Saturday, January 4, 2014

No way in or out

Here is an idea that has been rattling around in my head for a while:

I teach high school English, and by far the most challenging part of speech my students have understanding is prepositions. You know, those "in, of, with, by, about, above" words. I like to explain prepositions as words that express relationships primarily between nouns.

The tricky thing about language is its way of fooling us into believing that it corresponds to reality in some way. Even that last sentence (the whole part about language tricking us, as if language were an entity capable of action), if we take it too literally, can be misleading.

As an English teacher, I appreciate language; however, Zen, and my koan practice in particular, has revealed how transparent language can be. The challenge of seeing through language's slippery sleight of hand is our un-examined reliance upon it.

Nouns take a lot of criticism from Buddhists who argue that the impermanent world is a process, much more akin to verbs than nouns. However, that's still subscribing to language as if it could somehow mirror reality, which it can't.

Prepositions, in my opinion, are the trickiest. Viewing the self as a process is no more liberating or helpful than viewing it as a noun. For humans have a nagging intuition that we are "inside" our bodies looking "out" at the world. Regardless of whether we conceive of ourselves as a matrix of fluctuating processes or a solid subject, both fall into the trap of believing in and "inside" and "outside." This is a classic case of dualism.

We suffer because the world doesn't conform to our desires. When things don't go our way, we feel frustrated and alienated because the world and we feel miles apart, and so we feel constantly powerless to make ourselves lastingly happy. Eventually, this frustration turns "inward" and we feel fragmented, torn, and alienated even from ourselves.

It's funny to think how two little words--"in" and "out"--can cause so much confusion. Simply put, there is no me "inside" my body looking out at the world "out" there. Not because "we" aren't separate from "the world," which is just another, albeit more sophisticated way of continuing that same dualism of self and other, but we are world. Or we and the world are the same. Or...

See how tricky language can be?!

When "in" and "out" are seen to be transparent, then the whole dualistic enterprise collapses, for an "I" or self-hood loses all meaning unless there is an "other" or world to stand in contradistinction to it.

But I prattle. Words only breed more words. Use them but don't be used by them.

Enjoy your afternoon. If the weather permits, go outside for a walk, knowing full well that there is no "in-" or "outside."


  1. Brought to mind the old surreal joke/question , "What is the difference between a duck?"

  2. I have bear heard it before but I love it!