The Language Teacher
Zen student Oho thought and thought and thought about the ultimate meaning of words, but the more he thought the more confused he became. He realised that he was actually thinking in words, and sensed that the ultimate secret of words must lie beyond words - but he had no means to approach it, let alone grasp it - as his thinking mechanism would only work within a word defined structure. Carefully, he examined the word structures that he and others used, hoping to find some clue as to the ultimate meaning within. He became aware that much of what passed as conversation between people was conducted in a form of sloppy, ill-defined, shorthand full of assumptions and implied meanings - most of which were not common between the speaker and the listener even though they were assumed to be. The student resolved to become careful in his choice of words when he spoke, to be explicit, unambiguous and not make presupposition. As he, made his resolution, he suddenly understood that the phrase 'right speech', which was supposedly enunciated by the Buddha centuries ago, perhaps meant more than it appeared at first sight.
Although his insight into the potential confusing nature of words brought him some clarity and solace, the student still wrestled and wrestled with the nature of the ultimate nature of language and its meaning. Day and night he struggled until at last, in desperation, he gave up and went to visit his master, Nono, who lived unobtrusively in a small house on the outskirts of a nearby city. When he arrived, he was surprised to see that Nono was pleased to see him - for Nono was not renowned for his welcomes. His usual way with students was to give them some basic training and send them off into the world to learn for themselves. The master took Oho by the arm and led him to the kitchen where he had two cups of hot, steaming tea waiting. 'You are having problems understanding the nature of language, my boy. These problems come to all of us in due course. Sit down here by me and take some tea.' 'B, b, but how did you know I was coming?' Oho sat on the offered wicker chair and pointed at the two cups of tea.
'I didn't. I just felt the urge to make two cups of tea.' 'B, bu, but you knew I was having problems understanding the nature of language...'
'Only when I saw it was you at my door. First, I know you and your approximate stage of development. Next, for you to to visit me, I knew you must have a major problem - at your stage, that problem will be language. Simple. Now you explain.'
Oho explained his difficulties in great detail as Nono sat quietly sipping the sweet, aromatic tea. When the student had finished, Nono rose
without a word, disappeared into an outhouse attached to the kitchen, and returned with a ball of string, some heavy paper luggage labels, a marker pen, sharp knife and an empty white cardboard shoe-box.
'You cut the string and tie it to the objects while I write.' He sat down and proceeded to write the names of various objects on one side of the labels, handing them to Oho as he did. The smell of the solvent vapour from the marker pen filled the room as Oho scratched his head wondering what was going on, but knew better than to argue. He took the labels one by one, read the inscription, cut a length of the rough string and attached it to the appropriate objects. "TABLE," said the first label, so he tied it to the table. "CHAIR," said the second, and so on. Before long, the entire room was covered in labels, looking as if it were an auctioneer's saleroom. The student looked at the next label: and read "SANWOK". As he stared at the meaningless word, Nono passed him another unintelligible label: "VAILFAND," then another and another and another, and urged him to get on with it.
Oho just stared. 'But all these words are meaningless, they aren't objects.' 'Oh no they aren't. Those words are equally as valid as all the other words, after all they're only words you know. A sanwok, for instance, is the word for a cup sitting on a table - but only when the table has a chair beneath it. Cut a long piece of string and fasten it to the cup, the table and the chair: tie them together.
Oho did as instructed. 'What does this one here mean then, "Dahgnum"? 'That's a word for the empty space in a room, space that isn't taken up by furniture, clutter and the rest. Stretch a long piece of string across the room with the label hung on it.'
And so it went. After an hour, the room was criss-crossed with pieces of string attaching various objects, measuring the distance between objects, showing the absence of objects and so on.
Finally Nono, who had been writing something on the faces of the shoe-box, seemed satisfied. He turned in his chair, with one face of the box pointing towards Ono: the word SIT was written on it. Nono pointed at himself. As he did, he rotated the box, stood, and displayed the word STAND: again he pointed at himself. Rotating the box again to reveal the word WALK, Nono pointed at his feet and walked across to the table where he picked up a knife and rotated the box again to reveal the word TAKE. He placed the knife on top of the shoe-box and positioned the label attached to the knife such that the words read TAKE KNIFE. Deftly, he rotated the box to read WALK again, rounded the table, halted, rotated the box again to read PLACE against the label KNIFE and then held his box adjacent to the label on the plate such that the words read PLACE KNIFE PLATE. With that, he put the knife on the plate and threw the box in the corner - the whole pantomime being carried out in silence. Nono
resumed his seat. 'Well?'. 'I don't understand,' began Oho. 'There is little or nothing to understand. Go home, go to sleep, and tomorrow you will have the answer.'
Oho new better than argue. The wind whistled in his ears as he made his way home, wondering about the strange lesson his master had given him. Despite being restless when he went to bed, slept soundly and awoke refreshed. Later in the morning, the postman arrived with a large parcel for him.
Oho hadn't been expecting a parcel, and opened it curiously. The box contained thousand upon thousand of heavy paper labels, each with a single different word neatly written on one side in marker pen. On the reverse side of each label, again in marker pen, was written the word "Label". He tore open the envelope inside the parcel and read the neatly written note: 'The description of something is not the thing it describes, it is but a label. Labels exist for things and non-things: only one kind is necessary, the others describe illusions.'