There are no nouns; Buddha's great insight into grammar. Barry Magid July 26th 2014

Today I want to talk about grammar, how we use and are confused by nouns, adjectives and verbs. If you think this doesn’t have anything to do with Zen practice, consider that when Shakyamuni had his great enlightenment under the bodhi tree, we can imagine him proclaiming at that moment of insight: There are no such thing as nouns! I’ll come back to that.

Let’s start with a simple example with the sentence, I built a beautiful house. We all know the word I is very complicated so I won’t even go there. We’ll stick with the simple words: built, beautiful and house. House looks like an example of a pretty straight-forward noun, a word to describe a thing or an object that we see sitting there on the landscape, we recognize it, we know what it is. But when we talk about building a house, we draw attention to the fact that it has not been there forever, since the beginning of time. It has a history. It was put together in parts by a builder. So let’s imagine we build a house the old-fashioned way by sawing up lumber, making timbers and boards, nail them together to make a frame and walls and roof and floor. We see, as we look at that process, that the single thing that we call the house in fact is made up of hundreds if not thousands of other things, pieces of wood and nails and so forth and so on.

It’s really just a matter of description, or perspective, about whether you are going to call what you’re looking at one thing or a thousand things: a house or a collection of all the pieces that went together to make it up. Once it’s built and sitting in the landscape, how do you know it’s a house? If you saw a whole crowd of people suddenly come together, and one person dragged a goat into a corner, cut its throat, set a few pieces of it on fire, lit some incense and started chanting, you might say, Oh -- wait a minute, I made a mistake. I thought this was a house but it’s some sort of temple.

Or if the person killed the goat, cut it up in pieces, put it in a pot, made lots of stew, ladled it out to all the people who come, you might say, Oh, I see, I thought it was a house but it looks more like a restaurant. We call it a house not just by virtue of its structure but by virtue of its use, when we see that it’s something that has been built for someone to live in. So the thing-ness, the noun-ness of “house” is actually inseparable from the whole activity and function that actually defines it.

Now if I said I built a beautiful house, what about that word “beautiful”? Where is the beauty of the house? Is it in the design? Is it in the color or the shape? Or is the beauty the thought or feeling I’m having in my mind about the house? Where is the beauty located?

Buddha had a great insight about the nature of nouns. In the West we’ve spent a lot of time arguing and perhaps confused about the nature of adjectives, starting with Plato. There’s been a strong tendency to say, When I call a house beautiful, it’s because it has the quality of beauty about it, and that beauty has its own separate existence and reality apart from either the house or my feelings about the house. Just like Plato might say, if we walk down 74th Street and count out nine houses in a row, the number nine has an existence completely real and separate from the houses being counted or even the activity of counting. They perform this particular maneuver with a lot of important words. “Good” was one of his favorites. If I say somebody is a good surgeon or that was a really good act of kindness or a really good birthday cake, that we can call all of them good because they partake or share in the quality of goodness that exists apart from any individual example of it. And so for Plato and for a lot of Western philosophy for a long time, people got preoccupied with saying, How do we define abstractions like good, beautiful, true, number, love, separate from any individual examples?

Now, Buddhism in some ways wants to cut through a lot of that confusion and say that all sorts of judgments that we have about things, all those adjectives, whether it’s good, true or beautiful, are thoughts that we’re having, and those thoughts are passing through somebody’s mind and they all come and go. And none of these abstractions have any reality apart from thought, and part of what we do in our practice is to allow ourselves to see how we create abstractions out of very specific things, and how the things themselves are abstractions that we create in the midst of constant change.

See, Buddha basically said, all Dharmas, all things are like that house, in that it has no singular, unchanging nature. It’s built or composed of thousands of objects arranged a certain way over a certain period of time, and while all the lumber and nails and stuff are stacked into a corner, it’s just a bunch of aggregates, for a certain period of time they all come together, they serve a certain function, we take a snapshot, at that moment we call it a house, time passes, the roof falls in, the walls rot, things fall apart, people disassemble the remains, and it goes back to just being a collection of pieces. It’s no longer a house. Basically Buddha’s insight is that everything is like that. Everything is subject to change. Everything is a temporary aggregate of other things that at one point or another we give a name to, as if it had a permanent existence or nature, but it’s just one moment, one frame in the movie, that we’ve isolated and given a name to, and made it into a noun.

