Beyond Words

Beyond Words


Tesshin used this week’s talk to reflect on the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.  As a service to the community, he participates in a number of interfaith services to commemorate MLK and his work.  Tesshin made the observation that much of the language in today’s civil rights discussion echoes from the struggles of the 1960’s.  While, many of the struggles have not changed from the 1960’s, the 21st century has its own issues and problems, and he was concerned that they were not getting proper attention.   This got Tesshin thinking – when we speak, we are not just expressing our words and thoughts, but we are expressing our whole selves including our history, values, and culture.  It is this fact which could lead to many misunderstandings and hurt feelings.


This means our language is much deeper than we give it credit for.  Our language encapsulates so much of us.  Tesshin noted that when multilingual people are scanned in an fMRI machine, different parts of their brain light up when they use different languages.  For instance, the speakers brain is functioning differently when speaking Japanese than when speaking English – even if the same statement is being said.  Many spiritual people notice that they feel different when speaking in the context of their tradition.  The entire mental process changes when the language or context changes.


Tesshin reminded us that this deep perception of language is important if we are to be really helpful to other people.  For instance, in many progressive movements, there is a lot of talk about effecting change NOW!!  This is a very American way of thinking.  Our culture is all about rapid gratification.  We should challenge ourselves to imagine how this would be interpreted by someone in Asia where a longer term incremental approach is expected.  So an American may say to a Japanese counterpart that “innovation is important.”  The American assumes that this means to have a new website released next week whereas the Japanese may interpret this to mean continuous quality improvement over the next decade.  Both are saying the same words, but the deeper meaning is totally different.


Why is this important?  It is important because if we want to be truly helpful to others, we must go deeper than just the words.  This is especially important in relations between different groups with different histories and experiences.  Tesshin acknowledged this as he participated in the MLK celebrations.  It would not be “skillful” for him to talk about how the Dalai Lama is using a strategy spanning generations to deal with the Chinese when people are suffering right here and right now.  To them this would be arrogant and insensitive.  The words may be correct, but they would be unskillful for the audience and would do more harm than good.


In our country, we tend to forget this simple truth which is why we are having such difficulty helping and working with each other.  We assume everyone has the same “baggage.”  This is not the case.  Zen often talks about “Beginner’s Mind” or the state where we are open to new thoughts without our ego filtering everything to our perspective.  Tesshin mentioned that this is the mindset one should approach another group if we are to be truly helpful.  Listen more – talk less – and assume nothing!!


At this point, Tesshin asked how does someone enter this skillful state.  Zen answers with Zazen or seated mediation as the foundation.  Meditation trains the mind to detach from our history, culture, prejudices, and stories.  It allows us to open up and really SEE the other’s words as they are saying them.  Dogen stated that language is attachment.  One cannot really be free if everything we hear is filtered through our ego and our “backstory.”  


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that if we are going to reach out to communities during MLK day, we should ensure that we stop and really listen.  We need to understand the speaker from their history, feelings, and perceptions.  It is not about the listener, but all about the speaker.  Listen and Learn!   


Martin Luther King JR Events Tesshin is participating in…

Monday    11am    Terrytown AME church

Monday     4pm     “New Firehouse” in Peekskill