A variation of this scenario happened to me a while ago when I was climbing in Yosemite Valley. Entering Yosemite is essentially like entering the playground of the gods. I’ve never seen anything like it. When I walked in, it was beyond stunning. The beauty was so raw and unhinging that it was almost too much. My climbing partner and I went to Yosemite Lodge, nestled below the upper and lower Yosemite Falls. It has a 300-foot amphitheater inside, and as the evening was falling a group of several hundred tourists gathered to watch the Introduction to Yosemite film. On a huge screen there was an amazing video of the upper and lower Yosemite Falls, while the actual waters were falling beautifully and directly behind the screen. Guess where everybody was looking?


Photo by Mehrdad Azadi


In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi used the Yosemite Falls as an example of what happens within the incoherence of reality. He described what it feels like for the water to go over the edge of the falls, how the coherence and solidity of the stream suddenly fractures into billions of drops that fall as rainbows—indefinitely—then once again collect into the river.

“Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous.” This is self-nature. We’re living it. We’re breathing it. It emerges out of the soil. It is the texture within our hands, the sweat and the tears and the dirt. It is inconceivable, and we continuously translate it. We need to find words for it because we are human, and because we share this reality. Ultimately, if we take the vow to help other beings, words are an essential venue for clarifying, illuminating, and shedding just a little bit of light, bringing a little bit of peace to this world. How we translate makes all the difference.

What are words? They are medicine. They are poison. I had the good fortune of witnessing a beautiful moment, an interaction between two Monastery residents who started to disagree. I could feel the words being shaped by anger and fear, attack and defensiveness. Then something shifted imperceptibly. It was amazing how unrehearsed it was. Where did it come from? Who started it? Was there someone who initiated it? What happened was remarkable. Suddenly the words started healing. Where before there was the beginning of a war, an invasion, of drawing boundaries of discrimination and separateness, suddenly there was something creative going on. Something was being said. A different level of truth was emerging.

Words shape reality. They shape it in any way you chose to shape it. If you call somebody something long enough, he or she becomes that. In many indigenous cultures, there is a belief that if your name is truly known by another person, then they own you. They can control you and perform magic on you. So you actually hide your true name, because ownership of that name gives someone access to something very powerful, something that can be manipulated.