Buddhism and Language: the curse of narratives…

IMG_0599Though not often heralded as such, language is arguably the world’s greatest invention, and I think that, like most inventions, it might have a limited lifespan of prime utility, and it’s a very arguable point that the world just might be better off without it. I don’t arrive at this conclusion lightly, given that fact that I love language with all my heart and all my soul, but if it’s outlived its usefulness, then it just might need to be put out to pasture (and there just might be something better)…

Of course, whether people would be willing to do this is debatable, but still, it’s probably worth having the discussion, just to make the point, if nothing else. And the point is that many of the world’s problems are verbal. A policeman gives an order, and you are supposed to obey, immediately and without question. Otherwise they’ll shoot you, in America, at least, no matter that you’re deaf or not an English speaker. That’s not their fault. And, of course it’s not the language’s fault, either, for the bad intentions of its major malefactors. But still one of its main functions is aggression, to be sure, e.g. ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’…

So that’s language at its worst, but as a Buddhist and meditator I’m typically more concerned about its habitual penchant to get lodged in my brain, creating its own self-inspired feedback loops. This is probably a good candidate for the opposite of ‘mindfulness’, without a doubt, and probably doesn’t rate too highly in Buddhist ‘right thought’, either. So the bottom line is that no thought, or at least non-narrative thought, just might be better than bad thought, or junk thought, though it’s hard to say just exactly what that is like, since no one can remember a time without language…

Except in meditation, of course, and that’s probably meditation’s prime function, to quiet those narrative feedback loops, which threaten to hijack our waking consciousness and take it to places where it was never intended. How do you get rid of an old Suzi Quatro hit single from 1978, anyway, still stuck in your head? They don’t tell you that when you listen to top-40 radio, now, do they? No, and in fact they rate a song’s success precisely by its ability to get stuck in your head, which means that it somehow ‘hit’…

But thought needs no language in which to occur, regardless of the protests of some linguists who consider language an instinct, not invention, those of the Cartesian ‘innate ideas’ ‘I think therefore I am’ school of ontological rationalism. However, I see non-narrative thought as not unlike the Boolean ‘new math’ logic that computers use: ‘more than’, ‘less than’, and ‘equal to’, etc. as more the operative concept than any long-winded ‘if…then’ narrative syllogisms…

And there is nothing less Buddhist, true, than long-winded verbal narratives (even if they are sometimes the worst offenders), but I wouldn’t go so far as many of the ‘no-thought’ proponents, which have haunted the halls of Buddhism almost since the get-go, though only possible if you have followers dedicated to your sustenance and well-being, of course. As one modern English-speaking Thai Buddhist ajarn puts it, and I’m paraphrasing: it’s better not to work, since then you might have to think; uh-huh, nice job if you can get it…

And while that may be possible in Asia, where a sizable percentage of the population enjoys being ‘kept’ by householders and shareholders, both middle-income and wealthy, whether as monks or second wives, it’s probably not realistic for the West, where individualism runs rampant, and the issues of salvation, sustenance and ‘right thought’ resound within each and every person, or not, more than with society as a whole or in general…

I’m pretty sure the Buddha never said anything about ‘no-thought’, though, and even Jesus made his greatest blunder with that bogus line about the fishes in the sea and the birds in the air, who in fact do nothing so much as build barns and gather food…

But narrative hits its creative jackpot with literature and poetry, of course, the saving grace in the linguistic salad of soteriology and sublimity, the fact that words can take us to new heights and depths unimagined, simply with the flying flip of a well-positioned preposition here or toss of a tightly-wound adverbial clause there, all for the sake of a tawdry tale or a sultry story or a metaphysical screed on subjectivity…

As always the Middle Path informs and inspires, per the Buddha’s fondest wishes, no rejection of language nor blind submission to it, either, maybe a nod to its higher functions, with the explicit acknowledgement that there is a form of thought that precedes all narrative, and which sacrifices little to it, basic visual information that encodes the intuitive logic of cause and effect in its portfolio…

Indeed the primal logic of cause-and-effect is probably the first thought any animal ever had, whether it could say it or not. Every cat and dog does it. And it also leads to the primal fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. But that doesn’t mean that it is bad logic, only that there is more to life than logic. And while we generally agree that all events have cause, that doesn’t mean that we will always know them, much less agree on them…

And isn’t a more creative use of language better, anyway, I mean, once the primary functions of communication are covered? After all, there is no law stipulating that sentences must occur in S-V-O format any more than that there is a rule stipulating active voice, rather than passive. Memory is visual, no doubt, as any recollections of thirty-five year-old events can easily attest, the snapshot firmly embedded while the narratives are long gone, and thought is much the same. So this is key to the restructuring of our consciousness, less reliance on language and more creativity when we use it, sounds good to me…