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Discussion Paper 5 in 2008
First published in ejcjs on 28 April 2008

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Approaching the Language of Zen

Clarke, Heidegger, and the Meaning of Articulation in Zen Koans


Anton Sevilla

Ateneo de Manila University

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About the Author


Long ago when the World-Honored One was at Mount Grdhrakuta to give a talk, he held up a flower before the assemblage. At this all remained silent. The Venerable Kasho alone broke into a smile. The World-Honored One said, 'I have the all-pervading True Dharma, incomparable Nirvana, exquisite teaching of formless form. It does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside scriptures. I now hand it to Maha Kasho.'

'Sakyamuni Holds Up a Flower', 6th Koan of the Mumonkan



The encounter between Zen Buddhism and western philosophy has come a long way in the past several decades. Despite this progress however, it may be said that approaching language in Zen presents a particular difficulty for students of western philosophy. Due to this difficulty, many limited understandings of Zen remain, encapsulated in phrases like 'Koans are purely irrational and absurd,' or 'Zen is completely opposed to thinking.' In response to the impediment posed to students of western philosophy, this paper aims to suggest an angle of approach to Zen writings in a manner congenial to a western standpoint.

The paper begins with several comments made by Norris Clarke as a point of departure. Clarke's work offers a two-fold purpose. On one hand, as a very readable writer often used in introductory courses to metaphysics, Clarke's ideas serve to articulate and ground an intellectual approach that may be common to students of western philosophy. On the other hand, Clarke's (mis)understanding of Zen allows for a dialogue that clearly illustrates the difficulty of approaching Zen. This section discusses key notions such as metaphysical articulation and intelligibility that shall be used as a counterpoint in succeeding sections.

In the next section, the article shall proceed to explore the notion of Zen articulation as 'unsaying,' and 'poetic speech,' in contradistinction to the idea of metaphysical articulation. The article shall present an examination of several koans from The Gateless Barrier (Jp. 無門関, mumonkan). The Mumonkan is a collection of koans compiled in the 13th century, and has been selected because it is commonly used as the first book for koan practice by Zen Buddhists. Through this collection and the respected commentary of Zenkei Shibayama, hopefully it will become possible to experience the function of articulation in Zen koans.

Finally, we shall proceed to what I believe to be a framework of language congenial to Zen, Martin Heidegger's theory of language. By studying the notions of logos and aletheia in simultaneous comparison with articulation in Clarke's metaphysics and Zen articulation, I hope to clarify and expound on the meaning of 'unsaying' and 'poetic speech.'

Articulation and Representation in Clarke's Metaphysics

In his introduction entitled 'What is Metaphysics All About?' Norris Clarke (2001, p.1) writes:

Zen Buddhist wisdom is not itself as such a metaphysics, though it is a vision of reality as a whole, because it believes this vision should be left unspoken, to be discovered and communicated in other more directly experiential and non-verbal ways. Yet Zen may of course imply an implicit metaphysics that can be indirectly suggested, or articulated by someone else. Zen is properly a spirituality or spiritual discipline containing an implicit metaphysics (though the latter is a controverted point, denied by many Zen people).

While Clarke is perhaps correct in saying that Zen is a vision of reality as a whole, I wish to call attention to Clarke's comment regarding the relationship between Zen and language. According to Clarke, Zen does not wish to communicate its vision of reality in the form of traditional verbal articulation that metaphysics oft employs. Because of this non-articulation, Clarke suggests that Zen has an implicit metaphysics but it does not of itself truly articulate itself as one.

Does Zen indeed refuse to speak its vision of reality? What is the relationship of Zen and this form of articulation Clarke believes to be proper to metaphysics? In order to answer these questions, let us proceed briefly to Clarke's understanding of articulation, thinking and metaphysics.

In order to understand Clarke's contention about the use of language, we must first understand what Clarke means when he says that metaphysics is 'spoken.' In the beginning of his introductory essay, Clarke (2001, p.1) writes:

'Metaphysical' inquiry is found wherever the human being extends his intellectual questioning to embrace the whole of reality, seeking somehow to pull together all the obvious multiplicity and diversity into some kind of intelligible unity, with the inquiry subjected to and guided by the critical testing of the thinker's own personal intelligence according to the evidence available to him, with the results articulated in some sort of systematic way. The thinker must also be willing, at least in principle, to argue and defend his position before the rational criticism of others.

Metaphysics, in its attempt to grasp reality as a whole, must be spoken in a particular manner. The manner of speaking can perhaps be captured by the word 'to articulate.' To articulate means to present a matter in a lucid, systematic fashion that is rationally intelligible and clearly communicable. It is this clarity of thought that permits such an articulation to be made available to others, such that the others may subject this articulation to the critical powers of their own thought. Only by this lucid intelligibility is it possible for a point to be defensible and argued. After all, an obscure unintelligible utterance would not be understood by others and as such could not be analyzed and criticized by fellow thinkers. Clarke (2001, p.1) sums: 'What distinguishes the metaphysician within philosophical inquiry is his thrust toward articulating a vision of reality as a whole.' (Emphasis supplied.)

