A middle way to intimacy with reality
This week we're looking at case 24 in the Gateless Barrier, a classic collection of Zen koans. It's an interesting case which poses a question that sooner or later every meditation teacher must confront (usually sooner!) - how can one convey a wordless experience in words?
So, without further ado, let's get right into it.
Speech and silence
The monk starts by quoting an aphorism that was presumably well known at that time (although I don't know the original source myself - if you do, please leave a comment!): 'Speech and silence involve alienation and vagueness.'
At first sight, perhaps this seems a tad harsh. I certainly don't set out to alienate people every time I speak - although I can't speak to my success rate. And sometimes silence is the most appropriate response to what's going on, rather than some vague, wishy-washy attempt to avoid dealing with the situation at hand.
What this is really getting at is the nature of communication itself. It's pretty remarkable, really - so much so that the historical Buddha described three 'miracles', the third and highest of which was 'the miracle of instruction' - that is, that it's even possible to teach something as subtle as meditation to another person.
What actually happens when we put something into words? We start with our own direct, first-person experience, in all its vast richness and complexity. We identify the key aspects of that experience which we'd like to convey to someone else - thereby reducing the totality of the experience to a list of bullet points, discarding the rest. Then we search through whichever language(s) we speak to try to find concepts within that language that line up as closely as possible with our experiential bullet points - now moving more fully from experience itself into the realm of the purely conceptual, the realm of concepts and ideas, the realm of words.
At this point, we're several steps removed from the original experience - we've become 'alienated' from our starting point. We're now inhabiting a purely mental space, one of language and thought. But we're not even done yet - we're only halfway there.
Now we find a way to send our words to another person - by speaking, by writing an email or text message, through an elaborate series of fortune cookies. At this point, the matter is out of our hands, and we can only hope for the best.
Because now the recipient has to perform the whole process in reverse. They'll pick up the words we've sent over - well, maybe! Depending on how closely they're paying attention, they'll hopefully pick up some of the words, but maybe not all of them. Next, they translate those words back into concepts - but into their own concepts, rather than ours. Different people can interpret the same words in very different ways, depending on their own life experience, conditioning and so forth. One person's idea of 'relaxing' can be totally different to someone else's, for example - maybe to one person it means a quiet walk in the woods, whereas for another it means playing a high-intensity video game blasting aliens.
So by the time the recipient has converted our words back into their concepts, they could have something pretty similar to what we intended, or something really different. To make matters worse, we're still a couple of steps removed from the original experience that we intended to convey. If the person we're communicating with has had the same experience we have, or something close enough, then the concepts they reconstructed from our words may be near enough to trigger a recognition of the shared experience. If the other person hasn't had that experience, we may be met with a blank stare, or our words may be interpreted to mean something else entirely. The 'alienation' involved in speech (and linguistic communication more generally) is a serious obstacle - the moment we open our mouths to speak, we're departing from the experience, and something vital is lost.
Given all this palaver, it's a miracle that we can ever explain anything to anyone else! And yet what's the alternative? If someone asks us about our experience of meditation and we simply sit there silently, feeling into our experience without attempting to convey it, there's no possibility for communication to take place. And so 'silence' can be equated with 'vagueness' - you ask me what's going on in my practice, and I just smile. A fat lot of good that does you!
And so the monk has his question. If speech involves alienation but silence is vagueness, what are we supposed to do? How do we find a way through this maze?
South of the Lake, in springtime
Zen master Fengxue doesn't reply directly to the monk's question. Rather, he offers a poetic depiction of an idyllic scene - south of the lake, in springtime; flowers blooming, their fragrance heavy on the air; partridges calling to each other as they come and go. It's an evocative image (and is probably more poetic in the original Chinese, although the translation above by Thomas Cleary is pretty nice too).
