There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but one morning not long ago I called my wife to offer that very thing. I could pick her up at her office at noon, I proposed, and we could go to the Jet for a bite to eat. After checking her schedule, Robin readily agreed.
As it happened, however, Robin was called out of her office at 11:45. Not wanting to leave her husband in limbo, she asked Kevin, her work-study student, to inform me that she would be back shortly.
“What does he look like?” Kevin asked.
“He’s gray and slightly built.”
An hour later, over my egg-salad sandwich, I noted that there were other adjectives Robin might have chosen. “In aspect marvelous, in form divine” came to mind, but it lacked specificity. Perhaps “lean of limb and stern in mien”? Or, in the interests of concision, “compact and professorial”?
“But you are gray and slightly built,” Robin insisted. At which point I rested my case.
In truth, however, almost any description would have fallen short, not because its object beggared description but because description is at best a limited tool. And from the vantage point of Zen teachings, it is often at cross-purposes with one of the central aims of Zen practice, namely to see things as they are. Only by doing so, Zen teachings advise, can we live harmoniously with ourselves, our environment, and other people. And more often than not, description impedes or subverts our capacity for clear seeing.
“Don’t say, ‘It is beautiful,'” wrote the poet E. L. Mayo, my first mentor in the art. Like the Zen teachers with whom I would later study, Ed Mayo understood that when we call an object beautiful, we drop that object into a conceptual bin. Whether the object be a painting or a geode, a BMW or a sparkling new stove, the general modifier “beautiful” classifies it as a Beautiful Thing, denying its moment-by-moment, one-of-a-kind uniqueness. In Zen that quality is known as “suchness,” and to awaken to suchness is both an objective and a fruit of the practice.
Beyond the classifying aspect of description, however, there is also its selective nature. As Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, description slashes undifferentiated reality into bits and pieces, presenting a part or two for the whole. For evidence we need only consult the obituaries, where the late Herman is described as a hard-working businessman and the departed Henrietta as a loving mother. Or we can turn to the Personals, where Seth and Jennifer are described in telegraphic phrases: “Athletic, handsome, young at heart”; “Fun-loving, smart, attractive.”
Only a very trusting reader would take such descriptions at face value or mistake them for the whole truth. More convincing are those oxymoronic pairings that evoke the complexity of actual experience. “Awful but cheerful,” wrote the poet Elizabeth Bishop, a poet known for her precise description. In this instance Bishop was describing noisy, disorderly excavations at Garrison Bight in Key West, Florida. But she later asked that the phrase be inscribed on her headstone, as if it embodied her view of life.
As descriptions go, Bishop’s is one of the more memorable. But as Buddhist teachings often remind us, all descriptions are as “fingers pointing toward the moon,” because the reality they purport to capture is ultimately indescribable. “Fundamentally,” declares an early Zen poem, “there is not a single thing.” And from the standpoint of Zen teachings, what we ordinarily call a “thing,” implying a static and separate entity, is in reality impermanent and without a separate self. The tree we call an ash is actually a dynamic aggregate of “non-ash” elements, including light, water, carbon dioxide, and, these days, the ash borer. To describe that reality as if it were a solid object is to falsify its true nature.
What, then, is one to do? One obvious solution is to say nothing—or as little as possible. But a happier remedy may be found in the art of poetry, which often employs non-descriptive language to conjure a complex reality. In his essay “On Metaphor,” the poet Howard Nemerov recalls Roger Tory Peterson’s non-literal description of a purple finch as “a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice,” a metaphor that allowed Nemerov to “know” the bird in a way that descriptive modifiers could not. “If you really want to see something,” Nemerov suggests, “look at something else. . . . If you want to know what East really is, look North.”**
Not everyone can see in that way, nor is it always necessary to do so. Literal description has its place. But description also has its limitations, and to describe the world as best one can, while remaining mindful of realities beyond description, is a lifelong challenge, whether the phenomenon in question be an anticipated spouse or an unidentified bird.
In Alfred, New York the Collegiate Restaurant is known as the “Jet.”
* E. L. Mayo, “Old Knifedge,” Collected Poems (New Letters, 1981), 82.
** Howard Nemerov, “On Metaphor,” The Howard Nemerov Reader (University of Missouri, 1991), 223.
Photo by Cephas