Words, words, words (and Silence, Paradox)


[Third part of the ‘Mystic Materials’ selection of quotes from 2500 years, sages, scientists, poets. The last poem, Don Paterson’s, consists only of the title as given here. The name of the baby sleeping is Oscar.]

Words, Words, Words (and Silence, Paradox)

[There is no way to say It (Tao, Godhead/God, The One, The Void, Nirvana). It is not an idea or what is said, It is the saying. It is the silence within the saying. It is not the saying, nor the silence. Paradox may point to It. It is not an it, ‘out there’ or anywhere, nor an experience, ‘in here’ or anywhere.]

Lao Tzu (Laozi, first Taoist sage, 6-5th century BCE, Tao Te Ching 1 and 56)

The Tao [Way] that can be told
is not the true Tao.
The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The Named is the mother of all things.
Therefore let there always be non-being so we may see their subtlety,
And let there always be being so we may see their outcome.
The two are the same. […]

He who knows does not speak.
He who speaks does not know.
Close the mouth.
Guard your senses […]
Become one with the dusty world.

Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zhu, Taoist sage, c. 369-286 BCE)

The most extensive knowledge does not necessarily know it [the Tao]; reasoning will not make men wise in it. The sages have decided against both these methods.

Kena Upanishad (pre-5th-6th century BCE)

What cannot be spoken of with words, but that whereby words are spoken: Know that alone is Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore.

What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think: Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore.

Maitri Upanishad (c. 6th-4th century BCE)

There is something beyond the mind which abides in silence within our mind. It is the supreme mystery beyond thought. Let one’s mind and one’s subtle body rest upon that and not rest on anything else.

Gautama Buddha (6-4th century BCE, from the Diamond Sutra)

Moreover, the Tathagata [Buddha] has no formulated teaching to enunciate. Wherefore? Because the Tathagata has said that truth is uncontainable and inexpressible. It neither is nor is it not. […]

The Flower Sermon (Wikipedia)

Among adherents of Zen, the origin of Zen Buddhism is ascribed to a story, known in English as the Flower Sermon in which Sakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) transmits direct prajna (wisdom) to the disciple Mahakasyapa. In the original Sino-Japanese, the story is called nengemishō (literally “pick up flower, subtle smile”). In the story, the Buddha gives a wordless sermon to his disciples by holding up a white flower. No one in the audience understands the Flower Sermon except Mahakasyapa, who smiles. Within Zen, the Flower Sermon communicates the ineffable nature of tathata (suchness) and Mahākāśyapa’s smile signifies the direct transmission of wisdom without words. The Buddha affirmed this by saying:

‘I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle Dharma Gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.’

Basilides and Valentinus (Gnostic Christians mid second century CE, in K. Armstrong, A History of God, 1993, pp. 112-113)

The Gnostics all began with an utterly incomprehensible reality which they called the Godhead, since it was the source of the lesser being that we call ‘God’. There was nothing at all we could say about it, since it entirely eludes the grasp of our limited minds. […] it is impossible to describe the Godhead, which is neither ‘good’ nor ‘evil’ and cannot even be said to ‘exist’. Basilides taught that in the beginning, there had been not God but only the Godhead, which, strictly speaking, was Nothing because it did not exist in any sense that we can understand. But this Nothingness had wished to make itself known and was not content to remain alone in Depth and Silence. There was an inner revolution in the depths of its unfathomable being which resulted in a series of emanations similar to those described in the ancient pagan mythologies. The first of these emanations was the ‘God’, which we know and pray to. Yet even ‘God’ was inaccessible to us and needed further elucidation.

