Thinking the Unthinkable, Saying the Ineffable

I am about t sketch You a picture of what goes on around here sometimes. tho I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening. – Bob Dylan

Last week’s installment of the Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland included this quote by the German existentialist philosopher, Karl Jaspers[1. Karl Jaspers, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plotinus, Lao-Tzu, Nagarjuna: From the Great Philosophers The Original Thinkers (Harcourt Brace, 1974).]:

Nagarjuna strives to think the unthinkable and to say the ineffable. He knows this and tries to unsay what he has said.”

Some folks might wonder, if it is unthinkable or inexpressible then how can it be thought or spoken, and why does Nagarjuna contradict himself?

First, it is helpful to remind ourselves what we are dealing with. One writer, F.C. Happold[2. F.C. Happold, Mysticism A Study and an Anthology (Penguin, 1971), 159.], has said,

One of the difficulties for the Westerner in his effort to understand Buddhism is the particular language in which so many Buddhist writings are couched. It is often a language of paradox and non-duality. One is called upon to penetrate through this paradoxical, non-dualistic language to get at the inner meaning.”

Statue of Nagarjuna at Samye Ling Monastery

This is especially true of Nagarjuna, the master of paradox with his arguments on logical contradiction. And with Nagarjuna, we have an additional element in that he had a problem with language. He found it inadequate, incapable of accurately describing reality. At best, it provides us signs, semblances of reality. These signs, however, are false, for as language shapes our view of the world, it obscures the truth.

Jaspers says,

All designations are meaningless: When I speak, I suppose that the signs (nimitta) I employ ‘signify’ things. If for example I wish to speak of becoming and perishing, I must devise different signs. But designation and differentiation lead us into error. Designation and thing designated cannot be one, nor can they be different . . .

To live by signs is to live in illusion . . . But every man lives by signs when he lives in the realm of appearance – whether he assumes that “appearance is a sign,” or that “appearance is empty,” when he lives in the assumption ‘I live’ or ‘I am conscious’ . . .”

Language must have its subject and object, its designation and differentiation, its duality, which produces a tendency to seize objects and cling to them. And it is this tendency that is said to be the root of suffering. Non-differentiation and non-conceptual thinking is offered as an antidote.

Although Nagarjuna makes a distinction between the ultimate truth and the relative or conventional truth, in the end the ultimate truth is no truth: “No definite statement is possible.”

Conventionally speaking, we can say that things exist and they have the nature of interdependency. From the ultimate truth, we say that things do not have intrinsic existence. They are empty. But even this ultimate standpoint is, in the final analysis, only a conventional view.


All things that arise interdependently,
I declare as emptiness.
This is a conventional designation;
it is the Middle Way.

Here Nagarjuna is making it clear that even emptiness is a relative truth. All truth is relative, in this sense, because truth is always expressed conventionally. Jay Garfield, in The Fundamental Wisdom of The Middle Way[3. Jay Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of The Middle Way (Oxford University Press, 1995), 280.], explains,

Nagarjuna has been urging all along that ultimately all things are empty. It would be very easy to interpret him to mean that from the ultimate standpoint, we can say of phenomena that they are empty. But here he quite deliberately undermines that interpretation, claiming instead that nothing can be literally said of things from such a standpoint. For ultimately there is no entity of which emptiness or nonemptiness that can be predicated. Nor can we say that things are neither empty nor nonempty. For that would contradict the fact that from the standpoint of one using conventional language and cognition, it is correct to characterize phenomena as empty.

I don’t know about you, but this tends to make my head spin.

Forging ahead anyway, the bottom line, as far as my understanding goes, is that “it” is unthinkable and ineffable not because it is some transcendent, sacred reality, but because reality itself, whether in the relative or ultimate aspect, can never be fully known through conceptual thinking, nor can it ever be expressed adequately using conventional language.

Emptiness is not the ultimate reality. As Nagarjuna indicated above, it is merely a conventional designation. However, it is a pathway to enlightenment. Perhaps it is the most expedient means in which to realize awakening, for it demolishes all concepts, and like a vajra-sword it cuts through all delusions. Nagarjuna often compares emptiness-knowledge with Prajna-paramita or Transcendent Wisdom.

I don’t feel we should always assume that words like “transcendent” are used to imply a mystical reality or experience. Enlightenment is just seeing things as they truly are, empty of intrinsic self-being. Frederick Streng notes, “Emptiness is an answer to the quest for enlightenment when it promotes a practical solution to the problem of sorrow.”[4. Frederick J. Streng, Emptiness A Study in Religious Meaning (The University of Chicago Press, 1967), 163.] Through cultivating awareness of the absence of self-being in things, we transcend the limits of language and the conceptual thinking that tends to reinforce our sense of self, another root of suffering.

Mahayana teaches that Samsara is Nirvana. Where is the ultimate reality? You’re in it right now. I feel that Nagarjuna would like to tell us not to be so concerned with ultimate realities and truths. The conventional, the mundane is more important, because that’s where we are, and it’s much more of a challenge overall to develop a profound awareness of things in the everyday world, than it is to “think the unthinkable and to say the ineffable.” Besides, it’s already been done.