However articulation, as a mode of saying, is inseparably bound to a particular notion of thinking. For the metaphysician to strive to speak reality in a particular manner implies that he thinks reality in a manner particular to his speaking. This becomes readily apparent in the following sentence: 'Metaphysics is the above inquiry insofar as it can be expressed in articulate human discourse, which accepts the responsibility to lay forth its evidence and defend its conclusions in conceptual-linguistic frameworks of explanation and argumentation' (Clarke 2001, p.2).

The use of language that clearly expresses ideas and representations requires that one think within the realm of 'conceptual-linguistic frameworks,' of patterns of ideation by which shared meanings can be contested and refined. Articulation, as metaphysics requires it, is inseparable from representational thinking. Within this representational thinking, the human intellect pursues the whole of reality in a particular manner. Clarke (2001, pp.1-2) writes:

…seeking somehow to pull together all the obvious multiplicity and diversity into some kind of intelligible unity.

We do this in hope of discovering, as far as we can, the essential, universal, or all-pervasive properties and structures of all beings as real, their ultimate principles of intelligibility, and their interrelationships to form an intelligible whole—or, more briefly, the ultimate laws of intelligibility of being as being.

The repeating theme here is intelligibility. Metaphysics demands clear articulations of reality that can be expressed and defended according to reason because it thinks of reality from within rational frameworks of thought that seek to grasp at the intelligibility of reality as a whole. But is reality as a whole intelligible?

For Clarke (2001, p.3) the human drive to know the world must be matched in kind by an intelligibility of all being. Clarke encapsulates this union between the human drive to know and the intelligibility of existence in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: 'Capax totius entis' (Clarke 2001, p.3). 'Man has the capacity to grasp the whole.' But despite this assertion of the intelligibility of reality, Clarke himself realizes that there are insurmountable limits to intellection and articulation. Despite an unrestricted drive to know, Clarke (2001, p.2) states that there is never a definitive metaphysics. Each metaphysical system remains constrained by the framework of its time, the particular concepts and how they relate to one another, and the limited vista of truth that these concepts highlight and articulate.

This throws the existence of metaphysics into a particular tension. On one hand, through its unrestricted drive to know, the mind is always grasp-ing reality as a whole. But on the other hand, despite this unrestricted drive, man's mind is finite, perspectival, and limited to various conceptual-linguistic frameworks that prevent man from intellectually grasping and articulating reality as a whole (Clarke 2001, pp.2-3). As such, man appears to be condemned to the Sisyphusian task of grasping at that which it cannot comprehend.

Unsaying the Unthinkable in the Mumonkan

The tension between the abundance of the coming to light of reality and the finitude of man's grasp and articulation is a universal experience for learners everywhere, and it is in the face of this tension that Zen asserts its character. Having discussed Clarke's notions of articulation, representation, and the tension within metaphysics that results from such, let us turn to a story that concretely illustrates the tension that a learner faces, standing before an over-abundant reality. We turn to a story on the early life of the Zen Master Tokusan Senkan which is presented in the 28th koan of the Mumonkan. We begin with Zen Master Mumon's commentary. Mumon says:

When Tokusan had not yet left his home, his mind was indignant and his tongue sharp. He confidently came to the south in order to exterminate the 'special transmission outside scriptures [Zen Buddhism].' When he reached the road to Reishu, he talked to an old woman who sold tenjin [snacks, refreshments]. The old woman said, 'Venerable Monk, what books do you carry in your box?' Tokusan said, 'They are notes and commentaries on the Diamond Sutra.' The old woman said, 'It is said in the sutra that "the past mind is unattainable; the present mind is unattainable; the future mind is unattainable." Which mind, Venerable Monk, are you going to light up [refresh]?' Tokusan was unable to answer this question and had to shut his mouth tight (Shibayama 2000, p.202).

According to the teisho [a lecture given during a Zen retreat] of Zenkei Shibayama, Tokusan was quite the scholar-philosopher in his younger days. He was a Buddhist monk, presumably not of the Zen way of Buddhism, who had devoted himself to the study of the Diamond Sutra (Skt. Vajracchedika-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, Jap. kosan-kongyō), a difficult Mahayana Buddhist piece from the Perfection of Wisdom genre. He was carrying a box full of notes and commentaries—a veritable treasure indeed! But Shibayama notes that poised with the direct, experiential question of the old woman, 'You ask for refreshments; is it the past, present or future mind which you wish to refresh?' Tokusan found himself completely unable to bring his extensive philosophical understanding to bear upon the immediacy of the situation. Finding himself thoroughly perplexed, he sought the guidance of the nearest Zen Master, Ryutan.

