What does it mean when the Buddha says, “I have not spoken even a single word for forty-nine years.” What is a word? The dictionary says that it means something that’s said—a talk, a discourse, putting one’s feelings into words, a speech-sound or a series of speech-sounds that symbolize or communicate a meaning. In Christianity and in other theistic traditions, the Word is said to be the expressed or manifested mind and will of God. It’s a statement, an utterance, a declaration or pronouncement.

In this koan the Buddha is saying that’s not what he uttered. What does he mean? And what does it mean that the transmission to Mahakashyapa was wordless, as was the teaching given to the outsider that the commentary refers to?

We can trace our own ancestry back to the historical moment in which Shakyamuni transmitted the dharma to Mahakashyapa—the first time transmission occurred from one generation to another. At that point, the Buddha had been teaching for a number of years. One day, he addressed an assembly of thousands who were all waiting for him. He came out, and he didn’t say a word. He just held up a flower, twirled it, and blinked his eyes. Mahakashyapa, alone in the assembly, smiled. Then the Buddha said, “I have the all-pervading dharma, the exquisite teaching of formless form. It is not transmitted through words and letters. I now hand it over to Mahakashyapa.” So the transmission went from one generation to the next without the utterance of a word.

But of course the Buddha gave countless sermons, and he did that for forty-nine years. When the Buddha died, the monastics that remained all gathered together to form the first council of Buddhists. Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant—who was said to have a photographic memory—recited all of the Buddha’s teachings of the past forty-nine years to them. Each teaching, each sutra, was preceded by the words “Thus I have heard,” and what the Buddha said became the sutras that were handed down from generation to generation.

So the commentary asks: But what about the countless sutras that are said to have come directly from the mouth of the Buddha? Are these not words? We should understand that the sutras are the entire universe itself; there is no space and no time which is not the sutras.” How are we to understand that?

Dogen taught that the principle of no dependence upon words and letters should not mean abandoning the use of language, but rather that we should use it skillfully, instead of being used by it. Many people have fallen into the fallacy of negating language entirely. The truth is not to be found in one side or the other side—the truth is non-dual. Dogen says:

The words and the letters of asuras, or those of hundreds of grasses and thousands of trees, are an expression of the dharma. The long, the short, the square, the round, the blue, the yellow, red, white, are the sutras. They are the instruments of the Great Way, the scriptures for a Buddhist. The sutras in question are the entire universe, mountains, rivers, the great earth, plants, and trees; they are the self and others, taking meals, wearing clothes, confusion, and dignity. Following each of them and studying them, you will see an infinite number of unheard-of sutras appear before you. The sutras are the whole body of the Tathagata.

Dogen is critical of scholars who “count words and letters,” saying they’re like the blind leading the blind. Attaching to the sutras or abandoning the sutras, attaching to words or abandoning words, creates dualism. The question, then, is what do you do? What is it the Buddha was saying when he said, “I have not spoken even a single word for forty-nine years?” According to Dogen:

To the buddhas and ancestors the whole being of body and mind cast-off constitutes a sermon, constitutes discourses, and is the turning of the dharma wheel… the sutras, words, silence, even an infant’s mumblings or an alcoholic’s snakes, all of these are the possibility of expression which in turn are the activity of absolute emptiness and the buddha nature.