It’s Ineffable, But Ain’t it All?
When it comes to explaining difficult concepts like emptiness (sunyata) or God, Buddhanature, nirvana, or atman many religions fall back on a tried and true cop-out: “It can’t be explained in words.” It’s ineffable, beyond language, something that must be known, not told. For a long time, I was perfectly content with this explanation and diligently searched for these ‘ineffable’ things where I was supposed to, in experience, particularly religious or contemplative experiences such as meditation.
I easily recognized the limitations and fallibility of language. After all, I can barely give someone driving directions from here to there, let alone directions to enlightenment. Language is purely symbolic, after all. Even ideographic languages like Chinese and Egyptian hieroglyphics are just slightly less abstract symbols. Alphabetic languages like English and Arabic are abstractions of abstractions, the sound of a word written down. Sometimes the sound resembles the thing, as in ‘plunk’ or ‘sting,’ but the written form scarcely looks the part. Moreover, words are experientially-loaded, meaning that my understanding of ‘dog’ is dependent on all the dogs I’ve ever experienced. No two people share the exact same experiences.
This being true, isn’t everything ineffable? Isn’t ‘table’ just as impossible to fully communicate as ‘buddhanature?’
Surely not, you might think. She’s gone off the deep end. A table is a table. But what table is it?
If I say “We sat at the table,” what do you envision? I know what I mean because I was there. I experienced it. Did you envision a round, wooden table with a pedestal base, painted red, with an inset checkerboard? I bet you didn’t. Yet you were probably pretty certain you knew what I meant by ‘table,’ right?
What if I told my brother, “We sat at the table in Mom’s yard,” somewhere we’ve both been? Well, that’s different, then. We share an experience that makes that table very clearly ‘effable.’ But does it? If we could take a perfect three-dimensional model of my mental image of ‘Mom’s table’ and my brother’s ‘Mom’s table,’ would they be the same? Would he remember the missing chunks taken out of the base where our dog chewed on it? Or that gouge in the top from that time I threw a rock at him?
Even if we could scan the table with one of those topographic lasers and take perfect photographs of it to depict the color and load it all in a computer that could precisely represent the table to others, would we then be able to fully communicate that table? How about the way it smells, like pine and new paint and mildew? What about how the top is worn rough in some places and smooth in others? Or the weight of it, about half a ton by my last estimate? And that’s just the physical table. What about all the associated memories, of backyard parties and winter storms piling up feet of snow until the red surface was completely buried, or that time it fell off the truck when we were moving? If we could somehow perfectly share all that, too, could we then somehow communicate ‘table?’ Or is that table, and every other table, actually truly ineffable?
So what about those other things? Buddhanature and God and emptiness and all that? I mean, at least a table is a physical thing. We can touch and see it. What about love and psychology and higher math and other things we can’t touch or see? What about Enlightenment and Salvation?
Well, if I can explain in such great detail in words a table that never even existed, surely we can stop saying such silly things about these loaded religious concepts. Let’s just take it as a given. Of course, they’re ineffable. Everything is. Now let’s move on and try to communicate something more meaningful. Let’s not mistake the finger for the moon, but let’s not allow the metaphor of the finger and moon to stop the conversation. There is a great deal to be learned from experience, but human beings process experience through language, which is, perhaps, the only thing that is actually fully ‘effable.’ Language is the only way that we have (presently) to learn from the experiences of others.
What is your experience of Buddhanature? What is your table? Because I want to know. Tell me.