Words & Meaning

Noticing our relationship to words & meaning has been a recurrent theme for me over the past several months. It seems to me that words are often preventing us from realizing meaning. The reason that this occurs is multifaceted. A lot of it seems to stem from the associations we conjure when we hear a word.

Take, for example, the word ’emptiness.’ What type of feeling arises after hearing the word emptiness? Would you describe it as positive or negative? It’s clear that we have certain associations with the word empty. To be empty generally means to be without, to lack, to be missing something.

Let’s now look at the word emptiness in a Buddhist context. When the word shunyata is translated into English as emptiness, what is it that Buddhist teachers are saying is lacking or missing? It seems, as many of us know, that what is missing (in reality) are the conceptual distinctions we make between people, places, and things- distinctions that do not essentially exist. Nothing exists separately from anything else.

As Thich Nhat Hanh says, to be empty of a separately existing self means to be full of everything there is, ever was, or will ever be. So, it seems that shunyata could just as easily, and accurately, be translated as fullness. But, when we hear the word emptiness, are we getting the sense of the interconnectedness and egolessness of existence?

The key is to see the meaning of what is being communicated rather than focusing on the words. Focusing on the words and missing the meaning might look something like this: “Buddhism says that phenomena, that is, the universe/existence, is marked by emptiness. When I think of emptiness I think of the ‘cup is half empty or half full.’ If existence is empty it must mean something is missing, there is just a void, devoid of any meaning.” This is relating with an idea based on our conceptual associations.

A better approach may be to first ask ourselves, “What is meant by the word emptiness in this context?” So, after some research, we find that emptiness here means that nothing exists independently, that is, the conceptual labels and distinctions we make do not exist in reality. So, then, when we hear a teaching, such as, emptiness, we can place our attention on the meaning of emptiness, instead of the words. Then we will be moving closer to the message being conveyed by the teacher and also more in touch with the way things are.

Often what is being transmitted (and translated) is an experience. As Joseph Campbell once said, it is the task of the poet  (or in this case the teacher) to use words to express an experience that is beyond words. Along this same line, it is also sometimes said that all language is metaphor. When someone says the word ‘tree,’ we think surely we know what a tree is. In actuality, there is no one thing that is a tree, no prototypical entity that is the epitome of a tree. There are countless vastly varying forms on this planet that are loosely bound by the term, in English, tree. Same with the color green. Green is just a sound that represents a wide spectrum of reflected light that at its edges becomes more and more ambiguous.

Metaphor, in its more conventional understanding, is a tool that Buddhist teachers often use to translate ineffable experience into a relatable meaning. In these instances too, there is a tendency to take the words too literally as to miss the meaning. The other day in discussing the chapter “Understanding Karma,” in Ruling Your World, a small group of us were contemplating a passage from the chapter. There was a question of what is meant by discernment in this context as it is related with the metaphor of a tiger walking mindfully with discernment in the woods. When asked what this metaphor meant, a participant stated that he relates it to walking meditation and placing his feet down mindfully. But, this isn’t a metaphor about walking particularly. In one sense, yes, we walk with a sense of mindfulness and discernment, but as a metaphor, this image relates to a way of being and making choices, of all kinds, in the moment. As it relates to karma, we have a choice in each moment, being mindful, to plant a seed moving us closer to liberation from suffering rather than fueling its continuance. This is represented, in part, by the metaphor of the “dignity” of a tiger walking in Shambhala Buddhism.

I avoided using the word virtue in that last sentence, but I did end up using the word suffering. Both of these are examples of words where our conditioned associations could confuse us from seeing the meaning of the dharma being presented. Which brings up another issue- translation. Often times the words being translated from Sanskrit and Tibetan into English, in the case of Buddhism, do not have an English correlate. The word gewa in Tibetan means an actionable choice that leads us in the direction of waking up from our confusion. In Buddhism this is a virtuous action. It doesn’t have any moralistic undertones. But, in English, we do not have a word that means an actionable choice that leads us in the direction of waking up from our confusion. So, it gets translated as ‘virtue.’ Virtue, of course, brings up all sorts of associations for us, as Westerners.

The point of all of this is that it seems advantageous for us to loosen our literalness, become intelligent consumers of information when dealing with words, and see past them to the meaning they are pointing towards. Schopenhauer described a great piece of art as something that, through its forms, would act as a conduit (to the viewer) into a purer and more accurate experience of reality. Perhaps language can do the same.


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