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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Merton’

       Scott Chapel    Drake University

Scott Chapel
Drake University

Four weeks ago, in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we of a certain age were asked to recall where we were when the president was shot. As it happened, I was then a sophomore at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and I listened to the announcement of the president’s death in the lobby of Goodwin-Kirk Residence Hall, where a few of us had gathered around a portable radio. In retrospect, however, the question of where I was seems less important than where I went, having just received that sad and shocking news.

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Early one morning, a friend of mine ventured to compliment his wife, who was sitting upright in bed.  “You look lovely today,” he noted.

“Only today?” she replied.

My friend might learn two lessons from this experience. The first is ably expressed by a character in one of the Irish writer Claire Keegan’s stories. “Many’s the man,” he reflects, “lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.”*

The second lesson is that the English language is inherently dualistic. “Today” in this instance is an adverb, indicating when an action occurred. Today is not yesterday and not tomorrow. By implication, if not by overt statement, my friend excluded those other possibilities.

Applying this principle to the word “holiness,” Thich Nhat Hanh offers this observation:

Holiness is only the word “holiness.” And when we say the word “holiness,” we eliminate everything that isn’t holy, like the ordinary. If there is no ordinary, how can there be holiness?  Therefore any words, even words like “holiness,” “beautiful,” and “Buddha,” eliminate part of the true nature of the thing in describing it. . . . 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 Zen teachings, the act of slashing reality into small pieces is called discrimination, and the mind that performs this act is the discriminating mind, which distinguishes self from other and this from that. Employing dualistic language to that end, the discriminating mind might say that someone is an “acquaintance” rather than a “friend,” implying that the same person cannot be both.  Or, to view it the other way round, by employing language in the first place, the mind is led to discriminate, since language itself discriminates, eliminating part of what it purports to describe. To say that someone is an acquaintance is to think, or to lead oneself to think, that he or she is not a friend.

Dualistic language also generates opinion. The language may be minimal, as when women express their opinion of “men” simply by saying the word. Or it may be elaborate, as when Oscar Wilde observes that “all women become like their mothers. That’s their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” But whether the expression be simple or complex, direct or ironic,  personal opinion and dualistic language are of a piece, each serving to reinforce the other.

The American poet Jane Hirshfield, a longtime Zen practitioner, acknowledges as much in her poem “To Opinion,” in which she addresses Opinion as though it were a sentient being. Positing that a capacity to have opinions is what defines the human, she notes that “a mosquito’s estimation of her meal, however subtle, / is not an opinion.” She also recognizes that to think about Opinion is to have one. It is to “step into” something (“your arms? a thicket? a pitfall?”) Most poignantly, when she senses Opinion “rising strongly” in her, she feels herself “grow separate / and more lonely.” Opinions divide people, not only from others but from the wholeness of their own experience. And language—the poet’s medium—is both the source and the instrument of Opinion.

What, then, is one to do? Hirshfield recalls a line from the Japanese poet Myoe—Bright, bright, bright, bright, the moon—as if to suggest that by simply repeating a word we might honor the presence of an object, rather than slash its reality into pieces. And in her closing lines, she offers an instance of her own, as she recalls a few brief minutes when Opinion “released her,” and “[o]cean ocean ocean was the sound the sand / made of the moonlit waves / breaking on it.” Rather than generate an opinion, or divide self from other, the act of repeating a mimetic name drew her closer to the natural world.***

By such means, the dualistic character of language may sometimes be transcended. The self’s isolation may be overcome. But should those means fail, there is another option, which is to listen rather than speak: to say nothing rather than something. In one of his many reflections on language and silence, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton entertains that possibility:

No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is “heard” when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.****

Eloquent though they are, these sentences evoke the wisdom of saying nothing.

________________________

*Claire Keegan, “Foster,” The New Yorker, February 15, 2010.

**Thich Nhat Hanh, Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go ( Parallax, 2007), 122.

***Jane Hirshfield, After (HarperCollins, 2006), 41.

****Thomas Merton, Echoing Silence, ed. Robert Inchausti (New Seeds, 2007), 55.

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