Beyond the Limits of Language and Logic

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Answer truthfully the following question: Will the next word you say be ‘no’?

I tried once, with little success, to lead a discussion group on the topic of paradox. Based on work in spiritual metaphysics, my suggestion as to the reason we experience paradox is that our human intelligence is only a sliver of a much greater intelligence that makes up the universe. The separation of human intelligence from the far greater intelligence of the whole is what underlies the frustrating conundrums we call paradox. I cannot swear that this is true, but it is the only explanation I’ve found as to why paradoxes exist.

This explanation melds nicely with an amazing video I saw on Facebook recently. A young man named Matthew Scott Donnelly explained Zen and koans with remarkable clarity. He started with a story about a monk.

Monk: Master, how can I become enlightened?

Master: Have you had your meal?

Monk: Yes.

Master: Then go and wash your bowl.

Immediately the monk was enlightened.

What does this little story say to us? Not much if you are trying to apply logic and reasoning to wring meaning out of it. All we can suppose is that its meaningless is the meaning. It’s a koan, an attempt to get the listener to go beyond logic, because logic is limited by its dependence on language and the human brain. The purpose of a koan, says Donnelly, “is not to provide an answer to the question or a conclusion of some sort, but rather to disregard the relevance of the answer, to detach itself from the functions of conclusion and singular resolution.”

Science, religions, and philosophy strive to describe what life is, but they are all limited by their own boundaries, by limitations of language and intelligence, and by the time in which they exist. And as with everything else in the world, they are expressed through thoughts and words.

Thoughts and words provide us with the tools we need to deal with our physical world and with each other. However, what Zen tries to do is to push people beyond what can be expressed in words into a spiritual perception of the mystery and enormity of all of existence.

Instead of saying that life is this or that, Zen just says “life is.” And “what is” is unclear and always changing. Therefore, you should observe life without being too firm in your ideas or judgments about it. Hold your conclusions loosely.

This is hard for some people to do, especially when it comes to politics and religion. Our individual commitments define us and give us the comfort of knowing who we are and what we stand for. Wisdom calls for balance between commitment and openness. We commit to what we think is right, but try to be open to change if new knowledge or circumstances come to light. 

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