Limits of Language

This topic is of interest because you will sometimes hear stories of Zen masters, in response to a question, sending a truth-seeker on an errand, asking a question, or simply saying nothing. It is not to portray Zen as mysterious or to develop a complex initiation. Instead, it is because of the master’s understanding of the nature of truth and perception.

“When we say something, our subjective intention or situation is always involved. So there is no perfect word; some distortion is always present in a statement. . . . To understand reality as a direct experience is the reason we practice zazen, and the reason we study Buddhism. . . . In a strict sense, it is not possible to speak about reality” (p. 87) . . . “We are practicing zazen. So for us there is no need to know what Zen is intellectually” (p. 124) —Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Suzuki’s statement may be simply interpreted as describing the concept of relativism, in contrast to absolutism, which is the proposition that there is one true and correct view. Relativism does not necessarily imply a conviction that all points of view are equally valid. Relativism asserts that a particular fact exists only in combination with or as a by-product of a particular framework or viewpoint.

For example, consider that you want to measure the length of a coastline. Correct measurement will depend on the scale of interest, that is, whether you are interested in measuring flying distance, walking distance for a person who must take into account the distance over and around aspects of the landscape, or walking distance for an ant that must take into account the distance around each pebble. Even scientific research recognizes the impossibility of bias-free objective thought. [cite Khun]. Thus it attempts to corroborate by converging on a theme from various sources of evidence and types of measurement. Suzuki’s point is that it is more important to practice zazen, and thus to come to your own understanding through direct experience.

Instead, some prefer to follow a guru unquestioningly, and thus become subject to the inherent problems of relying on authority as a basis for understanding. Relying on authority makes one vulnerable to accepting the errors of understanding of the authority figure as well as ones own errors in comprehending the authority figure’s expressions.

Thus a Zen master, in response to a question, may ask a question in return, which prevents an answer from being misunderstood (the question may not enlighten, but at least the hearer doesn’t leave with a mistaken sense that the correct answer was received). Alternately, the master may simply saying nothing, because he or she perceives that the seeker is not prepared to comprehend the principle or because of a confidence that in time the seeker will comprehend it unassisted. The master may send a truth-seeker on an errand that brings him or her into direct observation to comprehend a principle. For example, tasting salt gives a full comprehension of the taste of salt, while a description of the taste of salt is useless. Similarly, a spiritual experience is often indescribable. Given the limits of language, nothing said before the experience will make much sense to one who has not encountered it, while after the experience, nothing remains to be explained.

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