Words: The Subtly of a Sledgehammer, the Grace of a Rhinoceros


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.


5 thoughts on “Words: The Subtly of a Sledgehammer, the Grace of a Rhinoceros

  1. I think that when a teacher denies the existence of something, they either don’t really understand what they’re talking about or they’re skillfully instructing us to find out for ourselves whether it exists or not.The use of words in Zen reminds me of Plato’s Allegory or the Cave: our minds fill in the shadows with ideas but only after we see the truth do we understand the shadows, while real themselves, to be so empty and shallow in relation to what they’re shadows of. We may even take the shadows to be true and whole of themselves at first.I recently had someone point out the meaning of the blue mountain and white cloud poem in a way I understood and this also reminds me of words. The Truth is the mountain (or the real object in the allegory) and the words are the clouds (or the shadows), they depend on each other without being dependent upon each other. We can’t just deny one or the other, saying the ephemeral is false because it has no substance or the absolute is irrelevant because it is static.Thanks for the post. Style points for repetition of “A Zen master told me…” (using words, ha!) and the poem.There is no need to look, but if we don’t, we’ll never find the truth.

  2. Thanks for your comment.  The deal with words is that they can illuminate or hamper a practice.  Just like anything else.  When we overly attach to meditation we are taking a tool and creating a hinderance.  When we ignore the practice of our daily lives we ignore a constant and elegantly dynamic Dharma Gate.  The same is true when we ignore what is written down…   There is much to learn from those that use art and creativity to express the Dharma.  Words are included there.   Thanks for the syle points!  

  3. Words sometimes can break bones and definitely the will. Your blog-post here is very excellent, compassionate, and exact. I remember a retreat “mumble-mumble” years ago, at the KDOL centre in the Gulf Islands of Georgia Strait. We made friends with the local outcaste, a fellow, Taekwondo master, who was donating his services at the retreat centre as Cook for the Retreatants. We had booked our facility months before, so had primo accommodation, and gave no thought that other groups might be there when we were in residence. We could have gone to any of solitary areas, sacred or secular, in our area, but we wanted to support KDOL and the 3 Year Retreat that was taking place inside the palisades at the other end of the site. And my co-practitioner wanted to see what the land was like, she had heard about it, and wanted a look… It might serve her for a solitary retreat area down the road. And I wanted a closer look, I had paid the mortgage payment for the place on many occasions. Taekwondo-Cook’s name was rGyatso too, but before I was given that name (newish for me). We invited him down to our cliff-perched solitary cabin eyrie for tea one evening, and we were talking about the Lama who was conducting a retreat on a different part of the property, with whose group we were sharing eating and washing facilities. Martial-Arts rGyatso was relating a conversation that took place some weeks before: the Lama had casually asked what it was that rGyatso did for a “day-job,” and rGyatso said, “I teach Self-Defense.”After 30 years in the west and 20 years in Canada, the Lama’s command of English could only generously be called “abysmal,” and, to be fair, he consulted with his droogs, sycophants and girlfriend to figure out what exactly this description meant. Once he got some inkling, made the pronouncement, “If there no Self, no need Self-Defense.” rGyatso had been struggling with this proclamation for some time , trying to make some sense of what the meaning and intention of this pontification was, and to understand what it was that he was to do? Should he give up his profession and passion, should he turn his back on the more than 20 years of training and accomplishment that rewarded him with a vocation that allowed him to help and guide people into confidence and health? rGyatso was in near tears relating this, he felt that he had some sort of ‘Guru-Student’ relationship with the Lama, and felt that he needed to fix or correct his own behavior in order to properly follow this seeming profound teaching. We were quick to assure him that we thought that the Lama was just making an unfortunate play on words, and did not intend any deep meaning beyond it, and if there was, it was directed more at the groundlings in the audience, than it was in any way towards rGyatso.We also assured him that we two also had practiced Martial Arts for more than a minute or two, and felt no conflict with following Dharma and Martial-Arts both. There are happy endings to this tale: rGyatso was shortly back teaching his joyous passion, and a few years later, since I had some recognition as a long-time associate and founder of that Lama’s particular centre, I was invited to attend and observe an Extraordinary Meeting of the Centre’s Board that was the in reality the last legal stages of a palace coup. The Lama was sent to retirement and to somewhere where his activity would no longer interfere with the progress of a Student’s practice. I helped to count and tabulate the ballots. Joyfully.

  4. Your post provides a contemporary illumination on the commentary to Chapter 2 of the BTTS translation of the Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra (2002). Words have weight without measure. Your coda struck a chord: are not memories the cushions in our minds?

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