One evening last month, I took my young friend Isabel on a walk past our flower garden. Isabel is three years old. As we walked along, I named the flowers she was seeing: Wisteria. Coleus. Viola. Geranium. Isabel stooped to inspect the geranium, whose bright red petals had caught her eye.
Not long afterward, Isabel and I arrived at our deck, where my father-in-law, Saul, was relaxing in his wheelchair. An 89-year-old veteran of World War Two, Saul wears a full white beard, and he is seldom seen without his blue, U.S.S. Hornet cap. “Isabel,” said my wife, Robin, “This is my dad, Mr. Caster.”
“Because I only have one leg,” Saul replied.
“Oh,” said Isabel, taking a moment to absorb that information. “Very nice to meet you,” she said, extending her hand.
Isabel soon dashed off to play with a friend, but her response left a lasting impression, not least because it was so unfiltered. It evinced a capacity to meet the external world, including its unfamiliar and potentially disturbing aspects, with openness, curiosity, and an absence of comment.
Many children possess that capacity, and some adults manage to retain it. But it can also be cultivated through the practice of Zen meditation. In The Way of Zen Alan Watts offers this description of the practice:
To see the world as it is concretely, undivided by categories and abstractions, one must certainly look at it with a mind which is not thinking—which is to say, forming symbols—about it. Zazen [seated meditation] is not, therefore, sitting with a blank mind which excludes all the impressions of the inner and outer senses. It is not “concentration” in the usual sense of restricting the attention to a single sense object . . . It is simply a quiet awareness, without comment, of whatever happens to be here and now.
Essential to this description is the phrase “without comment.” To be aware of realities while making comments or forming judgments about them is one thing. To cultivate a quiet awareness of those same realities, without comment, is quite another.
It may be asked why intelligent adults with well-stocked minds would wish to eschew comment. Every day most of us consume huge volumes of information, and as Clay Johnson observes in his book The Information Diet, a disproportionate amount of what we consume is commentary, especially commentary with which we agree. In a world without comment, Shields and Brooks would soon be out of a job, as would Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and a host of others. Moreover, our cultural history would be denuded of most of its proverbs, jokes, retorts, and memorable remarks. Comment, it might be said, is the stuff of life. Why would we wish to discourage it, much less embrace a practice that endeavors to exclude it? And why would Zen teachings, which themselves abound in commentary, encourage such a practice?
To begin with, from the standpoint of Zen teachings, comment is often superfluous. “The Way,” writes Seng-ts’an in the Faith-Mind sutra,“is perfect as vast space is perfect, / where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.” Undifferentiated reality is perfect, complete, and “beyond language.” It requires no comment from us. Therefore we should “cease attachment to talking and thinking” and not waste our time in arguments, “attempting to grasp the ungraspable.” Although Seng-ts’an is speaking of absolute reality rather than our relative, historical existence, his advice has a bearing on ordinary life. Having just experienced a moment of elation or sorrow or transcendent beauty, do we really need to comment? What, if anything, do our comments add?
And what, we might also ask, do they subtract? Language is by nature dualistic. Words in general and comments in particular include certain aspects of the realities we perceive while leaving others out. “`Holiness,’” writes Thich Nhat Hanh, “is only the word ‘holiness.’ And when we say the word ‘holiness’ we eliminate everything that isn’t holy, like the ordinary. . . . When we say a name out loud, it is as if we are slashing a knife into reality and cutting it into small pieces.” In similar fashion, Witold Pilecki, a Polish Army officer who survived Auschwitz, writes of those who did not, “To be honest, can I write that someone was ‘much missed’? I missed them all.” In short, to say one thing is not to say another—and to risk falsifying the reality one purports to record.
Beyond these redundant and reductive aspects of commentary, there is also its propensity to preempt experience itself. By their nature comments are indicative rather than interrogative. They express what the speaker already knows. Useful as that may be, it can also abort an experience even before it has occurred. By refraining from comment, we can cultivate the state of mind Zen calls “not-knowing,” which is at once a well of creativity and a humbling alternative to speech. “Even brief silence,” writes the physicist George Prochnik in his book In Pursuit of Silence, “can inject us with a fertile unknown: a space in which to focus and absorb experience . . . a reflection that some things we cannot put into words are yet resounding real.”
So what, in the presence of the new and strange, are we to do? Perhaps, for once, we might remain silent. We might cultivate what Buddhism calls “bare attention,” an awareness of body and mind prior to judgment or comment. Or, if we wish to emulate Isabel, we might just say, “Oh.”
Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (Vintage, 1999), Kindle edition, 3028.
Seng-ts’an, Hsin-Hsin Ming: Verses on the Faith-Mind, trans. Richard B. Clarke.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go (Parallax, 2007), 122.
George Prochnik, In Pursuit of Silence (Anchor, 2011), Kindle edition, 49.
Photos by Robin Howard