beyond words

“Pastel Plum Blossoms” by Ren Adams

Although I love words and spend much of my time reading and writing, words seem limited in their power to communicate.  Some things can’t be described, and just have to be experienced directly.  I don’t think 1,000 words or more could ever be adequate to describe the feelings evoked by looking at the art by Ren Adams above, or could be adequate to describe the experience of listening to certain music that you love, or being with someone you love.  Writers know this.  I was struck when I came across this quote by the great American writer, William Faulkner:

“I would say that music is the easiest means in which to express, since it came first in man’s experience and history.  But since words are my talent, I must try to express clumsily in words what the pure music would have done better.  That is, music would express better and simpler, but I prefer to use words as I prefer to read rather than listen.  I prefer silence to sound, and the image produced by words occurs in silence.  That is, the thunder and the music of the prose take place in silence…”

–William Faulkner, from an interview conducted by Jean Stein.  Jean Stein, “The Art of Fiction XII:  William Faulkner,” Paris Review, 4 (Spring 1956):28-52.

The ancient Taoist masters, particularly Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, were great writers, and made masterful use of language to describe Taoist principles.  Yet despite this, they recognized and repeatedly pointed out the gross limitations and inadequacy of language for conveying the meaning of Tao.  Lao Tzu states this in the very first lines of the Tao Te Ching:

“The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1, Stephen Mitchell translation

Language tends to define things by contrasts and dualities, and these logical distinctions can be more of a hindrance than a help in developing a deep understanding of Tao.  Lao Tzu indicates that those individuals who have gained insights into Tao tend not to talk much about it, as their understanding is at a level beyond words:

“Those who know don’t talk.

Those who talk don’t know.”

—-Tao Te Ching, Chapter 56, Stephen Mitchell translation

Even our most sophisticated science, with its technical language, symbols, and mathematics may well be inadequate to fully describe and comprehend the reality of nature, as Albert Einstein pointed out (these Einstein quotes also appear in my earlier post Finding Tao in science):

“All our knowledge is but the knowledge of school children.  Possibly we shall know a little more than we do now, but the real nature of things, that we shall never know, never.”

–Albert Einstein, quoted in “The Expanded Quotable Einstein,” Princeton University Press, p. 207

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein

Perhaps the closest we can come to approaching the Tao is not by talking, but by doing—by practicing a way of living and way of being that is attuned to Nature.  This way of being involves opening ourselves to a sense of awe at the beauty and power of Nature, without struggling too hard to express it in words.   To quote Einstein again,

“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”

–Albert Einstein – “The Merging of Spirit and Science”

In my earlier posts awareness, tranquility and bare attention, I discussed a meditative state of awareness, which Alan Watts described as an “idealess, wordless state,” (Alan Watts, Tao:  The Watercourse Way, 1975, chapter 2, p. 36) that may be particularly useful for attuning ourselves to the flow of Nature, including our own inner experiences.  A fundamental principle of Chan or Zen Buddhism, which was highly influenced by Taoism, is that the highest truth is inexpressible in words.  The Chan Buddhist, Bodhidharma, described Chan in this way:

“No dependence on words and letters, a direct pointing to the human mind, seeing into one’s own Nature and attaining Buddhahood.”

–Bodhidharma, quoted in Lecture 20, “Zen–The Moon in a Dewdrop and Impermanence,” by Professor Jay L. Garfield, The Meaning of Life:  Perspectives from the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions, The Great Courses, course 4320, 2011, The Teaching Company.

The Taoist, Chaung-Tzu, pointed out that language is useful as a signpost pointing towards meaning and experience, but can’t fully capture and covey meaning and experience:

“The fish trap exists because of the fish.  Once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap.  The rabbit trap snare exists because of the rabbit.  Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare.  Words exist because of the meaning.  Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.  Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words, so I can have a word with him?”

–Chaung-Tzu as quoted in Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition, Lecture 8, Professor Grant Hardy, The Great Courses, Course 4620, The Teaching Company

I’ll keep writing this blog to help myself, and hopefully other people, to explore Taoist principles…but I’ll remember the limitations of these words…and, as Chuang-Tzu said, once you and I have gotten the meaning, we will have gone beyond the words and can let them go….

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved


One Response to “beyond words”

  1. plasticpumpkin Says:

    Reblogged this on Tao Shrine and commented:
    Many thanks to Aspiring Taoist for this nice write-up!

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