A Zen master told me that there is no enlightenment in words or books. But words play a powerful role in the lives of people and Buddhas. They resound through generations and echo through the cavernous moments of this life and maybe the next. They slowly die to a rumbling murmur only to then trumpet in epitaph. They kill and they bring new life. Words and sounds herald the coming of angels and the glory of demons. Sounds mark our first moments in this word and punctuate our last few before departing. Words, like nature, are exceedingly difficult to hold down to a specific form and process – they writhe in our hands, immutable, alive and flowing. Zen is described as a practice beyond words and letters – a tradition formed of deeper experience and meaning. A meaning hinged upon the experience of the sound before the spoken word or the act of writing before the formation of letters. Zen is the precursor to an exclamation – the intake of breath before a startled scream or the gasp of ecstasy.
There is a deep intuition that remains stagnant in words and lies sleeping in letters – a meaning that goes beyond vocalization and deeper than sounds. There is an experiential nature and visceral undertone in sutras and bibles, in books and speeches, in gasps and gurgles. There is as much a science of oration and there is an empathy of speech. An audience and speaker as one large organism; breathing in unison, tense in the moment before it leaps – a conduit between speaker and listener; between writer and reader. That conduit is Zen. It is why a teacher speaks to an altar and why a priest directs his attention to a crucifix. Both realize and understand the power of words. Both can hear the constant breath of that beast. Any teacher that cannot is blind and numb to their own power and dangerous to themselves as well as to all sentient beings.
We can play games with words. But intent pounces upon us like a cougar in the dark: A very real predator in a very dark forest.
A Zen master told me that there is no enlightenment in words or books. On one hand there is a distinct distrust in words that were spoken, remembered, rehearsed, memorized and eventually written down. There is a fear of history and culture and fact and figures. On the other hand there is a great amount of wisdom inherit in even the most diluted of works and the most mundane of words. Words themselves are meaningless, the speaker is meaningless; they are nothing more than dusty carnival mirrors in which to reflect our own innate knowledge and experience. What we bring to the words is central. When we speak we take responsibility for those words. When we speak to others we take the reigns of that great breathing and nervous beast. A person with skill can ride that beast with care and compassion. A fool is just hanging on for the ride until bucked off and devoured. In a meditative posture we can both open ourselves up and be present to the moment or we can close ourselves off and sit in ignorance.
A Zen master told me that there is no enlightenment in words or books. The reading of sutras is the reading of ourselves; the mantra of us and the koan of life. Knowing the words or knowing the concepts are secondary to an actual experience of them. A sutra or poem is an expression of that experience. Sometimes it is a technical exposition of a dense philosophical concept or a loose, ethereal explanation of the experience of those concepts. In reading some texts it seems that the Buddha has a love of exposition as well as poetry. Words are sometimes pragmatic and simple or prosodic and convoluted. Our own sutra begins with a cry and ends with a gasp. The pages in-between are the footsteps of a Buddha; the lessons of the Bodhisattva; the stumbling of a saint. The beast breathes and we breathe with it.
Our expression of this understanding is very personal. Just as your fingerprint is unique and handwriting is constantly evolving; your expression of the Dharma is very much your own experiment. In presenting words to others you are allowing yourself to internalize the Dharma; allowing it to alter your views, allowing it to change your perception and perspective. The expression of Bodhi mind can be applied to everything that we do. When we walk the dog, go to the store, take out the garbage or sit and watch TV with our family we are expressing our practice. When we listen to a sutra or read one silently we open ourselves to hear the sutra in a rustle of leaves, the honking of geese or the clicking of a keyboard. We hear it in wooded silence and in the roar of traffic. We see words sprawled across the page and translate them into a line of timber. Words become trees, paragraphs into forests and whole pages erupt into hills and mountains. Words translate into experience and that experience is our life.
A Zen master told me that there is no enlightenment in words or books.
That is correct but nor is there anything to find on a cushion.
There is no use to go looking in a temple or hall.
No need to find a teacher or follow a guru.
Our effort and ability is what sustains us.
The rest are tools and fools,
possessing the subtly of a sledge
and the grace of a rhinoceros.