Saturday, December 01, 2012

ARTICLE - Enter The Grass And Transmit The Wind


“ Speaking a lot creates masses of complications, talking too little has no power. Not speaking a lot, and not talking too little, how will you say it ?

After a pause Dogen said : Enter the grass and transmit the wind’’  ***

To be able to communicate yourself well is vital, not to only your psychological health, but also how effectively you function in the society you live in. Without the exchange of ideas, feelings and opinions, all artistic, political, scientific, religious and economic cultures would cease or be struck dumb. To establish a distinct culture and civilisation there first has to be a shared language, one that can be seen  heard and written down.  Communication has always had verbal and visual components. The earliest forms of interaction may have been predominantly physical and gestural. Just watch babies, they use this basic human body language - facial expressions, pointing, showing or demonstrating. The vocal elements might still be gurgles, squeals and yelps, but combined with body movements these are still identifiable human expressions of delight, love, fear or anger.  

Our verbal interactions can be double edged. On the one hand bad or ineffectual communication can inflame anger, create disagreements, or lead to all out war. Yet, it’s only through freely expressing how we are feeling about a situation, that misunderstandings and conflicts can be avoided or resolved. Through good effective communication we are able to maintain or create peace. In the Triratna Buddhist Order, Order Members undertake to practice ten ethical precepts, of these, the ones concerning speech are pre-eminent. Four out of the ten are speech precepts. These precepts acknowledge the twin nature of speech by having formulations that are both negative ( the things we want to curtail) and positive ( the things we want to cultivate or develop further ). These days, though we have increased access to the means of communication with Mobiles, texting, E.mails, blogs, facebook, or twitter, these don't necessarily make us better at communicating. If anything the ease and speed with which these media can be accessed and used has altered the means but not what we communicate. Though such communication can be abbreviated, coded and frequently blunt or coarse. But then unconsidered human speech is often like that. So there is an increased amount of ill considered even virulent or vindictive communication about. Without a pause to reflect, we zip off that witty repost, with little thought for whether that really would be a helpful thing to send.  

These sorts of interactions seem not to be just about the speed and means of communication, but the quantity too. Though it may be said that the longer one talks the greater the likelihood that your talking drivel, will increase exponentially.

So in this discourse Dogen is aware of a dichotomy, unconcerned about the content, but with the quantity of our speech.  Let’s cast our eyes over the physical process of speaking, follow the role of speech in self awareness and the creation of identity. Examine the quantity of speech, its content and communication, and what that last mysterious sentence ;

“After a pause Dogen said : Enter the grass and transmit the wind”

is really trying to communicate.

The physical process of speaking is, paradoxically, not simple. It only appears to be so because it functions automatically.  Along neural pathways, signals are sent out from the brain.  These messages travel through the bodies system of nerves and muscle fiber till they reach the lips. Lips can form a limited range of shapes; pursing, pouting, kissing, whistling, blowing. for example are all very similar. Yet these have all acquired different meanings. Our body has developed its own physical language and way of communicating without  the explicit use of words.  

Our visual faculty, our eyesight, is important to the act of speaking and to being understood.  A deaf person would be reading my lips as I speak, and  feel the tone of my delivery by picking up on vibration and body language. I am communicating myself even when I am not being heard. Speaking is a function of the whole body.  Though it requires the specific movement of lips, they cannot speak in isolation from the rest of the body.  Lips bring form to sound  through their relationship to the tongue, teeth and mouth cavity.  The audible clicks, pops and slurs that form the basic sounds of vowels and consonants.

That said, speaking is very sophisticated sound manipulation. Sound after all is just vibrating air.  Speaking adapts and molds sounds by utilising the breathing cycle. We change the shape of the lips and by forcing air in or out of its aperture with the help of the lungs, chest cavity and diaphragm. Part of the mouth cavities function, in conjunction with the throat, is as a miniature amplification chamber.  If the mouth cavity was our only means of sound amplification  we’d have to draw very close  in order to be heard. So we utilise a number of other cavities and resonating chambers in the skull, throat, chest and abdomen to give greater depth and volume to the sounds we make. Sound resonates throughout our entire bone structure. This is why we talk of sound cutting or going right through you.  Sound, like body language, can have meaning attributed to it without  words being uttered.