The story unfolds as such in the 28th koan entitled 'Well-Known Ryutan.' It is written:

Tokusan once called on Ryutan to ask for instruction and stayed until night fell. Ryutan said, 'It is getting late; you had better leave.' At last Tokusan said good-bye, lifted up the door curtain, and went out. Noticing that it was dark, he turned back and said, 'It is dark outside.' Ryutan thereupon lit a candle and handed it to him. Tokusan was about to take it when Ryutan blew it out. At this Tokusan was all of a sudden enlightened. He made a bow. Ryutan asked, 'What realization do you have?' Tokusan replied, 'From now on I will not doubt the sayings of any of the great Zen Masters in the world.'

The next day Ryutan mounted the rostrum and declared, 'Among the monks here there is a fellow whose fangs are like swords, and whose mouth is like a bowl of blood. You may strike him with a stick but he will not turn his head. Some day in the future, he will establish his way on a steep and lofty peak.'

Tokusan then took out his notes and commentaries on the Diamond Sutra and in front of the monastery hall he held up a burning torch and said, 'Even though one masters various profound philosophies, it is like placing a single strand of hair in the great sky; even if one gains all the essential knowledge in the world, it is like throwing a drop of water into a deep ravine.' Taking up his notes and commentaries, he burned them all. Then he left with gratitude. (Shibayama 2000, p.201)

What is the meaning of Ryutan's gesture of giving Tokusan a candle, only to put it out? What is the meaning of Tokusan's burning of his own extensive commentaries?

After a day of difficult instruction, Tokusan finds himself in the dark. According to Shibayama, Tokusan's statement 'It is dark outside' speaks not only of the darkness of nightfall, but of the darkness that engulfs a man who cannot bring himself to grasp reality. Despite all of Tokusan's academic understanding and philosophical articulations of a key Mahayana text, he finds himself unable to answer the old lady's question. As he receives instruction from Ryutan, this vexation plagues him like a dark abyss that has swallowed him whole. It is in this darkness that Ryutan lights a candle. Of this gesture, the religious scholar Toshihiko Izutsu (1982a, p.117) remarks:

The candle light which illumines the world of darkness and divides it up into visible things is here playing the role of language with its essential function of articulation. When the Master blew the light out, the once illumines world sank again into the original darkness where nothing could be distinguished. The articulation became nullified and turned into non-articulation. . . . Since [Tokusan] had seen the illumined world (i.e., the articulated world) a moment ago, the darkness now was not sheer darkness; it was rather a darkness into which all the articulated things had been engulfed; it was non-existence as the plenitude of existence.

The light of Ryutan's candle is likened to words, and in this case, could be likened to the words of the Diamond Sutra and other notes and commentaries. Through this light, Tokusan was able to grasp things, to see them, to navigate about them and so forth. His philosophical purview into the sutras allowed him a mode of articulating reality and grasping it in an intelligible fashion.

But is what is grasped as reality as it is, actually reality as it is? The candle does not bring all things to light. Some things enter the light, and some things remain in the dark. But the danger when we light a candle with our philosophical articulations lies in this: In the process of thinking, we remain aware that what we are saying does not completely grasp the reality. When one looks upon a lily blooming in a forgotten pond, one knows that the words one pens in an ode do not fully capture the abundance of the flower. Or when one studies various religious or sociological phenomena, one is always aware of the incompleteness of one's understanding. But as this partial understanding is expressed into a cogent articulation, a systematic piece, the danger lies in that one may look upon it and think, 'Here! I have grasped the matter.' What comes to light conceals the very darkness from which it has emerged. And lo, in the little light, the darkness is forgotten.

The old woman blew out Tokusan's candle first. By humiliating his keen understanding with the vitality of her question, Tokusan's understanding of the world through the grasp afforded to him by the Diamond sutra was challenged. Unfortunately, this was not sufficient to urge him into the dark. He clung to his candle and its feeble light.

After a day's instruction, that candle of his own intellectual understanding was flickering in the wind. Ryutan's breath was the final gust that put it out. With the candle of his intellectual grasp put out, Tokusan once more could stand before the abundance of reality, without pretense of illumination, without forgetting the infinity that recedes into the dark in favor of the little which steps into the light.

No candle, no furnace, no bursting star can dispel all the darkness of the abundance that refuses understanding. Even the greatest and most refined articulation is partial, paltry, a drop of water falling into a bottomless abyss. And thus, Tokusan burns all his commentaries, all the words he had clung to. And as Ryutan and the old woman had aided him, he unsaid these very words that bound him.

'Unsaying' is a function which is developed in Zen Buddhist articulation. Unsaying seeks to undo our attachment to the feeble light of our articulations, in order that we can remain faithful to the abundance of reality that lies beyond our grasp. In the previous koan and its accompanying commentary, we saw this unsaying carried out through vague questions, 'Which mind, Venerable Monk, are you going to light up [refresh]?' and cryptic gestures like blowing out a candle. But unsaying is something that is present not merely in these concrete expressions but in direct articulations as well.

