The Very Edge of Articulability

Populist Zen Buddhism is often adopted as a justification for an anti-intellectual approach to world affairs, or the world in general; as a retreat into the thought-free depths of zazen, or meditation, rather than a retreat up into the effort of philosophical light-headedness that comes from a thoughtful engagement with the world. This would be a ‘Buddhism without beliefs’ variety, a populist strain which discounts Buddhism’s rigorous philosophical dimension, not to mention the many (inconvenient) beliefs that come with devout Buddhist practice: a proto-Buddhism barely worthy of the name.

I don’t think it helpful to retreat into anti-intellectualism as a defence of one’s brand of inexpressibility, or as a bolster to the ineffable profundity of the world, the sublimity of ‘form’ outlined in the Prajñāpāramitā. As this canonical text, also known as the Heart Sutra says, form is empty, emptiness is all form: emptiness is not other than form, form is also not other than emptiness. In light of this, a Buddhist is someone who voluntarily exposes herself to death, emptiness, boredom, and form as we know it, out of the desire to become enlightened for the sake of all sentient beings. This is a comprehensive engagement, and calls on every ounce of our contemplative abilities to muster the selfless Buddhist praxis that comes with this vow. In the same way that beauty can be defined as a unity of formal relations among our sense perceptions (Herbert Read), why do we think our contemplative skill, overall, does not include the ability to think, in this same unity of relations?

Are we always able to articulate our connection with the world, even when it’s sublime? I don’t think so; which isn’t to say this is a lack. Often, the world is in excess of our means of expression, of our ability to articulate. This unsaid and unsayable aspect is just as valid an aspect of contemplation as contemplation’s thoughtful and analytical parts. And in a way, this inarticulable excess is its own act of insubordination, contra to the full (usually scientific and materialistic) disclosure that’s expected of normal rational discourse.

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