Words, words, words; the way is beyond language, writes Sengcan, yet he is using language to illuminate words. Zen Buddhism vehemently undermines and deconstructs the reality of language and thought by using language and thought. Buddhism is arguably the religion with the most commentaries, and all those commentaries are based on the fact that what is most important cannot be expressed with words, letters or explanations. The ultimate truth cannot be grasped through thinking. The Zen tradition in particular celebrates words through its dedication to poetry and haiku as ways to manifest this truth. Such words can enliven and awaken us, rather than perpetuate our falling asleep through our habitual use of words and thoughts without awareness.
What is the nature of truth—the ever present, ever receding, ever available, ever unattainable truth? How do we gain the essence of that? Is that essence different from its derivative, as words are a derivative of what they represent? To what degree are words themselves the essence of reality? Can words exist in some universe other than the one we occupy at this moment? Zen teaches that “not speaking a single word” is the only way to access reality. Are we to be mute, to seal our lips? Is that how humanity is to evolve, if we are to move towards clarity and enlightenment? Obviously not. Yet, as we continue to practice, we come to recognize the great importance of complete, radical silence that informs our speech and thought. What is it that becomes accessible, visible and expressible when we actually ground ourselves in that reality? As Katagiri Roshi said, we have to say something. In the midst of this continuous struggle, how do we manifest the truth of the dharma, a truth that is beyond all expression?
What is the purpose of our expression? Is it purely utilitarian? Is language just a tool to accomplish some task of human development? A tool of communication, one to relay facts? Or is there another dimension to it? Is there an absolute quality of truth? What are words? How do we manifest truth? How do we lie? How do we resolve these tensions? Because we are creatures that can abstract, we perceive life as a continuous and unceasing experience. We have evolved in this way. Our neurology reflects how we live in parallel realities—direct experience and the abstraction of that experience. However this split came about, once it happened, reality became a dangerous realm. We are continuously overwhelmed by it. After all, it is utterly impermanent, utterly incoherent, utterly unbound and never framed. We don’t like that, especially once we have gotten a taste and skill for framing that reality. We attempt to bind it, to make it conceivable, to make it coherent, even to create a convincing illusion that there is some degree of permanence within it.
We feel much more secure within a reality that is framed. We like to look at an image on a computer that has a frame around it. On some level, we prefer this to looking directly at reality itself. We may deny that to ourselves, but the fact is that it’s only a matter of degree as to where we draw the line. At what point are we unable to handle that incoherence, that utter chaos, the beauty, wonder and mystery of what reality truly is? At what point must we extract something from it, and bind it into something that we believe we can manage and control? Like the recent movie Wall-e depicts, in the future of humankind we continuously look at reality through a television that floats in front of us because we cannot look directly at things themselves. We can’t handle the real thing.