We who have language assume we are superior to animals. In fact, our linguistic representations of the world are superior to the world itself, since they can control it. Ironically, the sense of a self that uses language is itself an artefact of language—a linguistic construct
There is another aspect of maya that is more relevant today: it can also be translated as creativity. This fits better into the new story that we need now, one more consistent with recent cosmology and evolutionary theory in understanding the fundamental ground—the basic stuff of the cosmos—as an inexhaustible creative process of always taking new forms (matter and energy being two of the most basic forms, which enable infinite others to develop). As the Heart Sutra emphasizes, it’s not simply that form is empty, for emptiness is also form. Rather than devaluing the reality and validity of the forms of this world, we can appreciate them as the (wonderful, delightful, frustrating) ways that shunyata manifests. We can embrace its confluence of processes and transformations, a field of incessant creativity that includes my own activity.
The Axial worldview fits only too well with our human yearning for immortality. In this material world, things are born and die, but if I have some self that can be “transcendentalized,” perhaps I can escape death. Here, again, is a devaluation of this world and all the things associated with it: matter, nature, and animals, bodies and their desires, and of course women, who remind us that we are conceived and born like other mammals (all the Axial traditions are patriarchal).
We who have language assume we are superior to animals. In fact, our linguistic representations of the world are superior to the world itself, since they can control it.Ironically, the sense of a self that uses language is itself an artefact of language—a linguistic construct.
Indo-European languages are dualistically structured in the way they distinguish nouns from verbs, subjects from predicates. To believe that words like I, me, mine, you, yours, etc., correspond to something real (“self-existing” is the Buddhist term) is to be trapped within a linguistic schema. Today we have neuro-scientific explanations of this process that are consistent with what Buddhism has been describing in its own way for 2500 years. And if the entanglement of language and our nervous system is what maintains the self, then we can appreciate why meditation is so important. Meditation enables us to let go of those dualistic linguistic patterns that largely determine our ways of thinking. Meditation helps us to transcend transcendence.
Written by David Loy and originally published as Toward a New Buddhist Story in Tikkun, May 30, 2013
David Loy is a professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy and a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition. His books include The World Is Made of Stories and Money, Sex, War, Karma, both published by Wisdom.