Exiting Language and Exiting into Language

“One must first ‘exit language’ in order to attain the Dharma eye with which to ‘exit into language’ in order to understand and express the Dharma in words … Zazen is a negation of language, and sanzen is a negation of silence” (Ueda Shizuteru).

As a member of the third generation of Kyoto School thinkers, Ueda Shizuteru had to face the question of the very possibility of using language to investigate what are, from his own admission, Zen insights into reality. From the time of his writing of “Zen and Eckhart” as an “appended chapter” to his Marburg dissertation, which led him to focus on Zen after his intense study of Meister Eckhart’s mysticism, Ueda has formally stated that he would not only write “about Zen,” but he would write “from the standpoint of Zen.”

Zen, however, had itself been characterised in famous verses attributed to Bodhidharma as: 

“A special transmission outside the scriptures not founded upon words and letters. By pointing directly to [one’s] mind, it lets one see into [one’s own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.”

As Bret Davis remarks, this had not stopped generations of Zen teachers – including Dogen – from producing “an abundance of recorded sayings, poetry, and other ‘words and letters’,” where the “expressive power of language” is explicitly recognised. One example quoted by Ueda is: “Zen is like spring and words are like the flowers. Spring abides in the flowers and all the flowers are spring. Flowers abide in Spring and all of spring is the flowers.”

In keeping with Nishida Kitaro’s characterisation of the real as self-contradictory, which itself was a re-articulation of the logic of soku, found in the Diamond Sutra, Ueda showed, (in Davis’ words) “how we can understand the paradoxical ambivalence between silent experience and linguistic expression, not as a problem that plagues Zen, but rather as a dynamic interplay essential to it.” 

In fact, Davis also says that Ueda found this notion of “exiting language and exiting into language” in Bankei’s teachings. Bankei (1622-1693) is a seventeenth century Japanese Rinzai Zen teacher who rose to prominence in his time, attracted thousands of followers, but somehow fell into oblivion, in part at least due to the success, in the following century, of Hakuin’s “reform” of Rinzai Zen as the path of koan introspection. Ueda quotes Bankei as saying, “that one must first ‘exit language’ in order to attain the Dharma eye with which to ‘exit into language’ in order to understand and express the Dharma in words” (Ueda’s words, not Bankei’s).” Even in today’s practice of Rinzai Zen, which traces itself back to Hakuin’s teachings, this “bidirectional movement away from and back into language epitomized in the twin practices of the Rinzai Zen tradition, namely zazen or silent seated meditation and sanzen or verbal interviews with a Zen master” (Davis). “Zazen” is the silent meditation practice, and “sanzen” (also referred to as “dokusan”) is the spoken exchange between the practitioner and the Rinzai Zen teacher which, in the context of intensive practice, takes place at least once a day. In Ueda’s words: “Zazen is a bottomless stillness and silence, whereas sanzen is a cutting edge of movement and speech.” So here lies the “double negation”: “Zazen is a negation of language, and sanzen is a negation of silence” (Ueda).

Davis explains: “One must go beyond language to experience things afresh; and one must bring this fresh experience of things into language. Ueda in fact sees this bilateral movement not just as essential to Zen practice, but as the essential relation of experience and language as such. He calls this double movement that of ‘exiting language and then exiting into language’.”

These two movements would normally be taken simply as two moments in the process of realisation, but Davis says that, for Ueda, “experience and expression are ultimately not two separate occurrences, but rather two sides of the same primordial dynamic of “exiting language and then exiting into language.”

In Ueda’s words:

“What can be understood with, and expressed by language is not, in the end language, […] And yet, it is not the case that there ‘is’ something that cannot be expressed by language. Rather, at bottom lies what I have called the primordial movement of ‘exiting language and then existing into language’.”


Bret W. Davis – “The Contours of Ueda Shizuteru’s Philosophy of Zen,” in Tetsugaku Companion to Ueda Shizuteru, Ed. Ralf Müller, Raquel Bouso and Adam Loughnane (2022)

Hasegawa Kyuzo (1568-1593) – “Cherry Tree” from Cherry and Maple, Color Painting of Gold-Foil Paper