Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Cautious Homage to Words

"A woman without her man is nothing."

Demeaning ... but wait ........ the punctuation is missing.

"A woman: without her, man is nothing."

Words have great power to uplift or to crush.

I love what you do!
I hate what you do!

Small change, big difference.

Used by some, words can be instruments of healing, teaching and nurture; wielded by others, they can be weapons of war and instruments of destruction.

Realist landscape paintings use many brushstrokes to convey a detailed scene.

Sumi-e paintings use only a few strokes to capture their object.

In the same way, a verbal description can be highly detailed, or, like haiku, stark but capturing the essence of a moment.

Although enormously powerful, words have enormous limitations. In the same way that a flat picture can only suggest a three dimensional scene, words can only suggest the objects they describe.

To make me imagine a full moon, you only have to say, "full moon" ... unless I have never seen one.  Then you will have to use more words to describe it, and even then, the image created in my imagination may be very different from the one you are trying to convey.

But the crux is that words are not the object.  They are only a finger pointing at the moon.  I tend to think that the closer you get to 'the moon', the more you run into contradictions and paradox because, in the end, words fail.

This is the dangerous realm of koans and word games. I could say that the finger is not the moon, and you could say that the finger and the moon are one. I could say we are both correct, and you could say that neither of us is correct. We are at the place were every opposite is true ... and false.

Does this mean we can't use words to describe what is beyond description, to convey what is outside words and scriptures? In the Heart Sutra, we recite, "Form is none other than emptiness. Emptiness is none other than form." So, yes, we can. But I would add, with extreme caution. To pursue this subject any further is way above my pay grade.

Because words are both powerful and severely limited, they are dangerous. In the hands of a Zen master with the wisdom to see the state of a student's realization, a few skilful words spoken at the right moment may help the student's awakening to unfold. In unskilful hands, the same words could lead the student far astray.

Which is to say, we who are not Zen masters ought to steer well away from this danger zone - especially if we are seen as any kind of font of wisdom. In our eagerness to be compassionate (how wonderful!) may we remember to treat words with respect and use them wisely.

After all, actions speak louder than words.


  1. excellent post. one of the frustrations I have with discussions in Buddhist circles is...the circular thoughts and words! All is true, all is false. Everything is illusion. While I 'get' this at its essence (me thinks), any time I attempt to put it into words, I am lost.

    I love to read novels and watch the author craft the words that bring us the visions -- every author has their own way of doing it and sometimes I am truly in awe of their abilities.

    thank you for a thoughtful and well expressed post!

  2. Hi, Tara! Yes the world of words is an amazing place, provided you don't get tangled up in it or stuck spinning around in circles.... Thanks for your very kind comment!

  3. Wonderful post. Love the little display of punctuation. It really makes us see the danger that lies in words. Yes a complicated subject and object, words are. We use them so carelessly and abundantly. We mostly forget their power. I must say I do try to be more thoughtful these days about my choice of words (when I remember) but especially in sensitive situations.

    I have just started reading a book called "Insight Dialogues" which is about practicing mindfulness in our everyday speech, pausing before we speak, listening deeply to what the other has said and trying to respond from somewhere open inside.

    Yes, words and images, wonderful subject. And yet images evoke such different feelings, memories and thoughts that the same image may seem quite different effect on different people.

  4. Thanks Carole! I hadn't heard of Insight Dialogues before, but I'm going to check it out.

  5. I just began following your blog since I noticed you have Realising Genjokoan as your favorite book, we are the only 2 with that as our favourite book on blogger. So this is me saying "hi".

  6. Wonderful post David, some lessons I often forget myself. Thank you for reminding me.

  7. I like this very much David, so though-provoking, and so true. One of the joys of poetry is that it tries not to spell it out for the reader, but wants to co-opt the imagination. One of the courses at UVIC that I never seemed to be able to get into was called, "How Language Influences Thought." I can only imagine.

  8. Herb - so you're the other one :) Nice to meet you and thanks for stopping by! I'll wander over and check out your blog.

    Hey, Kyle thanks for the kind words! I'm learning a lot from your blog (seriously!) [Note to anyone who hasn't been to Kyle's blog - fasten your seatbelt!]

    Oh Kate, you are always so nice! That would have been an interesting course - makes me think of that saying, "Don't believe everything you think" ;)


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