As a kid among kids, now and then there would be a game of "telephone." It provoked a lot of laughter, yet its lessons seem to get lost on adults.
It was a simple game: Five or six or eight or ten kids sitting around a table would play. The first kid would whisper some simple sentence into the next kid's ear. It was whispered only once ... no do-overs. The second kid would repeat the process with the third, whispering what s/he had heard. And around the table it would go -- each whispering earnestly to the next. The last kid in line would be responsible for announcing the message for everyone to hear ... at which point the first kid would say the original message actually was.
Invariably what had been, for example, "The dog peed on the fire hydrant," would turn out to be "My mother bakes muffins" or something equally far from the mark. And it wasn't as if anyone had tried to screw things up. Everyone was as clear as they could be ... and still it came out flummoxed. No matter how clearly anyone spoke, still the result did not match the first, best effort. It was good for a good laugh.
Words ... aren't they interesting? We use them is serious and silly and sad occasions. We open our mouths and know precisely what we are talking about. We are being authentic and clear as a bell. And yet, in the next person's ear, "My mother bakes muffins."
I would call this process par for the course. Not only are words inherently unclear because they only describe what is experience for the person speaking them, but they are invariably filtered by the person who hears or reads them. If this is the rule rather than the exception -- and I think it is -- then the solemnity or seriousness with which we take any words really deserves to be dialed down. Experience cannot be transmitted in words: This is not a good thing or a bad thing. It's just something to notice and acknowledge. No big deal -- just notice and be aware of. No need not to use words by way of information or encouragement ... just be aware.
I was munching on all this when I thought of a bit of Zen Buddhist writing called "On Zen" by Dai O Kokushi. It aims to say something true -- simply true -- and yet, however wondrously expressed, however elevated it might sound, still, invariably, "My mother bakes muffins." The only way to plumb the facts is to plumb the facts. 'Authentic' texts are not the same as authenticity.
There is a reality even prior to heaven and earth;
It has no form, much less a name;
Eyes fail to see it; it has no voice for ears to detect;
To call it Mind or Buddha violates its nature,
For it then becomes like a visionary flower in the air;
It is not Mind, nor Buddha;
Absolutely quite, and yet illuminating ina a mysterious way,
It allows itself to be perceived only by the clear-eyed.
It is Dharma truly beyond form and sound;
It is Tao having nothing to do with words.
Wishing to entice the blind,
The Buddha has playfully let words escape his golden mouth;
Heaven and earth are ever since filled with entangling briars.
O my good worthy friends gathered here,
If you desire to listen to the thunderous voice of the Dharma,
Exhaust your words, empty your thoughts,
For then you may come to recognize this One Essence.
How many gazillions of spiritual efforts like this, in whatever tradition, exist around the globe? Lots and lots and lots and lots -- all of them making a good-faith effort to say, "The dog peed on the fire hydrant." And how many gazillions of listeners -- in all sincerity -- may be sure that they have heard and absorbed? Lots and lots and lots and lots. Spiritual life, a life of war, a life of love, a life of hypocrisy, a life of joy, a life of philosophy, a life of plumbing ... each absorbing and being nourished and encouraged by the words, "My mother bakes muffins."
Maybe the rule of thumb should be something like this:
Listen attentively ...
And if you aren't laughing, be assured there is more work to do.