Plotinus (204-270 CE, The Enneads VI/9, in E. O’Brien, The Essential Plotinus, 1964, pp. 78, 80, 87)

When we wish to speak with precision, we should not say that The One is this or that, but revolving, as it were, around it, try to express our own experience of it, now drawing nigh to it, now falling back from it as a result of the difficulties involved. The chief difficulty is this: awareness of The One comes to us neither by knowing nor by the pure thought that discovers the other intelligible things, but by a presence transcending knowledge; it cannot remain simply one because knowledge implies discursive reason and discursive reason implies multiplicity. […] We must renounce knowing and knowable, every object of thought […] That is why Plato says of The One: ‘ It can neither be spoken nor written about.’ If nevertheless we speak of it and write about it, we do so only to give direction, to urge towards that vision beyond discourse, to point out the road to one desirous of seeing. Instruction goes only as far as showing the road and direction. […]

[…]The One is not a being for then its unity would repose in another than itself. There is no name that suits it, really. But, since name it we must, it may appropriately be called ‘one’, on the understanding, however, that it is not a substance that possesses unity only as an attribute. […]

Therefore is it so difficult to describe this vision, for how can we represent as different from us what seemed, while we were contemplating it, not other than ourselves but perfect at-oneness with us?

Dionysius the Areopagite (probably Syrian monk, 5th-6th century CE, The Mystical Theology, in F.C. Happold, Mysticism, p. 196)

Again, ascending higher, we maintain that He [the universal transcendent Cause of all things] is neither soul nor intellect […]; nor can He be expressed or conceived, since He is neither number, nor order; nor greatness, nor smallness; nor equality, not inequality, nor similarity, nor dissimilarity; neither is He standing, nor moving, nor at rest; neither has He power, nor is power, nor is light; neither does He live, nor is He life; neither is He essence, nor eternity, nor time; nor is He subject to intelligible contact […]; neither one, nor oneness; nor godhead, nor goodness […]; neither does anything that is know Him as He is […]; neither is He darkness nor light, nor the false , nor the true; […]; we can neither affirm nor deny Him, inasmuch as the all-perfect and unique Cause of all things transcends all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of His absolute nature is outside of every negation – free from limitation and beyond them all.

Wu-Men (Mumon, Chan Master, 1183-1260 CE, from the Wu-Men Kuan/Mumonkan)

Words do not convey the fact
Language is not expedient
Attached to words your life is lost
Blocked by phrases, you are bewildered

Dai-O Kokushi (1235-1308, Zen master)

There is a reality even prior to heaven and earth;
Indeed, it has no form, much less a name […]
To call it Mind or Buddha violates its nature
For it then becomes like a visionary flower in the air[…]
Wishing to entice the blind,
The Buddha playfully let words escape his golden mouth;
Heaven and earth are ever since filled with entangling briars.

O my good worthy friends gathered here,
If you desire to listen to the thunderous voice of the Dharma [teaching],
Exhaust your words, empty your thoughts […]

Rumi (1207-73, Sufi master and poet, Selected Poems, transl. by Coleman Barks)

But uncle, O uncle,
the universe of the creation-word,
the divine command to Be, that universe
of qualities is beyond any pointing to.

More intelligent than intellect,
and more spiritual than spirit.

No being is unconnected
to that reality, and that connection
cannot be said. There, there’s
no separation and no return. […]

Keep wanting that connection
with all your pulsing energy.
The throbbing vein
will take you further
than any thinking.

Muhammad said, ‘Don’t theorize
about essence!’ All speculations
are just more layers of covering.
Human beings love coverings!

They think the designs on the curtains
are what’s being concealed.

Observe the wonders as they occur around you.
Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry
moving through, and be silent.

Or say, ‘I cannot praise You
as You should be praised.
Such words are infinitely
beyond my understanding.’

Meister Eckhart (1267-1327, German Sermon 5, pp. 128-130, German Sermon 28, p. 236)

[…] I speak of the purity of the divine nature, and of the radiance within it which is ineffable. God is a word: an unspoken word. […] God is above names and nature. […] There is no name we can devise for God. […] All creatures are the utterance of God. If my mouth speaks and declares God, so too does the being of a stone, and we understand more by works than by words. […] you must die to all things and must be in-formed into the heights where we dwell in the Holy Spirit.


