12 September 2008

Language and Discrimination.

Benjamin Lee Whorf
Benjamin Lee Whorf
In this short essay I want to draw attention to some features of the Buddhist attitude to language as they appear in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, and draw some parallels with the writings of the early 20th century linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf.

The Laṅka is an important text in East Asia, especially in the Zen schools. It is an unsystematic collection of teachings which draws on Yogacāra and Tathāgatagarbha streams of thought, and contains some very interesting passages on the subject of language and how it functions. Much of the material focusses on the process of (false) discrimination (vikalpa or parikalpa) which is a function of the discriminating consciousness (vijñāna) and results in erroneous conclusions about the world.

In the Laṅka the Buddha tells Mahāmati that words are neither the same nor different from discrimination "because words arise with discrimination as their cause". (XXXIII, p.76)(1) He goes on to confirm that words do not, indeed cannot, express the highest reality (paramārtha) since they are dependently arisen, and they are subject to decay and death. The Laṅka strikes a distinctively "Mind Only" note by adding:
Further, Mahāmati, word-discrimination cannot express the highest reality, for external objects with their multitudinous individual marks are non-existent, and only appear before us as something revealed out of mind itself." (XXXIII, p.77)
A few sections later the Laṅka comes back to this theme. Mahāmati enquires as to whether reality is a function of words. But the Buddha points out that some things which are not real are also denoted by words for example such as "hare's horns" or "tortoise hair" for instance. (XLII, p.91) This ability to name fantastic entities reinforces the notion that words do not express reality.

Laṅka also dwells in several places on the relationship of words and meaning (for instance in XLVI, LXI, LXV). There is a distinction here between relative and absolute similar to that in the Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna. Words can express a relative meaning, but not the absolute. Words illuminate meaning as a lamp reveals things in the dark. (LXV, p.134) However the Buddha warns: "do not fall into the secret error of getting attached to the meaning as expressed in words". (p.160) This is because the process which produces words, ie discrimination, is the same as that which gives rise to attachments and to false speculations about the nature of experience.(2) "As varieties of objects are seen in Māyā [ie illusion] and are discriminated [as real], statements are erroneously made, discriminations erroneously go on",(LXV, p.134) and later "That the unintelligent declare words to be identical with meaning, is due to their ignorance as to the self-nature of words... words are dependent on letters, but meaning is not" (LXXVI, 166-7). And again "words are bound up with discrimination and are the carrier of transmigration". (LXXVI, p.169)

The Laṅka appears to be the source of the now famous aphorism about the finger and the moon: "For instance, Mahāmati, when a man with his finger-tip points at something to somebody, the finger-tip may be taken wrongly for the thing pointed at". (LXXVI, p.169).

The overall impression is that because of the process of discrimination, i.e. of dividing the world up into nameable entities, we make a categorical error and assume that because we can identify something and name it, that it must be real in some sense (and specifically we are thinking in Buddhist terms here of something lasting, substantial and not disappointing - c.f. my earlier essay The Apparatus of Experience). It is this categorical error that keeps us ignorant and prolongs our suffering. Language therefore is problematic because it is a product of the system of error. It is semiotic in that we are able to communicate and make some sense of things, but it is also asemiotic because it hides the ultimate meaning from us if we use it naively - and everyone one except a Buddha does this. So now let us look at some ideas from Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Whorf has been somewhat eclipsed by contemporary linguists such as Noam Chomsky. However for Buddhists I think his thought has many interesting features. In one his discussions of grammar whorf says:
We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organise it in this way. [Whorf : 213]
By which he means we conceptualise nature in the way we do because of the grammar we have inherited as part of our culture. This operation is unconscious to the extent that we do not even perceive that we are doing anything of the sort: the way we think of the world, the way we divide it up, is completely natural and logical to us. Whorf's comparisons with North American Aboriginal languages, especially Hopi, show that this is far from the case. Whorf called this difference, which is so obvious between English and Hopi, Linguistic Relativism. This theory holds, he says:
that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated. [Whorf : 214]
It is difficult to summarise the evidence for Whorf's conclusion - it rests in analysing Hopi and other languages in terms of their relationship to English,(3) and all of this has to be expressed in English which can only express things in its own terms. As an example Whorf tells us that the Hopi language has no words that map onto the Indo-European concept of time. They do not express multiples of units of time, and indeed do not appear to have units of time at all. Day for instance, is not a unit of time but a state. You can't have more than one day, day is simply day, more like our "daytime". Day is when the sun is out. It's hard to get across because time, and units of time, are built into the grammar of English and it's almost impossible to think outside that frame work.