Baso and the Unsaying of Buddha and Mind

Articulations that serve not to say but to unsay can be illustrated by two koans of the Mumonkan. The 30th koan, 'Mind is Buddha' states:

Taibai once asked Baso, 'What is Buddha?' Baso answered, 'Mind is Buddha.' (Shibayama 2000, p.214)

'What is Buddha?' is a metaphysical question par excellence. Buddha is the awakened one. Buddha is Tathāgata, one who is thus-come and thus-gone. Buddha is that which rests in Tathata, reality as it is in its thusness. Buddha is the man that is one with the entirety of reality. And Zen Master Baso straightforwardly answers that this Buddha is none other than the mind.

In order to understand how this direct articulation functions, let us take a brief detour into the meaning of this statement. Turning to a story of Baso's own training under Master Nangaku, in a story narrated in the teisho of Shibayama (2000, p.215) it says:

When Master Nangaku was at Hannyaji in Kozan, Baso stayed at Denpo-in on the same mountain, doing nothing but zazen day and night. One day Master Nangaku asked Baso, 'Reverend Sir, what are you doing here?' 'I am doing zazen,' answered Baso. 'What are you going to accomplish by doing zazen?' asked Nangaku. Baso replied, 'I am only trying to be a Buddha.' Hearing that, Nangaku walked away without a word, picked up a piece of brick in the garden, and started to polish it with a grinding stone in front of his hut. Baso asked, wondering, 'What are you trying to accomplish by polishing that brick?' 'I am trying to make a mirror by polishing this brink,' replied Nangaku. Basu asked again, 'Can a piece of brick be made into a mirror by polishing?' Nangaku retorted, 'Can one become a Buddha by doing zazen?'

Many mistakenly see Buddha as something to be attained, some accomplishment to strive for. As such they go about polishing themselves in various manners. They seek out Buddhahood as if it is a lost secret. But to do so is to move from tanha (craving, attachment) and desire, in order to reach that which is what is obscured by tanha. Hence it is futile, like polishing a brick in order to make a mirror.

Fu-daishi writes: 'You truth-seeker, look into your own mind. If you realize that Buddha is in yourself, you will not seek after him outwardly. Mind is Buddha; Buddha is mind. If your mind is clear, you will realize Buddha' (Shibayama 2000, p.216). If one is to realize Buddha and reality as it is, one must rescind one's attachment to this idea, this external ideal of Buddhahood and turn on the light within. It is mindful of this that Baso formulates his reply.

In this discussion, we see that Baso's reply 'Mind is Buddha' functions as an unsaying that seeks to release Taibai from his fixation on this external ideal of enlightenment. But is this not a metaphysical assertion in itself? It is not. Turning to the 33rd koan of the Mumonkan entitled 'No Mind, No Buddha,' we read:

A monk once asked Baso, 'What is Buddha?' Baso answered, '[There is] No mind, [there is] no Buddha' (Shibayama 2000, p.235).

If we take either koan as a metaphysical articulation, in Clarke's sense of a statement that systematically explains conclusions within a particular conceptual framework, then it makes absolutely no sense for him to first say 'Mind is Buddha' then to altogether refute himself and say 'No mind, no Buddha' in response to the same question 'What is Buddha?' But neither 'Mind is Buddha' nor 'No mind, no Buddha' seek to definitively articulate the reality of Buddha in its intelligibility. How then do these statements function? In his teisho, Shibayama (2000, p.236) says:

What reason could there be for Baso to give such contradictory answers? It must be his compassionate and creative means of wiping away all the attachment of his disciples and definitely awakening them to Reality. Earlier, Taibai had come to Master Baso seeking Buddha outside himself, and in order to break through his illusion Baso told him, 'Mind is Buddha.' Now that Baso sees that many disciples have become attached to 'Mind is Buddha' he says 'No mind, no Buddha' in order to smash and wipe away their attachment to 'Mind is Buddha.'

Master Jizai, who was Master Baso's successor, commented, '"Mind is Buddha" is the phrase for one who wants medicine while he has no disease. 'No mind, no Buddha' is the phrase for one who cannot do away with medicine when his disease has been cured.'

Neither statement is a definitive articulation because each statement depends on the attachment of the one who is spoken to. This form of communication depends highly on the context of the conversation and the state of the one who is spoken to because the primary focus of such speech is not to add but to subtract, not to instill knowledge but to release one from attachments to that which has come to light. As such it is not a problem if a Zen Master's own statements run headlong into each other in sheer contradiction. So long as they do their job of dispelling the light when the expanse of the darkness has been forgotten, what little articulation serves its purpose.

Unsaying and the Limits of Metaphysics

The discipline of Zen Buddhism requires that Zen masters make use of everything in their capacity in order to help bring their disciples to a more immediate relationship with reality. This means the skilful usage of actions, from mundane activities in the monastery to occasionally violent and absurd encounters. But coaxing disciples along the way of Zen also requires a skilful use of language in dialogues, speeches and writings. Hence it is not that '[Zen] believes this vision should be left unspoken,' as Clarke (2001, p.1) suggested. But because the vision of reality cannot be contained in any amount of metaphysical articulation, Zen Buddhists may opt to use articulations, even definitions, in an effort to 'unsay' the metaphysical articulations that have, in their limitedness, become barriers to one's relationship with reality.