Now pay attention to this. God is nameless for no one can either speak of him or know him. […] If I say again that ‘God is wise’, then this too is not true. I am wiser than he is! Or if I say that ‘God exists’, this is also not true. He is being beyond being: he is nothingness beyond being. Therefore St Augustine says: ‘The finest thing that we can say of God is to be silent concerning him from the wisdom of inner riches.’ Be silent therefore, and do not chatter about God, for by chattering about him, you tell lies and commit a sin. […] Also you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding. A master [Augustine, Sermon 117] says: If I had a God that I could understand, I would not regard him as God.’

Kabbala (G. Scholem, Von der mystischen Gestalt der Gottheit, 1962, p. 31, own translation PL-N)

[In the Medieval Jewish Kabbala] The hidden Godhead – En-Sof, the Infinite ‒, as it rests unknowable in the deep of its own essence, is without form since it stands above all statements and can only be aimed at via negation, indeed via the negation of all negations. There are no images that represent it, no names that name it.

Fritz Mauthner (Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, 1906, transl. PL-N, pp. 42, 49)

Because language is a social power between people, it also exerts power over the thoughts of the individual. It is language which thinks in us; it is language which creates poetry within us. The feeling often expressed as ‘It is not me thinking, it is thinking in me’ – this feeling of compulsion is correct. [..] All humans relate to each other as reciprocal hypnotisers and hypnotised, all humans let themselves be manipulated by obsessive-compulsive notions expressed in words […]

Nature is completely speechless. He who would understand her, would also become speechless.

T.S. Eliot (‘Burnt Norton’, in Four Quartets, 1943)

Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.

R.H. Blyth (Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, 1942, pp. 166, 187, 195)

[…]The point to be grasped is that in some ways language is wiser than the men who use it; that often we say more than we mean, especially the poets; that we speak more truly than we know. Further, that figures of speech, when passion-inspired, reveal the identity of what is separated by the logical intellect. And last, that we should constantly strive, in our reading of literature, to recreate with the writer, that mood in which we are able, if only for a moment, to apprehend things in their unity, their oneness of nature, their absoluteness. […]

The perception of the real meaning of a paradox may take several forms, which we call humour, or poetry, or religion. In any case, some vivacity of energy is required lest the intellect should arrive and split hairs. The poetical or religious meaning can never be explained any more than a joke can be explained. […] Truth is expressible only in the form of a paradox. What is not paradoxical is not true; is not living, inexpressible truth.

H.L. Mencken (US satirist and cultural critic 1880-1956)

Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.

D.E. Harding (On Having No Head, 1961, pp. 10-11)

[…]the longer the post-mortem examination drags on, the further it gets from the living original. At best, these descriptions can remind one of the vision (without the bright awareness) or invite a recurrence of it; but they can no more convey its essential quality, or ensure a recurrence, than the most appetising menu can taste like the dinner, or the best book about humour enable one to see the joke. On the other hand, it is impossible to stop thinking for long, and some attempt to relate the lucid intervals of one’s life to the confused background is inevitable. It could also encourage, indirectly, the recurrence of lucidity.

Thomas Merton (‘Message to Poets’, in Raids on the Unspeakable, 1964, p. 160, Choosing to Love the World, 2008, pp. 106, 109, ‘Thoughts in Solitude’ and Zen and the Birds of Appetite, 1968, pp. 48-49)

Let us [poets] be proud that we are not experts in anything. Let us be proud of the words that are given to us for nothing; not to teach anyone, not to confute anyone, not to prove anyone absurd, but to point beyond all objects into the silence where nothing can be said.
We are not persuaders. We are the children of the Unknown. We are the ministers of silence that is needed to cure all victims of absurdity who lie dying of a contrived joy.