One of the most fundamental grammatically based distinctions we make is dividing the world into objects and processes - nouns and verbs. Another American Indian language has no words which we would think of as nouns. Everything is a process. And how often do we Buddhists say this: "everything is a process"? But the word "everything" is a noun. It makes the statement false in a sense. Things are not processes in our grammar and therefore, according to Whorf, we cannot help but conceive of them as things. We also make statements like "it is raining" grammatically implying an agent which is doing the raining. The agent is fictional, we know this, but it is there in our grammar and it affects our world view. Our world appears to be made up of agents and actions. Whorf shows that in cultures where the grammar is radically different this need not be the way the world is made up.

So it seems to me that the dilemma which is being spelt out in the Laṅka is quite similar in many ways to Whorf's account of grammar and its effect on our views. We might say that the process of making sense of our world is underpinned by the grammar of our language: we cannot help but see things in terms of nouns and verbs, agents and actions, because that grammar has become integral to our thinking. The Laṅka highlights the dilemma that this creates in terms of epistemology - we make categorical errors when deciding what our experience of the world is telling us. We evaluate the data of our sense and minds, in terms of agents and actions - we come to feel that agents in particular, are real. Not real in a thought-out philosophical sense, but in a more gut level way - to most of us it only becomes apparent that we think of "things" as real when we are confronted with a text like the Laṅka which says things are not real, and we rebel against the idea.

Whorf's account of the influence of grammar on world view is interesting because it is a confirmation of the Buddhist approach, and it is logical and presented in rationalistic terms. It should therefore appeal to a Western Buddhist audience. He confirms Buddhist observations of how the mind makes sense of its input from the senses. There are also parallels with contemporary neuroscience that others have already begun to explore - I find the work of Antonio Damasio illuminating for instance, but that is a subject for another essay.

As Buddhists we recognise a central problem: how to correctly understand our experience of the world. We tend to project onto experience qualities which are the opposite of what it is really like. And this leads to constant disappointment. Both Whorf and the Laṅka show that the problem is not a trivial one. Our world view, the way we interpret our experience, is determined by deep grammatical structures (according to Whorf), but even more fundamentally by the very cognitive processes which give rise to language (according to the Laṅka). Making a change at this level of our psyche is never going to be easy. Even knowledge of the nature of the problem is conceived of within the system which is problematic, and this knowledge of itself cannot be enough to effect the major change required. This change is referred to as parāvṛitti and translated by Suzuki as "revulsion". However I think Sangharakshita comes closer to the spirit of the word when he renders it as "a turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness". (Sangharakshita 1994)


1. In citing the Laṅka I will give the section no. assigned by Suzuki, and the page number in his translation. I have consulted the Sanskrit text to some extent mainly establishing key words as I don't know much Sanskrit. Suzuki for instance translates vāc as "words" throughout these passages. It would more usually mean "speech", and while there may be a reason for selecting "words" Suzuki doesn't give it. Return to text.

2. For those familiar with Ruichi Abe's The Weaving of Mantra, this is where I find his argument comes unstuck. He seems to be mapping the contemporary Western notion of the distinction between things as what makes them meaningful onto the Buddhist notion of discrimination. He wants this to be a "semiosis" or meaning making process, and for Kūkai in particular to have adopted this kind of view. However discrimination, while it does produce the identification of separateness and words to name things, is in Buddhism a source of illusion and falsification! We know that Kūkai was familiar with this kind of argument, and with the Laṅka in particular since he quotes from it. Abe seems not to take this into account in his argument and it is a fatal flaw. He further errs, in my opinion, by not taking into account the ancient episteme which must still have been functioning in Kūkai's time. And this says that for there to be knowledge there must be sameness, rather than difference. Indeed section LX (p.122 f.) of the Laṅka dwells on the importance of sameness in the Enlightened consciousness. I am currently also exploring the idea that some of these Laṅkāvatāra passages form part of the background for Kūkai's linguistic work: Shōji jissō gi. Return to text

3. Whorf reminds us that all Indo-European languages, the family of languages which includes both English and Sanskrit, are quite closely related when it comes to world view. Return to text


  • Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. Language, thought, and reality : selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. (John B. Carroll. ed.) Cambridge Massachusetts : The MIT Press. See especially Science and linguistics (p.207-219)
  • Sangharakshita. The meaning of conversion in Buddhism. Birmingham : Windhorse Publications, 1994.
  • Suzuki, D. T.
    • The Lankavatara sutra : a Mahayana text. London : G. Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1932.
    • Studies in the Lankavatara sutra, one of the most important texts of Mahayana Buddhism. London : G. Routledge, 1930.

image: Benjamin Lee Whorf. This image appears on more than a dozen websites and appears to be public domain.
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