A Few Thoughts on Words and Labels

Words have power. As writers and, heck, as people, we all know that. I will get into an argument with anyone who dismisses a person’s right to choose their own name, their own identity, their own cultural definition. I’ll get into a BIG argument with anyone who doesn’t see the power claimed by those who call themselves “Right to Lifers,” as though those of us who support a woman’s right to choose are anti-life.

Ahem. Okay, that went off on a tangent. But, still, words=power. Yes? Yes.

So I’ve been making my way through a book by Walpola Rahula called What the Buddha Taught. I had been looking for a book that talked about the things the Buddha actually/supposedly said, one without too much interpretation of “translation” or too-heavy layer of spirituality. My meditation teacher recommended Rahula’s book. I’m liking it. It’s a bit slow-going, but it’s nice and basic and clear and has almost a sweet voice to it. There are lots of little details that make me pause and think and have a kind of mm-hmm moment. Like this:

According to Buddhism there are two sorts of understanding: What we generally call understanding is knowledge, an accumulated memory, an intellectual grasping of a subject according to certain given data. This is called ‘knowing accordingly’ (anubodhd). It is not very deep. Real deep understanding is called ‘penetration’ (paivedha), seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label. This penetration is possible only when the mind is free from all impurities and is fully developed through meditation.”

So, to dissect a moment: Yes, I get the irony of assigning words (labels!) to different kinds of knowledge, in the same sentence as the author sort of dismisses names and labels as unimportant. As I talked about above, I think words and labels have power and, while letting go of any attachment to that power may be the point here, it’s not a point I’ve reached. Obviously. Separate from that debate, though, are a couple of things that hit me strongly about this passage. First, when I was young (okay, maybe still today–sometimes), I felt some inferiority around people who had a lot of what the author here calls anubodhd. As a child who immersed herself in fiction and imagination, I didn’t have a lot of facts at my fingerprints, and even when I thought I did, I’d get myself in an emotional tangle trying to defend my small grasp of them. I was much happier outside the world of facts, but I still often felt a lack, somehow, a shortcoming, without them. I don’t know that I agree with the author’s assessment of one kind of knowledge being less deep than the other, but I am in complete agreement that there are two distinct types. And it’s taken me years to recognize that I have some strength in the other, in paivedha. Whether it’s from all those years of fiction reading (yes, I know, it’s what we all want to believe!), or whether it’s because of my original brain chemistry, or a combination of both, I am better at paivadha than at anubodhd. Thank goodness, right? Because how else would I write?

But I think what I’m getting at most of all is that seeing “my” kind of knowledge recognized on this page, in a language and vocabulary and teaching that have been around pretty much forever, felt good. Warming. And again, despite the irony and the attachment-problem, let me just tell you how much I love that paivedha has been given its own label. Its own power.

Words. I think I’ll keep them.

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