The loud plane seems for a moment to deny the reality of the clouds and of the sky, by its direction, its noise, and its pretended strength. The silence of the sky remains when the plane has gone. The tranquillity of the clouds will remain when the plane has fallen apart. It is the silence of the world that is real. Our noise, our busyness, our purposes, and all our fatuous statements about out purposes, our busyness, and our noise: these are the illusion.


For language to have meaning there must be intervals of silence somewhere, to divide word from word and utterance from utterance. He who retires into silence does not necessarily hate language. Perhaps it is love and respect for language which imposes silence upon him. For the mercy of God is not heard in words unless it is heard, both before and after the words are spoken, in silence.


Words stand between silence and silence: between the silence of things and the silence of our own being. Between the silence of the world and the silence of God. When we have really met and known the world of silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other men, nor from God, nor from ourselves, because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality.


The language used by Zen is therefore in some sense an anti-language, and the ‘logic’ of Zen is a radical reversal of philosophical logic. The human dilemma of communication is that we cannot communicate ordinarily without words and signs, but even ordinary experience tends to be falsified by our habits of verbalization and rationalization. […] Instead of seeing things and facts as they are we see them as reflections and verifications of the sentences we have previously made up in our minds. We quickly forget how to simply see things and substitute our words and our formulas for the things themselves, manipulating facts so that we see only what conveniently fits our prejudices. Zen uses language against itself to blast out these preconceptions and to destroy the specious ‘reality’ in our minds so that we can see directly. Zen is saying, as Wittgenstein said, ‘Don’t think: Look!’

Jiddu Krishnamurti (‘The Only Revolution’, in The Second Penguin Krishnamurti Reader, 1970, p. 117 and The Wholeness of Life)

Sit, sometime, on the bank of a river and look into the water. Don’t be hypnotized by the movement of the water, by the light, the clarity and depth of the stream. Look at it without any movement of thought. The silence is all round you, in you, in the river, and in those trees that are utterly still. You can’t take it back home, hold it in your mind or your hand and think you have achieved some extraordinary state. If you have, then it is not silence; then it is merely a memory, an imagining, a romantic escape from the daily noise of life.

Because of silence everything exists. The music you heard this morning came to you out of silence, and you heard it because you were silent, and it went beyond you in silence. Only we don’t listen to the silence because our ears are full of the chatter of the mind. […] Silence is where you are, in yourself and beside yourself.


Silence demands space, space in the whole structure of consciousness. There is no space in the structure of one’s consciousness as it is, because it is crowded with fears – crowded, chattering, chattering. When there is silence, there is immense, timeless space; then only is there a possibility of coming upon that which is the eternal, sacred.

Alan Watts (The Book on the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are, 1966, p. 140, Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown, 1973, p. 126, In My Own Way, 1972, p. 378)

The difficulty is not only that language is dualistic, insofar as words are labels for mutually exclusive classes. The problem is that IT is so much more myself than I thought I was, so central and so basic to my existence that I cannot make it an object. There is no way to stand outside IT, and, in fact, no need to do so. For so long as I am trying to grasp IT, I am implying that IT is not really myself. If it were possible, I am losing the sense of it by attempting to find it. This is why those who really know that they are IT invariably say they do not understand it, for IT understands understanding – not the other way about. […]

But the fact that IT eludes every description must not, as happens so often, be mistaken for the description of IT as the airiest of abstractions, as a literal transparent continuum or undifferentiated cosmic jello. […] Yet in speaking and thinking of IT, there is no alternative to the use of conceptions and images, and no harm in it so long as we realize what we are doing. Idolatry is not the use of images, but confusing them with what they represent, and in this respect mental images and lofty abstractions can be more insidious than bronze idols. […]

Real religion has nothing to do with words. It is a silent, effortless, and fascinated concentration on the basic energy, the fundamental and musical vibration of the world – which, as Saint Thomas Aquinas might have said, “is what all men call God.” You do religion as you breathe easily, slowly, and delightedly, or listen intently to a bird singing at dawn, or die a surfboard on the exact dynamic centre of an immense wave. […]

By such reflections I think myself into silence and, by writing, help others similarly spellbound by thoughts and words to come to silence – which is the realization that a linear code cannot justly represent a non-linear world.

