Chair's Homily for July
I am at Adhisthana this week on the European Chairs Assembly, where ideas and proposals abound in many different languages. Sitting chatting, whilst eating breakfast, I notice on my left Viryakirti from Mexico and Silamani from Valencia, Spain. On my right is Aryabandhu from Berlin and next to him is Dharmadeva from Essen. The conversations are in Spanish and German, I listen to their conversations but have little understanding of their topics! I cannot speak Spanish or German, but these four Order friends can speak English to a high standard luckily for me!
This afternoon, Convenor of the International Council, Dharmachari Arthavadin will be telling us about his work of bringing together the views and ideas from Triratna groups and projects around the world. His remit is to bring together the perspectives of those holding key responsibilities across the Triratna Community to develop strategy, provide guidance, and enable collaborative decision-making worldwide. This includes work with Sanghas that don’t speak English and have not only a different language but have a completely different culture and background to us here in Ipswich. That is quite a task, as you can imagine. Although a new Buddhist Community, Triratna has a very wide reach and is not limited by geography, race or culture. Some 26 countries have activities with Japan being the latest.
There are over 7,000 different languages in the world. And even within one country, such as India, there are often many different languages in use. During the recent Ipswich Sangha Pilgrimage it was clear to us that although Hindi and English are the official languages of India many people may just speak the language of their home town. So even our Indian tour team could sometimes find it difficult to find a common language when in the more rural places. In the Ipswich Sangha we are lucky to have many people whose first language is not English, and many who are fluent in other languages. Being able to speak different languages gives one a differing perspective on the cultural restrictions and barriers that language creates.
Language is very important to all of humanity. It is a complex way of communicating complex issues. Languages continuously evolve around what it is we wish to communicate. We have words in English that are related to types of work, the weather, our basic emotions and more. The English language has about one million words, we don’t use many words regularly, but what an enormous resource we can draw on to express ourselves to another person. Expressing ourselves is hard work, but this is the primary purpose of language; communication between people it isn’t an for inter species communication even though we chat to our pets they have different communication tools.
So as I said above, language is a great tool for communicating, but we quickly forget that it is just a tool, and we can become defined by our language. And of course it is not just the words but the grammar, the sentence construction, even the gender bias within language that can define us. All of these things within language form a funnel through which we must squeeze what we actually want to communicate, especially when we want to communicate ourselves.
Many years ago I had a conversation with someone in the Sangha who was an English teacher. They insisted that words and thoughts where synonymous, so that the only way we have to think is through words. But this is a very limited view, words are a good means to communicate our ideas and thoughts to another person, but it’s not the only way.
What can become confusing is when that other person is ourself, and we hold a dialogue between Bodhivamsa1 and Bodhivamsa2. When we observe our mind and thoughts they appear as a stream of words, but this is a mirage. We can compare it to when we look at anything in the world around us. It takes effort to take in all that we are seeing, the vast amount of information before our eyes, and normally it is too much effort, so we only see the outline of the thing we are observing and fill in the detail from memory or guesswork.
Similarly when we observe a stream of thought in our consciousness we overlay it with the words that we believe represents those thoughts. But of course we only have the words of the languages that we know, so the subtlety of our thoughts can get lost or even completely re-represented to fit the limitations of our language.
In our everyday use of language, this misrepresentation of our actual thoughts doesn’t normally doesn’t cause too much confusion. Sometimes we notice it when someone we are talking to doesn’t seem to understand our point of view, they may even interpret what we are saying to be the opposite of what we are thinking that we have communicated. But as I say generally all goes well.
As Buddhists we start to notice this misrepresentation in meditation, especially when our meditation deepens. Most often as we start to meditate we come up against the hindrances. Various intrusive ‘thoughts’ will come into our minds and refuse to budge. We often observe these hindrances in our mind as words, which we can categorise as the hindrances (desire, anger, boredom, anxiety and doubt). We have been taught we can apply an antidote and work to dissolve the hindrance. But if the language and the underlying thoughts don’t match well then this process is not going to work. So we must learn to go a bit deeper, beyond the level of language. This going deeper is a subtle process because language is such a basic part of being human and having a human consciousness. The process of creating language out of our thoughts can appear fundamental and unstoppable. What comes with meditation when practised consistently and earnestly, is patience; and in this instance the patience to go beyond language. To allow the words to fade and the conditioned facade of language to subside. Thoughts can be seen in their raw state, creative and unstructured giving access to experience without our habits and reactive interpretations.
This creative space of letting go of language is the transition from the first to the second dhyana. This is when the mental factors of initial thought vitarka and investigating thought vicara, fall away. We then find that we no longer need language to be with our own thoughts and dwell in our own thought world.
We could prosaically compare it to the stage in the Mindfulness of Breathing when we let go of the counting and just have the experience of breathing.
With the removal of the restriction in thinking we can be suffused with the freedom of pure thought and dwell in a positive emotional state characterised by virya; which can be experienced as an unrestricted energy for spiritual growth bubbling up from the depths.
The misrepresentation that language can give us can mask where we actually are in our meditation. The words in our mind may again be a poor fit for the actual experience as we go deeper in our meditation. The language we are using to describe the experience, say ‘boredom’ as an example may not actually be what is really going on in our consciousness, but that may be the best fit from our limited vocabulary. The state of our mind may actually be focused attention on a single point, which from one point of view, that of a restricted mind, could be described as rather boring.
So don’t believe every word your mind appears to be telling you.
You may have chanted these words from the dedication ceremony “May our thought become Dharma”. What this line is pointing to is not the words of the dharma that we may learn at a class or from reading, but the Dharma that has penetrated deeply into our thinking, into our very being. A Dharma that gives us contact with the Enlightened mind, the mind of a Buddha.
Language helps to get us close to the meaning of the Buddhas Dharma but the transmission of the true Dharma, that which relates directly to Enlightenment, is outside of language which is too crude a communication tool.
In 1965, before the founding of Triratna, Sangharakshita gave a short lecture serious on Zen Buddhism, he based the lectures on these four poetic verses said to have come from Bodhidharma (5th Century) the founder of the Zen tradition. The Essence of Zen | free buddhist audio
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
No dependence upon words and letters,
Direct pointing to the mind,
Seeing into one’s own nature and realizing Buddhahood.
At the beginning of this month we will be celebrating Dharma Day. We celebrate the first turning of the wheel of the Dharma, were the Buddha started to teach after becoming Enlightened. A teaching that has been passed on by many people, in many countries, and in many languages over thousands of years. A teaching which is also authentically passed on without words. Come along to the festival and hear the words of the Buddha but also be alive and open to that transmission of the Buddha’s Dharma that can only be caught and not taught.
Muni Muni, MahaMuni, ShakyaMuni
See you there. Bodhivamsa