The Word and Unstruck Sound

Words have power, and many creation myths begin with god speaking or singing the universe into being. The New Testament speaks of Logos, the word. Kosmos, the universe, which also means “that which is ordered, structured,” arises from logos, the word. This is older than Christianity, of course: Greek philosophers spent a lot of time splitting hairs over what words meant, because words define reality — at least as we understand it.

Australian aborigines speak of song-lines, the song-paths sung by primordial ancestor-spirits who walked across their landscape, singing its land-forms into being. For aborigines, those songs are ongoing and need to keep being sung as ongoing maintenance. Dreamtime is song-time. When they go on walkabout, they are re-singing and re-establishing creation. When they can’t because they’ve forgotten the song or there’s barriers in the way of their song-lines, the world gets out of whack.

In Egyptian mythology, not only do words and names have power to create what they speak, but also writing. The god Thoth writes things down to “establish” them. It is no accident that one of the first  (partially) literate cultures incorporate writing and letters into their cosmogony: they discovered very early the profound mystery that symbols marked on stone or paper can “fix” what is otherwise transitory sound.

JRR Tolkien, scholar of northern European languages and myths, was firmly convinced that mythology derived from language. In his case, it was certainly true. He invented several “Elvish” languages as a hobby, then — quite literally — created Middle-earth and its stories so as to have a context for his invented languages. Sure enough, when he came to write the “creation myth” for his fantasy world, it involved Iluvatar (God) and the Valar (heavenly chorus of angels?) singing creation into existence. Nobody told him to do it. He just knew that’s how it should Be.

As a student of languages like Greek and Latin and as a fan of Egyptian culture, I had run into some of these concepts before. However, it was not until graduate school that I poked my nose into Hindu traditions and ran across two beautiful expressions of the creative power of language.

One is the idea that the syllables of Sanskrit are (or, perhaps, echo) the atoms of creation; their infinite combinations establish all that is. The universe resounds. Mantras, spoken chants, attempt to re-align our spirits with these inner vibrations of the universe.  Again, there is a tradition of the divine Word of creation, Shabda, which establishes reality.

The other concept that moved me (although I only dimly grasp it) is Anahata Nada, unstruck sound. We often see representations of Hindu or Buddhist divine figures about to strike a drum, ring a chime, or make a sound. But once the sound is made it is defined, fixed, like a particle falling out of solution. The power is in the silence before the sound. It’s after the sound, too: AUM is considered to be four syllables: Ah-oo-mm-( ). Yogis train themselves to hear that unstruck sound, the vibration of reality, the sound of silence.

This concept of “unstruck sound” grapples with the ultimate paradox of human existence. We have to talk about anything to understand it: it’s almost as if something doesn’t exist until we can say it (or, these days, “get it in writing”). But once we define it with our words, we’ve lost all ambivalent meanings, resonances, and things that go without saying. Only in song and poetry do we still permit ambiguity, and we don’t use either of them for professional, official, “trusted” content like contracts, records, history, laws, lessons, instructions…the list goes on. We can’t. For those things, we need to be precise. Yet sometimes we forget there’s any other way to speak, to be.  We forget there are some things that writing, even words, can’t cover.

I think about this in relation to the internet. Nowadays, most people find things by typing in a few words and searching for them. Search engines return a few pages they think are most relevant to those words. (There is a whole industry, search engine optimization, trying to find methods which help one’s page appear at the top of “search results” for specific phrases). If we don’t search with the right words, we don’t find what we’re looking for.  Even when we do search with the right words, there may be pages which don’t use those exact words, so they’ll never turn up in search results and we’ll never discover them. Without the magic words, they don’t exist.

If you post a web page on the net, and no one uses your words to search for it, does it make a sound?

I don’t know if these myths are true about the universe having some inherent, inner, “unstruck” sounds or vibrations, waves which precipitate out into matter. That sounds awfully like particle theory to me, but I’m not sure. I do know that nowadays, more than ever, words define our reality: words on the net, especially.  Links between pages are established by words. Search engines let you find things by typing words. Even when you want to buy something, you Name it, and hey presto, an Amazon listing comes up, and you order it, and it materializes — it matters— on your doorstep next Thursday.

What about the words in old books, letters or journals that aren’t yet on the internet?
What about the words you didn’t Tweet, or post on Facebook, or blog?
What about poetry and creative writing, words and phrases used only one time which no one might think to search for, so no one will find them?
What about the private, personal words you don’t care to share with the billion other web users out there?
What about the words you use that everyone else is using, too, so your words are lost in the sea of web pages on the same topic?

Where is the unstruck sound? Does it still matter?

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