This description is not meant to be exhaustive or accurate in every minor detail, but to stimulate the imagination.  My own understanding of these mechanisms is rudimentary.  I hope,however, that it serves to indicate how elaborate these interconnected physical processes  are, that happen so fluidly as we speak. Physically, speech is a complicated process.

Our brain is stimulated, the body responds, sound is produced and words are formed.  But something happens prior to all this.  What causes us to want to speak in the first place ?  You might say to communicate, but why communicate ?  You could say ~ to exchange knowledge and experience, and that is true, we do exchange knowledge and experience through speech. There is a mutual exchange of another kind that I’m more interested in.  What is it that happens to our sense of our selves, our identity, when we speak ?

First, there is an event, physical or mental, something happens either within us or external to us that we have a response to, and a subsequent desire to communicate that response. We have an idea, a pain, a rebuke, a comment, an observation, some information to impart, a feeling to express, an explanation or evaluation, a recollection, we want to tease, please, humiliate or humble, enter into a dialogue, correct a wrong view, to verbally hurt someone or to encourage or praise. The list could go on and on and on. But essentially WE have something to say.

Second, the act of speech distinguishes us. We all have our own recognisable voice and tone, our familiar verbal inflections, habits and linguistic eccentricities.  Even the pitch and volume at which we speak defines us. When someone phones us, after barely a few words we can recognise them.  We can find them audibly in a crowded room.  I was astounded once to realise that whilst doing the Metta Bhavana that as I brought friends to mind, I heard them speaking to me in my head. A voice can be like a self portrait, we only have to hear it and immediately there’s a picture of them in our minds eye.

Third, what ever we say ~ is ours, our ideas, our pain, our feelings, our observations etc. We do take ownership, we take possession of whatever we say. Even if the ideas we expound are coming from someone else, it is us that has found them and read them. We vicariously claim ownership by association. Sometimes we so want to have the pleasure of being thought, witty or erudite, but neglect to state the origins of the ideas that are tripping off our tongues so easily.  We all want our uniqueness respected, though we are rarely unique in quite the way we would like to be.

Fourth, in order for our speech to be purposeful there needs to be a recipient to listen and take in what is said. Speaking to oneself or to a mirror only alienates and weakens our sense of identity.  We need to be not only seen, but heard. Whether someone loves or hates us, the act of loving or hating functions as a distinction.  Who you are matters to someone, even if they dislike what you are.

‘’ Speaking a lot creates masses of complications,

talking too little has no power”

I’d like look at the quantity of our speech, and explore talking too much or talking too little, drawing on personal experience for examples.  I hope its clear now that through our speaking we help define ourselves.  Much of the time its not really about  the content of our speech, but the refined sense of ourselves achieved through the process of speaking.  A politician giving a polished speech can sound so self assured, confident, even trustworthy. His tone was so convincing.  Yet if you examined the content of his speech you might find little that made actual sense or was in the least persuasive. So was this just about style more than content, or does style have its own content ?

‘’ Speaking a lot creates masses of complications’’

In my family my Mother talked a great deal.  One of the most remarkable things about my Mother’s storytelling prowess, was how she could maintain one long continuous stream of stories, without hardly a pause for breath.  One story followed another linked associatively. No sentence was left open ended for comment, other than one of her own asides.   If the flow became interrupted, the break in the story was only fleeting.  Before you knew it, you’d be back exactly where she’d left the story before the interjection.  From childhood into young adulthood, she had a tendency in family gatherings to speak for me. To tell them what I’d been doing with my life as if I wasn’t actually all there, or had been momentarily struck dumb.  She often speak in a similar manner for my Father too ~ “ well your Father never remembers everything, he can never tell a story correctly”  she’d say, if you gently reminded her he could speak for himself. But to let things be incomplete, incorrect or fall into silence would have been unforgivable. Over the decades she forged  herself into being the family storyteller, the repository and definitive conduit for all her families histories. I’m pretty sure these days that my Mother, paradoxically, actually lacked confidence in her communication and social skills.  Her talkativeness seemed an overcompensation for my Father’s quiet self-contained geniality.

