Tuesday, August 20, 2013



One of the best definitions of Zen I’ve read was printed more than fifty years ago in Volume I of the four-volume set of Haiku by R.H. Blyth:

“Zen is that state of mind in which we are not separated from other things, are indeed identified with them, and yet retain our own individuality and personal peculiarities.”

In this talk we will get back to the Zen state of mind in one form another, but as a starter I would like to talk about names. Remember the opening of Tao te Ching?

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
“The name that can be named is not the eternal name”

Does that warn against the use of names? Not really. It’s a caution that in labeling something we should keep in mind that a name is not the thing itself but a convenient tool.

          This thing at my side is called a singing bowl. You are called Don, or Matt, or Sheila. That’s what you are known as. But Don, or Matt, or Sheila is not the real you. A name is not the entity that is named.

          A seven is not a seven. It’s a handy designation for the sum of three and
four, both of which are not things but concepts. If you care to think about real offbeat designations, some of the most ingenious ones are those tagged on subatomic particles. There are leptons, bosons, baryons, quarks. Interestingly, these are not even things but theories, notions.

To veer into science speak, hadrons made of one quark and one antiquark, such as the pions, are bosons but aren't force-carriers. Helium-3 is a bosonic atom and is not a force-carrier.

If that’s perfectly clear, we’ll move on.

          You and other objects are not the name that has been laid on you.

          For example, God (with a big “G”) is a name. A name for precisely what, I don’t know because I have no concept of it, or him, or her. Still, the Bible has countless names for God. To list a few: Elohim, Adonai, Jehovah, Yahweh, Bread of Life, Chief Shepherd, and so on.

One biblical scholar claims names are precious to us because they reveal who we are. They are a unique part of one’s nature. But who, or what, is God?

The god, or a god is given many names because some people may be offended by one designation or another. Therefore, there must be more than one name even if it’s for only one god.

In the ancient world, particularly in the near-east, names were thought to be extremely powerful and to act as a separate manifestation of a person or deity. This viewpoint is responsible both for the reluctance to use the proper name of God in Hebrew writing or speech, as well as the common understanding in ancient magic that magical rituals had to be carried out in [someone's] name.

Ironically, if a person actually spoke one of God’s names—such as Jehovah—that person could be stoned to death.

To labor this further, by invoking a god or spirit by name, it was thought one was able to summon that spirit's power for some kind of miracle. This understanding passed into later religious tradition.

For example the stipulation in Catholic exorcism that a demon cannot be expelled until an exorcist has forced it to give up its name, at which point the name may be used in a stern command which will drive the demon away.

As an aside, here are a few names given demons that have had to be cast out: Astaroth, Balaam, Mictian, Azazel, Cimeries, and Dagon.

That last one is Dagon, not Dogen.

So, why don't the names of Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, and Dogen offend people? The reason is that these others don’t claim to be God.

It’s all very confusing.

Don‘t take me wrongly. I’m not saying names are bad. Names and labels are needed to help recognize one thing from another. To tell a human from a grilled cheese sandwich.

To paraphrase a Zen master, truth has nothing to do with names. Truth is like the moon in the sky, a name can be likened to a forefinger. The finger can point to the moon. However, the finger is not the moon.

A name is a fixed label. You have a name, but you are not fixed. You are ever changing.

The Japanese do name their children. What is interesting is that many streets in most Japanese towns don’t have names, or else they have several names.

This too can be confusing.

On the Internet there is a site for everything, even names. Spud was the name of one of my favorite cats, so I looked up Spud and was told the name creates a happy and expressive character.

Fair enough so far. Spud the cat was happy and expressive.

Then I was told “Spud” has good business judgment, with the ability to accomplish a great deal in a short time, and could allow expression along musical and artistic lines, and to mix with people of refinement and culture. Also, any Spud should not over-indulge in sweet, rich foods at the risk of experiencing skin or liver problems.

My cat have had peculiarities but, as far as I knew, he never had liver problems.

Gertrude Stein said a rose is a rose is a rose. I say a name is a label is a state of mind.

To wind this down, Muhammad Ali said, “Rivers, ponds, lakes, streams—they all have different names, but they all contain water . . . .”

George Burns said, “First you forget names, then you forget faces. Next you forget to pull your zipper up, and finally you forget to pull it down.”


Post a Comment

<< Home