Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Languages without words


Man is the only creature we know of who has languages that use words.

The entire universe is composed of languages -- methods of expression and communication -- that are nonverbal. Their vocabularies are made up of sight, taste, touch, smell, and sound. Take ants, for example--almost all their communication is accomplished using a complex of chemical scents. Amazing, isn't it?

Nothing conceptual or intellectual ever interferes in the transmission of information that takes place within these vocabularies. It's only in our own case that this kind of action takes place. It's interesting to me that we have become so powerfully hypnotized by our ability to conceptualize that we have actually all but lost the ability to sense directly, without the interference.

I often look at trees since they have come into leaf this spring, thinking about the way in which each particular tree represents a language of its own that speaks to its environment, carrying on a dialog that extends back through time to its evolutionary origins. The conditions on the planet have been informing each tree species, teaching it, for many millions of years, and the trees have been reciprocally informing their environment -- like almost all organisms -- by subtly altering the conditions immediately around them so that they are more favorable for them.

We might say that the entire universe is a book without words, a vast compendium of information and exchange that is filled with ideas that emerge from the superstructure of natural law.

We begin with what are, on our level, the fairly predictable laws of physics and chemistry--this is the alphabet with which the universe composes. What emerges from that alphabet is so complex and extraordinary that even a single cell is a greater feat of imagination and creation than anything a million Shakespeares could write.

Mankind is not able to read this language with his conceptual mind; it takes a set of senses we are no longer in touch with to discover its paragraphs and chapters. What it can write in one piece of bark, we cannot read in a lifetime. Every object, event, and circumstance contains that inexpressible quality within it.

I have a good friend who is in China for the first time. She is writing any number of exuberant and lengthy missives about how magnificent, spiritual, deep the country is. I would not, perhaps, deny that, but as I said to my wife the other day: no need to go to China. One can see the entire dharma expressed within a discarded cigarette butt right here in the street if one is in the right state.

There is no need to see something that is different than a cigarette butt to see the truth.

The truth is complete within each moment, object, event, and circumstance, no matter how incomplete we are in meeting it.

And that, of course--our incompleteness -- is the problem.

In order to work in life, we have to adopt a new alphabet, composed of sensation and attention. We have to construct a new language within ourselves that knows how to drink what is in front of us, instead of writing recipes for ale. It's within this language of no words that the encyclopedia of creation begins to form.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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