Non-Western Monotheism (in K. Armstrong, A History of God, 1993, p. 403)

We have seen that though the idea of God as the Supreme Being had gained ascendancy in the West, other monotheistic traditions had gone out of their way to separate themselves from this type of theology. Jews, Muslims and [Eastern] Orthodox Christians had all insisted in their different ways that our human idea of God did not correspond to the ineffable reality of which it was a mere symbol. All has suggested, at one time or another, that it was more accurate to describe God as ‘Nothing’ rather than the Supreme Being, since ‘he’ did not exist in any way that we could conceive. Over the centuries, the West had gradually lost sight of this more imaginative conception of God.

R.D. Laing (The Bird of Paradise, 1967, p. 156)

There is really nothing more to say when we come back to that beginning of all beginnings that is nothing all. Only when you begin to lose that Alpha and Omega do you want to start to talk and to write, and then there is no end to it, words, words, words. At best and most they are perhaps in memoriam, evocations, conjurations, incantations, emanations, shimmering, iridescent flares in the sky of darkness, a just still feasible tact, indiscretions, perhaps forgivable… […]

If I could turn you on, if I could drive you out of your wretched mind, if I could tell you I would let you know.

Sir Arthur Eddington (The Nature of the Physical World, 1928, p. 330 and pp. 280-281)

The physicist now regards his own external world in a way which I can only describe as more mystical, though not less exact and practical, than that which prevailed some years ago, when it was taken for granted that nothing could be true unless an engineer could make a model of it. […]

The spectacle [of atoms and electrons] is so fascinating that we have perhaps forgotten that there was a time when we wanted to be told what an electron is. The question was never answered … Something unknown is doing we don’t know what – that is what our theory amounts to. It does not sound a particularly illuminating theory. I have read something like it elsewhere:

The slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

There is the same suggestion of activity. There is the same indefiniteness as to the nature of the activity and of what it is that is acting.

Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (‘Parmenides und die Quantentheorie’ in Die Einheit der Natur, 1971, p. 480, own translation P-LN)

The recognition of a meditative or mystical experience of oneness is not an avoidance of rationality but rather […] a consequence of an understanding of the essence of rationality. Rationally arguing philosophy can then be a preparation or an explication of this experience; it can also be an explication of the recognition of the possibility of this experience. Mystics have in fact found an explication of their experience in the philosophy of the One. […] On the other hand, mystical experience is as little philosophy as sensory perception is science.

Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics, 1975, pp. 28-29)

For most of us it is very difficult to be constantly aware of the limitations and of the relativity of conceptual knowledge. Because our representation of reality is so much easier to grasp than reality itself, we tend to confuse the two and to take our concepts and symbols for reality. It is one of the main aims of Eastern mysticism to rid us of this confusion. […] It is, so we are told by Buddhists, the direct experience of undifferentiated, undivided, indeterminate ‘suchness’ [tathata]. Complete apprehension of this suchness is not only the core of Eastern mysticism, but is the central characteristic of all mystical experience.

David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1981, p. 3)

What will be emphasized, first of all in scientific research and later in a more general context, is that fragmentation is continually being brought about by the almost universal habit of taking the content of our thought for ‘a description of the world as it is.’ Or we could say that, in this habit, our thought is regarded as in direct correspondence with objective reality. Since our thought is pervaded with differences and distinctions, it follows that such a habit leads us to look on these as real divisions, so that the world is then seen and experienced as actually broken up into fragments.

