We think and communicate through words. Words carry our thoughts, concepts, ideas and opinions. However, the basic building blocks to proper communication are our concepts, ideas and opinions. We have here a perfect catch 22 dilemma: words are the basic tools of communication but also they are the impediments to efficient communication. Words facilitate our daily life but there is a significant cost. The use of words to express concepts, idea and opinions may distort our reality, making us unable to see and perceive things as they really are.
The French painter Monet said, “To see is to forget the name of what one is seeing”.
The sound made by a Korean cat is “nyaong”, by an American cat it is “meow”, by a French cat it is “mi-a-ou”. So what is the sound of a cat? Based on these different words its seem that cats speak different languages like humans....crazy...maybe.
It is a naive assumption, misunderstanding, delusion and ignorance to think that each name, word or concept has a corresponding reality. Since words and concepts block us from seeing the world as it is in reality and represent blocks to our attaining Enlightment (another word), having an excessive amount of knowledge (from reading for example) has become taboo in many Buddhist traditions.
In our Zen tradition the “don’t know mind” is king. It means that by not knowing we free ourselves from the jail i.e. not being prisoners of words, thinking, concepts, ideas and opinions. Many Zen Masters have warned their students about too much reading including the Buddhist Sutras for the fear that accumulating too much knowledge may or will distort our perception of reality.
The Buddha said in one of the Sutras “ If you decide to embrace the Way through much learning, the Way will be hard to reach. When you guard your mind (not thinking too much) and cherish the Way, the Way is truly great”.
In our modern life we are thinking a lot and probably too much. Our jobs are mentally demanding and without proper thinking we cannot succeed in today’s world. Now it is a must to think continuously and because our minds are always occupied with thousands of thoughts every day we have the strong tendency to identify ourselves as the thinker behind our thoughts, concepts, ideas and opinions. In fact we strongly believe that our thoughts define and carry our specific personalities, values systems and socio-professional behaviors. There is some truth here since how our minds relate and react to certain things, events and situations is quite unique to each individual just as our physical appearance is different.
The fact that we have thoughts does not mean that they are all real or that there is some sort of thinking entity behind them. Just like our emotions and other mental faculties our thoughts arise from external causes and conditions. The concept of a “thinker” is just a concept. Similarly there is no “breather”. What really exist is the continuous process of breathing in and breathing out. Descartes said: “ I think therefore I am”. But if I do not think, who am I? Dead?
What happens to the walker when she/he stops walking? Likewise when the thinking stops do the thinker vanishes?
Imagine ourselves as an oil lamp where the wick is our ego-self, the oil is your self-centered thoughts, illusions, desires and emotions fueling the wick and the flame is the consequence of this interaction namely dissatisfaction and suffering. When the wick is removed (no ego-self) the flame is gone, our True Nature is revealed and suffering disappears.
Since our thoughts are the fuel of our ego, controlling them is a great way to extinguish the flame (extinction is also called Nirvana). This is essential in reaching Enlightment and this is why the practice of meditation is so important as a tool to control our thoughts. Without meditation Enlightenment /Awakening becomes almost is impossible.
To put in different words meditation is a process of deprogramming the mind whereby the brain is the hardware and the mind/thoughts the software. For Christian believers if Jesus did not die he could not have resurrected. Same thing with our thoughts: they have to die through meditation in order for us to be born in our True Self and discover Enlightment. This is the moment when “a Buddha”, or pure consciousness, is born. We will become a universal human no longer living in an isolate world. This is the path of prajna paramita or perfection of wisdom.
Ven. Ji Gong Sunim.