which is, technically and substantially, different from zazen. In zazen, we do not contemplate anything. We do not even contemplate nothing. This is not merely an exercise in semantics, though it may be an exercise in futility. Whether or not it is depends upon you.

"Experience" falls woefully short of the experience of the ineffable, as when "Mind and object merge in realization and go beyond enlightenment" (Dogen's Jijuyu Zammai). The experience of Zen's "truth" can hardly be defined, or described, as experience per se (the magic of Latin).

"It" (J. inmo) may be the most pointed word in this statement, taken as it is, traditionally, to point a finger directly at the ineffable. It is part of a limited set, or class, of words—it, that, thus, what—that function as both question and answer, monosyllables that express the inexpressible as bluntly and concisely as possible. What is it? It.

What is "yourself"? Don't bother wondering who you are, as if throwing a bunch of words at it will make something stick. What is "yours"? Where is this "self"? (Welcome to Zen 101.)

How do we experience truth "directly"? How could we experience it in any other way? How do we experience anything? How is anything that we experience not the truth? How is it not direct? What is, or would be, indirect experience?

Next time you find yourself asserting some understanding of Zen, try putting "finger quotes" around each word, as you speak. If you come to recognize the "so-called" nature of each and every expression, phrase, as well as individual words, you will begin to see beyond the façade of language, to the underlying truth. Before language, there is thought. Underlying thought, there is awareness. Primary to awareness, there is reality. Before reality, there is...

          Words! The Way is beyond language, for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no
          today. (Hsinhsinming)

Please keep peeling away the layers of the onion. The tears are only temporary.