While Clarke (2001, p.1) had mentioned that Zen has an unarticulated, implicit metaphysics, what we have arrived at seems to be to the contrary—that Zen uses articulations in a 'counter-metaphysical' manner, in order to 'unsay' explanations rather than to supply frameworks by which reality can be grasped. But the task of Zen is not completely alien to Clarke.

Clarke himself spoke of a fundamental limitation to metaphysical systems, a limitation that postmodernism has drawn heavily from. Due to the limits of thinking within conceptual linguistic frameworks, Clarke (2001, p.2) cautions that there can never be a definitive metaphysics. We see here that Clarke himself is aware of the danger of clinging to a metaphysical system as if it were definitive and absolute. Congenial to this awareness, Zen's usage of language as 'unsaying' then serves the purpose of bringing each thinker to an awareness of the limited character of conceptual linguistic frameworks, no matter how attached to them one can become.

As we have seen in the previous section, language in Zen often functions to unspeak reality and returns it from the frail light of intellection to the abundance of one's primordial relationship with reality. But does this mean that the end goal of Zen is silence? When all has been unspoken, are we sufficiently faithful to the point of encounter that precedes all mere utterances?

Poetic Speech in Zen

Words are not sufficient to articulate reality, but neither is keeping silent. In this section, let us examine another way in which language is used in Zen, a usage we will term as 'poetic speech.' In the 24th koan of the Mumonkan, 'Abandon Words and Speaking,' it is written:

A monk once asked Master Fuketsu, 'Both speaking and silence are concerned with ri-bi relativity. How can we be free and nontransgressing?' Fuketsu said, 'How fondly I remember Konan in March! The partridges are calling, and the flowers are fragrant' (Shibayama 2000, p.175)

Words belong to bi (subtle), and silence belongs to ri (separateness).[1] To speak is to commit oneself to the manifestness and intelligibility of reality as it is in its differentiated phenomenal expression. Articulation resides in the realm that is illumined by the light of the mind. But implicit in speech then is a forgetfulness of the transcendence of reality, how it lies beyond the grasp of the intellect.

However, the converse also holds true for silence. In keeping silent, one commits oneself to the transcendence of reality. One returns to the unified darkness of unknowing that negates all discrete phenomena. But implicit in keeping silent is a rejection of the manifestness of reality as it stands in the light.

Neither articulation nor keeping silent is faithful to both the transcendence and manifestness that both constitute reality. Hence the translation of Izutsu (1982b, p.130) renders the monk's question as such: 'Speech spoils the transcendence (of Reality), while silence spoils the manifestation. How could one combine speech and silence without spoiling Reality?'

Master Fuketsu replies with a poem by the famous T'ang dynasty poet Toho. 'How fondly I remember Konan in March! The partridges are calling, and the flowers are fragrant.' What is the significance of replying with a poem? Is poetry not merely a form of speech, thus spoiling the transcendence of reality?

However, the poet takes a very different stance to reality as compared to Clarke's idea of the metaphysician, the lawyer and the arbiter of truth. When Toho says the partridges are calling, he did not mean that partridges were not otherwise than such. When Toho speaks of the fragrance of the flowers, he does not deny their stench or the muteness of their aroma. When the poet speaks, he does not say, 'This is such, it is not otherwise! Those who disagree, dispute me if you dare.'

Looking upon a flower wrapped around the well bucket, Chiyo, a poetess of the Tokugawa era writes: 'Ah, the morning glory! My bucket thirsts'[2] (Suzuki 2000, p.75) 'Ah' translates the exclamatory particle 'ya' by which the first sentence ends. Ya! The whole poem is swallowed by this one syllable. The very comportment of the poet is dictated by this particle. Ya! Look here to where reality springs! I am smitten. For this moment I am none other than the morning glory itself. My existence is a testament to its splendor.

The poem does not draw lines. The poem does not 'compete in an arena of truth.' The poem merely calls us to reality, calls us to stand and be moved—moved by what is sensible and glorious in its shining light and moved by what is subtle and unspoken in the mysterious dark. Hence, the poet does not merely speak. The poet, in his speech, says less, less by enough that speech be silent. He does not cling to the transcendence of things, nor does he cling to their manifestness. In speech the poet flings us to the vast arena of the play of light and shadow, where the light glimmers and plays in the expanse of the suffocating dark.

Beyond the back-and-forth play of saying and unsaying, we see here that in Zen koans, language may also function as 'poetic speech.' But what precisely does it mean to speak in this manner? Is this what is thought of as a mere exclamatory irrationality in Zen speech? Let us turn to a framework that may aid us to understand this peculiar usage of language.