Paul Davies (The Matter Myth, 1991, pp. 20-21)

The founders of quantum mechanics, notably Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, argued that when we talk of atoms, electrons, and so on, we must not fall into the trap of imagining them as little things, existing independently in their own right. Quantum mechanics enables us to relate different observations made on, say, an atom. […] It [the word ‘atom’] is a helpful means of encapsulating that abstract concept in physical language, but that does not mean that the atom is actually there as a well-defined entity with a complete set of physical attributes of its own, such as definite location in space and a definite velocity through space. [..] Bohr expressed it thus: ‘Physics is not about how the world is, it is about what we can say about the world.’

Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950, founder of General Semantics)

The map is not the territory.

M. Conrad Hyers (Zen and the Comic Spirit, 1974, p. 149)

It is difficult to imagine the word-oriented Near Eastern religions, with their stress upon the Word of creation, the prophetic Word, the biblical Word, the Incarnate Word, the kerygmatic Word etc., including [like Te-shan/Tokusan in Zen] in their lists of holy men one who demonstrated his spiritual realisation by burning the scriptures, whether Torah, Gospels or Quran – although there have been numerous instances of burning other peoples’ books and bibles. But in a very real sense in Zen, as in mysticism generally, inner illumination implies the burning of all words. The Word of scripture or of reason is at most only an occasion for the realisation of that ‘wordless Dharma’ which is beyond all words, and in relation to which even the most sacred words stand in the awkwardness of hiding and obstructing that which they would reveal. The final word is silence, pregnant with meaning.

Poets on Words and Silence

‘Words are the enemy of poetry.’ – Russel Edson (2000)
‘Language is not commensurate to the world. Something slips in the telling.’ – Carolyn Forché (2005)
‘I find language is well after the fact; and the fact is a way of seeing, feeling, thinking that is pre-linguistic, that is in blocks of imagery, in blocks of feeling.’ – Gary Snyder (1991)
‘However remarkable the text may be, its poetic quality depends on its author having known how to keep alive in it the light of what is beyond language.’ – Yves Bonnefoy (2005)
‘Poetry is an experience of limits: it travels around the borderlines of what can be named and what must be left unnamed.’ – Kevin Hart (1999)
‘Poetry’s essence is not to show or to tell as we say of fiction, but to reveal.’ – Brendan Kennelly (1995)
‘The novel relates; the poem tries to leave unsaid as much as possible.’ – Charles Simic (1996)
‘A poem is an interruption of silence, whereas prose is a continuation of noise.’ – Billy Collins (2001)
‘Poetry [is] …a sculpture of silence. It is precisely this inclusion of silence in words that distinguishes the poem from prose. The difficult thing is making the silence be heard, making it be felt.’ – Eugene Guillevic (1999)
‘Lyric poetry speaks out of a solitude to a solitude. It begins and ends in silence.’ – Edward Hirsch (2003)
‘Poetry is only there to frame the silence. There is silence between each verse and silence at the end.’ – Alice Oswald (2005)
‘Poetry is the closest literary form we have to silence.’ – Marianne Boruch (1994)

Denise Levertov (‘Beyond the Field’, in This Great Unknowing. Last Poems, 1999)

Light, flake by flake touching down on surface tension
of ocean, strolling there before diving forever under.

Tectonic plates inaudibly grinding, shifting –
monumental fidgets.

The mind’s far edges twitch, sensing
kinships beyond reach.

Too much unseen, unknown, unknowable,
assumed missing therefore:

shadings, clues, transitions linking
rivers of event, imaged, not imaged, a flood

that rushes towards us, through us, away
beyond us before we wheel to face what seems

a trace of passages, ripple already stilling itself
in tall grass near the fence of the mind’s field.

Peter Everwine: Distance

The light pulling away from trees,
the trees speaking in shadows
to whatever listens…

Something as common as water
turns away from our faces
and leaves.

The stars rise out of the hills
-old kings and animals
marching in their thin tunnels of light.

Once more I find myself
standing on a dark pier, holding
an enormous rope of silence.

Don Paterson: On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him
for A.G.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on January 21, 2016.

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