Why so many words?

A story goes that once there was a Zen master and his apprentice. It was their custom every morning, after meditation and before breakfast, to go for a long walk through the woods, along mountain trails, and back through fields on the way back to their simple monastery…


This was a custom they enjoyed in silence, almost all of the time. One morning, however, sitting down for tea, the apprentice, looked out over the misty valley said, simply in a hushed voice, oh… how lovely!… He looked at his teacher searchingly, and waited for an answer…. his teacher took his time adjusting his robes and pouring the tea… and then, after a long while, he said with a smile, why so many words?

I start here not because I have anything against words, but because we all know on some level that words and silence both have their place. Words are easy to talk about, but silence… not so much, for obvious reasons.

This week, in reading about what are called the Great Perfection teachings, it dawned on me that there’s a supreme irony in talking about, or putting words to an experience that is at once most simple, and beyond all concepts. Some of us have this tendency, don’t we, to add words sometimes when they are not necessary, but at times we are moved to speak, nonetheless. What is that about, I wondered.

Some of it, surely, can be restlessness. Like the apprentice compared to his master, a younger person with less training, or perhaps with the habits of too much academic learning isn’t enjoying himself as much as his teacher, once he or she starts elaborating on a simple, direct experience. There’s certainly a place to drink an experience in deeply, and to leave words for another time.

I recall one of my teachers here in San Francisco explaining that to keep some fine experience from being replaced by thoughts about it, we can see how it’s like a bell or a gong that has been gently rung. If we start talking about it, or even just categorizing it, that would be like taking the bell in our hands- the sound would stop. We should just appreciate the sound, he said, without grasping.

I thought there are two possible reasons why a person would choose to speak about a simple experience. The first reason I’m sure we all familiar with, and is illustrated by a talkative person. It’s just their restless habit energy, no matter when or where, or what the subject is. We all have this kind of person in us. The tendency to elaborate when it doesn’t add anything to the experience, for some people, it seems, can be a default setting.

Another possibility though is that speaking may add something, like pointing out a beautiful bird on a branch, or the mist rising from the ground during our walk. Words can help us to see more fully.

There is a body of literature in Buddhism called The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, and the individual texts in it range in length from one syllable to the metaphorical ‘One Hundred Thousand Lines’. In Asian traditions, ‘a thousand’, ‘ten thousand’ or ‘a hundred thousand’ mean limitless, or beyond counting.

If something can be expressed in one syllable, or one page, as with the Heart Sutra, then, we can ask, why would we need more words? This is surely something we should each find out for ourselves, but I’ll offer my own opinion, in case anyone else might like to take the thread of it.

Beyond just pointing out different aspects of an experience, having words to listen to and reflect on can also help keep the feeling and insight going, and they can help us to integrate the experience.

When it comes to something simple and profound, one other possible reason for speaking comes to mind. Especially in religious literature, the speaking sometimes has the quality of celebration to it, as though a hidden spring has been tapped. There is an upwelling exuberance, for example, to the Great Perfection teachings, which are referring to a most simple experience of the utterly lucid nature of mind beyond ego grasping, and beyond concepts.

The Gordian Knot

There’s been a lot of disagreement over the centuries in the East when it comes to the place of words and symbols in spiritual practice. Some give it a distinguished place in study, reflection, prayer, debate, and discourse. On the other end of spectrum are those who dismiss conceptual thought altogether, and see it as the main obstacle to direct experience and realization.

How can we tell which side is right? Both have some truth to them, and I think we need to see the purpose of either claim. Yes, thought can elaborate, exult, lift up, transmit knowledge, and clarify, and it can also at times be a barrier, or a substitute for direct experience, which is the essential thing, after all.

It’s told that when Alexander the Great arrived in Gordium, he found a contentious knot at the entrance to the city. ‘The knot’ represented a challenge or what seemed to be an endless problem with no known solution within the usual parameters. It’s said that, after seeing the situation clearly, Alexander drew his sword and cut the knot cleanly in two.

In the same way, sometimes it’s useless to approach problems caused by conceptual thought with just more thinking. At times what we need to do is to use our wisdom to cut entirely though our thoughts and ideas about something.

Wisdom-insight is immediate, and our words and praise songs will either serve the purpose of realization or oppose it. Like with the question, ‘Why so many words?’ that was being served up with tea, we’re each invited to consider how and why we speak, read, or think about something, or set these aside. It’s up to each of us individually to see, and then to use language or silence as needed.