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There was an interview with Robert Spellman on Buddhist Geeks recently (BG #187, for those keeping score), and the inevitable subject of language arose, or rather, it arose inadvertently, as it often does in these matters. Like many of my fellow practitioners, I couple time on the cushion with books, dharma talks and classes, all of which seek to explain, in words, the art of attaining a somewhat wordless state. And it can often be that the words chosen to explain something either make sense of the confusing, or turn it all into porridge.


This is why we seek good teachers. They’ve got the good language, and they’re good at using it. Instructors that have steered me towards books and essays have opened up a side of my practice that time spent focusing on my breath never could have, and I am grateful.

But now, for a heretical question that kept me up in the night recently... if the ultimate hope and desire (and I’m already aware of the thorniness of those words) is happiness, does knowing a whole lot of stuff benefit me? My old neighbor seemed like the happiest guy on earth, and I’m sure he’d never heard of the bodhi tree. Does reading Thich Nhat Hahn and Chogyam Trungpa and taking classes at IDP make me more capable of compassion and a step closer to nibanna? In other words, could I be happy without the language to help explain that I’m happy?

I’m poking at the edges of the long standing debate among linguists about the relationship between language and thought, of course. And I’ve been mulling over this post for a week now, trying to make sense of it. My instinct is telling me that yes, using language makes an enormous difference, and it matters greatly. We are creatures that need to understand our world, and we who have chosen to spend time with our thoughts need a set of tools to do so. Language is the clearly the sharpest one in the shed.

But perhaps the answer to this question may come in a scene in Christopher Guest's "Waiting for Guffman" in which Guest and Bob Balaban argue the merits of learning your lines for a play if ultimately you want to perform as if you never knew them in the first place.


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There's no concept of "happiness" without language. And ultimately - as I think you've pointed out - we're looking for something that's free from concepts.

Separately, it's clear that TNH and CTR and many others are giving us tools using language that ultimately transcends language and concept. And yes, language is a sharp tool, and a necessary one since it's what we use to construct our concepts. Very simply, what is a "cup" without the word "cup." As Lama Marut says, is this a pen or a chew toy? depends on if you're a person or a dog. Though I guess that breaks down since dogs probably don't have language. But the point is, we're always adding our concepts to any object we observe; it's unavoidable.  We discussed this in class a bit on Monday - what is your experience when you see an object before actually naming it.

Good questions to ask, Edoardo! Thanks.

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