Describing the indescribable, within the limitations of language


Soon after the Great Spirit created the first man and the first woman, they began to quarrel. Nobody remembers why, but because of it, the first woman ran away in great anger. Soon, the first man became very sad, and began to moan and weep. The Great Spirit heard his cries and felt sorry for him. “Would you like to see your wife again?” he asked. “If only she’d come back,” the first man promised, “I’ll never quarrel with her again!”

“Go find her, then,” said the Great Spirit. The first man ran after her, but the first woman had too great a head start. So the Great Spirit created a huge patch of blueberries in her path, hoping she would stop to eat. But she was so angry, she didn’t even slow down.

Next, he tried raspberries, then currants, and even blackberries. Although the thorns tore her clothes and scratched her, she kept going.

Finally, the Great Spirit created a new berry growing along the ground, and she slowed down to try one. It was so good, she stopped to pick more. That was how the first man finally caught up to her and apologized. They made up, and the strawberry is still shaped like a heart because it symbolizes the love of The First Man and The First Woman. And Native people call it the heartberry.

(A Native American Folk Tale)


Ashley and Changying just arrived home from school and made a bee-line for the kitchen.  They threw their backpacks on the couch, hungry and in the mood for a late afternoon snack.  A fresh bowl of fruit was on the table.  It was as colorful as a crisp autumn day, filled with sunshine and the gentle rustic colors of falling leaves.

“What’s that one,” inquired Changying in her girlish inquisitive tone.

“Oh, that’s a strawberry straight from the California fields,” replied Ashley.

Changying was a high school exchange student from Kaohsiung, Taiwan.  Her mother Chu-Hau (chrysanthemum) worked at the Kaohsiung City Chungcheng Cultural Center, and her father was an engineer.  She had two other sisters and one brother.  Being the oldest sibling she was the first to travel abroad.

“What does it taste like,” exclaimed Changying as she looked at it with a curious demeanor.  ‘It’s shaped like my heart.”

“Well,” chimed in Ashley, “they smell like a rose and taste mostly sweet.  The skin has all those tiny embedded seeds which seem to get in my teeth.  It’s juicy, and the medium size ones have more flavor than the larger ones.  They are a fragile and a delicate fruit; you don’t want to bounce them around otherwise they get squashed.”

Changying picked one up, smelled it, turned it around, and then put it in her mouth.  Her eyes lit up and her face became one big smile.

“It’s really wonderful,” added Changying.  “But no matter how well you describe it – you need to hold, smell, and actually taste it to know what it truly is.”


Changying made an astute observation.  No matter how well the strawberry was described by Ashley, using all available adjectives and nouns to be found in the English language, it is not the same (or as complete) as the actual experience of eating the strawberry.

So to, when we try to describe the joy that unfolds due to our meditation practice, or the nature of the unbounded eternal blissful conscious absolute, we can only use words – to convey ideas that hint at what the experience is really like.

We are limited by the confines of language, and the ideas that our minds can conceptualize.

Experience of the Self is knowledge that transcends speech, word, and the field of mind (time, space and causation).

To help overcome the limitations of language and the thrifty conveyance of ideas several interesting techniques have been developed.  Among the grab bag of tools available to us are oxymorons, the use of apophatic descriptions (i.e., Neti neti – not this, not this), and the Zen Koan.


An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines opposing terms.

For example, we use Yin and Yang, the Chinese Tai Chi symbol that enunciates the universal principle of opposites, yet is combined as a single whole.  By highlighting opposite values, we are better able to understand the full breadth of ideas.

Here is a short list of language oxymorons:

active retirement deafening silence legally drunk student teacher
almost exactly death benefits minor crisis sweet sorrow
alone together deafening silence near miss taped live
amateur expert definite maybe objective opinion terribly good
awfully nice diet ice cream old news timeless moment
bipartisan cooperation educated guess open secret unsung hero
bittersweet even odds original copies virtual reality
black light found  missing passive aggression work party
boneless ribs freezer  burns religious tolerance working holiday
civil war genuine  imitation rolling stop
clearly confused good grief same difference
clearly misunderstood great  depression seriously Joking
climb down idiot savant small crowd
constant variable least favorite soft rock

Oxymorons can also be used to describe objects.  For example, have your ever seen:

solid water (ice)
artificial grass
invisible ink
wax fruit

.. or other such items?


Adi Shankara (788 – 822) was one of the first Advaita philosophers to advocate the use of the phrase Neti neti (not this, not this); an approach to assist the student in understanding what is beyond reason, word and thought – the Absolute.

By first bringing the students attention to what is, and then pointing out – that the Absolute is not this, and not that, – awareness is shattered and mental boundaries broken to open up one to the field of infinite possibilities.

