As I wander across the religious boundaries, wayfaring through the spiritual wilderness, causing confusion and consternation—I sometimes remind people that if they think of me as basically a Zennist, I will at least be minimally misunderstood. I do apply a Zen lens to all of the religious expressions (not necessarily a Buddhist lens, except as that may be Zen’s original home, and I sometimes use some of the language). In all of them, I look for expressions of the “perennial philosophy.”
Let’s see if I can talk through talk to the heart of the matter. Think of this post perhaps as an inverted idea-pyramid sloping more and more toward—the point.
A word-sign: “goat.” The sign consists of a “signifier” and a “signified.” The signifier is the letters “g-o-a-t,” as written, and verbally the pronunciation. The signified is the meaning of the word is its concept/meaning. The referent
to which the sign refers is, well, the actual animal, such as the one standing over there in the meadow. Or, the referent here might be a picture of a goat, which is another kind of sign referring to, again, the actual referent
A sign: “hippogriff.” The sign consists of a signifier and a signified. But what of the referent? In this case the referent is not something actually instantiated in the world, but an imaginal construct. One might say, of course that the referent exists in literature. If it did not, would the referent then collapse into the signified?
A sign: “dardyvart.” The sign consist of a signifier... Did any concept/meaning or imaginal construct form in your head when you read the signifier “dardyvart.” Something that could come from Harry Potter, maybe? Anything? Dardyvart is a sign without a referent, and likely without a signifier—certainly without a normative signifier. Can such a sign be coherent? Perhaps it is not a sign at all.
A sign: “God.” The sign consists of a signifier and a signified. Or a number of signifieds, depending on, say, what religion—or none—to which one belongs. For some, the signified will be supernaturally theistic; for others the non-dualistic totality, the whole without a second; for some a
being; for others the ground of being, or being-itself. One signified is normative for one group; another for another group. But—
What of the referent
there a referent? How can one know
there is a referent, that is not just another signified? You can’t find the referent in books: you are just reading strings of signs, signs pointing to signs, pointing to this one signified—but the referent?
You can look at a painting: Rublev’s Trinity
hanging right here on my wall. Is that
the referent? Would not claiming that be considered by most folks to be idolatrous? Rublev’s icon is a sign, consisting of a signifier and a signified—but what of the referent
Can you know the referent beyond all the signifieds, beyond all the concepts, mental constructs, images, ideas, thoughts? Or do you simply get caught in the complex of signs in your head, only ever leading, ultimately, to a signified? If not, how can you know that there is a referent?
Perhaps you simply stop here, and decide to believe (faith?) that there is a referent, based on your conclusions about the signs. But then, is your faith/trust really in the referent
, or just in the signs, and those who have pronounced them? So, maybe you stop...
But the Zen master will not let you stop here. The guru will not. Hafiz will not. Dionysus the Aeropagite will not. Meister Eckhart will not. I do not think Jesus would either... So, the Zen master asks—
How can you find
simply posit—the referent
, in order to know there is one, whether ultimately it is accurately represented by a given signified, or not?
The Zen master commands: Find the referent
! The master may use crazy antics, or puzzling koans, or poetic metaphor, or parable—with which you must grapple in order to let go of all the mental constructs, all the “makings of the mind,” in order to see if you can find—experience, know—the referent
One could say, “Well then, you are putting your trust/faith in the master.” Provisionally, perhaps. But the Zen master (and the others) function themselves as “signs”—as “fingers pointing to the moon”—and only the false guru will let himself become seen as the referent itself.
[Here, just as an aside, one might raise the question of whether the referent
is inside or outside. If Jesus acted as a sign (a sacrament), and if Jesus was also divine, was he pointing to himself as a human being as the referent—or to the Christ as the logos
“knit within and through,” so to speak? And is the Christ the referent? Is this analogous, though not “the same as,” atman / Brahman
in Advaita Vedanta? Is the ultimate referent a hypostasis
? Just some considerations for Christian theology/Christology... These considerations are not, here, the point. They are still in the realm of concepts.]
The Zen master insists: “Find the referent
!” And, if they are face-to-face, and the student claims to have discovered the referent
, the Zen master may say: “Show
me!” In which case, she will not accept a sign that ends only with a signified...
And that is the dilemma. Can you find
? How can you know if you have (in the sense, say, that St. Paul uses the word gnosis
)? How can you make sure that you have not settled for another signified, or another mental construct? How can you know yourself, let alone show the Zen master?
Sadly, we are not face-to-face and I am not a Zen master. Nevertheless, I say: “Find the referent
This is the point. This is the heart of the “spiritual” matter. “The assignment, Mr. Phelps, should you decide to accept it....” All the rest above is talk. Take it only as allusive talk, good or bad—including the questions. Not worth debating (though I am always happy to learn how such talk might be made better, or more correct; likely my use of the linguistic lingo is not strictly correct). But here, I am interested only in the point—
Behind* the makings of your mind,
before all images, concepts, thoughts and signs,
can you find a referent
that is not just another
making of the mind?
* Or beyond?
A hint with a weave of confusion, and poetic allusion, but nevertheless a hint:
Sitting in the library all day
read books and books about books,
talk about talking talk, all talk,
one would think the world is made of words—
Thinking thought after thought
about other thoughts,
and thoughts thought by others—
You call that seeking the ultimate truth?
What you’re looking for looks both ways
through the needle’s eye of your own mind—
How then will you “find” it anywhere...?
Find the referent