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Zen and English, Part 1: Earth
The Post of Earth
Earth represents the foundation of knowledge. It represents facts, logic, and reality.
Knowledge must begin with what is tangible to our human experience. This experience is defined by the human body.
We may say that we know that which we can touch, taste, smell, hear, and see, roughly in that order.
We may not understand the things that we come into contact with in this way, but we know them.
We know that objects fall when they are dropped from the human hand. We may require a physics lecture to understand how this occurs, but no one can truly know for certain why the force of gravity was invented. We simply know that it exists.
We learn from others – teachers and textbooks – that gravity existed long before any of us were ever born, and will in all likelihood, exist long after we have passed away.
We can therefore say that this is a fact.
Facts are the foundation of logic.
Through assembling facts and learning the basic truths about their interaction, we can make logical progressions. We may not know all the facts, and we may not understand those we are aware of, but none the less, facts are the starting point of learning how to reason and think.
Wisdom is founded upon first, understanding logic, and second, respecting its limitations.
Wisdom is built by, so far as is possible, relying on what we know with great certainty. Relying on what we know with greater certainty than what we do not know reduces the chances of error. Error is not eliminated, but it is rendered controllable by learning what is true in one case, and relying upon that truth to a certain point when dealing with another case.
There are patterns to life. These patterns can vary, but knowing how many patterns are indeed, very similar to each other, lends us wisdom.
Nonetheless, we must not become arrogant and overconfident in this knowledge, for it is limited and incomplete.
So far as learning the English language is concerned, Earth represents what is, at this particular moment in time, broadly true.
At any particular moment in time, words mean things.
In other words, vocabulary has accepted meanings that are true so much of the time that we should accept these meanings as facts.
Facts are not absolute. Facts often have exceptions to them. Yet there are many, many cases where these exceptions must be considered unlikely. In these cases, we must accept what is true 95% or 98% of the time as “the meaning” of a word.
Once we understand the accepted meaning of words, we can understand their use and misuse in modern English. We can understand how to appreciate proper use, how to tolerate – but notice – misuse, and how to avoid misuse ourselves.
The same is true for idiomatic expressions with accepted meanings. For example, saying someone is “over the hill” is saying this person is past his or her prime; he or she will never be as fit or as beautiful as in the past. We do not need to agree with the statement to understand the intent of the speaker.
Once we understand the intent of the speaker, we can decide whether to agree, disagree, laugh, or cry. We can decide that the intended words are ridiculous, or are words of great wisdom worthy of meditation. But we can only do this if we understand what the speaker intended (however right or wrong the content may be).
Not An End, But A Beginning
Earth is not the end of wisdom. It is only a foundation. It is necessary for higher knowledge, but it is not higher knowledge in itself.
It is basic knowledge.
Basic knowledge is deeply, critically necessary to us, but let us not over-emphasize its importance, either.
Basic knowledge simply helps us to learn the art of the English language, and the art of life, in general.
That is today’s lesson.