No Labels? No Spiritual Path? Beyond Concepts?

In Zen Buddhism there is a saying that one should not take the signpost for the goal. Or more mystically put: don’t focus on the finger pointing to the moon, but on the moon itself.

Apply this to words and you get that the words aren’t what’s important – it’s what the words are pointing to that matters. (Western) Zen Buddhists often take this very seriously – to the extent of being negative about books, negative about following precepts, in some cases even negative about Zen rituals. Recently I’ve read someone who claims that there is no path, just BE (where have I heard that before?)… (*)

But I’m not sure that works. The saying that if you meet the Buddha, you should kill him is all well and dandy for someone who has studied his works, learned from a real master and all that. But to kill the Buddha BEFORE you see him – is not really the same thing.

I’ll put it again in other words: there is a value to the teachings of each of the world religions. The general tradition in Sufism for instance has been: first be a good Muslim and then you can be a Sufi. That may mean giving up a lot of what you practiced as a good Muslim…

In our post-modern world we would like to pass over the middle step: the step where we ‘get to know the Buddha’ or ‘become a good Muslim’. We’d like to jump straight to Enlightenment. But that’s a bit like wanting to get a PHD when you haven’t got your masters yet: we collectively get ahead of ourselves.

To some extent it has to do with the iconoclasm of the 20th century. Jiddu Krishnamurti for instance seems to have wanted to create schools where kids weren’t going to get conditioned at all. I think that’s naive to the extreme: kids are going to get conditioned no matter what you do. They will feel safe, or they won’t – but either way there is conditioning going on.

You need to know what a car is, before you can learn that there isn’t much difference between a car and a heap of metal. You need to know what a ‘moon’ is, before you can enjoy the gesture of someone pointing to it. And in order to be able to kill the image of the Buddha, you need to first have such an image.

Agreed? Did I miss something?

(*) Formerly at:

7 thoughts on “No Labels? No Spiritual Path? Beyond Concepts?”

  1. Hey Katinka. You’re right that Krishnamurti’s point of view was a bit extreme: The idea that there is no work to do is NOT the case and that’s not what’s being said.

    In the self-improvement arena, the idea is to become something new that you aren’t already, to develop new qualities and characteristics that you do not currently have. Spirituality is a bit different. It’s the path of no path, which is paradoxical and thus easily misunderstood. Yes there is a “path”, but ultimately you find that it’s not about going somewhere new, but rather realizing what already exists within you, your true nature that is already here and always was the whole time.

    The saying to “look within” points to this. It’s not about looking outside yourself to find a target destination at the end of a path. It’s about going within and recognizing who you truly are. Yes there is work to do. Yes it’s necessary to let go of identification with all false senses of identity. Yes teachers like the Buddha are obviously going to be very helpful and thus serve a useful purpose. Ultimately, however, after you do all the reading and intellectual studying, there comes a point where you must let go of EVERYTHING, including all your beliefs that you’ve picked up along the way. This is a very challenging step for most people and something that actually holds them back until they’re ready for it.

    If we were to be totally honest with ourselves, we don’t know for SURE whether or not God exists, if we are truly one, if this world is an illusion, and so on. Yes we can buy into the belief system intellectually which can serve us in many ways. But to find out of it’s true, we must first let go of the belief and find out for ourselves. Borrowed wisdom is not enough. We must find out for ourselves and experience what reality is always here when we stop making up stories about the way things are: separate and disconnected, for example. Spiritual growth is experiential, not a belief system.

    Is the map useful? Certainly. Is staring at the map all day going to get you to where you’re going? No. Eventually you must one day set aside the map altogether, thank it for serving you this whole time, and experience the world for yourself.

    Hope that clears things up. 🙂


  2. Beyond concept may very well be a concept as well, just as no path is a path, too.Or both are no path, depending on your perspective.
    In retrospect things become logical, a narrative, but my guess is many enlightened people got there by chance, after hammering a lot of square pegs in round holes. The words of the masters are sometimes attemts to roughly flip some switches, plant some seeds and get a bit closer to the ‘right’ configuration for realization. The words (and actions, and presence, and non-doings) of masters are sometimes very precise operations, realigning the prism and changing things in exactly the right spot up the stream somewhere. There are a whole lot of recipies ‘out there’ for us to choose from in order to become enlightened, whatever that may be 🙂

  3. Yes Annedien – I found myself thinking – what I really want to say goes beyond the opposites of ‘conditioned’ versus ‘non-conditioned’ – but that sounds so strange. Sounds like using a paradox just because you can…
    The problem is that when the words ‘go beyond thought’ become just words, they turn into absolute nonsense. So what words can one use then?

  4. In linguistics there is a phenomenon called ‘semantic dissociation’, we all know it probably, it’s those moments that you suddenly ‘taste’ a word and say: “Wow, ‘peanut’ is really a strange word, don’t you think? Peanut, peanut, peanut. Weird!”
    (Not sure what my point is, though 😉

    The words ‘go beyond thought’ have been just words to begin with, haven’t they?

    Can you reconstruct an insight, revelation, moment of enlightenment you experienced (or the current enlightened state you’re in ;- and pinpoint its origins and cause?

  5. Yes – well in this case my semantic dissociation prevented me from using the words in the first place. Not sure whether that was a good thing.

    And yes, sometimes one can pinpoint at least a few origins and causes – but no, the resulting insight is something creative that goes beyond those origins and causes.

  6. One Master likens the use of words to enlighten to a scalpel. When a novice uses a scalpel you get a bloody mess. But in the hands of a trained expert, there is healing.

  7. Ah, words; tools or stumbling blocks!? A Course In Miracles says something to the effect that words are but symbols of ideas which are but symbols of reality. So words are symbols of symbols, twice removed from reality. A good thing to keep in mind.

    I find that as I contribute to blogs such as this (or at least my ego has me convinced I’m contributing, laughs) I must work at improving my skills at the language of awakening. The content may suck but the words are more precise, I hope. Face it, we are trying to describe a non-linear reality with linear thought systems. Someone said that reality can only be described in terms of what it is not. And it is not the concept of The Buddha but yet the only way we can hold The Buddha in our minds is as a concept. So we are not killing The Buddha but only the concept.

    Wow, that confused even me. But I hope you get what I mean. I, too, get frustrated. Looking for a technique yet intuitively knowing that awakening is not about technique. I will not read or think my way to enlightenment. So what’s a boy (or girl) to do? We read. We think. And we hope that such endeavors will somehow “push” our psyches in the right direction and momentum will take it from there. I like the saying that all we can do is set the table and hope the guest shows up.

    I trust I have sufficiently muddied the waters…………Peace to All

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