Perhaps Zen Buddhism can enlighten us. After all, Zen has promised us enlightenment for several hundred years now.
A Zen koan of long standing goes as follows: The roshi (Zen teacher) holds up a staff and says, "If you call this a staff, you affirm. If you say it is not a staff, you deny. Beyond affirmation or denial, what is it?"
I suggest that readers reflect on what has been said so far, about the Seven Forbidden Words and the "fussy mutt" and the killings in Northern Ireland. Reflect on "the map is not the territory" and "the menu is not the meal." Close the book, close your eyes, sit quietly, and think about this Zen riddle. Wait a minute and see if a light slowly dawns on you.
It strikes me how valuable Bob found E-Prime in the early '90s. I think I understand the zen parable of the stick, but I likely have much more to learn about it.
Any attempt to answer the question, "beyond affirmation or denial, what is it" using any form of symbol system inevitably results in an affirmation or denial of some sort.
Having said that, the Buddhist idea of pratitya-samutpada or "dependent origination" (or, as Thich Nhat Hanh translates it, "interbeing") does a pretty decent job of making use of language to get at a "reality" which is non-linguistic.
To deny that the staff is in fact a carved piece of wood used for walking, whacking sleeping students in the zendo, etc. is to deny apparent reality and so is seen as incorrect in that regard. (This is analogous to the "nihilism" critiqued by the Buddha, to which the "origination" part of "dependent origination" is a response. In other words, in the koan there is the experience of something we call a staff and to deny that is to deny experience.)
To affirm that the staff is a staff is to deny everything else that the staff implies (so, for example, the wood from which the staff is made, the tree from which the wood was obtained, the labor that went into felling the tree and carving the staff, the sunlight that enabled the tree to grow, the hydrogen atoms in the sun whose fusion into helium atoms provides the sunlight, ad infinitum). Reifying the staff as a staff and denying everything that it "inter-is" is seen as equally incorrect as denying that is is a staff. (This is analogous to the "eternalism" critiqued by the Buddha, to which the "dependent" part of "dependent origination" is a response. In other words, in the koan there is the coming together of everything in the universe in this particular here and now to produce the experience of something we call a staff but that is never reducible to just being the staff, independent of everything else.)
But all those are words too. Fingers pointing to the moon. The light that dawns on me is not those words, but it isn't separate from those words either... and so it goes.
I can't do better than Fhom Toolery (Thom Foolery in the earlier comments?), but I can record my thoughts as I worked on RAW's koan.
At first, I thought about while it would be impossible to capture all of the attributes of the staff, it is possible to get an accurate description of it but cataloging its size, shape, what kind of wood it is made of, what color it is, hjow it is used, etc.
Then it dawned on me that there is no staff; there is only a koan about a staff that RAW made up. I haven't seen the staff or a Zen roshi. In fact, I don't believe I've ever met a Zen roshi. The "staff" is only a mental construction in my brain.
[This post contains evidence of an emic reality has been removed by the moderator. - The Mgt]
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