Sunday, 25 March 2012

Zen Buddhism is as famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its use of enigmatic language to convey a simple but profound truth as it is for its seemingly odd practices of spiritual discipline and meditation. I was reminded of this a few days ago when an associate told me that “trying to explain [Zen] is as pointless as trying to get someone else to understand exactly what it's like to be you”.

This is a statement that the speaker was loathe to make, because - simple as it sounds - he felt it overstepped the boundary of unspoken truth that he felt to be essential to the practice and true understanding of Zen. But his choice of words, I thought, was extremely significant. Rather than say that any explanation of Zen was “as pointless as trying to get someone to understand exactly what it’s like to be me”, he used the words “as pointless as trying to get someone to understand exactly what it’s like to be you”. He used the conversational “you”, instead of referring to the subject as “me”.

Now this may seem to be a veritable ‘splitting of hairs’, and indeed the speaker made this statement in a more or less unconscious manner, in very ordinary everyday language. And (whether or not he was acutely aware of it, I do not know) he made a very profound point, not only in the apodeictic meaning he sought to express, but because of the way it was conveyed through a fundamental and immediate human aptitude - one which we are hardly aware of because of our closeness to it: conversation.

His assertion would not have struck me in any other way than simply as a possible truth - I say possible because it seems to accept a priori that there is not a universal understanding implied here in my consciousness of myself - except for the coincidence that I have been reading Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity over a period of some time, from time to time. There Levinas explores, in the first few chapters of the book, his ideas about the “I” and its relationship to the “other”, and a very human attribute that he calls the “desire for the invisible”. According to Levinas this desire is the basis of metaphysics, and also of religion. This may not seem a particularly original, or unusual conjecture, until one understands how Levinas illustrates it through the example of what he calls “conversation”. The “I” is solitary, and bound in self-absorption, until the moment it addresses the “other”. As soon as this happens, or rather as soon as the urge to make it happen occurs, there is manifested the movement, or “desire” to recognize that the other exists autonomously, and as such is due the dignity and respect that its existence asks of us. To Levinas, this movement and this recognition is the basis of ethics.

When therefore I speak to “you”, I am allowing for an other, autonomous, existence. This compels me to leave the ‘me-ness’ of me behind, as I address ‘someone’ else. There is generosity here, a certain giving, freely and unconditionally given.

This too might seem quite straightforward, and a simple empirical - if inward looking - truth. But when one examines the process closely, one begins to see that there is mediation here. We cannot be connected to the other in any way, if s/he is to remain truly autonomous. How, then, can we know the other at all? According to Levinas, in the realization of individuation through the movement to “conversation”, out of ‘me’ to address an ‘other’, the “other” is perforce mediated by an absolute alterity that must be beyond my knowledge of the “same”, and yet somehow strangely known to me and the other. This invisible alterity Levinas calls the “Other”, and sometimes the “Stranger”. It may sound ‘mystical’ - and perhaps there is an uncovering here of what mysticism actually is - but it is a simple, entirely natural, event - hidden within but revealed by the very language that we use.

My Zen friend was willing - although somewhat reluctantly - to give me this ‘gift’, because he is human, and the ‘gift’ is in his nature to give. His allowing of my autonomy to be ‘me’ is already mediated in the ‘you-ness’ of his speech, the “invisible” that connects us without binding us in the economy of the “same”: It is the unconscious revelation of a profound truth in the simplest of simple human relations.

Jacques Rancière has spoken about the limitation of philosophy, which can only “speak once”, in comparison to art, which can “speak twice over”.  Derrida - in his work - has shown that the ‘truth’ of philosophy is always undermined, deferred, by philosophy’s inherent inability to speak in a language other than its own. It cannot ‘speak’ on truth without inadvertently erasing the very truth it wants to uncover. This ‘truth’ then only exists as a “trace” of what has been erased through philosophy’s “doubling” of its speech. Thus philosophy can only “speak once”, and go on doing so endlessly. Here, perhaps, is the relevance of Zen to Western philosophy. But art - according to Rancière - can “speak twice over”. This is because perhaps it is able to inhabit a space suspended between its own reality and the ‘reality’ it addresses. And this is because it is able to move freely between the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ person, life, world, without the constraints of the ‘knowledge’ that it is impossible to do so.

                                                                                Deep autumn

                                                                                My neighbour

                                                                                How does he live, I wonder?


                                          - Basho


Copyright © 2012 Brian Grassom

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Previous Comments

Jim H

Every ambiguity

Of our communication

Redoubles itself

Sunday, March 25, 2012 - 7:29 am


Excellent, Jim. May I offer a second half to the poem:

Every word

Of our silence

Replenishes itself

Sunday, March 25, 2012 - 06:54 pm

Jim H

Or perhaps better still:


rubbing it out -

face of poppy.

Hokushi (1665-1718)

Sunday, March 25, 2012 - 10:21 pm



... and ... the poem - as it stands - is itself “writing”. The poem “negotiates between the forms of art and those of non-art which makes it possible to form combinations of elements capable of speaking twice over, on the basis of their legibility and on the basis of their illegibility.” (Rancière ?). The “writing” is there, but the art escapes. And what I’m writing right now, is of course, writing too. I think this throws some light on the title of John’s book “Art’s Way Out” ...?

Monday, March 26, 2012 - 04:27 pm