Thinking Beyond Words

The Jataka tales of the Buddha’s earlier lives provide an interesting perspective on our ideas about what the Buddha was. Many of the tales reveal a very idealized person or an animal. Figures such as a king, an outcast, a god, an elephant are common. In one tale, Prince Sattva comes to the edge of a cliff at the bottom of which is a starving tigress who in desperation is about to eat her newborn cubs. The Prince reflects that his body is just so much flesh, and by giving it up, he can save the tigress' purity and her cubs' lives. He leaps off the cliff to his death, attracting the tigress' attention with his impact, and she eats his body, preserving her life and those of her cub as the Prince Sattva had hoped1. Certainly a remarkable human effort. But in others, the future Buddha is a turtle or a jackal. Not human and not perfect. 

I think it is useful to maintain this perspective of a less-than ideal Buddha. A person who struggled with finding the right way to live, with right actions and right speech. Having this vantage-point fosters an understanding that anyone can enter the Bodhisattva path. Pema Khandro has noted that “Wherever you find yourself, that’s the starting point of the Bodhisattva path — all we need to do is to take that first step.”2

So it is with these thoughts with respect to the mythological past of the Buddha and the reality of the Bodhisattva path that I have been considering whether to speak or not. Whether to say what I really think should be said against the onslaught of what I have often thought of as pernicious thoughts, foul and salacious language slandering and untold falsifications, outright lies and forthright demeaning of our Nation and its laws, its people and its culture. I have heard this diatribe throughout the past year as we witness this Presidential campaign and yet I’ve said little or nothing short of sharing what other’s have said to FaceBook. Not much to be proud of in doing that. 

Now I find myself at the end of this election campaign. I am considering whether this vulgate will continue. Sadly, I believe it will, even after the culmination of the election. So, I ask myself, “is there a right time to say something? When is that?” I’ve been resonating with a Koan I studied last year. The story goes that a person approaches a man and asks him why Bodhidharma has come from the West. It happens that this man is hanging from a tree branch, by his teeth. He is unable gather any purchase. No foot-hold is available nor is he able to further grab with his hands. So what is this man to do? Dogen said, “At such a time, were he to open his mouth to answer the man, he would lose his grip and forfeit his life. Were he not to answer, he would make a mistake due to the nature of what was asked. Speak up! What, for goodness sake, should he do at such a time?”3  

What indeed? This problem has been sticking, deep inside. It has continually gnawed at me, exasperating me and nettling me so that it has sometimes consumed my thinking. It has been at my unconscious and my conscious, interrupting my feeling state, producing nausea each time I hear the language or see the person responsible for it. I have wanted to say something, but I feared I would open my mouth and fall. Fall to where? I am not certain. But a visceral sense of loosing something accompanies my feeling of free-fall. Is this what Mumon expected when he entered this Koan in the casebook? That I should feel anxiety and panic and cease my ability to comment? To never have said a word? To have never made a sound except perhaps a wail of desperation? 

A wail of desperation is nothing other than ideas fraught with inactivity. This desperation that came from a feeling of frustration that I have done nothing. Perhaps all of this is more than can be expressed in words — perhaps I need to speak beyond words. 

As a person who has taken the Bodhisattva vow, I think seriously about taking action to better this world. To aid other sentient beings. To make amends for the things I’ve not done or the things I’ve done which may have caused harm. Being silent may have been one of those things which has not brought benefit. Yet as I reflect, I have worked the phones for Hillary Clinton. It is something I’ve done and have been proud to do. Working the phones I met, straight on, people who glowed in excitement about the potential of her Presidency. I encountered numerous angry people who were tired of being disturbed by unwanted phone calls. I was repeatedly hung-up on. But I was acting. Each person understood that my call had meaning behind it, even if they did not agree with or like the intrusion. I acted upon them. And with those acts I was speaking beyond words. 

Because I have sat with these sensations: needing to do but not quite putting my mind or mouth to what it is that needs to be done, I have learned a lot about myself. I have learned that though I could have spoken out and still could speak out, I do far more through my conduct. Through my behavior I speak volumes. The next time I find myself hung-up, unable to speak, I will be mindful that I can move my body, swing my legs and gesture with my arms. And I can growl. No need to make amends for that.

by Mark Shishin Gelula


1. Adapted from Wikipedia “Jataka Tales”.
2. Pema Khandro. “You’re Ready Enough.” Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly. Fall, 2016. Page 35.
3. Dogen. The Man Up a Tree Koan. Shobogenzo, Soshi Seirai I.