This blog is now in its second week in embryo, a seed that I am investing with hopes and dreams for a sort of Web publication unlike anything I’ve ever written before. And I’m experienced with several different blogs since 2003. But nothing I’ve written myself so far states quite so eloquently my view (or non-view) of language as an article in this season’s Tricycle Magazine.

The article comes to my attention thanks to Google, for its title is the same as the name I selected for this blog. In “Beyond Language,” the poet and Zen priest Norman Fischer discusses the connection between words, thought, and human liberation. A highlight is Fischer’s sharing of a series of short and memorable Zen teachings about the point of language. But what resonates with me the most is this explanation of how language stands within Buddhist thought:

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 that is not so. When we are speaking about something we are also?and mainly?speaking about nothing. 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. Music doesn?t have any describable meaning, yet it is 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, we could be free from the suffering language creates. This doesn?t mean that we would be free from pain or sorrow. Only that we would 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. The first three practices 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 lead to wisdom, thereby 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 has 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 understand 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 dialogue. 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 propositional truth. 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 noncommitalism. 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, to connect without being caught by?and separated from the world by?language.

There are plenty of casual, self-taught Buddhists I know who would be flummoxed to learn that “nothing is more fundamental than right view,” and that this is a way to “stand within language, to make use of language.” These important truths cut against the grain of anti-intellectualism so prevalent in much of American Buddhist culture, an attitude of reflexive suspicion of words and questionable attachment to their absence.

Cult of silence, move over! There are more views of emptiness under the sun. Make room for a spirit of “openness, kindness, and flexibility with regard to language” that you can find at the heart of Buddha’s teachings… and which is a source of inspiration for this blog.

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  1. I enjoyed hearing Fischer state that we can play with language and that it can play with us.
    To me, as a fiction writer, words and language are tools to try and express what can never be said. But we do it anyway, because this time or the next time, we might just get it.
    I have an image of when I give myself to the creative process fully in mind, heart and body: picture a lotto type plastic machine with all kinds of letters and numbers swirling around and creating great chaos. That’s me in there rubbing against the great unknown.
    Xu Bing, a Chinese artist, said that if you look for harmony in the living word, you will reach Buddha. But if you look in lifeless sentences, you will be unable to save yourself.” (Exhibition currently at the Morgan Library).
    I would LOVE to hear more about what the Buddha said in regard to language. Are there texts/references I can read?
    In love with words,
    Virginia

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