So in general, Buddhism and the practice of meditation is about the deconstruction of nouns into verbs, the deconstruction of abstractions into thoughts and judgments and the awareness of how who we are, what this world is, is an ongoing process, not a collection of objects on the table. But nobody’s perfect, and even good Buddhists get mixed up about grammar. I think that happens with words like “Awareness.” That’s a good one. What is that? What is that noun, Awareness? Well, if we deconstruct it the way we do most nouns, we can say, someone is engaged in an activity or process of being aware, and being aware is being aware of something in time, moment after moment.

But like Plato, even Buddhists fall into the temptation of taking something that is a process and turning it into an abstract noun. I think the move starts with meditation as a practice of being aware moment after moment to meditation as a practice of cultivating awareness, which sounds like it’s the same thing but we just shifted from verb to noun, and we’re already in trouble because now we’re cultivating awareness. What is that? Well, awareness, then, becomes something separate from what we’re aware of, and awareness suddenly gets capitalized, and I hear it described as things like objectless luminous consciousness. We cultivate a state of silent inner illumination in which there is no object of consciousness, only pure consciousness itself.

All of these things come about because we go from being “conscious of” to “consciousness,” from “aware” to “awareness.” We start moving back into this realm of abstract nouns, and almost always one good hint is that when this happens, we start getting capital letters put in. Every time we see capital letters, get suspicious. Now the dilemma here is that the problem is that we’ve gone from a description of an activity into a realm that suddenly has gotten abstract and spiritual and mystical, and honestly I think it’s best characterized in a technical sense by Harry Frankfurt, who called this sort of thing “Bullshit.” Technically bullshit doesn’t mean something is false, it means something that has floated free of the world of true and falseness. It exists in a realm where there’s nothing you can say to argue, Is this true or is this false? It’s an assertion in its own right that’s been proclaimed by authority, and it helps either if you have a bald head or a long white beard or a robe when you make proclamations about capital A Awareness or capital C Consciousness.

I think a lot of people spend a great deal of time in practice trying to cultivate states of mind, they try to bring it about, hold onto it, they identify with these abstractions. It’s certainly the case that we have all sorts of odd states of consciousness go through our heads, some of which are quite lovely, quite blissful, sometimes our mind seems empty, silent, calm. But when our head is empty, does that mean we’ve suddenly come in contact with capital E Emptiness? Emptiness, I think, is the most tragic of abstractions, because before it got its capital letter, it meant precisely that things had no unchanging nature. Everything was empty of a pure or permanent essence. That’s what Buddha meant by saying that all Dharmas are empty. But somebody got ahold of that word, put a capital letter on the front of it, and turned it into a pure unchanging essence of emptiness.

You can read lots of perfectly respectable people including teachers who think that they get into a state of consciousness where they feel the emptiness of things, whatever that means. Now none of this is to say that we should not cultivate or value certain states of consciousness. It’s not a bad thing to train yourself in the habit of being kind or compassionate or open-minded or reasonable or quiet or concentrated. All these things are very valuable fruits of the discipline of meditation. But we should try our best to leave it at that level. Beware of capitalizations, of thinking that when you’re experiencing one of these states, that means you’ve plugged into a big abstraction in the sky that in some way fuels it.

Koans generally attempt to correct our grammar, but they have an uphill battle. The tendency seems to be very ingrained, in what it is to be human and what it means to use language, whether in Classical Greece or Classical India, but we try a few simple, almost paradoxical exercises which are called koans to help us sort some of this out. One of the most basic koans that lots of people are given, was precisely this koan of grammar. One might be asked, Who hears? Who hears? We listen to sounds. We all can hear the sounds of the world. Who is hearing? We can do the same thing with sight, and say, Who sees? Or I suppose we can do the same thing with compassion and ask, Who cares?

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