Friday, December 4, 2009

How Can I Find the Words?

Thomas Merton, in the introduction to John C.H. Wu's The Golden Age of Zen, had this to say about Zen's nature:

"When we in the West speak of 'basic facts of existence' we tend immediately to conceive these facts as reducible to certain austere and foolproof propositions--logical statements that are guaranteed to have meaning because they are empirically verifiable. These are what Bertrand Russel called 'atomic facts.' Now for Zen it is inconceivable that the basic facts of existence should be able to be stated in any proposition however atomic. For Zen, from the moment fact is transferred to a statement it is falsified. One ceases to grasp the naked reality of experience, and one grasps a form of words instead....The whole aim of Zen is not to make foolproof statements about experience, but to come to direct grips with reality without the mediation of logical verbalizing."

I am addicted to words. I am a writer; I think in letters. When I am trying to fall asleep at night, I unconsciously begin to visualize my thoughts as letters on a keyboard, typing out each sentence until I grow drowsy. At work, I write news articles and feature stories, movie reviews and columns. At home, I pen poems and essays, short stories and blog entries. My entire identity, the sum of me, seems to reside somewhere inside of that so-familiar alphabet. Without writing, I would be lost.

And then I find Zen. Zen, which says words are a mask, a veil. Zen, which presents me with koan riddles that make no more sense to me when answered than when they are first asked. Zen, a confusing, bewildering stream of thoughts which turn one back upon another, encircling, coming closer, closer...but to what?

As I sit down at the computer to write about Zen, I am stumped. How does one write about something that exists not only beyond words, but before words?

There is some comfort in knowing that I am not alone in trying. Searching the Sonoma County Library's online catalogue reveals 399 books about Zen. When you turn to the mother lode,, typing in "Zen" reveals 170,444 hits - more than Islam (139,000), Judaism (112,000), or just plain Buddhism (82,000). The only major religion which has greater literary output in English is Christianity, with a whopping 425,000 entries.

But the other "isms" aren't Zen. They are not founded on "direct transmission outside of scriptures." In fact, the opposite is true - they have sacred books on which the entire religion is based.

So, once again, what about Zen? A philosophy/religion without words? And yet, of course, that is impossible. Without words, there would be no dharma, no teacher/student relationship. Words must be part of the equation - but how do we know when we have gone beyond "words as tools to communicate direct experience" to "words as subterfuge"?

As a passionate believer in poetry, I know that the proper words can illuminate something tired and familiar, restoring the object or idea to is original "it"-ness. Is that not true of Zen also? Can an entire lineage of Zen poets be wrong?

How can I find the words?

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