For example:

It is different from the known; it is also above the unknown.
Kenopanishad (I.4)

From whence all speech, with the mind, turns away unable to reach it.
Taittiriya Upanishad (II.9)

There are two forms of Brahman, gross and subtle, the material and the immaterial, the mortal and the immortal, the limited and the unlimited, Sat and Tyat
(Brahman sutra)

Whenever we deny something unreal, it is in reference to something real.
(Brahman Sutra III.2.22)

By such sentences as “That thou art,” our own Self is affirmed.  Of that which is untrue and composed of the five elements – the Sruti (scripture) says, “Not this, not this.” (Neti Neti)
(Avadhuta Gita, verse 25)

Always “not this, not this” to both the formless and the formed.
Only the Absolute exists, transcending difference and non difference.
(Avadhuta Gita, verse 62)

Many religious traditions make use of this same principle. For example,

* God is neither existence nor non existence.
* That which is infinite is known only to itself (Quintus Tertullian, Christian).
* For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him (Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Christian).
* Descriptions of God reveal not the nature, but the things around the nature (John of Damascus, Christian).
* God is absolutely different from anything else, and, as above, is in consequence held to be totally unknowable. It is for this reason that we cannot make any direct statements about God (Kabbalistic teaching, Jewish)
* I Am the One I Am (Exodus 3:13-14, Jewish)


The Zen Koan is a beautiful example of using a story, dialog or question is such as way that the meaning cannot be understood through rational thinking.  Instead, intuition and radical out-of-the-box thinking are required.   This attempts to overcome the limitations of language and reason.

Joshu Washes the Bowl:
A monk told Joshu: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked: “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”

The monk replied: “I have eaten.”

Joshu said: “Then you had better wash your bowl.”

At that moment the monk was enlightened.

Seizei Alone and Poor:
A monk named Seizei asked of Sozan: “Seizei is alone and poor. Will you give him support?”
Sozan asked: “Seizei?”

Seizei responded: “Yes, sir.”

Sozan said: “You have Zen, the best wine in China, and already have finished three cups, and still you are saying that they did not even wet your lips.”

Tozan’s Three Pounds:
A monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax: “What is Buddha?”
Tozan said: “This flax weighs three pounds.”

Dried Dung:

A monk asked Ummon: “What is Buddha?” Ummon answered him: “Dried dung.”

Blow Out the Candle:
Tokusan was studying Zen under Ryutan. One night he came to Ryutan and asked many questions. The teacher said: “The night is getting old. Why don’t you retire?”
So Tukusan bowed and opened the screen to go out, observing: “It is very dark outside.”

Ryutan offered Tokusan a lighted candle to find his way. Just as Tokusan received it, Ryutan blew it out. At that moment the mind of Tokusan was opened.

“What have you attained?” asked Ryutan.

“From now on,” said Tokusan, “I will not doubt the teacher’s words.”

The next day Ryutan told the monks at his lecture: “I see one monk among you. His teeth are like the sword tree, his mouth is like the blood bowl. If you hit him hard with a big stick, he will not even so much as look back at you. Someday he will mount the highest peak and carry my teaching there.”

On that day, in front of the lecture hall, Tokusan burned to ashes his commentaries on the sutras. He said: “However abstruse the teachings are, in comparison with this enlightenment they are like a single hair to the great sky. However profound the complicated knowledge of the world, compared to this enlightenment it is like one drop of water to the great ocean.” Then he left the monastery.

Lao-Tzu has stated, “To lead the people, walk behind them.”  President Barack Obama of the United States has started to practice the concept, “Leading from behind.”


Beyond concept and language; the Self is known by means of direct experience.

The Dao (Tao) is found outside the realm of Yin and Yang.  Untouched by time and timelessness, the field of birth and death, dharma and adharma, the immutable ineffable defies even the poetry of word and idea.

Not by books or study; the Self is known by means of direct experience.

It has been said, “To the enlightened one, all of the Vedas (books of knowledge) are of no more use than is a small well in a place flooded with water on very side.”

Through right view, intent, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration (the Noble Eightfold path of Theravada Buddhism) the individual becomes worthy of enlightenment, but the Self is known by means of direct experience.

So close the eyes (meditate) and allow the mind to settle to its natural state of least excitation – pure silence.  In meditation the experience of pure awareness becomes clearer, day after day.  As the nervous system becomes more cultured greater values of joy and liveliness animate your individuality.

Although we try our best to point the way using language and reason, Enlightenment is gained by direct experience.

This entry was posted on Monday, November 7th, 2011 at 9:45 pm and is filed under Right action. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


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