Buddhism and the Problem of Language

by Luke Wayne
4/10/16

Buddhism has a paradoxical relationship with language. It is a religion passed on through oral instructions from teachers to students, and it has a vast array of sacred texts where its teachings are preserved and explained through the written word. Buddhism has always been and ever will be dependent on language to carry on. It is common in Buddhism, however, to view language itself as problematic. Not only do Buddhists see language as insufficient to adequately communicate truth, they often declare it to be outright harmful to the one seeking enlightenment. I do mean here only poorly chosen words or misused phrases, but all language even at its best. Walpola Rahula writes:

“Language is considered deceptive and misleading in the matter of understanding the truth.”1

and American Theravada Buddhist instructor Rodney Smith states that:

“Our true nature is wordless awareness.”2

Many Buddhists seem to recognize that the very concept of language itself is antithetical to Buddhist teaching, and they are absolutely right. Buddha himself is reported to have said:

“One can grow old, die, pass away, or reappear in so far only is there any pathway for verbal expression, in so far only is there any pathway for terminology, in so far only is there any pathway for designation, in so far only is there any sphere for knowledge. Only thus can the rounds be kept going where there is any designations of the conditions of this existence.” 3

In Buddhism, man's problem is that of perpetual suffering in the cycle of death and rebirth. On this passage, language is what makes this possible. Without terminology, description, or any sphere of knowledge, so says the Buddha, there could be no cycle of death and rebirth. Language is at the root of the problem. An early Mahayana text also attributed to Buddha says that, “Ignorant people get stuck in words like an elephant in the mud.”4 In Buddhism, even according to the words of the ancient sources, words are a thing to be overcome.

We also see evidence of this in the fact that Buddha had a habit of answering most questions only in negation. He said that the enlightened are not "reborn," but they are also not “not reborn.”5 He said that all things do not “exist” but all things also do not “not exist.” All things are not distinct, but they also are not one.6. Words being what they are, as a general rule Buddha found it safer to use them in the negative when answering questions on his teaching.7 One can see this as deep and profound or as shallow word games that sound wise by cleverly not saying anything, but one thing is clear: Language is an obstacle for Buddhist truth claims. It is not conducive to Buddhist assertions about reality. One has difficulty using language to affirm Buddhist teachings without, in the very act of doing so, denying the very claim one means to affirm.

Take as an example the absolutely central Buddhist teaching of Anatta, the doctrine that there are no distinct, personal selves. Buddhism teaches that what you think to be "you" is really just a combination of perceptions, thoughts, sensations, materials, and states of consciousness that exist for a moment and then are gone, bringing new and different combinations of such things into being in their place the next moment. None of these things are "you" and none of them endure over time, so there can be no distinct, personal self that exists in any moment or that persists through any human life. The very idea I am "me" writing this and that you are "you" reading the words that "I" wrote is the great illusion that leads to all suffering in the world.

The problem for the Buddhist is that the very idea of language assumes that there are personal selves that endure over time. The entire concept of speaking or writing insists upon this. Language itself cannot express a lack of self and distinct others because the whole concept of language involves symbolizing ideas to communicate them from one district person to another. If one tells you, "You are not really a self, and you are not distinct from anything else," you might reasonably respond, "Who, again, did you say isn't a self?" Whether implicitly or explicitly, no matter how careful you are, every sentence will contain or be founded on the concept of "I" and "you" and "they" and "it." As one Buddhist publication observed, the moment you simply speak of a bird, you have already given the whole thing away:

“Once you have a bird, you have a nest, tree, sky, etc. with each concept proliferating out to form the whole world instantaneously. This world also includes the concept of the ‘I’ who knows the bird.”8

The very act of speaking is an acceptance that you are a person distinct from the objects around you and that you have individual knowledge that you can communicate to other such persons. Language cannot be tweaked to remove the concept of personal selves. You cannot choose your words carefully to avoid implying your own existence precisely because they are, in fact, your words. Even the act of verbally denying this, turning around and saying, "they are not my words because there is no me to have them," is to act as a person disagreeing with another person who is distinct from oneself.

What's more, if you begin a sentence with a mind to finish it, you believe in an enduring self. If you ask a question expecting to hear the answer, you are accepting that you and the person to whom you are speaking both persist through time. You can deceive yourself into thinking otherwise, but your words give you away  All conversation foundationally assumes the reality of the personal self. All words are a refutation of Buddhism, even the words used to affirm it.

  • 1. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 4
  • 2. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 37
  • 3. T.W. Rhys Davids and C.A.F. Rhys Davids "The Dialogues of Buddha: 4th Edition" (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2002) as quoted in Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 108
  • 4. Lankavatara Sutra, as quoted in Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 4.
  • 5. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 58
  • 6. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 38
  • 7. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 4.
  • 8. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 109