“Practitioners, whatever there is in the world… whatsoever is seen, heard, sensed, and cognized, attained, sought after, and ruminated on by the mind: I know all that. I have fully comprehended all that; all that is known to a Tathāgata [one who comes and goes in suchness], but a Tathāgata does not serve that knowledge.” – The Buddha, Kālakarāma Sutta
The method of inquiry in the Buddhadharma is experiential. In an experiential inquiry, concepts serve us; they aren’t given a life of their own. If we give them authority over direct experience, we serve them.
In our project, here, ‘death’ is a dhamma word, which we don’t want to leave as a mere idea, or it will haunt us. It will dominate us, rather than serve us. We can get along – stumble through life – that way, of course – get through a life without giving attention to how it works in us. That doesn’t change the fact that a word’s meaning is in our living bodies. So, to ignore how the word ‘death’ lives in daily experience is actually detrimental to living.
This might be a strange idea: “how a word works in us.” Words work. That’s the point of them. Another way of saying this is that words have energy. And, in particular, they carry the energy of all the ways they have been used, in all the situations in which they have been used, by ourselves and our fellow speakers. (And, all the ways in which our animal forebears communicated – in gestures, for example.)
So intimate is the relation of words to experience, that words can help carry our life forward, affording us greater richness of experience. (It’s common, by the way, for meditators to be disparaging of words or concepts, but even this disparagement depends on concepts. If we haven’t mastered our mind, we tend to feel assailed by the verbal mind. Even this disdain for language, though, is an attempt – albeit unskilful – to carry one’s meditative life forward in a positive direction, isn’t it?)
Following Gendlin’s work on the relation of words to experience, the meaning of any word includes all the situations throughout your life in which you’ve encountered the word — all these experiences. So, your use of the word ‘death’ reflects the richness of your understanding of death in life.
Not experientially absorbing the word’s meaning, robs our humanity of its vitality and of a range of resources that we humans need, desperately. The meaning in the dictionary is not the living meaning. It can be a help in accessing our bodily experience, but it can’t give us the actual lived meaning of the word. (I treasure my dictionary – the Oxford English Dictionary is a major achievement of the English culture – but I’m realistic about its limitations. A dictionary’s power is in our contact with bodily experience – in the users of the language.)
If we settle into an unreflective use of words, we suffer. We all settle into this habit before our twenties, having mastered the necessary habit of inattention by then. “Necessary?”, you ask. To not be attentive to the relation of words to reality appears necessary, doesn’t it, so as to fit in with the consensus social reality? That’s where our ‘centre’ has become established – in social reality. Yet, what the Nikāya Buddha is saying (in our quote above) is that he has become independent of social reality. He got there by connecting with immediate experience, and noticing the role that concepts (name and form) play in shaping experience. I’ll go more deeply into this later, in a way that is grounded in everyday observation. That’s one reason for this inquiry, so that harmony reigns between our speaking and experience.
A practitioner named Vaṅgīsa said the Nikāya Buddha: “Truth, indeed, is deathless speech: this is an ancient principle. The good and the Dhamma, good people say, are established upon truth.”
– The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries (p. 229). Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications.
To resolve our doubts around ‘death,’ and to know the deathless, we – ordinary people, not academics – can’t avoid the relationship of speech to experience.