Names and Labels

Many years ago, I “got into” Zen through Taoism, particularly the collection of verses called the Tao Teh Ching (or Daode Jing). Early Zen appears to have been influenced by Taoism, so it wasn’t much of a leap.

Now I’m reading a new book called Walking the Way: 81 Zen Encounters With the Tao Teh Ching by Robert Rosenbaum, and I’m enjoying it very much. The 81 “encounters” are reflections on the Tao Teh Ching’s verses, and some are quite lovely. Here’s a bit —

“Your name is a summons, not a self. Whatever names have been bestowed on you, whatever names you have created for yourself, are only pointers, motes of dust that enable our thoughts to condense and identify an object; you are a way seeking itself. Names can give the illusion of some unchanging essence “underneath” the name, so don’t be deceived; the real you does not stop or start, but swirls and streams.”

Of course, all names of things are motes of dust that enable our thoughts to condense and identify. This reminds me of another quote I’ve posted before — Zen teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer wrote,

“In Buddhist thought the concept “emptiness” refers to deconstructed reality. The more closely you look at something the more you see that it is not there in any substantial way, it couldn’t be. In the end everything is just a designation: things have a kind of reality in their being named and conceptualized, but otherwise they actually aren’t present. Not to understand that our designations are designations, that they do not refer to anything in particular, is to mistake emptiness.” [“A Few Words About Emptiness,” PDF]

If designations for tangible things (in a relative sense) such as [your name], computer, chair, cat, friend, whatever, designate things that actually are not present, how much more so is something intangible not present? Ideologies, political theories, belief systems, have no substance whatsoever, for example, yet we argue about them all the time.

Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World

I’m thinking of the endless argument that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. Someone with the least understanding of dharma ought to know that as soon as you say “I am” or “it is” or “they are,” you’re in trouble. Sometimes you have to make those designations to communicate, but ultimately there’s nothing there to argue about.

[This post was originally published on Buddhism on June 4, 2013]

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