Beyond the Pen
This is a photo of the pens that I am carrying today in my moderately sized purse. My love of pens is not new. I remember clearly my family’s one ancestral antique. It was a lovely oak roll-top desk used by my grandfather in his Mobil gas station. In addition to the roll-top with cubbies, it had three large drawers, on one of which was forever labeled ANNIE. For that I chose a very thick black permanent marker. All of my other victims had been hit with less permanent pens, or else sanded, scoured, or painted over to remove my name.
I have always felt this need to communicate with words. I’ve kept a journal since my teenage years, after my friends stopped accepting the reams of notes I passed to them during class. I remember one friend, Molly Benson, who rivaled my quantitative writing abilities. We communicated with 50+ page “notes” to each other about our daily activities and thoughts. And we saw each other at least five days a week.
I recently found this entry in my journal from 1985: Not that I have more to say than usual, just that there are times when I feel the need to say it. I feel the need to say something, to express myself in a language which millions understand.
But sometimes words are not the only, or even the most robust, way to communicate. There is a wonderful story about the Buddha. His teachings were shared in words, in dharma talks given to large audiences. One day he sat down to give a talk and, instead of saying anything, he simply held up a beautiful flower. One student, Mahakashyapa, understood, and he smiled. He received the Buddha’s very deep teaching about the tathata, or suchness of the flower. He saw the true nature of life in that moment.
Words often fall short of expressing the way life really is. For a writing addict like myself, it’s easy to hear that, but hard to practice it. To put down the computer, the pen, to stop talking and really be with a flower, or with our loved ones, can be very challenging. When we perceive the moment as unpleasant or violent, it is extremely challenging to be with it. And it’s surprising difficult even when we perceive the moment to be happy and pleasant.
So for me the practice is to know when to put the pen away. After Mahakashyapa smiled, the Buddha said (my editing):
I have the truth that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission beyond writing.
If we are lucky, we may touch the truth that lies just outside the reach of our pens.