Master Fengxue lived in the Tang dynasty of China. I'm not much into poetry myself, but I've heard that the poets of that era had a unique ability to evoke scenes from daily life with their verses - the modern-day Zen teacher and poet Henry Shukman has said that Tang dynasty poetry often has the power to transport him to another time and place. Of course it can never be the same as having lived 1,400 years ago in China - but the effect is striking nevertheless, and has a power of its own.
So one way to interpret Fengxue's response is that he's trying to show the monk a middle way between speech and silence - that words, although cut off from the direct sensate reality of first-person experience, can still be powerfully evocative, stirring a response in the listener. The words must be well-chosen; the speaker must have a clear grasp of what's to be expressed, and have some skill in the delivery. But if those requisites are in place, then communication isn't the hopeless case it might appear to be at face value.
From words to the wordless
Over the millennia, many different approaches have been developed to try to lead people toward the wordless experience at the heart of all contemplative traditions. Early Buddhism has its insight practices; Zen has Silent Illumination and koan practice; other traditions have their own particular styles and approaches too. Each of these is a method, a means to an end - the method is not itself a form of wisdom, but leads to wisdom if taken far enough. So the teacher offers the method to the student, who practises with it for some time - there's usually some discussion back and forth, as the teacher attempts to determine how the student is working with the method, and offer advice if they're a little off track. Eventually, however, the student grasps the essence of the method, and all that remains is to use the method to go deeply enough to reach the wisdom it reveals.
To make this more concrete, let's take a look at the 20th century Chinese Zen master Sheng-Yen's description of the process of working with a koan, such as the question 'Who am I?'
Stage 1: Reciting the koan
In the beginning, we sometimes don't know what to make of the koan, and to make matters worse, our busy minds are wandering hither and yon, refusing to settle for any length of time on the question we're trying to explore. All we can really do at this point is to continue to repeat the question over and over - 'Who am I? Who am I?' until our minds settle enough that we can start to dig into it more deeply.
Stage 2: Asking the koan
As the mind settles, we develop an interest in the question. Other people seem to be getting something really important out of finding out who they really are - so I want to know too! Now the question becomes a genuine question, not just a kind of mantra used to settle the mind.
As we ask the koan, all kinds of thoughts may come up at first - perhaps our thoughts and beliefs about who we are, or clever attempts to 'solve' the koan through logic. We may at times even feel like 'Aha, I've cracked it - it's xyz!'
But the answer to the koan is not a thought, no matter how ingenious. All we can do is notice these thoughts, set them to one side, and continue to ask. And so, over time, we begin to develop the 'sensation of doubt' - a strong feeling, which can be very physical for some people, of wrestling with this question but being unable to resolve it.
Stage 3: Investigating the koan
As the sensation of doubt arises, we develop an overwhelming desire to find the answer to the koan. It's much easier to focus now on the question because we're so intent on answering it. The koan begins to show up in the course of our daily lives - as we brush our teeth in the morning, 'Who is brushing these teeth?' As we walk down the road, 'Who is walking?' As we fall asleep, 'Who is falling asleep?' The practice may even continue through the night.
Stage 4: Watching the koan
At some point, the question answers itself. My Zen teacher Daizan sometimes says that a koan is a question which from the outside has no answer, but from the inside is no problem at all. What happens here can't be put into words - you must have the experience for yourself. When you arrive at your true nature, you wake up - you experience kensho.
And yet seeing it once typically isn't enough. We may have had a breakthrough - we may have resolved our 'investigation' of the koan - but we aren't done yet. Sooner or later, our habitual patterns reassert themselves, and we find our vexations and discontents starting to come back. We may well find that our lives have been transformed, but not fully - there's more to be done.
And so it's necessary to continue to practise - to keep 'watching' the koan. In some Zen lineages, you may be given a different koan to work with here, but in other traditions you'll stay with the same one your whole life - continuing to use the question as a means to reconnect with your true nature, continuing to remind yourself again and again who you really are, until the wisdom has become so bone-deep that it can be forgotten entirely, your life now indistinguishable from the Great Way of Zen.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!