Poets are grass

Written by on November 16, 2012 in Commentary

Language is at the heart of what it is to be human. Being social creatures of a higher order, language is crucial in coordinating our complex activities. It is how we express ideas, show love, reason logically, etc.

Language deepens our experience of the world and enriches our awareness, knowledge and feelings about things. However the character of language keeps thoughts very conceptual. It creates a tendency for us to mistake concepts for the reality itself. In essence, we mesmerize our minds through our own speech.

To demonstrate this I have borrowed two syllogisms —a syllogism is a construction of reasoning in which two premises are drawn into a logical conclusion.

The first syllogism is classical, and the other has been corrupted to demonstrate an idea.

  1. Men die.
    Socrates is a man.
    Socrates will die.
  2. Men die.
    Grass dies.
    Men are grass.

The statement ‘Men are grass’ seems illogical here, but if you were to take it in a poetic sense people are like grass in that they are natural living systems that come into existence, grow, thrive, and then expire.

The illogical effect you may have felt was due to the juxtaposition of the two syllogisms. The first one primed your mind to make you feel the second was wrong or paradoxical. Actually you were just reading it conceptually. You were temporarily blinded from what other possible meaning the idea of grass had.

Logical reasoning certainly is a strength we humans have. Very often we put it on a pedestal, however to engage life and thought beyond straight logic is also a very important perspective. It is why people like art, spirituality, music, etc. and is also a big part of being human.

To see beyond the limitations of concept and logic is to allow the mind to break free. In the East, Zen Buddhism does just this. It combats intellection with what is known as a Koan. A Koan is a riddle of sorts that behaves in the same way as the Grass syllogism but then goes even further to arrest your conceptualizing mind.

Koans are a type of word-play that are the opposite of logic. They are sometimes absurd or contradictory statements that break convention in the mind of the reader. This is all done with purpose, to find the poetic sense like we did above. A Koan then works to show us a broader reality.

Here is a classic Koan:

“You can here the sound of two hands as they clap together, no what is the sound of one hand? “

Here is another example:

A student once asked Joshu: “If I haven’t anything in my mind, what shall I do?”

Joshu replied: “Throw it out.”

“But if I haven’t anything, how can I throw it out?” continued the questioner.

“Well,” said Joshu, “then carry it out.”

Here is another example which is more topical:

Joshu asked Nansen: “What is the path?”

Nansen said: “Everyday life is the path.”

Joshu asked: “Can it be studied?”

Nansen said: “If you try to study, you will be far away from it.”

Joshu asked: “If I do not study, how can I know it is the path?”

Nansen said: “The path does not belong to the perception world, neither does it belong to the nonperception world. Cognition is a delusion and noncognition is senseless. If you want to reach the true path beyond doubt, place yourself in the same freedom as the sky. You name it neither good nor not-good.”

At these words Joshu was enlightened.

With respect to a Koan, it seems our conventional awareness is inherently limited by verbalism. The exercise that is the Zen Koan is the finger pointing at the moon, if you stare at the finger you don’t see the moon.

However, is it fair to diminish our intellect? It is a large part of being human after all. Zen seeks not to abolish the intellect but to show a distinction between what is conventional and what is absolute. We should strive to acknowledge and live with both. That is why and how people can be both spiritual and believe in science at the same time.

As an aside, I use the word spiritual instead of religious. I feel that many organized religions have misrepresented spirituality by expressing it too explicitly within human-like mythical stories. Which of itself can be fine practice as long as the follower understands that the story is not meant to be taken literally. I am not sure the typical churchgoer understands this. 

To confuse things further, Religions tend to mix historical fact with it’s teachings which doesn’t help. I don’t need to explain the variety if troubles that can happen when a culture takes ownership of the ultimate through the identification within its own history. This is plain to see these days.

Yes, I feel it is important to find what is both practical and spiritual in your life. However it should not be supplanted upon you but rather grown from within you, from your own realization, from your own experience, however it may come.

Is a Koan like a poem? Yes it is. It uses it’s own brand of metaphor to speak beyond convention. It is the poetry between the finger and the moon.

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