Heidegger and the Essence of Language

For the student trained in western philosophy, a helpful framework to approaching this sense of poetic speech might be conveyed by a study of the development of the idea of logos as legein in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. In order to understand the nuances of his appropriation of the idea of language, let us probe deeply into his explanations in the essay 'Logos: (Heraclitus, Fragment B 50).'

In the present day, the word Logos is understood as ratio, verbum, cosmic law, logical, necessity in thought, meaning and reason. Alongside this manner of understanding Logos, the verb legein is understood as talking, saying, otherwise articulating a matter. (Heidegger 1984, p.60) But Heidegger wishes to point us to a deeper understanding of these words, and in so doing, bring us deeper into the essence of language as it is pointed to by the word legein.

Heidegger seeks the primordial meaning of legein by embarking upon an analysis of its manifold meanings and how they come together. Heidegger (1984, p.60) writes:

Just as early and even more originally—and therefore already in the previously cited meaning—it means what our similarly sounding legen means: to lay down and lay before. In legen a 'bringing together' prevails, the Latin legere understood as lesen, in the sense of collecting and bringing together. Legein properly means the laying-down and laying before which gathers itself and others.

Legein is a laying that gathers. It is in understanding this word as gathering that Heidegger brings this laying in touch with its contemporary understanding as speech. To understand this sense of gathering, Heidegger uses the image of harvesting grapes in order to make wine. Here Heidegger (1984, p.61) writes: 'Gathering is more than mere amassing. To gathering belongs a collecting which brings under shelter.' When one gathers grapes, stamps, letters of old—anything worth gathering—one does not merely stockpile them like dirt. A sense of sheltering is indispensable in differentiating that which is gathered and that which is merely hoarded. Sheltering implies a sense of careful, heedful shepherding, a sense of safekeeping. Heidegger (1984, p.61) writes: 'The safekeeping that brings something in has already determined the first steps of the gathering and arranged everything that follows.' Safekeeping is the cornerstone upon which all gathering is built. The spirit, the manner, the sorting, the selection—all this depends on the safekeeping of what is gathered.

Hence legein as the laying that gathers is the laying that shelters and heedfully keeps safe… But what? What does legein let-forth in its safekeeping? Heidegger (1984, pp.62-63) writes:

Laying, as legein, simply tries to let what of itself lies together here before us, as what lies before, into its protection, a protection in which it remains laid down. What sort of protection is this? What lies together before us is stored, laid away, secured and deposited in unconcealment, and that means sheltered in unconcealment. By letting things lie together before us, legein undertakes to secure what lies before us in unconcealment.

Legein lays, lets, gathers and keeps safe beings as they lie in their unconcealment. To put it simply, legein means to preserve things as they have been shown. Now, Heidegger has prepared the way for a more thorough understanding of language as legein. Heidegger writes (1984, pp.63-64) writes:

The saying and talking of mortals comes to pass from early on as legein, laying. Saying and talking occur essentially as the letting-lie-together-before of everything which, laid in unconcealment, comes to presence.

That legein is a laying wherein saying and talking articulate their essence, refers to the earliest and most consequential decision concerning the essence of language. . . . Like the letting-lie-before that gathers, saying receives its essential form from the unconcealment of that which lies together before us. But the unconcealing of the concealed into unconcealment is the very presencing of what is present. We call this the Being of beings. Thus, the essential speaking of language, legein as laying, is determined neither by vocalization (phone) nor by signifying (semainein). Expression and signification have long been accepted as manifestations which indubitably betray some characteristics of language. But they do not genuinely reach into the realm of the primordial, essential determination of language.

Language does not merely express or signify beings. Language, understood essentially as legein, lets beings lie-before as they are, gathers beings in their unconcealment, and keeps them safe as such. Essentially, language is not the desiccation of beings into intelligible forms. Language does not lord over beings. But at the heart of language lies a shepherding of beings that is faithful to beings through a fidelity to how they are in their unconcealing. Language is fidelity.

However, paying close attention here, we see that Heidegger discusses legein as that which shelters beings in their unconcealment. Language is something that preserves reality as it has been shown, as it has been given to us for understanding. In this sense, this stage of the development of Heidegger's notion of language has a lot in common with Clarke's idea of metaphysical articulation, where language functions to convey and clarify the intelligibility (the unconcealed-ness) of reality.

However, perhaps more strongly than Clarke, Heidegger's notion of language already points strongly to the unintelligibility of reality, that which remains concealed. We see this stated in his comments concerning the notion of truth, aletheia (un-concealment), upon which the notion of legein (the sheltering of aletheia) rests. Heidegger (1984, p.71) writes:

A-Letheia rests in Lethe, drawing from it and laying before us whatever remains deposited in Lethe. Logos is in itself and at the same time a revealing and a concealing. It is Aletheia. Unconcealment needs concealment, Lethe, as a reservoir upon which disclosure can, as it were, draw.

