Words cannot recreate ‘just-as-it-is-right-now’…

Photo by Jessica Rothman in Mestia, Georgia

… yet, in vain, we continue to issue words.

I am rereading Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals, by Peter Matthiessen. One chapter is an account of his journey to the land of Dolpo on the Tibetan plateau. He later expanded this journal-chapter to create his popular The Snow Leopard.

Throughout the book Matthiessen describes how his teachers and fellow Zen students engage in rigorous, silent meditation. He also describes their conversations, of the type peculiar to practitioners of Zen Buddhism. Typically, the students are full of questions; the teachers, in response (if any, for often they will remain silent), will issue seemingly obscure or nonsensical phrases or ask questions in return, some of which are koans;  or, the teacher will even yell at the questioner. There is method underlying these responses.

I perceive a paradox in what I understand of the Zen way. Practitioners and their acolytes are, in varying degrees, seeking what the Sixth Patriarch described “one’s true self”. Seeking is an egoistic activity or path, yet in Zen (and in other Ways) the ego is an illusion.

But let us forgive any perceived logical inconsistencies, in ourselves and others. The koan, and other instructions, are issued to avoid, even destroy logical thinking so that one can perceive, intuitively, without words, the oneness of all things.

We are human, not god-like; but each of us has a Buddha, an enlightened one, waiting to emerge or grow from us.

What stimulated this writing, here and now, was the reading of a poem uttered by a Zen teacher upon learning of the death of a revered friend and fellow teacher:

Eighty-nine years, just-as-it-is!
How can I express, right now
The grave importance of this very thing?

Right now. This is all there is.

How can I express it?

Not with words.

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate American living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Enlightenment, satori, enlightenment, kai wu, Zen and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Words cannot recreate ‘just-as-it-is-right-now’…

  1. The language used, in our society, typically reinforces the egoic boundaries of Jaynesian consciousness. There is a fair amount of research about how perspective affects experience.

    First person singular is associated with brooding, avoidance, etc — as opposed to first person plural and second person singular. Children told to use second person are able to more effectively accomplish a task.

    One suspects the use of koans and such doesn’t merely frustrate the verbal mind but changes the use of language. It might be interesting to look at tenses, for example.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Is that ‘nothing’ as first person plural or second person singular? And is it present tense? Just kidding! Ha!

        Language is an interesting thing. To assert self or world as empty is, in many ways, to refer to the emptiness of language. That words don’t refer to what we think they mean. There is no doubt that language is powerful, potentially deceptive. But language can be used for intentional purposes, such as in Buddhist practices.

        Besides koans, some monks practice using third person person as a way of disidentifying with the ego-self. In Tibetan Buddhism, debate is important to develop mind and discernment. And, of course, there are mantras where, after long practice, sound and meaning shifts in experience — maybe sometimes similar in effect to koans.

        I’ve never practiced koans. Nor have been around those who have. I’m mostly familiar with various forms of meditation — breathwork, mindfulness, mantra, etc. When I’m in a certain mood where words fail me, I often find myself falling back on mantras I’ve been repeating for decades at this point.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ron Pavellas says:

        As presented in the book, MU! was somewhat like a grand AHA!, or Wonderful! plus other attributes, shouted as loudly as possible.


      • I was reading that ‘mu’ in some Eastern languages, similar to ‘wu’ in Chinese, means ‘nothing’. There are mu koans, but I don’t really know anything about it. Maybe it can mean both nothing and an exclamation of wonderful or whatever. It sounds like a useful word.


      • Ron Pavellas says:

        … and, I may have misunderstood…


      • I honestly don’t know. The limits of my knowledge about ‘mu’ is what I looked up on a search engine. I just assumed that you meant ‘mu’ in the context of mu koans. But I should’ve simply asked you what you meant in the context.


      • Ron Pavellas says:

        In the index there are 26 entries for the mention of MU! In the text. Here are three:

        “At the end, the chanters gave one mighty shout of MU!—a mantric word corresponding to Om, which which symbolizes the Absolute, eternity…”

        “The cicada knows no death, no haiku, nothing but b-z-z-z! The purpose of Zen is to be a cicada. Every exhalation Mu! So-called quiet sitting is not enough—stone Buddhas can do that…”

        “There are two ways to answer any koan in a way the teacher must take seriously until he is sure the student has more koan “style” than understanding, The first is to vividly present a key word, “flag,” that is, BE the flag in all its flagness, just-as-it-is. The second is a forceful shout of MU!, which symbolizes this suchness, this ever-present Buddha-nature, this eternal now!”


      • Nothingness, absoluteness, suchness, etc — I could see a similarity across such meanings. By the way, do you know the proper pronunciation? Is it spoken as ‘myoo’? It seems like a fine word I could use on occasion.


      • Ron Pavellas says:

        I’ve never been part of a Zen practice, don’t know how to pronounce MU!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Vasil Georgiev says:

    Thank you, Ron, for sending me your new blog article. The topicc of the article is interesting by itself. I liked very much the poem. Thank you! Best, Vasil

    Liked by 1 person

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