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The Limits of Language in Our Spiritual Journey

Published on 19/07/12
by randy

The spiritual experience is repeatedly referenced as ‘beyond words’.  Katagiri Roshi has written in Time is the Universe:

“To be completely absorbed you have to devote yourself totally, with sincerity, and then you can be absorbed—you can see the unity of your body, your mind, and your object.

In this unity, you give energy to the activity as object, and simultaneously you accept lots of information from your object.  That is called total functioning—cause and effect are one simultaneous action of input and output.

This is communion of heart with heart, going constantly, in and out.  At that time your activity becomes Buddha’s activity:  time becomes supreme time, beyond any concept of past, present, or future; place becomes supreme place, beyond any dualistic concept; and person becomes supreme person, who is melted in the universe.

That situation is unknowable with our consciousness.  It’s impossible for me to express it in words.  But maybe you can feel that this is true, that Buddha’s activity is something that could appear in your life in the future.  If so, that feeling becomes a kind of prediction, foreknowledge, or hope.  That is called big hope.”   p. 145

This ‘feeling’ of Big Hope is where we find our spiritual security.  And when we try to describe it we fail since language is a system of arbitrary symbols that can only point to this experience.  The linguistic field of General Semantics explores this extensively, showing us how meaning is ‘in the person’ and not ‘in the word’.  And yet, today we still fight with closed minds, holding on to the fixed notion that meaning is black and white.  We argue with one another about who knows best, who’s right and who’s wrong.  We sew the seeds of fear, greed and ignorance as we demand others to take our meaning as theirs.  Yet, in reality, no one can have the same experience.  We can only meet openly in our attempts to understand one another.  This is most rich when done in the exploration of spiritual tradition common ground.  What Dainin Katagiri called Big Hope may be what Jacques Ellul calls the Holy Spirit in The Presence of the Kingdom:

For the Christian intellectual this problem of language is the key-problem to contact with other men.  Other people, too, have felt this need.  Other people have sought for this language, but they have only ended up in a more hopeless solitude, like that of the Surrealists.

It is normal that men should be separate and strangers, but the Holy Spirit creates communication between them, and enables them to break through this separation.  The Holy Spirit alone can do this, the Holy Spirit alone can establish this line with one’s neighbor.  The Holy Spirit alone can open our eyes and ears, not only to revealed truth, but to the humble love of men.  But man must work patiently at that which the Holy Spirit uses.  If man flees into the desert, if he hides himself away, alone, in a hermit life, there will be no neighbors, and then what can the Holy Spirit do?  If man in our civilization, does not recreate a possible language, there is no support for the action of the Holy Spirit, there are no human means which God always demands from men when He wishes to manifest his power.  The Holy Spirit alone can give meaning, truth, and effectiveness to this language, but men must have sought for it.

It is urgent that Christian intellectuals should rediscover the meaning of their vocation along this line.  Everything has to be done, but it the only way of rediscovering a method of comprehension beyond all classes, formulas, and political divisions.  It is the only way of breaking through the sociological trends which separate us, and rediscovering genuine personal relationships in love.  It is today the only way in which we can live in love without the fatal sentimentalism with which liberalism, both intellectual and theological, had infected the idea of ‘neighbor’.  If we do not invent this language all our preaching of love cannot be understood by men.”  pp. 127-8.

There’s something very similar in these statements, something that provides a deep grounding, faith and trust in something bigger than us.  There’s reference to the hard work required to continue smashing the natural human tendency to separate.  There’s recognition of the limits of language, of the wonder and awe, and the need to surrender to the surprise of the divine.  In the early 1700’s, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, described this surrender as ‘pure faith’:

“…it is the mystery of mysteries, where all is hidden, so obscure, so incomprehensible that the more spiritual and enlightened one is , the more faith is required to believe…..Its (pure faith) effect is to enable one to find God at each moment;  it is this that makes it so exalted, so mystical, so blessed.  It is an inexhaustible fund of thought, of discourse, of writing, it is a whole collection, and source of wonders.  To produce so prodigious an effect but one thing is necessary; to let God act, and to do all that He wills according to one’s state.  Nothing in the spiritual life could be easier, nor more within the power of everyone; and yet nothing could be more wonderful, nor any path more obscure.  To walk in it the soul has need of great faith, all the more so as reason is always suspicious, and has always some argument against it.  All its ideas are confused.  There is nothing in it that reason has ever known or read about, or been accustomed to admire; it is something quite new.”  p. 61, Abandonment to Divine Providence.

They seem to be advising us to move beyond language, thought and reason, to discover “something quite new”.  They recognize our deep connection with all things and the illusion of our separateness.  They all pull us to discover the divine unfolding in each present moment, before we remove ourselves in language and thought attempting to capture it.  They proclaim an ‘awareness’ practice that helps us better see what helps and what harms.  They recognize the power of faith in holding us peacefully with a stable, steady mind through turbulent conditions:

“…if only we have the courage to let the thunder, lightning and storm rage, and to walk unfaltering in the path of love and obedience to the duty and demands of the present moment, we are emulating Jesus himself.”  p. 53, The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre de Caussade.

Dainin Katagiri speaks to the precious nature of the present moment and the spiritual security found in cultivating awareness to Big Hope when he writes:

“How do you live in this complicated reality?  How do you face the moment when the earthquake suddenly happens?   How do you handle yourself in a moment that is beyond your control?  When a moment appears, there is only one thing that controls you:  the capability that comes from your spiritual practice, your ability to face impermanence and deal calmly with the conditions of every moment.  So, before the earthquake happens, before your mind starts to work and you want to run away, accept every moment as an opportunity presented to you to practice facing reality as it really is.  When a moment arises, you don’t know the reason why it exists, but you have to accept it and face it, whatever happens.

Life is an emergency case!  Where is the emergency?  Is it a particular situation, one day of you life?  No, every moment of every day is an emergency.  You have to do your best to face every moment, because this moment will never come again.  The moment that you are living right now is a very important opportunity to make your life vividly alive.  If you want to live with spiritual security in the midst of constant change, you have to burn the flame of your life force in everything you do.”  pp. 23-4, Time is the Universe.

When we face the divinity of the arising moment ‘before your mind starts to work’, before reason pulls us from alignment, we’re moving from the heart, from the spirit of divine Providence, from what some have called ‘conditioned origination’.   This demands such complete openness of mind, such curiosity, such faith, such Big Hope.

So in deepening our relations with our neighbor, it will help to surrender our notions of being ‘right’ as fed from our inadequate linguistic system.  It will serve us better to face him/her as ‘us’, to meet in a sense of communion rather than polarization, and ultimately do what we can to help each other hear beyond the words, touching Big Hope…touching the Holy Spirit….touching the indescribable wonder and awe of this very gift of the next arising moment…the gift of Being.

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