Reading this, we find that the light and the darkness, intelligibility and the unintelligible, speaking and silence, are inseparable. But like Clarke's notion of metaphysics, the relationship between intelligibility and the unintelligible remains oppositional in this stage of Heidegger's thought. The light of aletheia wrests beings from the darkness of lethe. It merely needs the darkness as an endless store from which to draw beings.

However, Heidegger writes, 'Logos is in itself and at the same time a revealing and a concealing.' This line points to a completely non-oppositional relationship between intelligibility and the unintelligible, a relationship that will be articulated later in Heidegger's thought.

Aletheia, Concealment and Language

It is when one moves to the later work of Heidegger, 'On the Essence of Truth,' that his notion of language can be said to draw sharply toward the understanding of language in Zen Buddhism. In the previous section, we were introduced to Heidegger's notion of language as a sheltering of unconcealment (aletheia). The propensity of Heidegger's notion of language was shown in his understanding of aletheia. In this section, we will examine the full development of the notion of aletheia in Heidegger's discussion of man's relationship with truth, in hopes of articulating a framework of language most congenial to approaching 'poetic speech' in Zen.

Heidegger speaks of man's freedom for truth as a tensional union between ek-sistence and insistence. Man ek-sists in so far as he is in a manner that is toward beings, that he is capable of engaging beings, that beings are disclosed to him, that he stands before the happening of being. But every time man ek-sistently engages beings, man in-sists. What is this insistence? Heidegger (1998, p.134) writes:

Certainly man takes his bearings constantly in his comportment toward beings; but for the most part he acquiesces in this or that being and its particular openedness. Man clings to what is readily available and controllable even where ultimate matters are concerned. And if he sets out to extend, change, newly assimilate, or secure the openedness of the beings pertaining to the most various domains of his activity and interest, he still takes his directives from the sphere of readily available intentions and needs.

Man's ek-sistence is insistence because every time man engages beings, man engages them in their openedness, in how they come to light. But in engaging beings in the particularity of their unconcealedness, man forgets that all things that are unconcealed originally belong to and remain in concealment. As man familiarizes himself with beings, he forgets that all he has is a finite perspective of the whole and insists upon the little knowledge he has at hand.

The danger of man's insistence is something we are already familiar to as the danger of forgetting the limited character of metaphysical systems—a forgetfulness that leads to a fixation on particular conceptual linguistic frameworks that become a barrier between human beings and the abundance of reality. It was in light of this forgetfulness that Zen may be said to assert the dynamic quality of the existence of man over and against the sclerosis of insistence.

Heidegger (1998, p.132) writes: 'Because letting be always lets beings be in a particular comportment which relates to them and thus discloses them, it conceals beings as a whole. Letting-be is intrinsically and at the same time a concealing.' Every time something comes to light in a particular way, in order to see it as intelligible man must omit other facets that do not fit into the intelligibility of what is disclosed. When reading a text, a philosopher marks key points and annotates them heavily. But obscure phrases, unasserted nuances—all these disappear into the background. Every coming to light is simultaneous with the receding of others. Every time intelligibility comes to the fore, the glowering dark recedes. Hence in the act of unconcealment, the finite disclosure which is the process of unconcealment itself is forgotten, in favor of the immutable givenness of what is already presented. 'The disclosure of beings as such is simultaneously and intrinsically the concealing of being as a whole' (Heidegger 1998, p.137).

But this darkness is not some misfortunate accident. Heidegger (1998, p.132) says: 'Concealment deprives alētheia of disclosure yet does not render it sterēsis (privation); rather, concealment preserves what is most proper to alētheia as its own. . . . The concealment of beings as a whole, untruth proper, is older than every openedness of this or that being.' The darkness of concealment, of Lethe, is not the enemy of being. The shroud of the unspeakable is older than all words. Long before the first thing was understood was the infinity of the unknown. Yes, what is concealed and the very act of unconcealing itself is forgotten and recedes into the background, in order that what is unconcealed can be seen in its intelligibility. But this is not a travesty. For Heidegger, this is the very truth of how beings come forth as beings.

Truth is aletheia. Truth is a play between light and dark, between the unconcealed and the concealed. Every unconcealing conceals the whole of the shadow play, just as the actress, as she swoons, throws the entire complex set arrangement into the muteness of a blurred backdrop. Always, in the play of light and dark, the expanse of the dark must recede. But it is only beneath the familiar does the vastness of the unknown rumble and rule as mystery. It is not a matter of knowing everything and bringing everything to light. If we are to be faithful to this shadow play, it might be said that all that is asked is that when we know, we remember that beneath all that is intelligible plays the expanse of that which we will never understand.

In this later notion of aletheia, we see that the notion of lethe (concealment) no longer functions merely as a reservoir from which aletheia draws. Every event of unconcealing draws from the infinite depth of lethe, but every taking with this finite cup spills back other facets from the light into the dark. Heedful of this, we return to the discussion of language.