So there was this one dominant communicator in the family. So I didn’t really learn social conversational skills for myself,until I was left to my own devices once I went away to go to college. This was the first time I fully inhabited my own personal air space. Yet the conditions of my upbringing did have ongoing consequences that I struggled to get a grip on in my twenties.. If ever I spoke at any great length I would gabble away hoping I’d get to say all I wanted before being interrupted, or if I was talking I’d be always on the look out for early signs of boredom in the listener.  If someone yawned, or removed eye contact, I’d bring my tale abruptly to an end at the first opportunity.  These both had there origins in associating someone talking at great length with being boring. So talking too much can indeed create ‘a mass of complications’ for the speaker and for those around them. We are either fighting for or jamming each others airwaves.

‘’ talking too little has no power’’

The difficulty when anyone talks too much is that it compels everyone into being mute recipients,  Being forced to listen passively, is really not listening at all.  It’s hard to say if my Father was ever been good at making conversation. All my life he’s been a quiet, kind, considerate, but essentially practically focused man. As a joiner by trade, he’s a maker, not a talker. He showed his appreciation by doing, not speaking. You do get more out of him when he’s on his own, but even this can be fitful.  If my Mother was around you could see him switch off, saying yes, no, um or er or stay quiet, in all the right places. Speaking on the phone, you can hear him struggling to find subjects to keep the conversation going. When she was alive you’d hear my Mother’s voice in the background saying  ‘tell him about his sister’, ‘ has he written his will yet? ’or ‘remember to ask him about Christmas’.  There were times in my late twenties when I did find it hard to respect my Father. He just seemed a power vacuum, unable to stand up, express and be himself.  Today, I do feel more appreciative, he’s very solid, dependable and even tempered. Qualities I’ve inherited to a degree. Though I don’t feel I understand him, no one really has much idea what makes him tick, we hear so little.  What I do understand, I heard through my Mother in the first instance.  I’m still missing something quite vital,  a vivid sense of his presence.

He is, however, my Father, and one of his legacies to me is I can be contentedly silent in the presence of a vociferous talker. Sometimes slipping into alienation.  I can let someone else do all the conversational work quite easily.  I can become a passive, rather than an active listener. Over the years I have become a good attentive listener, working hard at making myself more present.  To stand up and be myself.

‘’Not speaking a lot, and not talking too little, how will you say it ?’’

Dogen says talking too little ‘has no power’, too little presence, in fact not talking expresses a degree of absence.   From this one can deduce talking too much can be ‘overpowering’ , that it has too much presence.  Through the quantity of our speech we show our presence or absence to the world.  So is the answer then to talk more or talk less?

‘’Not speaking a lot, and not talking too little, how will you say it ?’

The answer then, appears not to be in cultivating the opposite.  The answer lies in communicating it ( whatever it is ) in an  entirely different way.  How will you say it?  How will you say what?  What is it?  What is the it we are supposed to be saying?   So far we have focused on the style of talking as a form of content. What about actual content?   What are we really speaking about?

I believe Dogen is talking here about quantity of speech in reference to a very specific subject  ie.the communication of the Dharma.  Saying too much about the Dharma may just create confusion. Whilst saying too little may convince no one.  Sometimes the subject matter ( the Dharma ) gets entangled in our need for self expression.  Our sense of ourselves talking, becomes the subject matter carried along by all our psychological quirks. Communicating the Dharma would then be forced into second place.  Speaking more or less about the Dharma would be no solution. in a way that would miss the point he’s trying to make here.  So how should we go about communicating the Dharma?  Dogen indicates this in the last line of the discourse, in the form of a metaphor.  

‘’After a pause Dogen said : Enter the grass and transmit the wind’’

Pauses in Dogen’s discourses are not to be overlooked. They are often a turning point.The previous mode of discussion is suddenly shifted to a different level.  Usually from a relative to an absolute perspective.  In this case it changes from the seemingly everyday subject of quantity of speech, to the metaphorical.  Those pauses, usually come before a punch line.  The pause is also there for your own reflections on what he’s just said, so when this conclusion arrives it catches you off guard.  Suddenly you realise he’s been talking about something else whilst he has apparently been describing very mundane things. In Dogen’s philosophy everything  both exists in fact and is also a symbol for a more elevated conversation.  All along he’s had a very specific intent, another viewpoint he’s leading you towards.

