Sunday, February 16, 2014

Words, words, words

This post is dedicated to my favorite American artist, the great Kurt Vonnegut. Thank you for your wit, humor, and imagination. You will be missed. 

Every sound, every movement, every atom, it's all IT. The dance of gnats in the summer evening, the crash of the ocean waves, every word that Shakespeare wrote, these are all expressions of the great unfathomable IT. Different traditions have developed their own ways to express and realize the inexpressible. Buddhism has many terms for IT--Dharmakaya, Buddha Nature, Tathagatagarbha, emptiness, No- or Don't-Know Mind, and on and on.

Zen is often very guarded or suspicious about the use of language's ability to express the great mystery. Instead, it relies upon direct pointing--a shout, a kick, a pointed finger.

But this includes words, for they can be the greatest pointers of all, if we know how to use them properly. Koans use words to free us from the tyranny of words so that we can then use them freely.

They aim to liberate both us and language.

I haven't read a fiction book in years. Well, that's not exactly true; I have read a few here and there over the past five years. This is a huge shift, considering the fact that I'm an English teacher who thrived on reading fiction. So two weeks ago I picked up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, one of his finest and my favorite books. Vonnegut, like a great Zen master, can be wry, witty, sardonic, and playful.

It's the last that impressed me the most.

Zen is all too often way too serious. And I mean, WAY too serious. This is strange, in light of how playful, creative, and celebratory koans can be.

Take Case #30 from the Gateless Gate:
A monk asked, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?"
Zhaozhou said, "The cypress tree in the garden."
The cypress tree in the garden--this is a celebration of life! Zhaozhou isn't referencing some dry theory or spiritual abstraction; he's pointing to something concrete and alive. Nothing can be more organic than a tree. This, I feel, is Zen't greatest contribution to the world--it's liberation of everything, including language.

Taoism frowned upon humans and language, whereas Zen plumbed their depths. For a true Buddha is alive, vital, versatile, relying upon anything and everything at hand--an umbrella, a shoe, a plant, and of course, words.

If the Dharma is an endless garden, then a Buddha is a curious and fascinated gardener, exploring the creative possibilities inside of every seed and lump of soil.

Nature, science, wisdom, humanity, creativity, and even thoughts and words, they are all IT.  Imagination, the kind that Vonnegut so elegantly plays with, is a marvelous expression of the Buddha Dharma. In this sense, Shakespeare, Blake, Eliot, and Joyce are magnificent teachers and speak the Dharma fluently.

I guess what I'm getting to is that, when we train our eye (or ear or tongue or heart) to see or taste or feel the Dharma, we encounter it everywhere. The birds chirping outside, our flat tire, even the words on this screen.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flicker user: PhineasX.
Title borrowed from Shakespeare's Hamlet. 

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