Zen, Suchness, and Sign Language

“A girl is crossing the street. Is she the younger or the older sister?”

Rather obviously, the question is impossible to answer using judgement. And yet this is precisely the question a student of Zen may be asked as koan - a question to test a student’s understanding of Zen.

In The Way of Zen, Alan Watts writes

“Such koan are rather more obviously “tricky”… and show the student that what are dilemmas for thought present no barriers to action… the student solves the problem of the younger or older sister by mincing across the room like a girl. For in her absolute “suchness” the girl is just that; she is only relatively “sister,” “older,” or “younger.”

One can perhaps understand why a man who had practiced za-zen for eight years told R. H. Blyth that “Zen is just a trick of words,” for… Zen is extricating people from the tangle in which they find themselves from confusing words and ideas with reality.”

Indeed. Let’s do a perhaps silly thing, and use words to define “suchness” as the true, concrete essence of things as they really are, without words or other ideas attached to them.

The “solution” of the koan as described above made me think of sign language - the language used by deaf people to communicate with each using their hands and body language.

See here for how I hacked the above demo together

“But wait Krystof! In that video you’re just translating words - that’s not suchness!”

‘Tis true, and that’s where classifiers come in.

Classifiers are, put in my imperfect layman’s terms, hand shapes and movements that are not based on signs assigned to specific words, but rather on the shapes and movements of the hands in an iconic fashion - i.e. as icons. For example, a horse jumping over a fence may be represented by having the stationary hand be the fence and the moving hand be the horse. See Wikipedia for some more information.

But videos are worth so much more than words, so here’s a great example from the one and only Troy Kotsur:

There are no subtitles during the classifier, and yet I bet you know exactly what Troy is talking about.

My wife is deaf, and her ability to capture entities, moods, and actions using classifiers is positively incredible. I remember one time we were hiking in Pinnacles National Park, and we read a plaque about the hunting techniques of Peregrine Falcons. The plaque may have read something like (from Wikipedia):

The peregrine requires open space in order to hunt… searching for prey either from a high perch or from the air. Once prey is spotted, it begins its stoop, folding back the tail and wings, with feet tucked. Prey is typically struck and captured in mid-air; the peregrine falcon strikes its prey with a clenched foot, stunning or killing it with the impact, then turns to catch it in mid-air. If they miss the initial strike, peregrines will chase their prey in a twisting flight.

This whole paragraph she was able to express with a classifier in maybe 5-10 seconds, capturing beautifully the patient search, the focused dive, and the frenetic chase, all without words. I saw the focus in the falcon’s eyes, the determination to catch its prey, the steady resolve to kill.

It was beautiful, and it captured the suchness of the act in a way a paragraph of text cannot.

This is not to say that classifiers are able to capture suchness perfectly. Indeed, that seems by definition impossible. But I do believe that sign language classifiers do get us closer to capturing true suchness than spoken or written languages can, since those operate strictly in the realm of symbols.

So next time you want to capture the true nature of something, consider freeing yourself from words and symbols, finding your inner artist, and doing so using a classifier in sign language.

Krystof Litomisky's Picture

About Krystof Litomisky

Krystof is an engineer, adventurer, and all-around good guy based in Los Angeles, California.

Los Angeles, California