Monday, March 14, 2011

Words, What's the Point? or Stupid Non-Duality...

I'm sure it's just a stage, like those one passes through when dealing with grief.  If that's the case, I have no choice but to fully throw myself into it and wallow in the frustrating paradox that is coming to grips with non-duality.

A big issue with Zen teachings is their stereotypical "illogical" nature made famous by the promotions of D.T. Suzuki.*  I had pretty much wrapped my mind around the emptiness of words and how we shouldn't rely on them when practical experience is a better teacher, but having experienced directly a handful of things that, in the light (or should I say "darkness") of non-duality, are inexpressible in words; my heart has not been so pliant.

Remembering a post by Shundo at The Ino's Blog concerning the use of jargon at San Francisco's City Center, inspiration struck.

We're always told that only a realized teacher can confirm "enlightenment" experiences and I'd more or less just taken this on faith.  They see that you get "it" enough, so yeah, the experience is valid.  But when it comes to koans not having fixed answers, I just didn't understand how this could work.

Just as a visitor wouldn't really know what the "doshi door" was without experiencing it, we can't really know the true nature of anything without experiencing it.  People can give descriptions, even show you pictures, but until you actually experience it, your only reference of the door is secondary sources, shallow imitations of the real deal.

In having misunderstands/disagreements about the meaning of terms, or even whole and fundamental teachings, with people online and in person, I do and have realized that we really are talking about the same thing, but that our concepts of what the words we use mean, are different.

I've long felt that people are who they are because they are comprised of their experiences, built up as individuals by a lifetime of events and influences.**  All of these situations have determined how we see the world and how we define the things around us.

Words, being abstract representations of these experiences, only have meaning because we have all agreed up their meaning, this is how language develops.  Someone says, "This is a ball, from now on, you see one of these and call it a ball, I'll know what you're talking about." Everyone agrees and we have one idea of what a ball is.  Something else shaped the same way, the same size, color and everything pops up and we have a dilemma. Do we agree that this new object is a ball, too, or do we call it something else?  So now we have criteria for what a ball is.***

But abstract ideas add a new dimension to this because we can't point to them.  (I could write a whole book on this phenomena, but then I'd have wasted my time because that's what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about.)  I'm very fond of the idea of words as fingers pointing to the truth so this is a metaphor that pops up for me a lot.

Each moment of our existence is different from those around us, so the rules that we assign to our existence are different.  Most notably the difference between right and wrong is a good example.  Given an individual's upbringing the appropriate way to interact with authority figures can be drastically different, giving them a different sense of right and wrong.  I could go deeper into this, but I hope you get where I'm going.

When it comes to our experience of reality, this causes trouble until we have an experience in which we glimpse its true nature.  The words we use to communicate our experience to a teacher are direct references, and if we're lucky our words will point at the same thing our teacher's understanding looks towards.  Until we have that experience ourselves (like seeing the doshi door) our fingers just point at other fingers and our experience isn't direct.

(I hope you're still with me.)

Words, unfortunately will always just point, so all I can do is point and hope you understand, not what I'm pointing to, but that this sign I'm holding up is understood to even point.  So I'll just keep pointing, not expecting anyone to understand or even read this blog just like I did at the very beginning. 

Maybe the mountains are becoming mountains again, they sure seem to be trying.


 *I've more or less given up on his works as a practical reference as I don't think he really knew what he was talking about.  Sure in a talking "about" way, he did.  He was talking circles around the truth, but never pointing directly at it.  Scholarly analysis just doesn't do Zen justice and as a practitioner, this was one of the first gates I passed through finally after ten years of intellectual study.

**Later Buddhism gave me a framework for expressing this. Since these are the heaps/aggregates/skandhas, that are fundamentally empty, the "face we had before our parents were born" is like the blank canvas or empty vessel that all of this goes into.  This is not however, a belief of environment over genetics determining who we are since genetics have evolved as a response to the environment of our ancestors ("before our parents were born") as well as forms of life and even the planet, then stars, making the history of the entire universe influential in who we are in every moment of our lives.  Thus, that "face" is the self independent of phenomena, the absolute primordial inexpressible action/actor.

***When I took an intro to philosophy class in college, one of our discussions was an epistemological argument concerning whether or not it was possible to distinguish whether one of two objects, having identical properties, was removed a second time from a box or if it was the one left behind the first time.  Hating hypothetical questions for their assumptions, I questioned whether one of the identical properties was that it was really one object existing simultaneously in two places.  This blew the lid off the conversation, effectively ruining it, but it's a hypothesis that's stuck with me. Eventually, I mean to post about this. (if you have a comment about this, just encourage me to write the post and we'll discuss it then)

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