Legein and Poetic Speech

Language, as legein, is understood as the laying-gathering that gathers beings in their unconcealment. Perhaps 'unconcealment' is often read as the state of having already been unconcealed, to be standing in the light of intelligibility. But in light of this latter essay 'On the Essence of Truth,' it is necessary to understand 'unconcealment' not as a static state of being in the light, but a happening of coming into the light that is at the same time the receding of other facets into the darkness of the unfamiliar and the forgotten. It is necessary to understand 'unconcealment' as the unconcealing that conceals, in the rule of mystery, in the play of light and shadow.

What then is Heidegger's complete notion of language, thought essentially, beneath all superficies of expression, signification and articulation? Language is legein. Language lays beings before us and gathers them, heedfully and with utmost concern. By so doing, language seeks to remain faithful to beings as they are, as they shine and as they slip into the dark oblivion.

I argue that this notion of language allows us an entry point, from the perspective of a student of western philosophy, to the usage of language in Zen. Imbued with a keen awareness of the abundance of reality, an abundance that prevents reality from ever being captured fully by words, metaphysical systems, or the intellect itself, the usage of language in Zen Buddhism acquires a peculiar character. In language as 'unsaying,' articulations attempt to release human beings from their attachments to particular ways of seeing reality—the 'insistence' and forgetfulness of concealment that keeps human beings from engaging reality.

However, releasing human beings from the fixation on conceptual-linguistic frameworks does not and cannot bring them to understand everything in reality, nor does it attempt to cast aside all forms of intelligibility. This higher third that lies between and rises above both the capitulation to unintelligibility and the fixation with intelligibility is expressed in 'poetic speech.' Fuketsu speaks the worlds of the poet Toho, 'How fondly I remember Konan in March! The partridges are calling, and the flowers are fragrant.' The words here reflect a heartfelt engagement with reality, however with no attempt to pin down reality in only one form. Just as Heidegger's notion of language suggests, poetic speech engages reality and shepherds it as it comes to the fore, with a keen awareness that reality will never be contained. Poetic speech is a testimony to the play between reality and human beings, as truths come to light and fade away.


In the beginning of this essay, considering Norris Clarke's comments on Zen, we saw the difficulties of approaching Zen koans from the point of view of a commitment to reality as merely intelligible. Exploring the koans of the Mumonkan, we saw how in actions and dialogues Zen masters often attempt to liberate people from their attachment to particular frameworks of intelligibility—an attempt that manifests itself in language as 'unsaying'—in order to come to a more primordial relationship with reality and its vastness beyond all understanding. But beyond unsaying, we saw how language can also function between speech and silence as 'poetic speech.' This notion was clarified through the notion of language in Martin Heidegger, as it developed from a 'shepherding of unconcealed-ness' to a 'shepherding of the play of concealing and unconcealing.' It is through this notion that I suggested we might approach the notion of poetic speech as a celebration of this play of intelligibility and unintelligibility, within our rich and dynamic relationship with truth.

As a student trained in the continental tradition of philosophy, it is undeniable that the hermeneutic horizon of Zen is a distant one, and texts often come off as strange to the point of absurdity. Yet in the midst of this perplexity, I do not wish to call Zen 'absurd,' as if this difference implied irrelevance. My hope is that all those who approach Zen from a distant horizon take this seeming absurdity as relevant. And perhaps if we do so, the teachings can serve to challenge the borders of our understanding and help us cherish even that which lies beyond intelligibility.


1. Ri-Bi relativity are discussed by the monk Sojo in the Hozo-ron. They are explained by Master Shibayama in his teisho on this koan.

2. Original reads: 「朝顔や 釣瓶とられて もらい水。」

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CLARKE, W.N., 2001. Introduction: What is metaphysics all about. In: N.S. QUE, ed. Central Problems of Metaphysics. Metro Manila: Office of Research and Publications, Ateneo de Manila University, 1-5.

HEIDEGGER, M., 1984. Logos (Heraclitus, Fragment B 50). In: D.F. KRELL AND F.A. CAPUZZI, trans. Early Greek Thinking. New York: Harper & Row, 59-78.

HEIDEGGER, M., 1998. On the Essence of Truth. In: W. MCNEILL, ed. Pathmarks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 136-154.

TOSHIHIKO, I., 1982a. Sense and Nonsense in Zen Buddhism. In: Toward a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Boulder: Prajñā Press, 87-122.

TOSHIHIKO, I., 1982b. The Philosophical Problem of Articulation. In: Toward a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Boulder: Prajñā Press, 123-146.

SHIBAYAMA, Z., 2000. The Gateless Barrier: Zen Comments on the Mumonkan. New York: Shambhala.

SUZUKI, D.T., 2000. Buddhist Symbolism. In: C. HUMPHREYS, ed. The Awakening of Zen. Boston: Shambhala, 71-76.

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About the author

Anton Luis C. Sevilla is an instructor for the Philosophy Department of the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, where he received his MA in Philosophy. He is presently conducting research on Japanese Buddhism as it encounters philosophical systems in both the east and west.

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Copyright: Anton Sevilla
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28 April 2008.

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