Freedom as Fluency

I wrote in the previous post about the confusion we find around ideas like “freedom.” I want to try to say a little more about that.

Sometimes I translate Buddhist materials from Japanese to English.  It’s work I enjoy—in part because it’s so stimulating, but also in part because it’s always an act of letting go.  There is much that cannot be authentically translated between the two languages, and in desperately trying to build that bridge, I am asked to consider words and ideas that otherwise, I might just let go.  It is a precious opportunity; it’s also an honor to be the one who gives voice to that original text.

Two phrases have come up for me over and over again as being particularly tricky, and that makes me all the more determined to try to explain them.  These are exciting terms, terms I think we could use.

The first is kyōgai (境界):  the kyō refers to boundaries, borders; the gai is close to “realm” or “world.”  In common speech, this is a common word (pronounced kyōkai), and it simply means “boundary,” the line between this or that.  But in the Zen world, as kyōgai, it has a much richer meaning.  It is sometimes translated as “level,” though that suggests a kind of ranking, which is not the point.  A great artist, through her art, might reveal a very deep kyōgai, or a wide kyōgai, or a high kyōgai.  Zen monks will, in every little bow, in the way they sit or stand or respond, reveal their kyōgai.  Some people have a shallow kyōgai, though of course it could deepen.  It is very difficult to put this into a single word.

The second is jiyū jizai (自由自在).  Jiyū is a common word meaning “freedom.”  Jizai means something like “freely,” or “at will.”  As a translator, I have struggled with this term over the years, and I have decided, for now, that the best English equivalent is “fluency.”  To say that someone is completely fluent at a foreign language is to say that the person can wield that language without hindrance.  I can say that I am fluent in English, as a native speaker, because I can (perhaps excepting these translation conundrums) say what I want to say and understand what others say to me.  I can adjust my speech according to circumstance.  I can read a novel and understand not just the technical meaning of the words on the page, but also the emotional content behind them, and the cultural context which gives them meaning beyond what can be found in a dictionary.  Especially as someone who has lived overseas and often functions in a language other than English, I am very aware, when I enter the world of English, that there, I am free.  This is fluency.

And there are degrees of fluency.  Some people speak perfect Spanish, but as non-native speakers, they do not speak with the same idiom as someone born into the language.  So even if they are capable of expressing everything they want to say, perhaps they cannot say it in the way that most directly touches the mind of the listener.  And perhaps the native speaker needs to make adjustments (eliminating certain idiom and so on) to be sure to be understood.  This is still fluency, but a different degree.

Jiyū jizai takes this notion of fluency and extends it to any activity.  So it is possible to be fluent with, for example, a sword.  I have seen karate masters who were fluent with their bodies—they could express and respond freely, unhindered (at least to the eye of the observer).  In demonstrating the traditional kata, the forms, it seems that they are creating those forms, even though they are actually following something prescribed from a hundred years back or more.  The observer sees not that person, but that person’s action.  It is total.  Some people are fluent in the kitchen—they can be offered any ingredients, any tools, and make something delicious, apparently without effort.  If we are lucky, we have had at least one teacher—math, history, any subject—who is so knowledgeable and so competent in that discipline that we feel we are meeting not just an individual, but the face of the field itself.  Meeting even one such person, someone who demonstrates a fluency in any one thing, can change our lives forever.

Dancers know about this fluency. Musicians know about it. There are examples in every direction.

But what does it mean to be fluent in the context of Zen practice?  Traditionally, it has meant that one is so comfortable in each moment of doing things just so—of walking just like this and sitting just like this—that one so embodies his or her own actions that they seem to own those actions, that the “just so” of each movement seems to spring forth not from some rulebook or ancient text, but from the person sitting there, naturally.  This is fluency of each moment.  This is being fluent at your own life.

So, to return to the idea of kyōgai—one’s own realm, one’s own range of movement—kyōgai is, from one perspective, a measurement of this fluency.  It is a measurement of the degree to which one is hindered or free in the world, in one’s movements, in one’s thoughts.  It is the space in which possibilities exist.  It is perhaps a measurement of space, but it is also the freedom one finds within boundaries.

And it is this idea of space that is at the heart of practice as I understand it.  The space of kyōgai is not just the individual’s.  We have all heard of savant mathematicians who can solve problems effortlessly, but who then struggle to explain their process to less able minds.  That kind of skill is remarkable, but it is not reflective of a deep kyōgai.  A truly great mathematician can invite you in and make you see—if only for a moment—the depth of the world of numbers.  A great karate practitioner reveals kyōgai not just when head-to-head with another master, but also in teaching a beginner a basic stance.  The great practitioner is working inside of a vast space, vast enough to include others and to meet them there.  Living overseas, my definition of English fluency has come to include the ability to adjust one’s speech for those who are not fluent—to do so requires not just ability in English, but also an awareness of, and objectivity towards, how the language works for someone else.  Kyōgai is revealed regardless of circumstance, regardless of who else is in the room.  And truly deep kyōgai raises the kyōgai of those all around—it offers fluency as something to be shared.

What is the goal of Zen?  What is it to practice for the sake of practice?  What is it to practice for the sake of others?  To enter the world of practice is to enter into these questions, directly.  We cannot avoid them.  Nor can we easily answer them.  And we certainly cannot answer them for someone else.

But I can offer this:  One piece of that puzzle has to do with facilitating practice itself, with becoming the space in which others practice.  We can develop certain fluencies intentionally—we can choose to repeat and repeat and repeat, to invest ourselves in this discipline or that activity, until the line is blurred between doer and what is being done.  It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is simple.  But why bother?  What if the fluency of doing things just so is not about that action, but about inviting someone else into a space where there is more possibility than previously imagined?  What if I hold my cup in this way, or dress this way, or walk this way, in order to get out of the way and let the practice play itself out freely?  What if “practicing for the sake of practice” means that our practice is establishing the causes and conditions of practice–not just for ourselves, but for those around us?

This, for me, is at the heart of the teaching of nyohō–the idea that we can cultivate and encourage practice not just with a deep turn of phrase, but with a gesture, or a texture. We can create that space. We can be that space.