Shiauteru Ueda. "Silence and Words in Zen Buddhism" in Diogenes, no. 170, vol. 43/2, Summer 1995.

Ueda's opening sentence announces that "the topic of this article is the self-less self (selbst-loseSelbst) and more particularly this self in its connection with the problem of language." The self, like all entities or topics perceived as realities, is rooted in the frame of language, which defines, categorizes, limits, and makes everything a "word event" through which all is interpreted. Our experience is "linguistically postulated" -- but as a "net or a cage into which we are locked." Do we experience or do we simply report linguistically our linguistically-refined experience?

Zen Buddhism recognizes that the ego cannot truly experience reality as long as a linguistic cage filters perception. "For the sake of the true self it is therefore necessary to dissolve the enclosed ego," on the level of language this is deemed to be "the liberation from language toward language."

Why "from ... towards"? The person is not in a new alien world perception but still within mundanities. The new creative or re-creative world is a phenomenological movement of self recapturing "the original silence that existed before the sound of the uttered word." Presenting this silence consciously represents a metamorphosis of self. In Buddhist tradition, this movement of mind occurs upon awakening or enlightenment. Something new and creative, a state that did not exist, occurs, breaking through ordinary self, prompting a primordial sound, interjection, expression, or exclamation. Japanese haiku poetry calls it kireji, the cutting word, usually "O." Western poets like Rilke used "Oh!"

The author refers to Wittgenstein's notion of the unspeakable representing that which could not represent a truth or a reality measured by mathematics or science. The undefined is too ambiguous of linguistic precision and remains, as Wittgenstein puts it, "unspeakable" or that of which we cannot speak. But what if something emerges unspeakably? Our human tendency is to try to articulate, to put into words that which is unspeakable. Even if Wittgenstein (and many others) caution us about that thin line from speech into silence, the human tendency is to speak, even of the unspeakable, a tendency based on the notion that any and all phenomena can be spoken of, that language is always adequate or at least necessary. But this is not a matter of materiality described but of event or experience conveyed, and here the unspeakable is not an object but the entire relationship experience which leaves one speechless, leaves one with only "Oh!" as a reaction, not a cognitive description based on language. Language is a tie to a known reality, a tether to the world, giving us perspective and security. This boundness constitutes Heidegger's "being-in-the-world."

But being-in-the-world constitutes a dualism. We are indeed in the world and limited by language, an ambivalent existence because we also exist in an unlimited openness, another horizon within this self, another beingness within an apparent Nothing. This dualness exists in spite of our tendency toward closedness and the sealing off of a horizon that nevertheless interjects itself into reality because it is part of our being and cognition and experience.

When the openness rises to consciousness, it is viewed negatively because its unfathomable depth of meaning creates of reality an angst: "the self suffers from the closeness and, dimly perceiving the wrongness of its ways, and for the sake of truth, makes the attempt to open itself up." The openness is not forced. Openess only means that a disposition has been achieved, an awareness attained. The self has experienced a breakthrough from or even still within the world.

In this, the world is the world defined a priori through language; it is already and at the same time the world of language. By contrast the infinite openness is nothing else than the space of the unfathomable stillness, or absolute silence. Man lives in this world of infinite openness in eloquent silence.

The author identifies three forms of silence using Japanese terms:

  1. damaru: not speaking or saying in the conventional sense;
  2. chin-moku: sinking into silence, a pensive opting for silence ("with an inkling of the absolute silence of infinite openness";
  3. moku: the Buddhist term for silence as such. "The idea is silently to enter the absolute realm of infinite silence which is not disturbed by speaking and cannot be broken, but rather endows speaking with a depth of meaning."

These three terms equate to philosophical equivalents: 1) silence as non-speaking, 2) pensive silence, and 3) absolute silence.

All of the previous observations concerning language and speech in Zen Buddhism, have described "the self-articulation of the primordial word event." The famous "ten-oxen" pictures illustrate absolute silence, the language of nature, and the dual self. Zazen corresponds to silence of self in a mode of observation. Angaya defines learning to listen to the language of nature. Sanzen teaches how to speak in a new sense, a post-silence alertness. The author elaborates:

The first stage of absolute silence, corresponding to the via negativa of Christian mysticism, to Meister Eckhart's "God is Nothing," finds its Zen Buddhist equivalent: "Nothing."Eckhart intends the double duality of Being and Nothing, while Zen obliterates all duality. "The holy and the secular have disappeared without a trace," states the author. "Neither Being nor Nothing."

The language to express the "radical dynamic negation" is thus post-silent. It must speak but does not do so now from a perspective of negative theology, rather, from within a fulfilled tautological and a practical language and speech. Formulations in Christian mysticism are more direct in Zen.

The language of nature emerges as the speech about nature in realty,describing nature but also revealing the self that is describing nature, this self that has no self outside of this describing, this speaking. The language of nature in Buddhist tradition is shi-zen (ji-nen), literally "from itself," or "to be like this." Nature is not the material universe surrounding our minds or a particular region subordinate to our experience. Nature is "the truth of the being of all that exists." We discover this "nature" when we recognize shi-zen from our nothing, from the perspective of selflessness, the not-self or not-I, but now the perspective is of the universe of beingness.

Thus the link between ourselves and the universe lies in how we perceive, and the realization that selfless perception is original perception. "Buddhism perceives of the more original notion of truth even before its differentiation into existential truth, on the one hand, and a linguistic or cognitive truth on the other. When referring to the image of blooming flowers, for example, Zen is not concerned to describe a natural phenomenon, but to ascertain truth. If "nature" has gained this kind of significance of truth, it happened due to the mutual interpenetration of "nature" and self.

Eckhart and Angelus Silesius, representing Christian mysticism, present the image of blooming flowers as a figure of being between God's eternity, not only a natural event but a divine event within God's being. The flower blooms without a Why, without cause or pretext, like God. In Zen, this blooming has no because, no Why. There is no fracturing of thought, no discontinuity of purpose. Zen scrutinizes thinking and the function and maintenance of thought. But the event does not belong to thinking; it precedes and exempts thought, as both Zen and Heidegger note. While thought gives itself priority and preeminence, the event is prior and independent of thought. Thought assumes that "all [that] is thinkable submerges everything in what has been thought." This is "the avenue toward modern nihilism."

The language of nature does not express causation or purpose but states things as they are: "Flowers bloom as they bloom" would be the Zen saying. This statement is not thought but speech, not reflection but selflessness. Zen emphasizes this purity of speech as immediate grasping of the universal, as spontaneous (though practiced) skill versus description and thought. This is basic articulation. But Zen goes further, for the selfless articulation now rests in Nothing. The logical negation exists as necessary, as interpretation. Awareness of this double articulation, in Zen koans especially, creates a consonance, a correspondence, an unfolded dual self, asymetrical but complementary and revelatory of the self.


Ueda's article is a useful introduction to the nuances of East and West in the modern debate about language, phenomenology, and being. It further points to a depth to silence often abandoned as an inkling or itimation in most Western treatments of the topic, and the article thus provides a framework for understanding how far solitude and silence can penetrate to truth. To read the original on the web, visit: