There is an old folktale that goes something like this:
An understanding exists among dragonfly larva that has stood for centuries. Each of untold generations as sworn to do what their predecessors have not. The next one who crosses the barrier at the top of their world will come back and tell them all what it is like up there. But this has never happened.
The dragonfly larva becomes an air breathing insect. It can no longer live in the environment that nurtured those generations untold. And so, the future generations will wait expectantly for a return which will never happen.
Humans have a capacity that dragonfly larva do not. We can make a journey to an altered state and then return to let others know what it is like. We can wander the Eight-Fold Path for decades and then return to those who are as we were when we first set foot upon to guide them along.
But those of us who have tried quickly realize that there is a problem. Our principal means of communicating is simply inadequate before the task. By that, I don’t mean that language is imprecise. That would be an easier challenge to overcome. The conundrum is that the meaning of words changes as you make the journey from here to here.
Here are a couple of examples of what I mean. Consider the words nothingness and emptiness. In ordinary usage, they can be used to indicate the absence of everything. The very thought of a life filled with nothingness is daunting. We avoid the experience by filling our lives with all sorts of activities and objects. In short, it is a condition that we protect ourselves against.
But when it comes to the journey inward from here to here, one of the major objectives is the experience of nothingness. The word is used in a far less all-inclusive manner. At some point in the journey, nothingness may mean the absence of grasping. Later, it may mean the absence of ego. Then, sometimes later, it may mean the complete dissolution of the idea of self. But, and here is where the rub comes, that means that the entire universe opens up before us and we are filled with the joyful experience of being-time. Quite a different kind of nothingness!
How can the meaning of words remain the same as understanding changes? The short answer is that they can’t. And that is the challenge of a Zen teacher in a nutshell. As a human dragonfly, I can return and deliver a message. But I find that I speak a different language and the words that I am using mean far different things to those I am talking to than they do to me.
So, when I say something like, “Nothingness means that you have laid down the burden of delusion and ceased grasping” I’m likely to get understanding nods in return. But, until you have actually laid down that burden, what do those words actually mean to you? They are just an intellectual construct. They are not the reflection of your living experience.
If I repeat the ancient saying, “The present moment is perfect. There is nothing to gain and nothing to lose”, what do those words mean to someone who still believes that life is all about acquisition and having? Or if I say that “Our lives are constantly cut off by impermanence and that we reemerge moment to moment only through a process of interdependent co-origination”, what is someone to make of that if their life is dominated by the experience of time as a flowing river? Indeed, what do the words describing the Eight-Fold Path mean to someone who has not travel it?
In an important way, the journey along the path from here to here requires the evolution of meaning as a reflection of deepened understanding.
© Dr Earl R Smith II