The Middle Way

Zen Spot #128 -- Mindfulness, meditation and the color of language February 13, 2018 00:05

Words are words

Frank Zappa, the late musician and savant, when confronted by critics about his coarse use of language, offered the defense that words are just words. Nothing more. Nothing less.

On most topics, I agree with Frank and, in a world where almost everything exists on a continuum of shades of grey, I lean strongly in the direction of the First Amendment. Our paths diverge at the point where a portion of humanity and dogma merge onto his autobahn --  especially for those drivers choosing to operate cars slowly, in the fast lane, because they are unable to take the vehicle out of first gear.

Words are not words

A book was written, with words, a long time ago, that too few people have read and fewer of whom truly understand. I count myself among both groups.

The book has been read to me hundreds of times and I can mimic the sounds of the words by rote without ever considering the meaning. They are crickets on a summer night. A waterfall. Wind chimes. Kenny G. playing in the background at a dinner party.

Of all those who have read the book with diligence, I’ve met few who can read between the lines. This book could be any book. It is any book.

Order is critical

In a black and white world, Frank Zappa would be right, if the order of words was as benign as the words themselves. When ordered purposefully, individual words become more powerful , sometimes geometrically -- and people do stupid stuff because of the order.

Order is not critical

In the world of language, order is a law of nature. Individual words are given power, as are phrases and paragraphs and books, based on billions of words written previous to their newly crafted order. Consider the influence of Hamlet on Huckleberry Finn and Huckleberry Finn on Factotum. 

An argument can be made that these books exist as much based on the order of words spoken as the sum-total of all words ever spoken and written. 

Chanting and singing

Harmony and melody can invalidate language, especially when rote memory wrestles literacy to the ground. Songs sung from in front of an altar are particularly suspect, which would explain Zappa’s beliefs. No matter how purposeful and thoughtful the story told by a song, the story most often serves the music. 

Consider singing a song supported by a simple repetitive melody, in a language you can’t understand. Discover how little the words mean. Further consider the possibility that those words could prompt a native speaker to violence while driving in the fast lane, in first gear, on any autobahn.

Right speech.


About DharmaMechanic

An artist, entrepreneur and writer walking the Buddhist path, his art focuses on the Dharma Wheel. The four wheels shown above are among over 600 DharmaMechanic has created over the course of his career. Each has a unique story. If you’d like to read the story of these wheels or purchase a framed 20" x 20" ready-to-hang print, visit

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