When I enrolled in a poetry class my senior year in college, I fancied myself a bit of a writer. I enjoyed writing, and my professors praised and encouraged me — maybe too much. So I felt some dismay when the new poetry professor explained that for the full semester, we would write exclusively in traditional forms (sonnet, villanelle, and so on). I thought I had landed back in junior high school, where we churned out bad haiku and hammered clumsily at iambic pentameter. What a joke, I thought. I have a voice. I have something to express, and locking my verse in an arbitrary, formal box can only serve to silence what I have to offer. I didn’t write any great poems that semester (nor have I since). But the process of trying to adapt my voice to the parameters of form, of trying on a mode of expression that felt foreign, opened me up to a completely new view — both of my own voice as a writer, and of what it means to write.
Here, the opportunity presents itself to jump to monastic practice and how, in that strict, impersonal atmosphere of sitting like this, standing like this, talking like this, eating like this, one discovers not only a new practice, but also a new practitioner. But I’ll leave that there. For now. Instead, I want to talk about the language of practice, the poetics.
A few years ago, one of my college students introduced me to something called E-Prime. Developed by the linguist D. David Bourland, Jr., E-Prime advocates for the complete omission of the verb ‘to be’ from English. This includes not just be, am, is, and are, but all conjugations of them, all contractions that use them (I’m, what’s), and all use of the present progressive (“He is eating a sandwich”). The basic idea goes like this: If I say, “I am hungry,” you will understand my meaning, but the language will not reflect reality. “I feel hunger” tells the truth; “I am hungry” equates “I” with my subjective experience, essentially conflating the two. Hunger, a sensation, becomes an identity.
In some cases, strict allegiance to E-Prime requires some unnatural acrobatics. “Eating meat is wrong” becomes something like “I believe that eating meat constitutes wrong behavior.” But in other cases, E-Prime delivers an immediacy and frankness that ‘to be’ cannot. “He is a thief” becomes simply — and accurately — “He steals.” As I struggle to skillfully express myself to my 4-year-old son, the question of identity, embodied in ‘to be,’ comes up all the time. If my son shouts in a restaurant, I don’t say, “You’re a bad boy.” To do so reinforces precisely the kind of self-identification we want to avoid. But I might say, “That’s bad behavior.” Not E-Prime, sure, but still, these little tweaks speak to the same problems.
So, in introducing me to this idea , my student essentially placed a little worm in my ear that I cannot remove. I hear the question every time I sit down to write: “Does this verb, in this instance, reveal the truth? Or does it obscure it?” And, for good or bad, I now hear ‘is’ as a shouted word; when I read it, I add my own italics and bold print. I hesitate to write it (though I often give in). I know, at all times, the extent to which I cannot escape this ‘is’ and the questions it poses.
Which brings me to the language of Zen, and to Dogen in particular. Dogen did not write in Classical J-Prime, or anything like it. His principal equation, A=B, permeates his teachings. This doesn’t reflect a laziness of thought on Dogen’s part — A=B says exactly what he wants it to say. A=B, if we take it seriously, challenges us to our depths. Or it should. A=B should throw into question our definitions of A, of B, and of “=.” It should pull our philosophical rug out from under our feet. But does it? The first time one hears that “practice is realization,” or that “emptiness is none other than form,” the shock value can go a long way. But with time and immersion in the practice, we start repeating these things not as earth-shattering questions, but as fundamental truths, statements that require no further explanation (or worse, as teachings so profound that words cannot possibly touch the truth of them). There, exploration stops.
An example from Uji (“Being Time”):
Each moment is all being, is the entire world. (時時の時に尽有尽界あるなり; those last two characters, なり, or nari, function as “is” here.)
In trying to remove “is,” I immediately hit a wall. Alternate verbs dismantle A=B; they describe a relationship, boundaries, a distinctness that Dogen practically screams to cut through. “Each moment contains all being. Each moment encompasses the entire world.” These fall short. With work, we can try to approximate the original: “Each moment fully equals the full scope of all being, of the entire world.” That gets closer, but only because, in its clumsy way, it uses “equals” as a synonym for “is.” How about this — “Each moment realizes all being, manifests the entire world.“ Or, “In each moment, all being — the entire world — fully manifests” (the original Japanese also includes the notion of “in,” making this another possible direction).
When I play this game — with any piece of writing, not just Dogen — I often find that the E-Prime version surpasses the original, or at least, that the original suffers no loss. Take the opening from Genjo-koan (“Actualizing the Fundamental Point”):
As all things are Buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings. As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no Buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death. The Buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.
And in E-Prime:
As all things exist as Buddha-dharma itself, there arises delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there exist buddhas and sentient beings. As the myriad things have no abiding self, no delusion, no realization, no Buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death can manifest. The Buddha way, essentially, leaps clear of the many and the one; thus the existence of birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.
No problem. I won’t say that E-Prime improved it, but it didn’t hurt it (and I like how the Buddha way actively “leaps”).
But then we have the above line from Uji. After hours of thinking and tinkering and rearranging, I find, finally, that it had revealed itself to me from the start: Each moment is all being, is the entire world. Dogen got it right. Or at least, saying it any other way changes the equation, and here, ‘=,’ more than A or B, constitutes the point. Yet I feel, again, that simply accepting “Each moment is all being” on its face betrays a kind of laziness, or if not that, points to a fear of going further, of testing one’s own voice. When Dogen says, “A=B,” he offers us an invitation — not to repeat what he said, but to test its veracity, to see if, in our own expression, we might something that points even more directly to the center.
Even in a tradition which calls itself “a transmission outside of the scriptures, a teaching beyond words and letters,” I personally see no contradiction in exploring practice through the investigation of language — what it can express, and what it cannot. One of my teachers, for a full year as a novice monk decades ago, had to follow a rule of never uttering a first-person pronoun, in any context. No I, me, my, mine. He says it transformed his understanding of himself, that he reflects on that experience every day. It changed his relationships. It opened up a new way of being in the world.
We have to use caution, and not confuse “beyond” with “separate from” or “minus.” I can go to quiet places, but language will follow me (as will everything else). What do I do with it?
As a rule, when describing absolute reality, we fall into A=B; we say things like, “There is no difference, no gap, between you and me.” And when we speak of relative reality, we do the opposite: “You and I are separate, different. I am not you.” Is, are, am. But we have another option beyond these two. We have the the choice to grapple with the gap between what the teachings tell us and what we feel most of the time. We can decide to look for true, inclusive, poetic, useful language powerful enough and flexible enough to at least start to contain the fullness of the reality we sometimes only sense.
We should try. Or at least, I believe that doing so constitutes good behavior.