18 March 2007

Language and Logos

There's an old saying in the West that if you lie, your nose will grow. In East Asia it's been said that if you lie, you lose your eyebrows. How do we know that these two idioms are equivalent? Because we recognize each of them in context as indicating the common experience of lying. You can lie in any idiom, though it's only called ‘lying’ in English. There's no way of naming the experience except in some language.

Why does ‘losing your eyebrows’ mean lying? How did that happen in Chinese discourse? No one could have predicted that this expression would ‘stick’ to that meaning, no matter how complete their general comprehension of Chinese syntax and semantics. Calling it an idiom implies that it's a peculiar development, explicable only with reference to accidents of history. But the Chinese language itself, or any language, is only a higher level of idiomaticity. If it weren't, there would only be one human language, every term within it having real (rather than virtual) connections with human experience. But such a language could not have evolved.

What's the common, essential root from which all languages branch? Some Greeks called it Logos, some Buddhists called it Dharma. But logos can also mean any word, and dharma any system, in those idioms.

Past and future Buddhas have names: Shakyamuni, Maitreya. What do we call the living Buddha? If you hear the healing message, or the turning word, does it matter whom you hear it from? How do you know what you've heard if you don't pass it on?

One spring day in 1246 CE, Dogen gave the following Dharma Hall Discourse:

If I expound Buddha Dharma as an offering to my fellow practitioners, I cannot avoid my eyebrows falling out. If I do not expound Buddha Dharma as an offering to my fellow practitioners, I will enter hell as fast as an arrow. Going beyond these two alternatives, what can I do today for you, my fellow practitioners?

After a pause Dogen said: Above the heavens there is no Maitreya, below the earth there is no Maitreya, but seeing his face is superior to hearing his name. If you meet him in person you cannot be deceived.

Eihei Koroku 2.156 (Leighton and Okumura 2004, 182)

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