Without Labels

Labels harm us as much as they help us. They may destroy us. Social, cultural, political, religious, intellectual labels. Even as we use labels as shorthand that helps us identify our friends and our kind and our foes and our others, we are mistaken. They keep us from reality, keep us from the rewarding but hard work of knowing more and deeply, keep us apart. Labels are as much weapons and disabilities as they are conveniences.

Can we live without labels? In some circumstances they appear to us essential. Don’t we want to know, and want others to know, what party or cause or religious denomination or ethnicity or gender we associate with? We may want that, and we may find benefit in it, but as with most benefits, they may be illusory and they have a cost.

Dogen was the 13th century founder of the Soto Zen school of Buddhism. It is one of the many schools and sects that were developing during Dogen’s time and that have developed during the centuries since.

He fiercely opposed the naming of schools of Buddhism, Zen or otherwise:

In this way, know that the buddha way that has been transmitted from past buddhas is not called Zen meditation, so how could there be the name “Zen School”? Clearly understand that it is an extreme mistake to use the name “Zen School.” Those who are ignorant assume that there is an “existence school” and an “emptiness school.” They feel bad not having a special name as a school, as if there is nothing to study. But the buddha way is not like that. It should be determined that in the past there was no such name as “Zen School.”
The Buddha Way, from Treasury of the True Dharma Eye

The first verse of the Tao Te Ching addresses the way that naming may keep us from the reality of things:

A name that can be named
is not The Name
tr. Jonathan Star

The name you can say
isn’t the real name.
tr. Ursula Le Guin

Names that can be Named
Are not True Names.
tr. John Minford

the name that becomes a name
is not the Immortal Name
tr. Red Pine (Bill Porter)

Red Pine continues: “During Lao-tzu’s day, philosophers were concerned with the correspondence, or lack of it, between name and reality. The things we distinguish as real change, while their names do not. How then can reality be known through names?”

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