Friday, 5 October 2012

Silent Rhetoric: The Dynamic between Zen Silence and Language

To some obsessed with logical precision who do not wish to grant paradoxes to traditions and thought, there lies an interesting challenge within the Zen tradition.

The undisputed founder of Zen, Bodhidharma, left the world to sit for nine years and gaze at a wall until he reached some sort of “Enlightenment.” (I will be putting large and important Buddhist terms such as “Enlightenment” in quotes for a reason that will be known soon.) There was always an anti-intellectual stream in Zen that always has confused practitioners and Westerns alike.

How can a tradition that seems to be so anti-intellectual not only last so long, but also be so popular in the West, which praises intellectuality? Did somebody miss something and all practitioners of Zen are just morons, including myself? I would like to believe that that is not the case but there is something deeper going on here.
Within my first blog post, which I will keep as short as possible, I would like to quickly explain that Zen practitioners generally know what they are dealing with when they encounter a tradition like Zen. It is not as it seems, anti-intellectuality, as understood here in the West is not what Zen is about.

Zen is no stranger to this as well; much of Zen writing is focused on the idea of forgetting the debates and just sitting. That is what Zen is all about. Yet in order to have a successful teaching practice be sustained there has to be records on what to do in meditation, how to achieve “Enlightenment” or “Realization” and so forth. All of those experiences and expectations must be carefully articulated. If it was just left to the person to just sit in silence for thirty-five minutes a day then Zen would never have existed. Something incredibly inappropriate must take place in order to maintain the Zen tradition, we have to write about the experience of silence.

How on Earth do we do something like that?

Suddenly anti-intellectuality flies out the window and must be abandoned because any sort of articulation of silence must include precise vocabulary and rhetoric. Without it, the goals of Zen and the teaching of Zen would remain meaningless and silence would remain just that, silent. Now we have another issue that we Zen folk have to undertake. “Enlightenment” takes place during silent meditation. Right?

Well, we really have no idea.

To examine early texts and even browsing through popular modern Zen texts one finds an enormous attempt of describing the moment “Enlightenment” can be achieved. But in Zen philosophy “Enlightenment” is every moment and paradise is attained when it is realized at that given moment. This is very important because mundane situations and day-to-day occurrences now must hold a vocabulary that for the Christian tradition would hold the same weight as the word “Salvation.” Zen philosophy now has to find precise definitions and phrasing that hold enough weight to describe moments that don’t really have much weight at all. This is certainly a sort of paradox but it is an important one that can be granted and can’t be ignored.

So finally I get to my point.

Language, even when speaking of moments where language isn’t present, is vital to the experience of “Enlightenment.” Without it, “Enlightenment” could not be attained in any significant sense because the dynamic between language and “Enlightenment” become meshed.

Which one comes first? The chicken or the egg? “Enlightenment” or me talking about “Enlightenment?” Does one evoke the other, do they evoke each other? Do they fall under the other Buddhist idea of interdependency? It seems as if though they must because we have no other choice but to speak and write of “Enlightenment” and it has no other choice but to capture us in moments when we begin to articulate what exactly it can be.

“Enlightened” monks write works post-Enlightenment (if that can even somehow be calculated, which it can’t) which then evokes “Enlightenment” in others. It seems to be as simple as that. The lesson we need to take from this is that language is essential to the understanding of times when it seems to be vacant, such as sitting on the meditation cushion. But to abandon discourse regarding the relationship and rely entirely what is believed to be raw experience is romantic and not possible, a hard lesson that the West must learn regarding Zen.

So tell me. Does this post evoke “Enlightenment” or am I writing this because I am “Enlightened?” Or both? Regardless, to describe either one of those is to not to fall back on language and lose our Zen enthusiasm, but to understand the tricky pathways through Zen thinking and be glad in the puzzles that it creates for us.

-  Denis Kurmanov