‘’After a pause Dogen said : Enter the grass and transmit the wind’’

‘ Enter the grass’  means to manifest in the ordinary world. Entering into the ordinary world as you would enter a field of grass.  Imagine that field of grass, its waist high, your hand touching and brushing the seed heads as you walk through it. Surrounded completely by its waving flurries and eddies. There, grass would seem alive to your senses, a beautiful sentient entity with wild flowers scattered in its green hair.  Walk, run, kneel, lie down and roll around in the grass, touch its earthiness. Let the beating of the Sun enlighten you.

We don’t usually see our ordinary world like that?.  We don’t walk through a supermarket like you’d walk through a field of grass. The ordinary world is dirty, polluted, harsh and apparently filled to busting with sexual perverts. It’s something we have to defend ourselves against. not open ourselves up to. That would be just naïve behaviour.  We don’t fully enter into our ordinary world because it tends to revolts us.  We seek to retreat away from it, hide from its crudeness half way up a remote mountain. Usually we have something more idyllic, romantic or at least monastic in mind.   Here is Dogen saying manifest your practice in the ordinary world.   

No matter how much we dislike it, the ordinary world is all we’ve got.  You, living in Samsara, is the only place you can start from.  Nirvana will take care of itself.  We have to fully  engage with Samsara to gain insights from it, to grasp the knowledge and vision of things as they really are.  Be prepared to get our feet dirty, get soil between our toes, under our nails, let our hearts be grounded in, and buffeted by, the ordinary world.  Get down and explore the nitty-gritty of practice within it.  We can’t do that if some part of us is withdrawn and held aloof from it.  The wisdom and compassion we seek resides in the everyday-ness of things and of life.

‘’After a pause Dogen said : Enter the grass and transmit the wind’’

So is all this talk about how much we speak just a red herring then? Or was this more a sprat to catch a mackerel?  Well, perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn’t.  For Dogen ,how much we communicate the Dharma lies not in our degree of erudition, nor in how much we know, nor in how much or little we talk about it, that is quite irrelevant.  What usually is stressed by Dogen is the depth of practice and how that shows and manifests itself in the ordinary practitioner.

‘’After a pause Dogen said : Enter the grass and transmit the wind’’

‘Wind’ in this context means a teaching style or Dharma utterance.  Though I don’t believe he means teaching or utterance in quite the way we might imagine. We are all familiar from the Udana ,with its dharmic utterance.  A phrase or aphorism given in response to an incident the Buddha observed.  These seem to have arisen more as a spontaneous eruptions of insight, fed from beneath by the subterranean stream of the Dharma. They well up and blow through the Buddha’s speech like a wind.   

A wind after all is invisible to the eye. A wind has an effect on everything it
brushes against, and what it touches can feel the sweep and curl of it
around them.  It cannot be consciously captured without it disappearing,
vanishing from all sense contact and comprehension.  To be effective, a
wind flows freely around, over and through obstacles. What is a tree, a sand dune, an ocean or a human being without the ruffle of a wind.  Wind surrounds and imbues everything with character, form and meaning.

When you describe the wind in this way, then you get a sense of the teaching style Dogen is advocating.  How one should transmit the Dharma.  Transmit it like the wind does, as a natural gesture emerging out of the depth and superfluity of your practice.  Broadcast it invisibly, as if it were a radio frequency that reaches all who are receptive.   Everyone can receive it, everyone can hear it, everyone can know and acknowledge its presence.  Nothing needs to be taught, only practiced and felt.  We catch the Dharma like an airborne disease, by being in close proximity to it.  Once you are held in its embrace, kiss it deeply, passionately and allow yourself to be subsumed by it,  

‘’After a pause Dogen said : Enter the grass and transmit the wind’’

So the physical processes by which we speak may be complex and fascinating.  Our speaking may indeed be irretrievable caught up with our sense of identity.  We may talk too much, or we may talk too little, and this might get in the way of our teaching what the Dharma is. For the Dharma would appear to have more in common with body language than our linguistic or intellectual abilities.  In the end ,the Dharma is effectively communicated by breathing it in like a perfume that floats in the wake of someone who practices it walks in everyday life.

‘’After a pause Dogen said : Enter the grass and transmit the wind’’

*** Taken from Dogen’s Extensive Record  - Pages 96/97
     A translation of the Eihei Koroku Translated by Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumara.
     Published by Wisdom Publications.

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