Language and meditation

“Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.” Toni Morrison, “The Nobel Lecture in Literature,” from her edited book, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019)

I’ve been reading the above collection of essays almost since the book was published earlier this year. Savoring the words. The occasion of her passing inspires this blog entry— her insights challenge me to think anew on teaching.

Everyone knows the teaching stories, the “dead or alive” koans. The Master, raps his knuckles on a coffin (with a body in it), and asks the novice student, “dead or alive?”

Upon receipt of the Nobel Prize in literature, Professor Morrison opens her lecture with the story of an old woman, blind and wise. When two children appear at her door with a bird in hand and demand to know “is the bird alive or dead"?” the wise woman does not answer. She cannot see the visitors or the bird. Long silence. The children begin to laugh. The old woman says, “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that is is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

Morrison explains the old woman’s response might well mean “If it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If is is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility (emphasis mine).“

There is more to say about language, on how the teaching story is not the impossibility of an answer but the power of language to reframe questions. But for now, and, let’s just stay here for a while longer: there it is, an appropriate answer to dead or alive, ‘this is your responsibility’.

dana takagiComment