One thing that we often take for granted is language. Without language and our ability to communicate with one another it is almost certain that human society would be very different. One thing that I have been thinking about recently is our use of language and how the use of language can cause an inconsistent view of reality and ourselves.
The thing I want to look at in this post is how we often mistake the reality of an object with the name we apply to it. A little anecdote that I heard a while ago illustrates this point well; I can’t remember where I heard it.
A teacher is sitting with one of his students and points to a cup that is on the table before them.
The teacher asks, “What is this?”
The student replies, “A cup.”
The teacher says, “No it isn’t.”
The student, confused, asks the teacher, “What is it then?”
The teacher picks up the cup and throws it at the student, hitting him on his forehead. As the student is rubbing his forehead from pain, the teacher says, “That’s what it is!”
The teacher was trying to illustrate to the student that the word he called the cup wasn’t the cup itself. “Cup” is a noise that comes out of one’s vocal chords and not the actual thing it refers to. Now this may seem rather pedantic but it is a very important point in deconstructing the illusory way we view the world.
Lao Tzu, in the Dao De Ching writes,
“Those who speak do not know. Those who know do not speak.”
The paradox is, he had to speak to say that! What Lao Tzu is trying to portray here is the simple truth that when we name something, we limit it. As soon as we have defined an object and labeled it, in our view that object ceases to be everything else it is and can be. Going back to the cup example, a cup doesn’t just have to be a cup, it can be an amalgamation of atoms, it can be glass, it can be a weapon as the teacher illustrated, it can potentially be a lot of different things. But as soon as we think that the name and definition we give it is what it actually is, we have limited it.
Please note, I am not saying Language is a problem and we should not name or label things, and I don’t believe Lao Tzu is saying all teachers should just keep silent and not teach. For us to function in a society and actually get things done we need to use language and to be able to define things. What I am saying, is for us to be able to view and understand the real nature of things we need to be mindful and aware of the difference between the label and the actual thing.
This relationship that we have with words and labels extends into the heart of our illusion of self. A person will have a name and over the course of their life, they are called by that name. In their own minds the reality of their existence becomes inseparable from the identity that is created around that name. Further to this they may have other labels: Doctor, Father, Mother, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter, Friend, Teacher, Student, Poor, Rich, etc. All of these labels create the identity of the person, and most people live their lives trying to maintain that identity.
For a person who labels himself a father, being called a good father will further solidify and bring together that perceived identity and cause happiness. Being called a bad father will cause that perceived identity to be challenged which will cause suffering and maybe an attempt to prove the challenger wrong. A person’s life becomes a battle between the identity they have created being challenged causing suffering and that person trying to prove the challengers wrong by trying to impose their view of their own identity on others.
People spend their lives ebbing and flowing between suffering and joy, too busy battling away to see that the identity they are trying so hard to hold on to is not real, it is an illusion that limits what they really are. If a person’s label of father, son or mother is all that defines them, they are no longer everything else that they actually are.
I would like to leave you with a saying from Chuang Tzu, a 4th Century BC Daoist mystic.
"The universe is very beautiful, yet it says nothing. The four seasons abide by a fixed law, yet they are not heard. All creation is based upon absolute principles, yet nothing speaks."
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!