The Denotative Tendency

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

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Attempts to help Westerners along the path established by the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path often come up against a distinctive tendency to want to define terms rather than experience the path itself. I regularly encountered questions like:

  • What is Enlightenment?
  • What is the purpose of meditation?
  • What is the meaning of nothingness?

These questions, and many more, are an echo of what I call the denotative tendency. Western philosophers are particularly susceptible to this exercise in misdirection. The driving idea is to arrive at a precise definition of terms so that there will be no disagreement.

Whenever I encounter these determined denotaters, I am reminded of the Dead Poets Society. In response to the suggestion that poetry could be reduced to an analytical framework, Robin Williams’ character says the following:

Excrement! That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard! We’re not laying pipe! We’re talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? “I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can’t dance to it!”

The conflict comes when this attitude encounters Zen. The essence of Buddhism is experience rather than precisely defined terms. My response is almost always the same. “You’re not laying pipe. Stop trying to define. Experience!

The foundational ideas behind Buddhism are intended to be a guide to experience. Enlightenment is something you experience and, once you experience it, you discover that it is beyond definition. Meditation has no purpose other than meditation. Trying to turn it into a marathon with a defined goal line is a distraction which corrodes the experience of meditating. The experience of nothingness or being-time is pre-linguistic. No matter what words you choose, they are inadequate to convey the experience.

Many Zen thinkers refer to experiences which are beyond the scope of language. I take that to be a highly useful idea. What is gained by meditation is often beyond the ability of language to describe. Making such an attempt is tantamount to picking apart a work of art and reducing it to its components. The awe that is the experience of a sunrise or a realization cannot be sheared down without destroying the experience itself. I am reminded of a verse from The Man with the Blue Guitar by Wallace Stevens:

I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can. 

I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man, 

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are, 

Say it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

Like Steven’s guitarist, those who would attempt to denotatively define experience always fall short. They protest imprecision. When pressed, their responses tend to be either combative or a non-sequitur – and distinctly imprecise. The reason is clear. Their pretense is to the impossible.

The essence of Zen is the experience of being human. The project which the Buddha launched is to show a way for each human to relieve themselves from self-inflicted suffering. Zen is simply a set of guidelines designed to help those walking the path from here to here. Those journeys are unique for each person. They occur within the context of accumulated experience, self-understanding and capability. So, when someone goes on about you’re not using the correct definitions, my best recommendation is to simply ignore them and go back to sitting.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II

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