Friday, July 13, 2012

naming names

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Yesterday, I received and email from an Internet chum that began, "Dear David." My first name is not "David," it's "Adam."

The body of the note made it clear that the writer was in fact addressing me: He referenced various points of mutual interest that we had communicated about in the past. So I chalked up his initial goof to a brain fart or something similar. Since brain farts are nothing new to me, his error was inconsequential. "David" was a name I could live with: It was the note itself that carried whatever importance I was willing to give it.

Once upon a time, there was a joke about the three wise men who followed a star and ended up in the stable where a newborn child lay. The three men were wandering around the barn, stroking their wise beards trying to come up with a name for this baby they had felt compelled to visit. One of the wise men stepped on a rake that had been carelessly left on the floor. The handle came up and smacked him on the forehead. "Jesus Christ!" he exploded. To which another replied approvingly, "That's a good name for the kid."

"David," "Jesus Christ" -- that's a good name for the kid.

The Zen Buddhist teacher Rinzai/Linji (died in 866) was once quoted as saying to his assembled monks, "Grasp and use, but never name."

Like all decent teachings, this one does not derive its force from the fact that it was uttered by a "Zen teacher" or someone granted an elevated status in the mind. The force is entirely dependent on the verification of his listeners, then or now. No one gets a gold star or an improved status as a "Zen Buddhist" by trying to shoehorn himself into the meaning of what Rinzai said. It's an offering, not a prescription without which students fall somehow short.

Naming names.

One of the interesting things about names is that no matter how appropriate or useful they might be, still they cannot manage to nail down what is named. Names are incomplete ... not good, not bad, just not entirely adequate. And it is the belief or assertion that they are adequate that can screw up a wet dream.

How much lighter things become without their names. Is Adam really "Adam?" In one sense -- a conversational one -- sure. But really? Is virtue adequately transmitted or true according to the word "virtue?" Is wisdom the wiser because it is called "wisdom?" As I say, to my mind it is not necessary to forcibly strip things of their names. No gold stars, no improvements, no wisdom, no virtue. But it is somehow lighter and more adequate to let things have their say without interfering.

"Brain fart"... that's a good name for the kid.
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