Language Games

I’d like to expand on some things I touched upon in yesterday’s post . . .

Language is a system of expressions used for communication. Words are our tools. They are signs, or symbols, of a meaning, but the meaning is not intrinsic and words do always serve as a sign or symbol for some referent.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered one of the leading thinkers in the 20th Century, likened language to a game, and held that meaning is dependent upon the rules used to play the game, i.e., the use of words. Because there are various uses of words, there are various rules. Within group activities, some words are used more than others are and meanings vary from group to group. For instance, in sports one hears the word “ball” a lot. The most common use of this word in sports groups is to signify the object used to play a particular kind of game. In another group, a “ball” might mean a dance.

I suppose it is logical to some individuals, based on the statements they make, that when groups, particularly religious groups, use certain words they are loaded with meanings intended to satisfy some group need beyond mere communication. This may be true to some extent, however, that should not imply that these groups are engaging in a language-game, literal or otherwise, at all times, for as Wittgenstein wrote in Philosophical Investigations, “we often compare the use of words with games, calculi with fixed rules, but cannot say that someone who is using language must be playing such a game.”

A good example is the word “mindfulness.” Within Buddhism this is a somewhat loaded word in the sense that it conveys associative meanings that are usually well-known to Buddhists. Now, this word may be overused, and at times, improperly used, but on the other hand, it represents one of Buddhism’s core principles, so its frequent use should be expected. It is unreasonable, however, to say that its overuse is due to an attempt to cloak comfort or sanctimony. While that is possible in some situations, it is absurd to suggest that it is a universal occurrence or that each time a group uses a certain word the intent is simply to make the members of the group feel good about themselves. Such sweeping generalities are not at all useful.

Also, it is not reasonable to imply that use of certain words, such as “mindfulness”, “faith” and “ignorance” suggests that these are underdeveloped ideas. It’s like saying that in physics the word “relativity” is used frequently because E=MC2 is underdeveloped.

All words are deceptive in that they are artificial. Designation and thing designated (referent) cannot be one. Nagarjuna famously pointed out that if they were one, then wood would burn when you say the word “fire.” He also said they could not be different, but to go into that would take us too far afield.

I think that it is somewhat deceptive to take words out of context and misconstrue their intended meanings under the guise of trying to “validate” the ideas. It seems to me that there is little interest in substantiating or confirming anything. Perhaps they are trying to validate themselves by “standing above the fray.” Certainly, a bit of smugness from what I’ve seen.

In order to “validate” frequently used words, terms or phrases and analyze the motivations behind their use, it is helpful to have a reasonable grasp of their meanings. The “present moment” is one term I see criticized often and I am amazed that so many people interpret this to mean that we should cut ourselves off from or be unconcerned about the future. Actually, the present moment is like the famous “flash of lightening” in the Diamond Sutra – it only lasts but a very brief instant and then, it’s another moment. Trying to capture the present moment is like trying to catch the wind.

What the term “present moment” really signifies is an attitude of awareness where one is centered in the moments that are unfolding before you and not lost in daydreams of future events or caught up in regrets or nostalgia for past experiences. Furthermore, in Buddhism, the past, present and future are interlinked for in each so-called present moment we are experiencing effects of the past and making causes for the future, whether we want to or not.

There are two kinds of understanding. One is understanding what a person’s ideas are and the other is understanding the truth or falsity of the meaning in such ideas. The latter is rather subjective because not all people will agree as to what is true or false. The meaning that each word has in relation to other words is only a small part of the total meaning, which points the blunder of taking words out of context. Isolating a single word, and assigning to it a context or referent different from that originally used, or point to an unintended meaning as proof of some activity designed to hide from scrutiny or stifle dialogue are two very rocky roads. To go that route, rather than lump all members of a particular religious group together, it might be wiser to focus on specific sub-groups and analyze their possible hidden meanings or intentions, as there is sure to be some variation.

Those who fare on the Buddha way should strive to maintain a seeking mind. This means a mind that is open and positive. It’s only common sense that approaching any kind of teaching, religious or not, with a negative, skeptical mind will not get you very far. It may seem that I am overemphasizing this, but I can tell you from my own experience of struggle with the practice that it is a crucial point.

From Chih-Kuan for Beginners, as translated by Lu K’uan Yu (Charles Luk), here is some timeless guidance from T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i for those who sincerely want to understand Buddhist teachings and learn how to use them to transform their lives:

Instead of slighting the seeming shallowness of the text, Truth-seekers should blush to find that these steps are difficult to practice. However, if their minds are ripe for the teaching, in the twinkling of an eye their sharp wisdom will have no limit and their spiritual understanding will become unfathomable. If they aimlessly drag about words and terms and allow their feelings (and passions) to distort the teaching, they will fritter away their time and will fail to achieve realization; they are like a man who counts the treasures belonging to others. What advantages can they expect therefrom?